Friday, November 20, 2009

Three Syndromes for Traditional Trades

In reading a column on problems that consultants have with their profession it occurred to me that traditional trades (and all the rest of us in histo presto) often have similar problems in our work when we are brought into projects, particularly at a late stage or to follow after someone else that has already mucked up the scene.

The consultant framed their issues as 'syndromes.' I assume this to mean situations that are encountered on a frequent basis and often enough to be noticeably a problem.

1. The first syndrome is coming in after someone else who didn’t do a good job.

In my book when we get to the jobsite we call this 'sloppy seconds'. There is nothing quite like when we show up at a project and find out that the previous contractor did a half-A job then split to 'unknown destination' and left a dumpster half-full in the parking lot that nobody, but nobody wants anything to do with removal from the site (been there done that, was not happy with the follow-up visit). Or the brownstone façade that is all mucked up and requires an extraordinary amount of fuss in order to straighten it out… and the end-client does not understand why (if they were overly parsimonious to begin with that could have been a root cause of the current scenario) and they are suspicious that they get ripped off once again… and they double-up on driving the 'qualified' carpenter nutso.

In historic preservation work it is more important than in almost any other construction industry to involve traditional trades early on in the plan process, trades who often bring with them a practical hands-on knowledge as to how to go at a project, let alone that they are the ones that eventually are given over responsibility to handle and interface with the heritage materials.

Then again, there is always a profit opportunity in chaos. Do not call us until you have done a thorough job of making the best mess possible.

2. The second syndrome is walking into a situation where the politics are intrusive.

We arrive invited to look at the problem with the stucco full of obnoxious cracks and we make a polite suggestion as to what to do with it and the ivy suckers.

The client DOES NOT want to involve an architect or an architectural conservator (these days that is like a giant red flag… poor mason with a love to play with stones is not in the business to help psychotic people work through their obsessive compulsive selection processes… I learned from my grandmother to avoid this choice-oriented involvement at all possible cost… I don't really care if the couch upholstery has pheasants on it or mallards – your building may be the most beautiful one on the block but to me it is one of another building, sorry) and the next thing we know is that it is not about problems with the stucco – it is about problems between the client and their family, or their neighbors, or their illicit lover, or their shrink. Yeeish!

I once got mad at the conservancy because they did not filter referrals from property owners to first see if they were insane or not. To have enough money to own a property does not immediately register a person as normal. You may notice this as well with how people drive expensive cars.

The adage that those who know how to hammer a nail believe that all problems can be solved if they hammer a nail is a bit passé.

Nowadays when I look at a project I am not so much interested in the physical aspects of the work as my first question is, "What is the primary problem that we are going to get saddled with here if we say yes?" Oddly, increasingly, we are hired with it in mind that we will solve these 'intangible' problems with a bit of sleight of hand to include judiciously applied caulk.

3. The third syndrome is the one where people are afraid you’re going to come in and make them look bad.

Well, as it is we like our clients and associates, particularly the folks that we have working alliances with – we want them to look good. It is a right golden rule thing to do.

We have no interest to make anyone look bad… well, usually we have no interest. On occasion there comes along someone that makes it very difficult to make them look good, even to make them look half ways decent, and there are the instances where it becomes a survival expedient to make sure that they not only look as bad as possible… but that you don't get any on ya.

We have friends who will stand up and punch it out when they get to this kind of an impasse. We do not agree with them, as passionate as they may feel about the wrongness of the unfairness of the dastardliness of the… in most cases, excepting those that embody a true manifestation of vile evil (in memoriam of a particular lawyer that we don't like), our advice is to wrap it up, smile, walk away.

Life gives us a finite amount of energy between when we are born and when we will be dead. Better to spend it on a laughing adventure than on a war (or otherwise figure out how to engage really good lawyers on your side and then laugh, but not too soon -- we know at least one kool nifty super spiffy lawyer to recommend).

Think about when you have encountered these syndromes in your dealings with project teams at historic sites. How did you feel about it? How did you react? Do you have any tips on best practice? If you are in the traditional trades do you think about these intangible issues with a project before you put your work proposal together? If you need help and you are not too terribly messed up in the head then call us. Then again, maybe not, we have enough problems already.