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Construction in the Field

By  Maj. John D. Kilpatrick, Q.M.C
The Quartermaster Review – September-October 1928

Duties and Responsibilities of a Construction Quartermaster in 1928

THE functions of the Building Branch, Construction Service, Quartermaster Corps, as the name implies, have to do with the carrying on of the construction of buildings or other projects for which authorization has been received and funds appropriated.  The duties of this office include the issuing of instructions to the field regarding the advertising for bids, the distribution of plans and specifications, and general supervision of the field agencies until the completed project shall have been accepted by the commanding officer of the post or station.

THE CONSTRUCTING QUARTERMASTER

Inasmuch as any quartermaster officer may, at some time or other, due to force of circumstances, be selected as a Constructing Quartermaster, the following observations may be of interest to the Corps at large:

A Constructing Quartermaster  is  appointed  by orders issued by the Adjutant General, and reports directly to The Quartermaster General on all matters of his duty. Upon sanitation and discipline he is under the commanding officer of the post or station. Upon his arrival at the assigned post he calls upon the commanding officer and shows his orders. The project is discussed and the question arises of the location of an office. Usually there is room in an army post for such an office, and the commanding officer will, ordinarily, assign the space.

EMPLOYMENT OF CIVILIAN PERSONNEL

The employment of civilian personnel as assistants is the first problem to be faced. Authority to hire such assistants is obtained upon request to The Quartermaster General. Such personnel usually consists of a civil engineer, who will be superintendent of construction, a stenographer-clerk, and as many inspectors of construction as the size of the project demands. In addition to this small group, which is permanent for the life of the project, there may be added from time to time rodmen, laborers, and a number of other employees, if the size or nature of the work to be accomplished requires such action. The superintendent of construction and the stenographer are ordinarily paid from the Appropriation “B. & Q. O. B. and U.,” the funds being set up in the Office of The Quartermaster General for civilian personnel.  The other employees are as a usual thing paid from the funds appropriated for the project. All employees must have a civil service status, and selections must be made from the eligible lists furnished by the proper Civil Service District Office.

In the meantime the constructing quartermaster is collecting the office equipment that he will require. Usually this can be obtained from the post quartermaster, and if not, a requisition on the nearest depot or corps area quartermaster will get the desired results. Before leaving the subject of. personnel, however, it might be well to state incidentally that it has always been the practice of the Construction Service to refrain from using warrant officers or enlisted personnel in offices of constructing quartermasters.  The reason is that a constructing quartermaster has no set-up whereby he can command troops, and has no organization for taking care of them.  The advantages of having civilian help exclusively in a constructing quartermaster’s office lies in his authority to hire and discharge such employees as desired, as well as in his control of the hours of labor.

PLANS AND SPECIFICATIONS

As soon as a constructing quartermaster has established his office, he should submit to the Secretary of War, through The Quartermaster General’s Office, his request for general authority to advertise for construction work at his post or station. This is Standard War Department Form No.2, and, when signed by the office of the Secretary of War, carries authority to advertise for the remainder of the current fiscal year. This authority must be renewed for each fiscal year.

Upon completion of the plans and specifications for an authorized project a number of complete sets are forwarded to the constructing quartermaster with detailed instructions to place advertisements for proposals.  The period of time between the first appearance of advertisements and the opening of bids is usually thirty days. The date of opening of bids is sometimes set by the Building Branch, but the hour is almost invariably left to the constructing quartermaster, as local conditions, such as arrival and departure of trains, frequently affect the convenience of bidders attending the opening.

Until recently the list of names of those taking out plans and specifications was not made public. The regulation forbidding such action has been rescinded and a constructing quartermaster is now permitted to give out this information. As there is usually a wide demand for this information, the common practice is for the constructing quartermaster to prepare such a list, preferably mimeographed, and give it distribution, thus providing an additional means of publicity.  Formerly the contracts for plumbing, heating and electrical work in the construction of barracks, or of quarters, were generally awarded to different firms, a procedure based upon the then practice of Congress, to appropriate funds for such a project under separate heads. The practice at present is to appropriate one lump sum “for buildings, utilities and appurtenances thereto,” so that it is possible to accomplish in one contract practically everything necessary in order to make the building livable and accessible-in other words, produce a finished job. It is obvious that, by announcing the names of those who have taken out the plans and specifications, it is possible for supply men and subcontractors for various trades, in addition to the mechanical trades, to send in their figures to those bidding on the general contract.  This results in wider competition and consequently in lower prices.

Another innovation recently adopted is that of printing on the proposal sheet the amount of funds appropriated by Congress for each project for which bids are being requested.  In almost every bidding it was found that a number of bids were received that were in excess of the funds available.  This represented a waste of time and effort on the part of the bidders, due to their ignorance of the amount available.  If a prospective bidder sees that his figures are running over, he either revises his figures or refrains from bidding.  The writer recalls one case where there were twenty-eight bids, twenty-five of which were in excess of the funds available.  The objection offered when this action was first proposed was that little good would be accomplished because bidders would all place bids at or near the amount of appropriation.  This is faulty and erroneous reasoning, as the competitive feature enters and compels as low a bid as the nature of the work and the cost prices warrant.

When the bids shall have been received by the Constructing Quartermaster and publicly opened by him at the appointed place and hour, an abstract of proposals is prepared by him, which together with one original copy of each bid and his recommendation of award of contract is forwarded to the Office of The Quartermaster General. Such bids, abstracts and recommendation are reviewed by the Building Branch and a recommendation then is made to the Chief of the Construction Service of proposed action. This recommendation may or may not agree with that of the constructing quartermaster, but unless unusual complications or irregularities are found, the recommendations concur.  Such irregularities, when the same occur, are usually (a) failure to submit a complete bid, by omission of bid on one or more items, or on unit prices, and (b) failure to place the same amount on all three (3) copies of bids (required in triplicate), or (c) failure to execute bid bond in proper manner.  It is impossible to determine and not good policy to state beforehand just what irregularities will be waived by the Government, all rights being reserved by the Government regarding acceptance or rejection of bids.

AWARDING CONTRACTS

As required by law, the practice is to award all contracts to the lowest responsible bidder.  It sometimes happens that the lowest bidder is not considered as responsible as a higher bidder, but the General Accounting Office has decreed that a bidder who has posted a bid bond and who can arrange a performance bond by a bond­ing company of good repute and credit thus becomes a responsible bidder.  The practice has, therefore, been to make award in every case to the lowest bidder, whoever he may be, when properly bonded.  This policy has worked out successfully so far, there having been only one defaulting contractor in all of about thirty contracts that have been let under the Housing Program for the Army.

STARTING THE WORK

The contract  having been awarded by the Constructing Quartermaster under instructions from the Office of The Quartermaster General, the contractor is then directed to start work.  The location of the building, or buildings, having been indicated for the information of the bidders, the contractor proceeds to stake them out.  This work is carefully checked by the constructing quartermaster and his engineers.  During the progress of the job one of the most important points to be considered is the matter of partial payments.  The standard form of contract provides for payments on account to the contractor, at certain stated intervals, generally at the first of each month. In order to determine the value of the work completed at any one of these stated periods, some method of evaluation of the various component parts of the work must be agreed upon. A very simple and satisfactory method is to request the contractor to break down his contract price into a number of items, perhaps twenty in all, such as excavation, concrete of the various classifications, brick work, tile work, plumbing, heating, electrical work, roofing, painting, etc.  With these items evaluated in proportionate values, the total equaling 100 per cent of the contract price taken in connection with the quantities of materials and labor in each, which the constructing quartermaster can check, it is not an involved process to compute the amount due the contractor at the end of any period. The new contract form wisely permits credits to contractors for material delivered on the site, but not yet installed in the building.  This is a sensible provision, but consideration must be given by the constructing quartermaster to the character of the various items.  Fabricated steel is in a different category from cement, for instance.  One is practically indestructible, while the other may be spoiled by exposure.

All construction contracts are drawn up in the field, but are signed by the Chief of the Construction Service as contracting officer.  The reason for this recent change in policy is the new Interdepartmental Form of Contract, which gives authority to the contracting officer to make change orders.  These became such a problem that it was deemed best to retain such authority in the Office of The Quartermaster General.  Incidentally, these change orders referred to take the place of the old supplemental agreements.  They are very simple in form, consisting of a proposal from the contractor and an acceptance from the constructing quartermaster, both in the form of letters, thus simplifying to a marked degree the paper work.

With reference to the relations of the constructing quartermaster to a commanding officer of a post or station, Army Regulations provide that a constructing quartermaster shall cooperate with a commanding officer, but there is nothing in the regulations which states that a commanding officer shall cooperate with a constructing quartermaster.  It is not the purpose of this article to criticize this condition, but the statement may be made that amazingly satisfactory and splendidly successful results have been obtained in posts where the commanding officer has cooperated fully with the constructing quartermaster.  This does not mean moral support alone, but practical and material assistance.  It has been found that the older men of the Army are very keen to help out a constructing quartermaster, realizing that the funds allotted to any post for any project under the Housing Program must be spent at that post, and therefore the balance after the principal contract has been performed can be stretched and made to accomplish many things, when backed by the resources of a post, that would be impossible without such aid.  A constructing quartermaster should realize that he is a representative of the owner engaged in building, so to speak, an extension to a hotel, of which the commanding officer is the local manager.  When such extension shall have been completed, it will be turned over to that manager for operation, with a statement that the work has been done in accordance with the plans and specifications drawn up by the owner.  Naturally, the constructing quartermaster should be glad of any interest the commanding officer may take in the construction.  The more the commanding officer knows about the building, the more willing he will naturally be to take it over.  At the same time, it will be borne in mind that the commanding officer has no authority whatever to interfere in any manner with a constructing quartermaster, or with a contractor, or with any of the employees of either, or direct any changes in the plans or specifications.

THE BUILDING BRANCH

The Building Branch of the Construction Service furnishes in the Office of The Quartermaster General the direct contact with constructing quartermasters both on incoming and outgoing correspondence.  This direct contact is of supreme value in the speedy answering of the multitude of questions that arise on contracts, enabling the constructing quartermasters to announce decisions and effect settlements without loss of time to the contractor.  The efforts of the construction service are constantly being directed toward a policy of fair play to contractors.  It is believed that this policy is becoming known to the contracting fraternity with the result that better and bigger contractors are bidding, resulting in more numerous and lower figures for our work.