Sargent's solutions - On collaborating with the main contractor

Steps can be taken to back up your professional approach when working for a main contractor, says Alan Sargent

Q. I run a small to medium-sized landscape company and feel quite capable at coping with most situations. As my project size has grown, so too have the problems. Some appear to be beyond my control and are very frustrating. Particularly difficult are schemes where we are employed by a construction company (acting as main contractor) with ourselves as the nominated subcontractor, paid through them as part of the overall project package. It seems that we are constantly being obliged to fit in with the main contractor's schedule of works, attempting to carry out our landscaping works long before the site is ready for us to begin in a sensible and logistical way due to delays by others. Can you help?

A. This is an age-old problem and is especially difficult for landscapers who have not worked with a particular building contractor before. Neither party knows how the other one operates, with the builders taking charge of the whole site, treating the landscapers as "just another subbie" even though you are the nominated subcontractor and are only working under their auspices for legal, contractual and financial purposes.

They will be working to a time-dated works programme and if any part of that diary is delayed through weather or other causes beyond their control, so the overall project must be condensed towards the end - when the landscapers' portion is due to begin, with planting, turfing and other features usually involving living materials. The main contractor or more usually their site agent is under pressure to complete on time otherwise the company will face financial penalty clauses and payments.

There begins the landscapers' nightmare pantomime, with their client (the main contractor) constantly chasing them for action. If the works graph shows turfing on the 23rd week of the job, why are the landscapers not on site? Frantic telephone calls, angry exchanges and general upsets all round. How can we lay turf to an area with no topsoil and 20 vans and cars parked in the way? Delivery lorries containing dozens of bare-root trees are sent away because there is no room to unload. Come back next week and try again. Yet still the telephone calls. Where are you? Why are you not on site? I guarantee it will be ready tomorrow. Send your team. Oh, I thought it would be ready. Come back tomorrow.

Benefit of experience

I have been working as a landscape contractor since 1968 and worked on such projects for many of those years. Perhaps because I was too small to handle some of the schemes in my early days, I had to find a way around the problems, only a few of which are mentioned above.

One of my earliest contracts was for a well-known southern firm of builders, working as a direct labour company and not as a nominated subcontractor (where the main contractor is obliged to use your services at the instruction of the client or their agents). The scheme involved basic seeding of grass areas, with only final grading and preparation, plus seeding and "first cut" of the new lawns. I was working on a fixed rate per metre, subject to remeasurement by the architects.

The job was at a new school and the weather conditions were atrocious, with day after day of heavy rain. The site had become a slurry mud pit, with large areas of standing water. Working the soil was totally out of the question and any grass seed would have simply floated away. Yet the site agent was adamant that the works should proceed. I refused, the company terminated my contract. I sued and won. The judge was very clear - you do not employ a specialist contractor and not respect their professional advice.

Harmony and success

This early lesson in common sense led me to take a very different attitude with subsequent main contractors. Whether or not you are a nominated or specialist subcontractor, you are the professional. I always ensured that I dealt only with senior directors when negotiating contracts. While fully appreciating their deadlines and need to maintain programmes, by working closely with senior staff as individuals - getting to know them and gaining mutual respect - and making every effort to manage their wishes, my contract was with the person and close contact ensured harmonious and successful projects, delivered on time.

By maintaining a site day book, clearly showing progress (including time-dated photographs) and site conditions, the site managers knew that I was monitoring the site in a factual manner and that any instructions regarding my performance would have to relate to actual conditions (or else be reported back to their directors) and therefore common sense prevailed and mutual assistance applied in making sure that certain areas could and would be available for my part of the package. This discipline ensured that I was never called to site until it was ready for landscaping.

To reiterate - you are the specialist, working with living materials, totally reliant on weather and site conditions to complete your works. They could not paint fresh plaster, nor tile a non-existent roof.

Each trade should respect the other and work together in a sensible and professional manner. Even when writing these words, it all sounds too unnecessary and obvious. Educating builders to appreciate the essential aspects of working with living materials should be simple. Sometimes though, we have to be more inventive with our logic.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management

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