I often find myself feeling envious when I hear that a designer I admire has a partner or member of the family in the building trade. Imagine having an idea (or ten) and having such easy access to someone you trust who can build it for you. It’s the absolute dream. We, on the other hand, had the nightmare version of this story: a builder who started out pretty good but ended up walking out on an unfinished job, wasting our precious time and our hard earned money. I’m sharing parts of our story here in case it helps you in any way with your own projects.
Finding tradespeople who are reliable, experienced and affordable is one of the worst parts of fixing up a house, a problem exacerbated by the skyrocketing costs of building materials and the fact that everyone and their cat seems to be renovating. Even though I’m an experienced set designer/interior stylist and of course interiors author, working on a house renovation that requires substantial building work isn’t something I’d had much experience with until last year. The only other house I’ve fixed up in a big way was the Los Angeles home I bought in 2005 and that only required cosmetic work with no major structural changes. And when I’m on set it’s always temporary – I design and build fake rooms in studios, not real ones. It’s all smoke and mirrors – not quite the same!
But then last year I bought another house with my partner and this one needed a lot of work. A 1950s bungalow near the sea that hadn’t been updated or properly cared for in decades, but – as they say – has good bones and is in a great location. (A few before photos here). It’s on a corner plot so it gets sun all day as it travels from back to side to front and I can see the sea from the driveway. It’s a great house. We didn’t live in it for the first few months, hoping to get a lot of the dirty work done first, but eventually we decided to move in last summer as we realised it would take longer to do the work and didn’t want to waste any more money renting a second place. We were only doing heavy building works on one side of the house so the other side could remain somewhat liveable, although not ideal.
We decided to knock through the walls between the kitchen and living room, remove the fireplace that would’ve been left in the middle of the opened up room (I love this idea but not for this house) and knock through the ceiling as well, so the living room has full height all the way to the roof. The entire kitchen needed re-doing as it was very old and barely functioning. I also designed a mezzanine over the kitchen looking down into the living area. It was quite a big job requiring a skilled team with good understanding of local building regulations, but apparently not a juicy enough job to snag any of the really great local builders I’d heard about who seem to only want whole house renovations.
We’d interviewed a lot of builders – some only did big projects, whole houses as I mentioned, others seemed unreliable or hesitant. It seemed impossible to even find builders who had any time – they were all busy so we weren’t exactly in the power position, something that would come back to bite us. Then we met a nice guy – a father and son team referred by a friend and they started the demo. But when it got to the build and talking about building regs, they didn’t seem as confident as we’d hoped and ultimately kept encouraging us to use an architect, something I felt we didn’t need with this project and I hadn’t factored into our budget at all. So we let them go after some of the demo was done as we really needed to have confidence in them as we didn’t know what we were doing! Next day I bumped into a builder who’d been working on a house on my road and it felt like serendipity (spoiler: it wasn’t and I have to really stop believing in ‘signs’). After looking at our place he took me to see his current project which wasn’t dissimilar to what we had planned. He was very busy but eventually said he’d work with us, starting in a month or so but that he’d have to fit us in around his other jobs. I felt a bit desperate so said fine, fine, of course. Like I said, he held the power from the get go!
He started out pretty good, in fact we really liked him. He also worked with his young son as his apprentice and they were relatives of someone on my street so it all felt good. Over the next couple of months they got a lot of the bigger work done – finished the demo, brought in the massive steel beam to hold up the mezzanine, had some good creative ideas about reusing materials that had been torn out of the old house, something that was important to me (so important that my books are mainly about this!) But as time went by they became less and less reliable. They’d say they were coming to fit a window, come for an hour and literally just hastily fit it but not do any of the finishing around it and have to go off to another job. Or they’d come for a couple of hours and then disappear. It started to feel like we were at the bottom of their priorities list and we were getting scraps of their time. Over the two months they worked with us, they never did a full day.
Eventually I wrote a big list that we emailed to him and asked him to commit to getting it done by a deadline that wasn’t outrageous, to which he agreed. I stuck the list on the fridge in full view but as the date loomed closer and closer his behaviour didn’t improve much. One day we had a big argument because I called him out – actually all I did was ask politely when he was coming back to finish the window install that they’d half done – and he literally threw his tools on the floor and came at me quite threateningly. I calmed him down, grabbed my phone and took him outside in full view of neighbours for safety and we hashed it all out. I said everything that had been on my mind and it was ugly. I’m not an argumentative person but I was pushed to the brink. But at the end he once again committed to the deadline. We shook hands and agreed we didn’t want to fall out and just wanted the job done as promised.
I should’ve let him go there and then. But we had some money tied up with him – although not all of it of course, we aren’t idiots – as we paid in instalments as parts of the job got done. We’d already decided we weren’t going to use him for the next big bit – finishing the mezzanine and the vaulted ceiling and I don’t think he was planning on doing it either even though he strung us along as though he would. But we wanted him to at least finish the loose ends of this first list and it seemed impossible that we would find someone to come and clean up his mess.
The day before the deadline, he wrote and said he wouldn’t be returning because we were putting too much pressure on him and he’d always said he’d have to fit us in around his other jobs and now we were being too demanding. He’d strung us along for another month since ‘listgate’ and probably never planned on getting it done. We’d obviously given him far too many chances, mainly because we felt held hostage and we really needed to get this done so we could have our house back. We agreed with him that we wouldn’t pay him the remainder as we’d have to get someone to finish his work, but it still ended up costing us more anyway because when we found a new builder he had to re-do a lot of the first guy’s shoddy work. SO much of what he’d done was done poorly, it kills me.
Our electrician – who we really liked and had done a great job re-wiring the entire house – put us in touch with the only builder he works with and he has been fantastic: Many years experience, quality work, works on one job at a time, rather than bouncing between multiple jobs, is willing to discuss and work through ideas with me, many of which aren’t always conventional. I only wish we’d met him months earlier. If you don’t have a lot of experience with this type of build, sometimes it’s only when you see it done well that you realise how bad things were. I’m not sure if this will resonate, but when we were going through this, I kept feeling like it was a form of an abusive relationship. While I’ve never been in a physically abusive relationship, I’ve been in a few where I’ve been let down repeatedly and because of my own self worth I kept giving the person another chance. You give another chance and another and another and they keep letting you down, but it’s only when you’re out of that relationship that you fully realise that you had another option – to leave/quit/fire, depending on the situation. Later, when you are treated well, or simply when the smoke has cleared, you look back and realise that none of it was ok. That’s how it was with this builder – we knew the way we were being treated wasn’t professional but we felt trapped and we couldn’t see an alternative.
I’ve learned a lot about myself and about how things work with a renovation and next time I will be armed with this knowledge and experience. With all trades we’ve used since – fence builders, plumbers etc – I’m much tougher. I ask a lot of questions, I put them on the spot and make them accountable, I only pay when the job is done, I ask them to explain what they’re doing and show me a plan of action and if they don’t follow through I call them on it. If they say they’ll show up and they don’t, they don’t get another chance. (I haven’t had to do this with our new builder thankfully as he’s been really professional). Bottom line, I have become their worst nightmare. Imagine, a woman who doesn’t take shit! They don’t like it, I can tell and they frequently look to my partner for answers, being that he’s a man and he must be in charge right? Sadly I’ve had to become a bit of a bitch because nice people really do get walked on. If you give ’em an inch…
It’s been a frustrating process, one that I don’t want to repeat and I’ve been trying to glean lessons that I can share with others. I’m not really sure there is a specific lesson to be taken because for us the entire process has been an education, but maybe for you my lovely reader, it might help to know that even designers get things wrong.