Construction contracts

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© bradley s. Klein

There are a lot of things superintendents find out when they undertake a renovation project. One of them that no one really talks about is the kind of construction contract you enter into. The industry today runs the gamut, from standard arrangements where the architect hands the detailed plans over to a third-party contractor for construction, to a more flexible arrangement called design/build where the process unfolds in the field.

If the scope of needed work is big enough, clubs first must go through the process of selecting an architect. It’s a task for which there is no end of self-proclaimed expertise available on any number of social media outlets focused on golf design. Interestingly, there is very little talk of the next phase in such a plan — selection of a contractor and of the type of contract or design arrangement by which the work gets implemented. It’s not just some pro forma matter of legalese. In fact, this is where the real success of any master plan really begins to take shape. The best-looking plans of a premier designer will get wasted if they don’t properly get articulated in the field.

Clubs, boards and superintendents often end up in uncharted waters. That’s because they don’t fully anticipate the benefits and costs of different ways of creating a contract that ensures an outcome suitable to the club’s culture and patience. Clubs that focus on timeliness, efficiency and getting things done with minimal involvement of club personnel will probably favor a traditional contract where you hand things off to a builder. Those keen to allow for creativity in the field and are willing to assume the risk — with the likelihood of saving money if weather cooperates — will lean toward a design/build model.

Both have their efficiencies. Both conform to budgets. But the one model relies on the well-established capacities of the big-name firms who are members of the Golf Course Builders Association of America. Among them are the familiar and experienced stalwarts such as Landscapes Unlimited, McDonald & Sons, MacCurrach Golf and Wadsworth. The other draws strength from the growing army of freelance shapers and skilled construction people who tend to work for craftsmen architects on an ad hoc basis. That’s how designers like Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and Jim Urbina achieve their own stylized look.

If you are working in municipal golf, then city contract rules for bidding virtually require a strict contract with a construction company that follows detailed plans, with little wiggle room for innovation in the field. If adjustments must be made, there’s a little give and take on earth moving volumes here and there that contractors can adjust for; otherwise there’s formal need for what’s called “a change order” to adjust the initially contracted volumes. In this case, the architect’s role, following a paper trail of planning, is contractually limited to one of a consultant or observer of the construction process, making sure the master plan is followed, and with the contractor doing all the measurements of volumes, limits of disturbance and feature shaping.

In an effort to save money, some clubs will work with architects and take on the risk of creating their own construction team, along the way stockpiling the needed materials and self-directing the shaper crew. The potential financial gains could be as much as 20 percent — assuming cooperation of the weather and the timely delivery of supplies, neither of which is guaranteed. In this model, the superintendent effectively functions as the owner’s representative and takes care, along with the architect, to make sure the plans and specifications are being followed.

There’s also a hybrid model, where the club hires out an experienced contractor firm for the bulk earth work, drainage and irrigation while setting aside a carefully defined degree of final feature shaping to the design/build team itself.

There’s no one ideal format. It all depends on the club’s degree of risk proclivity/aversion and the willingness of the superintendent to get involved on a daily management basis.

The old, established model of a contractor following detailed plans to the letter and number have had to give way somewhat for the sake of creativity and site-specific distinctiveness. Even the biggest firms are flexing to keep up with the trend. It’s one of many legacies of the Pete Dye model of building, creating and imagining in the field. A whole generation or two of his former design associates are now out in the field as fulltime design/build folks. They’ve changed everything. Contractors have had to adjust. So, too, do superintendents.

Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science), former PGA Tour caddie, is a veteran golf journalist, book author (“Discovering Donald Ross,” among others) and golf course consultant. Follow him on Twitter (@BradleySKlein).