Home & Garden

About the House—The Rules: Construction Etiquette

By Matt Cantor
Wednesday December 10, 2008 - 06:10:00 PM

Few relationships in business or in life have the potential for spattered blood like the one held between contractor and client and it is for this reason that I would like to suggest some “rules of the road (sans rage)” for both contractor and client. While everyone likes to see themselves as being reasonable, thoughtful and fair, the truth is that we all have blind spots or simply become lazy. Watch drivers on any given day and you’ll see the proof. 

For the contractor, a few thoughts: 

Return calls: If you hang out a shingle, you’re making a commitment to reply to potential customers or those you’ve already worked with, within a day or so. I realize that this can be difficult and I’ve fallen down on this one myself but it says a lot about you and the profession. If you’re too busy to talk to the client right now, leave a message or make a brief call to say that you’re swamped and that you’ll try to get back to them soon. If you then take another week, your call will be welcome and you may just get the job. If it’s an old client with a problem or a question, you’ll have less steam to manage when you finally make time to come look at the leak.  

To the clients who never got that call back, try to keep in mind that small to midsize contractors have to wear too many hats (including secretary) and may be fantastic at the work and lousy at the phone call (or accounting, or employee management or...) 

Next, try to keep the jobsite neat and clean. There are few things that will initiate erosion of the relationship between Mrs. Jablonsky and her plumber faster than a mess in the bathroom, dust all around the house or tools strewn thoughtlessly about after all the guys have left. Taking time to clean up the site at the end of the day allows you to review your thoughts (have a pad and pen because you’ll realize you need a new blade, a new bit, you’re out of 2x4’s or those three inch screws you need) and leave your tools and materials neatly ready to greet you the next morning. It’s really nice to start the day in a clean workspace. It’s safer and you’ll move much faster but you’ll also find that your client will feel cared for, respected and generally grateful. This will surely manifest itself in more positive ways than I can enumerate. 

A nice easy trick for jobs that tend to generate dust (sanding, sheetrock installation, sawing) is to install a plastic barrier wall between the work area and the rest of the living space. Use medium thickness plastic sheeting and the painter’s blue tape to mount this on walls, ceilings and flooring. Then slice down the middle and install a sticky-back zipper (found at many lumber yards). If this is too constraining, you can cut a slot out at the bottom (with a piece of tape for resealing) for moving through and when you zip up.  

This will also be received by the client as a sign that you care as much about the happiness of the client as you do about the progress payment. In fact, you can care about the payment alone but if you demonstrate concern and thoughtfulness, you’ll still be well received for these measures. You don’t have to be a saint. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate. The single most frequent complaint I hear about people in construction isn’t that they weren’t cheap enough (you hear this before the work starts, not after). It is that they didn’t ask if the client liked the color before it went on the wall; which way the door should swing; where the light switch should be located; which way the flooring should run or what time they’ll be dropping by. We all have cell phones now so there’s no excuse except for the fact that the economy’s awful and we’re all overworked (which is valid but, hey, it usually just takes a minute). 

Now, that said, Mr. Jablonsky, Please, when Phil asks you which color you want, try to give him and answer and let him get on with his job. He may be hangin’ out at your house but he’s on the clock. We contractors often like to swing our jaws but we also fear for hurting our client’s feelings by starting to cut wood again, so we may kill another 10 minutes talking at several points during the day and lose an hour of work. If you’re paying time and materials (by the hour), this is fine but it’s good be sensitive to the need of the person working on a fixed bit (and paying that carpenter who’s so interesting) to get their work done and get home to the kids.  

This is a tough one, I know, but the better part of valor is to chat a little, shake a hand and then leave them to their work for most of the time, showing up occasionally to take a look and offer a cup of coffee.  

Coffee, hmm. Now that’s a nice way to say, “We appreciate that you showed up sober!” 

Mr. and Mrs. Jablonsky, you have no idea how bad it can get. I see a lot of bad work and I hear a lot of tales about contractors (or those who called themselves such) who couldn’t show up by 11 a.m., cut two boards straight or manage to drill a hole in the right place.  

The evidence is there for me at every inspection. If you have competent workers trying to do things right, responding to your emails, billing on a regular basis, consulting you as to the placement of the doorknob, you should light another stick of incense for Guan Yin, and find out which brand of coffee and doughnuts these men and women like. Further, expect mistakes as a part of the daily life of the job. If communication is clean and both parties feel respected, all mistakes can be addressed in the flow of work.  

This is true in all professions, though few surgeons will admit it. How mistakes get managed is a process that involves everyone. If you see mistakes, do the contractor (and yourself) a favor by pointing them out early and with as little scold as possible. It may take the form of a question. “Does this look right to you?,” “Perhaps this has been forgotten?” You might be wrong too so stay off the horse, else you might fall. If people are cordial, friendly and respectful, each “mistake” can become grist for improved design and may turn into something better than the simple mundane “correct” ‘version on the plans. No joke. This really happens. 

Lastly, to both parties but especially to the homeowners because this is all much newer to you than to the experienced contractor, take care of your self during the process. Most people have no idea how emotionally activating (if that sounds too psycho-babbly, let’s say exasperating) construction on or in their home can be. It doesn’t seem to make sense so we will tend to dismiss it as if it were telepathy or contacting the dead but the sort of irascibility that overcomes many clients is sub-reasonable. It’s reptilian and we don’t quite get what’s going on.  

Give yourself lots of breaks, extra sleep and other warm fuzzies during the remodeling or other trades-work, especially if your home is invaded for some time. If the kitchen is being worked on, eat out. Consider a short relocation or a long weekend away if it’s a longer job. By taking better care of our own emotional well being, we can then be our best selves when real problems arise and not fly off the handle (which is sure to make things better, right?) 

Frederick Buechner said that “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” 

We are all spiritual beings having a human experience. A construction project, as much as any human endeavor is a chance to be our best selves and to grow. Let us back away from the table of carnage, see the source of frustration within our selves and practice compassion with our contractors, our clients and everyone else. Bon appetite.