Scott Burton knows firsthand the benefits of documentation.
The president of Las Vegas-based Prestige Pools had just wrapped up a project when the homeowner called to say that a tree on the property had died shortly after construction.
Suddenly, Burton found himself on the hot seat.
“We went back to [pictures from] the time that we started the project, and the tree looked pretty sickly already,” he recalls. “So I had proof, and could show him that this tree was already on its way.”
Never mind that a clause in Burton’s contract says the company is not responsible for harm to plants and trees — a common disclaimer among builders. In reality, a dispute over damaged property can turn ugly fast.
It’s why keeping a record of photographic images for each project can be invaluable, and may even help preserve your company’s good name. Here, experts explain when and how to use that camera for more than just pretty pictures.
Removing the guesswork
Today, many builders equip their superintendents or foremen with a digital camera.
The images are a snap to store. Some builders house them in dedicated, electronic folders in their computers’ hard drives. Others may only keep the photos handy while a project is under way. Once the job is complete, they might burn the images onto a CD, then store them with the clients’ paper file.
These photos also can eliminate potential finger-pointing from subcontractors. If a homeowner complains that, say, his fence was bent during construction, and your pre-construction photos confirm the claim, you can now backtrack to determine at what stage the problem occurred.
“You can pinpoint what phase and who damaged it,” Burton says. “That tells us who we back-charge for fixing the fence.”
But knowing that it’s a good idea to document is only half the battle. Following is a stage-by-stage breakdown of what types of images should be captured.
This initial meeting is a good time for picture-taking.
Every driveway has cracks, and every wall contains nicks, but over time, most people stop noticing these blemishes. However, homeowners may begin seeing them again after a contractor leaves the site — and assume the company was responsible.
So plan ahead. Create a photographic record during your initial visit to the home, and pay special attention to the access path, where your crews and equipment will make the most contact.
“If there’s a crack in the driveway or sidewalk, or a corner of the house is nicked or the fence is bent, we’ll document that,” Burton says.
Capture plants, trees and walls, as well as less-obvious items such as air-conditioning units. And don’t forget to select the option on your camera.
You may also use these images when finalizing a design.
“I review them prior to [pricing] the pool, to make sure that my salesman didn’t miss something,” Burton says.
It’s a good idea to document when the homeowner signs off on a project.
After spray-painting the site and setting up your layout forms or stakes, photograph what the yard looks like. These images should show how far the pool will sit from the house and patio. (It’s especially handy when customers claim they expected more space in between.)
If possible, include the homeowners in your pictures. This shows they were present when you established the pool or spa outline.
Also, record the markings made by the utility line locator company. That way, if utility or sewer lines pop up unexpectedly, you’re protected.
“Line-locating services aren’t always accurate,” says Debra Smith, vice president and general manager of Pulliam Aquatech Pools, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Fort Worth, Texas. “So when you hit something that’s not supposed to be there, you have evidence that those lines were marked elsewhere, and you’re digging in the line outside where they were marked.”
This is where you show that the dig matches the drawing.
At the very least, take a panoramic shot of the hole. You also may take close-ups to show that spas, benches or beach entries, for example, were dug correctly.
And capture anything unexpected. “If you hit water, rock, a contractor’s pit — anything underground that didn’t belong there — you take pictures,” says Bruce Bagin, a partner at B&B Pool and Spa Center in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.
Photos will help explain to the customer why you had to charge extra to remove the obstruction, or why you damaged a line. Also, when bringing a large piece of digging equipment onto the site, it’s a good idea to photograph the area — especially the access way — to document that no damage was done.
Photos at this stage will demonstrate your level of craftsmanship.
Capture close-up shots of the steel to prove the spacing is uniform and correct. Show the lapping, and be sure to document the use of dobies — those 3-inch concrete blocks that prop the steel up from the earth or forms. This proves you prepared the rebar for proper concrete encasement.
Also, record any special features. For instance, if you’ve built a double curtain of steel for a vanishing-edge wall, get a close-up. If you used larger bars or spaced them closer than usual, make that clear as well.
Plumbing and electrical
The reason for documentation here is twofold. Naturally, you want to illustrate that everything was done correctly, but at this stage, the photos also show how the lines are laid out, for future reference. This may eliminate costly and messy deck demolition for future repairs or
“If a tree limb goes down and breaks a pipe, you can always go back to your photographs and say, ‘There’s a fitting here, a 90. This is possibly where the breakage is,’” Burton says.
When photographing the plumbing, stand far enough back so you can see exactly where the lines are placed. Show how the pipe leads to the equipment. And shoot the pad itself to prove it was installed properly. Capture all fittings and connections, as well.
In addition, show waterfeature manifolds and other special features.After the system has been pressurized, snap images throughout construction indicating that it’s been maintained under pressure.
“I take a picture of the pressure gauge,” says Michael Logsdon, president of Land Design in Boerne, Texas. “I’ve got it documented that, today, the pressure was holding. I want to show that the pressure is holding prior to gunite, pressure is holding after gunite; pressure is holding before decks, after decks.”
For the electrical, establish that the pool has been properly grounded. Shoot the conduit lines, ground clamps and ground wire. This also helps in case you need to make future repairs.
Here’s another opportunity to show off your craftsmanship.
At minimum, take a panoramic photo of the completed shell to verify it was built to specification. Many superintendents will remain on site to supervise this stage. If so, capture images along the way that show your workers covered the steel properly and held the nozzle at the correct angle.
Photograph them shooting the steps with solid shotcrete. And show the crews hauling away rebound because this proves it wasn’t integrated into the shell.
If possible, take photos of the concrete curing. For instance, Logsdon’s crews place a soaker hose — a perforated hose that releases tiny amounts of water — around the pool and run it for seven to 10 days. This ensures the material is constantly exposed to moisture. Meanwhile, the pool gradually fills up.
“If they turn the system off, we’ll be sure to take a picture of it because that hurts the structural integrity of the gunite,” Logsdon says. “I was at a client’s house the other day and it was turned off. I took a picture that it was off, and that everything was dry.”
Finally, photograph your crews applying any waterproofing compounds — as on a vanishing-edge wall, for instance.
Plaster can be the source of much finger-pointing. When mistakes happen, how can you tell if the cause was incorrect material production, application or chemical maintenance?
Photos showing your crews’ troweling technique will prove application was not the problem.
Elsewhere, tile popping off the waterline could pit crews against one another: Were the tilers to blame, or did the deck crew fail to provide an expansion joint between the deck and pool bond beam? How did they trowel the thinset?
Illustrate precisely how your crews placed the tile. And be sure to document the expansion joint.
Also, take photos of any less-than-spectacular work the subcontractor may have to redo. When you send this photographic proof, they’ll know they need to come back.
As for the decking, treat it like the pool. Photograph the setup, with forms in place. And make sure the stake locations are clear, to show that no lines or pipes were punctured.
This will be very similar to your initial photo session. In addition to the finished product, document the condition of the yard. Again, try to include the homeowners in your images to show they were on site and signed off on the job.