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  • Lorianna Kastrop

Residential Contractors for Commercial Projects: Proceed with care.

In the current Bay Area construction boom, some commercial clients have been hiring residential contractors to fill the need. Sometimes this works out fine for both the General Contractor and the Client, but sometimes the project can go haywire if the contractor is unfamiliar with the differences in the building code between residential and commercial construction. In this situation, it is important that the G.C. works closely with the Architect to understand the differences called out in the plans. If they don’t ask, they might make incorrect assumptions.

Recently we received a call from a General Contractor on one of our commercial projects under construction. He asked quietly, “Is there a reason that you made the cabinet height 34 inches?” Our Project Manager answered, “Yes, that is an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirement on commercial projects.” The G.C. answered, “I was afraid of that.” Without double-checking the drawings, he had ordered residential cabinets for the project. They are 36 inches, which is the standard height for residential. He realized that he was going to have to tear out the brand-new cabinets already installed.

Another example that occurred recently is that we specified an ADA-compliant dishwasher and the contractor’s submittal for the dishwasher was a residential model that had to be rejected. A different project had restroom grab bars installed in the wrong places. This kind of situation occurs all the time.

The ADA requirements can affect a lot of specifications, and ADA trips up many inexperienced contractors on commercial projects. In addition, in commercial construction, the structural requirements are typically more robust, leading some contractors to think they are “over-engineered”. The electrical systems are much more complex. In general, everything is on a more complicated (often larger) scale. If you have higher occupancy in the building, it triggers all kinds of special requirements for life-safety issues. The Architect can clarify anything in the plans that might seem strange to the G.C., but the G.C. must be willing to call and ask before proceeding.

If you are hiring someone with only residential experience for your commercial project, you should encourage your General Contractor to keep in close contact with the Architect. This will avoid mistakes, delays and extra costs. Even if the G.C. absorbs the costs and corrects the problem, it will cause delays that you wish to avoid.

In our office, we understand that General Contractors can be on a learning curve when working on projects that are different from what they have successfully completed before. Whether the project is commercial, or multi-use, or just bigger, there could be things in the plans that are unfamiliar to even experienced builders. Nobody in our office will be condescending or bothered when questions are asked. We would much rather take the time to explain our design choices to the G.C. than to deal with an upset client. As the old saying goes, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.”

As always, we are “Designing for Your Reality”. Thanks for reading.

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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