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Houses and Spouses

April 30th, 2009

Last week, I gave a lecture at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY, entitled “Houses & Spouses: The Dark Side of Preservation.” It’s autobiographical, and based upon my travails in The Butchy Chronicles and my Carpenter’s Stigmata blog. The talk relates what I’ve learned about old houses and how they can simultaneously destroy bank accounts and spousal relationships.

And the audience found it pretty darned funny.

This isn’t intended to be a self-promotional piece. It’s meant to be more about how we, as contractors, designers and architects should be mindful of how traumatic it is to be a homeowner in the throes of a restoration. While I’ve never had to live with a newborn, conversations with those who have indicate that the toll it takes on one’s psyche and interpersonal relationships is remarkably similar to a studs-out kitchen renovation. I wonder if we removed children and old houses from this dynamic, whether our national divorce rate would remain at 50%.

We in the building and restoration trades tend to think of our clients as something between a partner and a revenue source, but we should also learn to empathize and consider what it’s like to be forced to wash dishes in the bathtub for six weeks because the AWOL plumber is waiting for back-ordered fixtures or contend with plaster dust mixed with our coffee grounds.

We’re used to being the ones in work boots clomping through someone else’s house at seven in the morning, but rarely is that boot on the other foot – our struggling into clothes and trying to gobble breakfast while a boom box blares the mandatory unending play list of Journey and Foreigner songs accompanied by the chatter of an air compressor. Sure, it’s a mess ripping apart someone else’s house, but as my friend, who is a criminal defense attorney, says, “Unlike some of my clients, I always get to go home at night.”

I’ve been on sites where the general contractor did a brilliant job of creating a campaign kitchen and sealing off the demolition from the rest of the household, but, even still, the owners and their children had to contend with the various functions of their kitchen being spread out over several rooms and floors of their house. As a job progresses, the inevitable delays and overruns occur, and the owners are worn down not only by the usually familial sagas, but also by the fact that simply making a sandwich takes more effort than going to the sub shop.

This is just at the point when we’re stressing out due to our own cash-flow and subcontractor issues. Suddenly, then, our former partner-client can become a little adversarial. To us, those tardy window units are a logistical problem; to them, it means three more weeks with the fridge in the dining room. Despite whatever challenges await you as tradesperson, never forget what it’s like to be a client: They are at home every night.

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  1. Mike Krebs
    July 23rd, 2009 at 16:02 | #1

    Before leaving the remodeling industry where I worked on high end remodeling projects $150 K and above I learned of what some called, “The Remodeling Blues”. Client were always excited when projects gegan because progress appeared to be huge as we demolished portions of the house and then framing quickly went into place. It gives the client a false feeling that this project will move quickly. Its not until we get to the finishing phases that the clients begin to experience frustration with what seems like little or no movement occurring. After all one coat of drywall mud looks like nothing has happened when the second coat was applied. Then the detailed trim work begins and the finishing begins to appear to be slow and tedious. Although the crewq is still working 8 hours a day the client has a hard time seeing it when they get home. This is where the General contractor becomes the counselor and has to focus on communications frequently to avoid the client slipping into remodeling blues. I am sure many can understand this. But when the project is finally done the smile and sanity usually return. I expect its when the trim work and cabinetry is occurring this is when the relationships move towards divorce. A good contractor will understand the emotions and work quickly to help the client through these periods.

  2. July 24th, 2009 at 22:48 | #2

    I really enjoyed your article. It is a side of the design and construction process not often understood by professions who should understand it. As an architect specializing in both remodel and new construction I am often asked how do I do it. I tell folks I have to be half architect and half marriage consellor most of the time. Understanding what a family must go through during a major remodel is important in setting expectations up front. I think all architects should live through their own remodel, as I have, and the years of marriage coucelling that followed, in order to appropriately understand the process from the clients perspective and be able to offer good advice. My number one suggestion is if you can afford it move out until the work is done then do it. The cost of renting a functioning home or apartment is much less than than the headache and frustration of living in a construction zone with your family and potentially ending up losing half of everything you own to your new ex-wifes divoce attorney.

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