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Ask the Architect

What to look for in a contractor


Q. What do I look for when choosing a contractor? People keep telling me they were satisfied, but their job seemed to never end, or the start was good but the finish was a problem — moldings never got done, handrails are still waiting, etc. So how do I know from the interview who to choose?

A. It’s great to interview the lead person, but his or her best foot forward in the interview is just the beginning of the process. I have different criteria from my perspective on a project. I look for technical skills and the ability to communicate. If a contractor doesn’t follow the plans we spent an extraordinary amount of time developing, I see it as a lack of respect for the owner and the architect, especially if there’s no discussion.

I cringe when I show up at a job site and critical components are either missing or installed incorrectly. For example, I arrived as carpenters — subcontractors to the absentee contractor — were standing up framed walls. I carefully scanned the base of the walls for the nailing patterns, and saw not one nail. The lead carpenter spoke no English, and the contractor wasn’t reachable; my call kept going to voicemail. I texted but got no response. I contacted the owner to let him know I needed to stop the work until we got to the bottom, literally, of what was going on.

It turned out that the framers were nailing the walls through the 2x4 that runs along the bottom of the wall, straight through the bottom, up into the end of the vertical wall studs, known as the end grain. Doing so is a hidden disaster for the owner later on, when the wood grain dries out and the nails loosen, which enables warping, twisting and movement that causes cracking in the wall surface. The wall studs, like all connections, are supposed to be as prescribed in the building codes and as identified on the plans. The carpenters were either improperly trained, didn’t or couldn’t read the nailing schedule or had no idea what they were doing.

That’s the technical part of the job. Then there’s communication. Technology has created entirely too many ways to communicate, since nobody seems to agree on which works best. The disagreement often leads to animosity. Email is the worst, although many like email for the ability to easily document correspondence, especially since they don’t understand that we aren’t all pinned to a desk. For me it requires too much stopping to formulate multiple-paragraph letters. I love texting because I can glance at the succinct message while in meetings without interrupting my clients, who deserve my scheduled time. When the contractor never responds or won’t answer his phone, you start to have doubts. Did I choose the right person? One of the most import tools is the phone, so gauge how the prospect uses it. Good luck!

© 2019 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.