The Punch List

A punch list is the list of deficiencies in a contractor’s work that exist between substantial and final completion. Understanding the punch list’s meaning depends on understanding these two types of completion.

Substantial completion is, by legal definition, the point in time when an owner can take control of and use a project for its intended purpose. We recently punch listed (or “punched”, the two terms mean the same thing) a daycare facility, so I will use that project as an example. After an initial inspection, the owner’s representative concluded the project was not ready for substantial completion. I, as the architect of record, agreed. In other words, the project was not sufficiently complete to be used as a daycare. Specifically, there were life safety features, such as door closers, were not installed. The project did not meet the life safety criteria for a daycare. It was not ready to be used for its intended purpose.

In addition to the life safety features, there were cosmetic features that needed correcting. For instance, there were paint blemishes. There were some problems with the flooring material. These problems in themselves would not keep an owner from using the facility, even though the problems needed correcting.

So, at substantial completion, there is unfinished work on the contractor’s part, but the building functions. A punch list is a list of unfinished work after a project is complete enough to be used for its intended purpose. An authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) reviews building completion through a very narrow lens: is the building safe enough to be occupied? If so, the AHJ will issue a certificate of occupancy, usually about the time the architect reviews and certifies substantial completion. These are two independent certifications. Even though a building can be woefully incomplete and still function for its intended purpose, in actuality building projects are mostly complete at substantial completion. Thus, the authority’s certificate of occupancy is issued at about the same time as the certificated of substantial completion. The AHJ’s certificate acknowledges compliance with code compliance requirements. The architect’s certificate of substantial completion acknowledges compliance with contractual obligations between the owner and contractor.

Contractors are customarily required to provide their own punch list to the architect before inspecting the building. This is a contractually enforceable requirement, but in practice architects will delay inspecting for substantial completion until the building appears to be very nearly at substantial completion.

What is on the punch list?

The punch list will be mostly cosmetic items, but some may be substantive. Here is a list of typical items:

  • Items may have been damaged during installation. For instance, a door may have been marred. There are often damaged ceiling tiles.
  • The ventilation system may need adjusting. Prior to substantial completion, a testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) report measures airflow to registers, and compares it to design airflow. In general, a TAB report will pick up items that need adjusting, but do not warrant denying a certificate of substantial completion.
  • There may be unfunctional components that need to be replaced. Light fixtures are a good example.
  • Finishes may need to be replaced. In our daycare project, we had some vinyl plank flooring that was clearly not matching the rest. There was a bad dye lot. This is something that can and should be rejected.
  • There is always paint touch-up to do. I worked with a senior project manager who said paint items should not be a part of a punch list. Those are obvious, and should be addressed by the contractor without remark.
  • Items may be partially installed. In our daycare project, interior windows were missing screws that hold the glazing stops in place. The glass was in, the stops were in, and most of the screws were in, but a few were not.
  • The wrong item may be installed. At our daycare, there were some light fixtures that were supposed to be installed with occupancy sensor switches. Probably by accident, they were installed with manual switches.
  • Contractors are often required to provide collated binders and electronic copies of warranties, manuals, cleaning instructions and extra materials. These are often provided after substantial completion.

Punch list items are items a contractor must complete to be finally complete: to reach final completion. They are items not necessary for using the facility for its intended purpose. Contractors are often interested in getting a building punched because a payment depends on being substantially complete, and the contractor’s typical one-year warranty starts at substantial completion. It is nevertheless in the owner’s interest for an architect to punch a building only after substantial completion has been achieved. To issue a punch list is to effectively say the building is substantially complete. The real question is thus, what should not be on a punch list? The answer is, anything missing that keeps the building from being used for its intended purpose.

Follow Mike Sealander, Maine Licensed Architect:


Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.

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