Friday, September 19, 2008

Architecturally Speaking

Very wisely, I once advised other potential house-restorers to avoid hiring architects that do not live in the same country as your house, and who do not speak the language of the people who will be working on your house. I stand by this advice. To do otherwise is crazy. But oh how I miss our former architects.

You see, they were very good. And thorough. And they truly cared about our house. Almost too much, really. Toward the end our professional relationship, we were having serious arguments with them over stylistic matters, like how to tile the bathrooms. We wanted about 75% of it tiled, and they wanted about 10% of it tiled. Distressed by our poor taste, they told us repeatedly that tiled bathrooms weren't the thing to do, and said that the bathroom we envisioned would look like “a bathroom out of the 80’s.” (I don’t remember how bathrooms looked during that particular decade, but I’m guessing that tile-wise, they were equivalent of wearing acid wash jeans, ruffled shirts and big hair.) Architect #1, perhaps fearing that my gaudy American tastes were influencing Dawg's sensible German aesthetics, even called Dawg for a quiet heart-to-heart about it. I tihnk he was surprised to learn that Dawg, too, supported a tiled bathroom. Despite quite a bit of bickering, we finally convinced them to overcome their disgust, and draw the plans for the bathroom as we wanted it, which Architect #2 did – a bit grudgingly but perfectly.

Our professional relationship finally ended when, one warm April day in 2007, we went out to the house and saw that all the upstairs walls had been knocked down, on Dawg’s order. Architect #1 pitched a right fit. He thought that the old crumbling walls should have been stabilized instead of replaced. But earlier that year, the workers had told Dawg that stabilizing them wasn’t worth the effort and that we should just build new ones. Dawg had to make a decision on the spot, and as he was standing there staring at walls that trembled when you tapped on them and that were filled with long, spidery-looking cracks, he decided to go with new walls. Architect #1, who is not known for his light touch in sensitive situations, thoroughly berated poor Dawg for this decision. “You should have called me first!” he cried. “I would have told you that this was the wrong thing to do! You should have told the workers to wait until you’d spoken with us!” And at that moment, we realized we needed an architect in the same country, who could visit the house regularly, and speak to the workers directly.

I mean – can you imagine how it was for Dawg? On a huge project like this, having calling the architects every time something came up and having to translate technical architectural issues from German to French while simultaneously trying to account for cultural differences in working styles and approaches? It was just impossible for Dawg to continue being the mouthpiece for the architects. We expressed realization this to our architect friends, and I think there was relief all around when we went back to just being friends. (And no, our relationship suffered no lasting damage or awkwardness. In fact, Architect #1 is Godfather (along with my brother) to our son.)

A few months later, we hired another architect who seemed perfect. She was German but had lived and practiced in France for many years. She seemed as if she could whip the workers into shape – keep them on schedule, parry their bullshit, and organize monthly meetings with them. We also thought she could/would provide architectural advice about remaining issues like how to best insulate the roof, or explain the French building codes in relation to the construction chimneys. And for the first few months, she was okay. The works were progressing. The workers seemed to respond to her well. But after awhile, her work became sloppily and she became increasingly inattentive. She took her sweet time returning phone calls, and even when Dawg set up a time to talk on a weekly basis, she would sometimes forget to call or call an hour late. At first, we were forgiving because she had a baby six weeks younger than Lil’Dawg, plus two older kids, plus – as she told us at one point – she was having a personal crisis: a husband that was openly running around on her.

But soon it became clear that personal problems or not, something was going to have to change. She would forget to confirm meetings with the workers, so that sometimes not all of them would show up for meetings. She was very lazy about checking over the worker’s completed work, and didn’t notice if something was missing. (For example, once we were visiting the house shortly after the lights were installed and noticed that the hallway leading to the downstairs WC was very dark. ‘That was stupid of us not to put a light here,’ we said to ourselves. But after we consulted the electrical plan, we saw that we did indeed have a light there. The electrician had forgotten to put it in – and she, who had supposedly proofed the work, hadn’t even noticed.) She didn’t keep track of costs, and the one time she did, had another client’s name on the report and added up the figures wrong….like, way wrong, like tens of thousands of euros, wrong. And when that issue about the French building codes came up, she simply shrugged and said she didn’t know anything about it. Dawg ended up doing the research himself. Oh, I could go on.

Dawg tried talking nicely with her – asking her to take ownership of the project, to be more attentive, to refer to the checklists that he made for her, to respond to phone calls faster, etc. She would always agree, and then behave in exactly the same way. Eventually, he got fed up and would send her harsh emails or voicemail messages – to which she wouldn’t respond for days and then tell him that she didn’t respond because she “didn’t like [his] tone.” For this treatment, we were paying thousands of euros.

In July we finally decided that she added so little value to the project that we might as well fire her. But before we could, she told Dawg that she didn’t have time to work on our house anymore and was quitting. Dawg was infuriated that she beat him to the punch and we were astounded that she had the gall to quit so breezily. A few days later she sent us her bill.


She must have forgotten that we were lawyers. We sent her a most legal letter citing her grievous and brutal termination of our contract, our fears about how her departure would slow the continued renovation of the house, the damages we suspected that we’d incur. We would, we said, think about what kind of compensation, if any, she deserved. She had already been paid thousands of dollars for doing almost nothing. She should count her blessings that we weren’t suing her.

She responded by threatening to call all the other workers to tell them that we were refusing to pay her final bill. Dawg replied that at least then she’d be calling the workers, which was more than she did when she worked for us. She didn’t have much to say after that. A few weeks later, she suggested that we sit down and talk it over. We told her that we were on vacation, and to call us after we returned. She didn’t, and we haven’t called her. So that’s that.

We really are close to completion now, but – sigh – it would be really nice to have an architect around for these final touches. Like for our kitchen. We spent part of our holidays with our German architect-friends and discussed our dream kitchen with Architect #2. She made a quick but useful sketch of a kitchen plan (which we’ve been carrying around to various stores and showing to the workers) and gave us lots of ideas and tips. Architect #1 did a back-of-the-envelope sketch for the type of insulation we should use for the roof, and explained in detail why would should insulate in the manner he suggested.

Sitting around chatting and laughing and dreaming with them about our house over good food and bottles of wine was just like the old days. It felt wonderful to discuss the house with people who responded to our enthusiasm with equal interest and professional zeal. It made me wonder.…would it really be so crazy to rehire non-French speaking, Berlin-dwelling architects finish up our house at this point?

Maybe. But maybe not.


Nora said...

I love reading stories of contractors, etc. from hell.

Hopefully, you aren't offended by this. It simply makes me realize that we all make atrocious hiring mistakes and often take too long to fire that mistake.

Lola said...

Hi Nora - Definitely not offended. I know what you mean. The situation gets laughable after awhile. And yeah, we should have fired that bad architect ages ago. Once when Dawg was trying to get her to do something, she told him that she "wasn't doing this for fun anymore; she really needed the money." We were so baffled by this comment that we could only laugh. I mean, first of all, she wasn't doing it "for fun" - she was getting paid very well for the work she wasn't doing, and second, if she really needed the money, why didn't she act more committed to the project?

Don't know why we didn't fire her then. I guess one tries to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Jane Plane said...

You know what would help? Pictures. More pictures.

Sorry about the cascading effect of not-the-right architects. Perhaps you and Dawg will put your shingle out as the olde tyme renaissance rehabber-lawyer-architects once this is all over? It sounds like the combination might be magic.