Saturday, July 21, 2007

Post- (really Media-) Mortem

So I'm on vacation. (Some of my friends and family would say I've been on vacation since work began on this cabin, and others would say I've been on vacation since I quit being a lawyer.) Ironically, my vacation finds me trading a construction site in West Virginia for a construction site in Tupper Lake, NY (home of the Wild Center), where my in-laws have a cabin that was supposed to be renovated in the spring and ready for our arrival, but we all know how that goes.

Without any new pics to show off, this seems like the right time to catalog some of the messiness of our little prefab project. First, some context. As a rule, I'm a pretty low stress person. I take most stuff in stride. And this cabin's premise - occasional second home and (hopefully) more regular rental - means that mistakes aren't the end of the world. So the breeziness of my take on some of the ups and downs of this process probably isn't representative of how many people deal with the nuts and bolts of building a new home. (Some poles on the how-stressed-do-you-get scale: AustinMod and ModHampton, both of which I should have linked to by now). There are been lots of instances in which a different person - with different things at stake - would have been justified in being really exorcised. So here are a few of those.

First, when the house arrived, it was apparent that very few of the final punchlist items had been resolved by Simplex. None of them were major, but the most significant item - a slider column that was out of plumb in the factory - meant that the house was open to water infiltration where the slider door should have met the jamb but didn't. I knew that Simplex would send a crew to resolve these issues, and I know punchlist stuff can take a while to resolve, but it was disappointing nonetheless that items we had identified hadn't been dealt with (and we actually still haven't even resolved these unfinished punchlist items - we'll have a conversation about them this week).

Then the day our set was scheduled to occur was a ridiculous mess. Joe and John from Res4 had come all the way from NYC, and as soon as we all got to the site it was obvious that we were not going to go forward. The hitch for the bulldozer was woefully inadequate for the weight of the house. The weight of the house was info that the contractor had been given months before, and it wasn't until the bulldozer operator showed up that morning that the contractor told him how much the house weighed, at which point the operator balked. What's more, the crane operator showed up that morning and said he wouldn't do the job with the size crane they had already spec'd for us, another absurd last-minute change of heart. (I can't imagine anything that I could have done to anticipate either of these items, so I don't have any good advice about how to prevent this other than to have more competent contractors than the one I've chosen for myself.) So we rescheduled, and after lots of rain delays we pulled the house up the hill a week later, and set it a couple of days after that.

I haven't said a lot here about the trip of the house from the bottom of the driveway up to the homesite. We'd known since the beginning of this whole project that difficult sites are not ideal for prefab and that we might suffer for our hubris in choosing land with access issues. I also knew early on that my contractor was prone to giving answers I wanted to hear as opposed to being frank about potential problems. (NB - this is a difficult tendency to discern in the first couple of meetings you might have with potential GCs/contractors/builders, but one that can present huge trouble. I'd suggest that you really push people you interview on where they envision problems occurring. You'll probably already know some of the tricky spots. Are they frank? Do they sugarcoat it?) I knew that our road was going to be hard to get our house up. I didn't know in what ways. At the end of the day, the biggest problem was that the grade of the road meant that the trailer couldn't turn the corner without the back end of the trailer dragging. Which meant that as the bulldozer continued up the turn, and the front end of the trailer continued to go up with it, the back end of the trailer sat in one spot and rotated, like the point of a compass. As the front of the trailer got higher, the wheels of the trailer - located underneath the midline of the house - supported less and less of the weight of the house, until finally they were off the ground, and the bulldozer was basically trying to drag the whole weight of the house, which was resting on only the back end, which was stuck in the ground. When this happened, the front end of the house was probably about eight feet higher than the back end, and the trailer was bowing pretty low in the middle, which meant that the house itself was bowing quite a bit, and it was really visible in the window and slider frames (which were trapezoidal during the worst of the stress). Now we'd all talked through this quite a bit beforehand. We talked about getting a hydrolic dolly to slide the trailer laterally, and about winching the trailer laterally. But I have to say that once the trip up the hill started, no one really seemed to be in charge. There were two different bulldozer operators, my contractor, and many different laborers, and everyone was so focused on trying to move the house that I was the last person anyone was paying any attention to. So while I watched the house bend (and wondered if it might actually just collapse), I really wanted to scream STOP and make everybody back up and start over, doing all the things we'd talked about doing. But that's a hard thing to know when to do, and an even harder thing to actually do. We ended up putting sections of telephone pole between the wheels and the end of the trailer and got the trailer moving again that way. The house settled down, but much of the distortion in the window and slider frames remained. We had no idea how much damage was done or what would be required to remediate it.

Our first task in the days after the house was set was to take all the trim off the windows and sliders and see what was what. Res4 was pretty sure that we were going to be ok - their experience has been that houses settle down quite a bit once they're set. And they were more or less right - turns out everything could just be reshimmed/leveled/plumbed - not the end of the world. But the sliders need to be worked on from the outside, and we can't do that until the deck or some scaffolding is over on that side, and that hasn't happened yet. All in all, the stress on the house seems not to have had any lasting effect - I didn't want to blog it until we knew the extent of the issue. But it was a huge question mark after the fact, and one that preoccupied me for a little bit.

The one lesson I keep coming back to in my mind from these episodes is the importance of the people you have working for you. Simplex, in spite of some minor nits, has been great in terms of communication so far, and I fully expect that whatever little issues we have will be resolved. Res4 I cannot say enough good things about. My contractor - well, I could have done a better job vetting and managing him, I suppose. A couple more odds and ends and he'll be finished, and I'll have nobody to blame for any of my troubles but myself.

UPDATE: I guess another lesson here is that this house is tough. While it did look to me like the house could have crumbled in light of the stress it was under, it didn't, and no one else was ever worried about that. Res4 didn't really flinch when I told them about it, and told me some stories about similar situations with other sets where the houses came through fine even if the owners' nerves were a bit frayed. I'd never seen a house move like that, and I didn't know they could. But this one did, and it appears to be no worse the wear.


Zach said...

I'm pretty sure you've been on vacation since long before you went to law school. But I guess you needed a break from all that not working you've been doing, eh?

Chris said...

Now see the trick, as I imagine it, is to have other things working for you. And I'll have you know that I am a very diligent graduate student this second time around. And I am trying to (re-)consolidate a real estate empire so that I can, as they say at the University of Chicago, live the life of the mind.

Harry S. Truman - always be the guy who dropped the bomb in my eyes. I gotta think that puts him up there with the current leader of the free world in terms of legacy. Surprised he's your man.

Zach said...

Guess I'm missing the HST ref.

You were well on your way to being the next Donald, but you seem to have cut the whole empire a little short. I'm hoping that you're in the process of rebuilding it. I guess the trick is to make it in a scalable profession, which is clearly what you're trying to do. Taleb would be proud.

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