I’ve often wondered just where the term “punch list” came from, and I’ve found a few sources that seem to make sense, while others not so much.

Enter the Realm of Conjecture and Opinion

One person claims it came from the telephone installer process of “punching down” terminals on a block. That seems a bit of a stretch though. A blog writer said it had to do with the term ‘punch’ since it means to “punch something up” as in fix it. Another blog writer thought it had something to do with a long forgotten practice. Apparently subcontractors used to each have their own hole punches that would punch a hole with a shape unique to them. They would use these punches to indicate they had corrected the deficiency that was their responsibility.

Signs of Punch List Consensus

Wikipedia also claims the practice relates to physically punching a hole in a piece of paper. It cites an historical practice of punching a hole in the margin of the punch list to signify the completion of the item. Usually both the architect’s and contractor’s documents were punched together so each of them would have a record of the completion of the item. In this case the contractor notifies the architect that work is substantially completed, and then the architect inspects the premises and puts together the punch list of items that are discrepancies, or that are incomplete.

Technology is Changing Punch Lists Really Fast

The punch list has a sour reputation across construction because many times “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and people adding items to punch lists often have little regard for the actual specifications. They just don’t happen to like the results, even though the finished items meet the specs. Punch lists have always been paper-based and that’s always made them cumbersome. Somebody makes the list on paper, sends the piece of paper to all the different people who have items to address, waits for the items to get fixed, and then receives and collates the papers when they are turned back in. Many papers come back unreadable from coffee stains, rips, and damage that reflects the low esteem people have for the process. So, tech companies now offer many options for making the punch list process a digital one. There are stand alone apps for it that work well for people who have small punch list requirements with a limited number of people involved. There are also punch list processes built into many of the cloud based project management solutions like Procore. Digital punch lists allow users to include photos and audio so the discrepancies are quicker and easier to understand.They also really speed up the whole punch list process and make it more manageable. No more paper, no more punching holes in paper.

The Search for Punch List Nirvana

Needless to say, complete contract documents are the first step in avoiding issues at this point in the project. If something hasn’t been specified then it could be open to interpretation. These kinds of problems are very evident in contracts between homeowners and contractors. Although, even cities and municipalities, and others, run into issues at the end of the project related to specifications derailing the punch list process. As you can see from this account of a public building project gone wrong, there can sometimes be some monumental things for correction on the punch list. The other big reason for punch list difficulties near project’s end is a lack of quality control during construction.  Perhaps this will improve as more projects adopt Integrated Project Delivery and Building Information Modeling. No doubt as more things become transparent expectations will more closely align with the reality of what’s being delivered. There is an example of a punch list here.

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