I suspect you have been involved in the close-out phase of a project and are keenly aware that one of the most critical elements is the punch list. I have heard team members joke that it’s called “punch” list because by that point in the project, you are looking for some Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) action. The actual history stems from the pre-computer age when each subcontractor would physically punch a hole with their unique hole press in the deficiency log to indicate they had completed the work. Why is this phase often so riddled with challenges and how can it go more smoothly? Here are some thoughts and suggestions.

  1. When to punch list.  If a contractor has liquidated damages, the pressure is on the punch list, as per most AIA agreements, the architects will issue a letter of substantial completion with the punch list attached signifying the owner can use the facility as intended. Many contractors will request the punch list meeting as soon as possible. The conflict arises when the design team agrees to prepare the punch list and discovers the project is not truly ready. As the list becomes exorbitant, it becomes difficult to manage. A recommended solution is to walk one of the rooms that the general contractor determines complete to conduct a verbal punch list. This sets the expectations of all involved, including the owners. At this time, the team can agree if something seemingly minor should be included or not. A preliminary walk-thru allows you to determine if the facility is truly ready. If it’s not ready, consider delaying; it is not uncommon to do so.
  2. Who generates the punch list?  Usually, it is the responsibility of the design team to generate the punch list and track it to completion. We prefer this arrangement as it is consistent with design management and quality control processes that we have in place. We commonly see design firms limit the scope to one initial site visit and one follow up. Although this is an ideal situation for all, it is not a realistic. It often creates a frustrating punch list process filled with misunderstandings. We encourage architects to have a pointed discussion of expectations during agreement negotiations. General contractors are more than willing to take over the punch list responsibility. They present many valuable reasons to do so, such as, they can format and track it with their subs better, they have better software, or they issue it quicker.
  3. What tool do you use.  Over a decade ago, I worked to generate an Excel spreadsheet with tables and auto-populated cells that allowed me to quickly move through the punch list process. Although it was a significant improvement over the traditional pen and pad, it had the shortcoming of not being able to communicate specific locations of log items. Fast-forward to today and there are many tools to choose from that include means for calling out the exact location of a punch list item. The new reality is that punch lists take longer to generate, but the investment pays huge dividends by clearly documenting issues with plans and photos, which in turn makes back-walking the punch list expeditious. The best punch lists are coordinated, meaning all of the team members are using the same system. Having the data in a single format, cloud-based system, allows for punch lists to remain synchronized, thus preventing the ever-fun confusion related to the “latest version.” A common challenge we see is having team members agree upon which system to use. It is not uncommon for each team member to be utilizing different software and sometimes, simply refuse to adapt to something new. Once you agree on the software, perform a dry run and work out the bugs.  Wember has devised a proven process using free software to manage punch lists expeditiously and, we, along with the client and team members, are all impressed by clarity it brings.
  4. Who participates.  Everyone. Yes, everyone. A punch list is ideally completed one time by all who are deemed responsible. We know how frustrating it is to generate a punch list only to have key player walk the site the following week and add many more items. Once you have your team gathered, we have found it best to have all team members take a turn logging items on a tablet. This strategy allows for cross-training and provides an understanding of how to communicate an issue to the person entering the data. We have seen this method reduce frustrations and fatigue.  Another strategy is to split up into groups comprised of a representative from the owner, design team and general contractor. We advise that if you choose to break into teams, you first walk at least two rooms collectively.  It’s also a good idea to have the mechanical sub, electrical sub walk with the engineers to discuss and resolve issues before they are on the list, whenever possible. Finally, we recommend one of the general contractor’s field assistants be on site fixing the minor items as they are brought up. I have seen clients truly appreciate the small marks and dings eliminated before they can even be entered. Another approach we have seen is to begin the punch list process the day the construction starts by implementing the tool to track project deficiencies. This gets everyone comfortable with the software and format well before its critical use.

Like most elements of project management, communication is key and it starts day one with the agreement. Be thoughtful in your discussions of the punch list process, setting up a plan to close-out the project with a positive experience.

~ Paul Wember, Owner’s Representative