A rogue trade

Most of the time, the construction of an architect-designed project proceeds according to plan. Construction unfolds on time. The construction documentation is clear and free of ambiguity. The trades perform their work skilfully and conscientiously. There are few surprises, be they physical or financial. The builder, owner and architect maintain a positive working relationship.

Sometimes though, construction does not proceed according to plan. Through negligence, disagreement or accident, a project is derailed. The derailment might last a moment in time, soon forgotten, or it might endure the entire project, poisoning both the process and relationships.

We have experienced and survived a number of derailments. They are stressful, sometimes expensive and always fractious. They test the good intentions of everyone involved.

What follows is the 6th of eight disaster lessons from site. We ask what went wrong and review what we’ve changed in our practices to prevent it from happening again. An archive of the series can be accessed here.

6. A rogue trade

20141228 rogue trade

What happened

Construction of a house can easily involve as many as twenty separate trades: excavators, demolition experts, concreters, steel fabricators, carpenters, roof plumbers, window fabricators, glaziers, brick layers, renderers, electricians, plumbers, hydronic heating installers, air-conditioning installers, joiners, plasterers, tilers, painters, landscapers, cleaners.[1]

When working with a good quality builder, two positive things happen: first, he is more likely to work with quality trades; and second, his approach to the construction process rubs off on them. His workmanship, attention to detail and cleanliness infuse everyone else on the team.

Invariably however, there is a rogue trade.

This has happened to us twice, in both cases with joiners. On both projects, the joiners began their work diligently. On both, the first joinery units delivered to site were built well. And on both, at some point their quality began to suffer.

What happened next

On one project, the mitres between timber benchtops were misaligned, on the other, timber veneer panels were discoloured. These issues were serious enough to warrant rectification work, however once the problems were identified they snowballed. Instead of knuckling under and just fixing the problems, the joiners grew recalcitrant and obstructive. Further workmanship suffered and units had to be repeatedly remade. Timeliness also began to spin out of control: deadlines were missed, promises weren’t kept, relationships began to suffer.

Why we think it happened

Everyone makes mistakes. Though we all begin with intentions of flawlessness, mistakes invariably happen. The existence of the mistake is not a problem – c’est la vie – as long as someone takes responsibility and fixes it.

In the case of our two rogue joiners, they refused this responsibility. Indeed, they blamed everyone under the sun but themselves, rendering the very idea of fixing the problems difficult for them. Instead of immediately sending in their most skilled craftsmen to make things right, they dragged their feet and eventually, grudgingly, sent in their most junior staff who inevitably caused yet further problems.

The lesson we learnt

Of all the trades, joiners are amongst the most important. Their work is very visible in the finished project, and designed to be manipulated on a daily basis. The detailed and complex nature of their work also makes them most vulnerable to error.[2] It doesn’t help that the joinery trade is often the most expensive, nor that their work is conducted off-site, away from the regular scrutiny of architect, builder and client.

The lesson we learnt, though have yet to deploy, was to consider one of two alternative ways of ensuring the right joiner is used for a project. Both, unfortunately, attract their own unique risks:

  1. We could nominate a joiner who knows our work, and we know will do the job right. This will mean the joiner’s price is not provided in a competitive environment, meaning his price might be unnecessarily high. It will also mean that the builder may never have worked with the joiner before, increasing the possibility for a poor working relationship.
  2. We could nominate a provisional sum for the joinery trade, and require the builder to obtain competitive quotes for the work once construction has started. This means the builder isn’t relying on a cheap joinery price to win the job, but exposes the client to the risks of an unsubstantiated provisional sum.

These strategies are relevant for any trade, though are most relevant for the more detailed or visible parts of a project.


Footnote

  1. Not to mention the dozens of other specialist installers that often work on more expensive residential projects.
  2. A timber frame that’s not quite plumb can always be adjusted prior to sheeting. A benchtop has no such opportunity: it needs to be perfect first time around.

Image source

  1. A rogue trade, author’s own image.