April 12, 2012 — 19 Comments

It’s not too often that I give in to the idea of paying someone to do a household repair or minor construction project especially when I have the ability and time to do it myself.  I’m kind of picky and very detailed oriented … so having someone come in and mess around with my house kind of drives me insane. This past fall, my wife and I decided to add a stone patio to the back of our house.  The lawn area just outside of the backdoor to our house was dead and we wanted a place to sit down and relax during the upcoming blistering and humid Texas summer nights. It was one of those ideas that had been floating around for a year or so and we finally decided to go through with it. I realized (with some convincing from my wife) that I really didn’t have the time to work on this myself, so we decided to hire someone to do it.  I sat down, drew up a couple of ideas, and within a few weeks we had enough information to send out to some contractors to bid.  After meeting with each contractor – and anxiously clicking on their return e-mails – I finally got a good feeling for what the total cost would be and then haphazardly selected a contractor. (insert impending doom piano music here)

I’m recounting this tale not in an effort to defame the contractor or relieve my frustration … rather, the experience is so comical at this point that I thought you would get a kick out of it and learn a thing or two from my mistakes.

Day 1 was off to roaring start.  I get home at 5:30 on a Friday, the backyard is all torn up, and there are 5 guys pushing dirt and leveling out the formwork.  The concrete truck had to turn around and come back after the formwork was finished, but other than that we were doing fine.

As well as everything was going, I noticed that there was a bit of a communication gap between the contractor and his crew.


happy and working

I specifically remember asking him during the concrete pour…”So, do you speak Spanish?”

The contractor – “No, you really don’t need to … I mean, most of these guys speak English.”

I vividly remember asking one of the guys a question and him looking at the another guy with a “are you going to field this one ‘cause I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about” kind of look on his face.

I guess when the contractor said “most of these guys” he really meant “one of these guys” and by “speak English” he meant “can get a general idea of what we need him to do if we speak a little louder, slower, and use a lot of hand motions”.

The contractor also failed to mention that one of the best methods of communication was to have the guys spend hours removing work they screwed up so they could see exactly what they did wrong… a learning experience of sorts. When I say that they had to remove and redo some of the work, I am specifically referring to the concrete sidewalk/patio that were both poured wrong, the retaining wall that didn’t appear structurally sound enough to retain the advances of a slight breeze, the poorly executed jig-sawesque flagstone pieces, and the completely wrong color and shape of the cap stones.

But I digress.


retaining wall fail

Running bond? – no. Vertical mortar joints? – no (who needs those?). Grout filled? – no. Rebar? – I wasn’t even going to go there.


Another interesting quote from our contractor was “these guys know how to do everything.” Thinking on it now, I know I should have fired them when the foreman started to debate me about the thickness of a 2×4.  I designed the gaps in the sidewalk to be 3″ wide so they could  just nail (2) 2×4’s together to get the 3”.  This was met with some resistance as, according to him, they were actually 2” wide and that would result in a 4” gap.  Looking back, I guess I should have been happy to know that they actually picked up that there where gaps at all.

I also learned that you need to pay attention to formwork and just not expect that everyone cares about it as much as you do.  If there is an angle in the formwork, have them cut the wood to that angle … don’t let them get away with rolling up a piece of a cement bag to fill in the gap.

I guess I’m being a little harsh, I mean, I can’t put all of the blame on the crew.  They didn’t really know what I wanted (even though I had a 3-d rendering and very explicit plans). It is (after all) the contractor’s responsibility to manage his guys.  I guess the thing that made me the most upset was having to check everything they did, call the contractor to make sure they did the work right, and constantly come home and check on the progress since I had no confidence that the work was going to get done the way I was expecting.

3 weeks later, we are almost done with our “3 day project”.

To get ready for our Easter party I spent 12 hours on Saturday grading and laying sod in the backyard while the 4 crew members kind of watched and kind of worked on the sprinkler system.  The perfect ending to an already frustrating project.

Here are a few images of our “almost” complete patio.


backyard before


patio during


patio after

concrete and grass

river rock and concrete

flagstone and grass


We still have a long way to go … get new patio furniture, remove that doo-doo brown 1980’s awning and get our herb garden going.  In the meantime,  this will be a great place for us to sit back, have a glass of wine, and reminisce about the time we hired that awesome contractor.

– Scott



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  • 7err0r_404

    AHAHHAHAHAHAH Thank you for your word to the wise! The finished product looks nice. Maybe next a 4-D model will help?

  • Donovan Lord

    LOL Sounds like my experiences with my house!!   Want to read some bad experiences with self-managed architecture/construction on your own home? modremodel.net maybe it’ll make you as crazy as it made me living it..and still not done!

  • shtrum

    At the risk of igniting a potential flame war, i’ll take the other side (albeit only for a moment).  It’s projects like these i wish architects would do themselves, if only to get a true feel for the other side.  I’m certainly not questioning anyone’s judgment or lack of time .  But i learned way more from buying a concrete mixer and spending a hot summer’s day mixing a mountain of 80-lb bags of Quikrete than i ever did in a day at the office.  The mistakes you make are worth every penny.  And as an added bonus, everytime you sneeze it’s like shooting toothpaste out your nose.

    That said, there’s poor performers on both sides.  And i love the ‘cement bag’ filler comment.  In the end though, everything looks good in the photos . . . .

    • Scott Taylor

       I totally agree (especially after this experience) that architects should do small projects like this themselves.  I’ve gotten my hands dirty on projects like this before but this time I was hoping I could come home from work one afternoon and have it finished exactly the way I wanted.  Lessons learned.

  • Tjcleary

    Scott, first of all:  I really admire your being so candid about this b-a-a-a-d experience.  Most of us in the architecture fields take it as a sign of personal failure when we wind up with such Three Stooges contractors installing our designs…..but I think anyone of us would be lying if we pretended it never happened to us.  To make things worse, I think we as architects/landscape architects tend to feel offended when the drawings we put so much effort into, with the intention of making our design intents as clear as possible, are treated as just bothersome paperwork to ignore or skim over. 

    I mean, everybody TALKS a good game: when do you think you’ll ever come across a new contractor (who, by the way’s, often just the job seller, not the actual laborer), who tells you honestly, “Well, actually we’re really NOT the best, and don’t waste your time getting me a copy of those Plans ’cause we don’t really bother looking at them anyway, and who needs a transit? — we can eyeball that, and it’ll probably take us 6 weeks even if I promise you two, and if it’s OK with you I’m going to let my guys kinda learn on the job at your house.”??That used to be the case for my landscape designs — planting, irrigation, grading, hardscapes of all sorts, carpentry, kitchens, whatever….oh, BOY, could I tell you stories; you wouldn’t believe some of the nonsense….well, on second thought you probably would.  But several projects ago I met a company (actually, a family, fully capable in a wide range of landscape trades from masonry to plantings), and let me tell you, my professional life has taken a huge turn for the better.  In fact I met them when they bailed me out after I had to take the extreme step of firing a brickmason who was so stupefyingly incompetent I just don’t understand how he gets any work.  (The answer is, I guess, there’s plenty of room for such contractors in the home improvement biz b/c in most cases each project is with yet-another new trusting but naive homeowner.)It is absolutely not an exaggeration to say that your success as an architect lives or dies by the tradespeople you hire, or bring to the table for the clients to hire.  And it goes beyond whether or not they actually give a rat’s _ss what their work looks like, or if they show up consistently, or can speak fluently with you; the good ones (again, am relieved to say such is the case for me now), understand the subtleties of the relationship: they recognize I’m the appropriate person to make aesthetic & often functional decisions, they don’t try to go around me by getting clients to approve shoddy work, or say “aw heck, I’ll just use that plant instead of this one, it’s just as good and on sale too!”……and I, in turn, trust them to Git ‘Er Done in a professional manner without micromanaging their process, just their results, and I remind them (sincerely, ’cause it’s true) how much I appreciate their expertise to keep ME from screwing up.

    • Scott Taylor

      I do know what it’s like to work with contractors that give a damn…it is refreshing (and sometimes humbling) to have a good contractor point out issues in the drawings and help you work out the resolutions.  Either way it makes you feel like they have an actual interest in the outcome of the project and not just their paycheck. 
      Sounds like you have a quality crew…very lucky.

  • On the other hand, I have had some contractors who literally recalculated parking lot slopes and fixed the errors I made on the drawings.  Luck of the “draw,” I guess.


  • I feel your pain.  Sometimes specifying what you want in a project is daunting, considering that you almost have to translate into grunts so that cave-tractors will understand what you mean.

    In particular: I asked for an ADA detectable warning strip to be placed at one of our stores and the contractor (who will remain nameless) didn’t bother to look at the giant north arrow on the sheet. It came out 90° from what I asked! He actually told me “I don’t look at that!”

    Because I had already had him tear out and redo 3 jobs, I gave him mercy and paid for another strip.

  • architectrunnerguy

    I’ve built three entire houses and believe me Scott, your experience is not unique. Last house I built, the plans were nowhere to be seen until they had to tear down and rebuild two walls and then they were everywhere and they were pestering me to draw details.

    Also, I write into all my contracts that at least one guy FLUENT in english has to be on the job at ALL times. Reason being an inspector may show up, a safety issue may arise, maybe a neighbor has a concern or maybe there’s even the remote chance I might need to actually communicate something.

    So if I show up and no one can understand me or a guy hands me a cell phone to use to talk another carpenter 20 miles away acting as an interpreter, I shut down the job until an english speaking guy shows up. One time a whole five man crew sat around doing nothing for three hours until an english speaking guy showed up. That usually only happens once.


    • Scott Taylor

      I had never really thought about requiring an english speaker on site at all times.  That makes total sense…especially if there’s a safety issue or if an inspector shows up.

  • I had designed a pool to be built at my previous residence, and the contractor and I were out staking the edges of where the pool was going to be. I was reading the dimensions off my plans (I too had built a 3d model and had cad plans) and said that this particular dimension we were laying out was to be 11′-4″. He came back with “My guys don’t do inches, they only do feet.” 

    Really?!? ONLY FEET? I died a little inside that day. 


    • Scott Taylor

       I think you were asking a little too much out of him.

  • Michael

    Thanks for the amusing post.  In the past 4 months I’ve spoken with three landscape contractors and I cannot get one to provide anything close to a proposal.  Maybe I’m lucky…
    Nice big head happy face shadow on the house!  

    • Scott Taylor

      I had one contractor give me a breakdown…I probably should have gone with that guy.  It’s important to get the line item costs in case there is a change in scope you’ll have a benchmark for the cost increase.  My contractor wanted to charge me $5oo to put down (8) CMU blocks as a retainer for the planting bed…telling me that it would be $200 in materials.  WHAT?!?!  I explained to him that it was actually closer to $20 in material.

      Thanks for noticing the shadow.  It’s comments like that that let me know you care.

  • Angie’s List never fails! 

  • Your experience sounds eerily similar to mine… a two and a half week Hardie Panel siding project that saw the contractor kicked off the property after ten weeks.  He essentially ran the project from a punch list that started on the first day.  And he knew I was an architect!
    The most painful part of the process was describing the ‘concept’ of water infiltration and why you don’t seal the joint on top of flashing where the siding overlaps at the heads of windows, doors, etc.  Oh, and there was that almost fire incident in the unprotected wall box during the rainstorm…

  • Bob S.

    Moo-Doo brown.
    quick – copyright that!

  • They did remember to grade at an angle away from the house and install drain tile so when the torrential rain comes and it all runs off the concrete that you won’t have a swimming pool at the edges of your patio, right? 🙂  

    And the only time 2+2=3 in Texas and everywhere else in America is in the construction biz. It’s not education cutbacks; it’s job training! 

    • Scott Taylor

      I guess I needed to go more in depth on the reason why I spent my Saturday grading the yard.  Saturday morning I went out a couple of times to check on the progress and to see how the grading was going.  I told them where I wanted the swale to be and how I wanted to direct the water and they just couldn’t get it right.  That is when I grabbed the shovel and started doing it myself.  I am going to deduct $87 (12hrs @ $7.25) from the final payment (or maybe I should recalculate that based off of my office hourly billing rate).