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.


  1. Ken,

    When it comes to the first syndrome of following the village idiot we tend to deflect the anxiety through compassion and apologies for their situation, but have them realize what a debacle we are all in(that whole seek to understand and you shall be understood thing). I have also put more emphasis on planning and discovery, and do not get upset anymore when I don't get the job(because I cannot just do the job). But I cannot complain, since the idiot gets us work on 10 year old houses...

    We avoid much of the politics by not working for architects..

    And making people look bad, well, I am not as phased as I used to be. Honesty coupled with expertise goes a long way, and hopefully the people in the room were not the ones that screwed it up.

    Thanks for the thoughts..

    Rob Cagnetta
    Heritage Restoration, Inc

  2. Rob: I think it is interesting that when someone asks us to look at their work they assume without asking that we want to do it... whereas I know that I am not alwas the only tradesperson in the room who is looking for the exit. We worked for one client that the more time we spent on site the more evidence we saw that trades had run away in the middle of their work. In defence of the really decent architects that we work with I have found over the years that they often have the same troubles as the trades with insane clients. Ken

  3. Andy (who could not get the bells and whistles to work here to add a comment -- like I know how to do that?) says:


    I can't believe how much I can relate to all of what you write and that alone refreshes me. It's just knowing that these observations and tactics and responses (wrought of wisdom) brought only by attending (and obviously graduating from The School of Hard Knocks) was experienced by another and so I guess I'm not crazy. Yes I am crazy. But I now deem you Dr. "KF-See" (I told you he's a genius)and I look forward to watching you grill more turkeys in future newsletters and sharing your recipes for success.

    Andy deGruchy, Mason

  4. Ken, Love it, let me sum it up quickly; Geez, just once I wish somebody would let me shit my own bed.

  5. Back in the 1970s I did a lot of cabinet work. Over a three year period I built 23 custom kitchens for new houses or whole-house renovations. These jobs were usually on the recommendation of the architect, or working as a sub-contractor, sometimes directly for the owner. During this time I noticed that 6 out of 10 (actual statistic)of the couples whose house I worked on were going through a separation or divorce by the end of the project. It took me only three go-rounds with this when I figured out how to be sure I ended up with full payment for my work. Here's how I did it (and still do): Get an advance payment to cover all materials and the last payment. Keep current with bi-weekly billings. Stop work if the bi-weekly payment is not forthcoming. Continue or start work when the payment is made. This way if the project halts and no more payments are made, I already have my last payment in hand. This also cover the situation where the work is done but the customer simple refuses to make the last payment. I'll never forget the look on the face of the first guy who tried to con me out of my last payment. He said, "Nice work...but, I'll tell you what, I'm just not going to make my last payment." I had a idea this was coming so I looked him square in the eye and replied, "Too late, you already have," and handed him his canceled advance check. His eyes bugged out as he looked at the check, veins stared pulsing in his neck and forehead, and as he tried to stammered out a reply, I beat a hasty retreat and was already out the door and headed for home. The next month I read in the paper that his divorce was finalized.


  6. You know, I'm trying to figure out if I want to thank you for posting my article here and sharing it with others or be mad because I didn't get any attribution for it in the first place. Yes, you did change up some lines, but not many of them, which are direct quotes from my article, which I'm linking to here:

    I guess I'm glad you at least read it; for now.