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Tales from the job site

Tales from the Job Site

A favorite client pastime seems to be sharing with friends (or anyone who will listen) the horrors they have suffered at the clumsy hands of inept designers and Neanderthal contractors during renovation projects. The irony is that those of us in the design and contracting business have our own scary tales. If only clients could be a fly on the wall during our industry reunions and private cocktail party gossip!
Of course, good jobs sometimes go bad, mistakes happen and details slip through the cracks. And indeed some “professionals” are less than professional. But it is equally true that some clients lose their grip, and are reduced to the embarrassing tantrums and immature behavior of spoiled children.
If you have any capacity for adult wisdom, you know that every story has at least two sides. You also know that all relationships are two-way streets. If a divorce happens, it is highly likely that both parties are complicit to varying degrees. And because of this fact, the burden of a successful renovation project depends on the calm, levelheaded, professional and mature behavior of both client and designer/ contractor. As such, the following story should be read as a parable and guide for a healthy and happy result. Names have been changed, but the facts haven’t.

And many thanks to "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" for humorously illustrating the archetypal and universal issues and stresses associated with creating a home for oneself. And more important, for keeping the whole thing light and in perspective!

Off to a good start

We met Tom and JoAnn a few years ago when we had just relocated to Yucatán.

They had moved here a couple of years before from California. We all instantly hit it off, and enjoyed the occasional casual dinner together talking about politics, art, literature and local gossip.
They frequently commented favorably on the design we had completed for our own home, and said (as many do) that it was one of the most beautiful homes they had seen in Mérida. So when it was time for them to start their own restoration project on an abandoned colonial in bad repair, they thought of asking us to help them with it. They had already interviewed a few other well-known local designers and architects, but they made the decision to hire us. The day they made the commitment, JoAnn said: “But I just hope nothing gets in the way of our friendship. That is the most important thing to me.”
Her comment instantly raised a red flag to us. Our wariness had to do with the old adages of “the lady doth protest too much” or “self-fulfilling prophecy” and all the other truisms that reveal the psychological trait in so many people that impels them to do the things they say they most dread. And now in hindsight, other things disturbed us, too: they had told us over cocktails one evening of their horrific experiences with designers and contractors building a luxury home for them in California. But we ignored our own instincts because, well, what could go wrong?

“The benchmark”

Tom and JoAnn originally gave us a budget of $180,000 US. They had some friends in the same neighborhood who had renovated four existing colonial rooms and added a few new rooms for that price.

The home of these friends, then, became the benchmark for Tom and JoAnn’s project: 4000 square feet at an average price of $45 US per square foot.
In an early e-mail, we waxed enthusiastic, and commented, “We are so happy to have the opportunity to help you create your dream home!” The cryptic and somewhat terse reply from JoAnn was “This is not going to be our dream home.” In fact, they both subsequently expressed their decision that they probably would not live there forever, and that they didn’t envision this being their “ultimate final home of all homes.” This, of course, is a client’s right, and we were happy to accommodate.

Bye bye benchmark

However, in the following couple of weeks, we worked with them to create a program for their wishes and prerequisites for their home before we began the actual design process. Here is the list that resulted directly from their personal input:
• Ecologically friendly, including solar powered electricity and water/pool heating
• Dog run/kennel area for their two large dogs
• Separate water feature for their dogs
• Two stories to take advantage of evening breezes
• Five-meter+ ceilings throughout
• Full stairway access to all roofs (no ladders)
• An entirely separate “mother-in-law” complex with kitchenette, full bath, living room and bedroom
• Rooftop spa and yoga area, with outdoor bathtub open to the stars
• Separate art/project studio and workroom
• Large lap pool with saline system instead of standard chlorine
• Plenty of storage, including basement area and two large bodegas
• Garage
• Open and airy spaces, lots of windows and light
• Movable shutters and mosquito screen on all windows to provide air, light, protection as needed
• Osmosis filtration systems for both the main home and the mother-in-law complex
• Watering system and full nighttime lighting over approximately 953.5 square meters (10,263 square feet) of total land area
• Sculptural water feature
• Large master bathroom with two showers, two sinks and two private toilets
• Guestroom with full bath
• Large living room, dining room and kitchen, with custom built-ins
• Powder room in kitchen
• Staff bathroom at rear
• Maid’s room
• Office area in kitchen with custom built-ins
• Puebla tiles, ironwork and other decorative touches that would give the home an authentic regional feeling
• Lounge/deck area in an upstairs terrace; other custom built-in lounge seating near pool
• Outdoor shower
• Full air conditioning in living spaces
• Innovative system of installing cabling/electrical/plumbing to allow easy access for repairs
• Water softening system, water pressure system
With all the bells and whistles, it certainly sounded like a “dream home” to us. Further, the home quickly mushroomed from the benchmark of 11 rooms, to a total of 23. This was clearly not to be a “quickie” home to flip for a profit in a year or so. It was to be totally specific to the couple’s needs and tastes, and completely custom to their design specifications.
But performing due diligence, we repeatedly mentioned to Tom and JoAnn that this was no longer in conformance with their friends’ benchmark home, that we were no longer comparing apples to apples. Our warnings were met with shrugs and empty stares. We continued to remind them, “You need to cut some of the items from the program.” After each meeting, we thought they would go home, talk it over, and send us an e-mail with some suggested cuts. That never happened.
We forged ahead. We sent them an informal letter of agreement, outlining the work to be performed and putting in black and white the agreed-upon $45 US per square foot. We asked them if they wanted a contract but they expressed their disdain for lawyers and the time it would take. And they reiterated that we were friends who had worked together for several years on other projects, and that they trusted us.

Sticker shock

When you go to buy a car, you may say to the salesman “Hey, what does that car cost?” And he may tell you, “Well this two-door is $24,999.00” And you say, “OK great. I love it! Now I would also like power steering and brakes, a convertible top, a GPS system, four doors and leather seats.”

The salesman goes to his office, does a quick printout and comes back with the price: $32,999.00. Classic case of sticker shock.
Was it the salesman’s responsibility to remind you that these things would cost more? It should be self-evident. And especially when you are dealing with intelligent people, the car salesman (or designer/contractor) will naturally assume that the customer understands that these “extras” will take them beyond their original budget. And surely no one thinking clearly would expect to receive that souped-up car for the original sticker price.
But that is exactly what happened in our work with Tom and JoAnn. Because they persistently ignored our many requests for suggestions of how to make cuts, we assumed that they indeed wanted the extras and were willing to pay for them. It is not our job to pry into people’s financial situations. Only clients can make the determinations of what they can and cannot afford. And if they express a willingness to move forward with the additional list items, our only job is to accommodate.

The (not a) Dream Home

We proceeded now with the actual design. We presented two preliminary design sketches: one was for a solution that would have kept the house more in line with the original benchmark limits (we were still trying); the other was an expression of their (not a) dream home. They rejected the former and accepted the dream.

Not only did they accept it, but also they raved about it. In all subsequent meetings, both Tom and JoAnn said “We are so lucky to have you! We could never do this without you! You are so talented! We love your work!”
Next, we went into the actual plan phase, creating computer drawings for the builders. Again, raves and kudos when the final plans were presented. Every meeting we had ended with kisses, handshakes and compliments.

High anxiety

In the meantime, our clients had given us a deposit for the work. Just a short time after the deposit was made, we started receiving anxious e-mail correspondences from JoAnn.

“I don’t understand. What’s going on? What are you up to? Why haven’t you started yet?” Her distrust and suspicion alarmed us.

Started? You mean the program we have already completed? The design concept you have approved? The computer plans we have executed? We thought we had started. But she clarified: “. . . Started with the construction.” This – even though we had not yet received permits, nor completed a cost analysis of the construction.

The anxious e-mails continued, and now we were getting nervous. We wanted to keep our clients happy and give them what they wanted. So we gave them a quick budget to begin at least a part of the construction: the façade and the enormous garden wall that was to surround their entire property. The wall measured 156 meters in length (that’s 512 feet – the equivalent of more than 50 stories!!) and was 3 meters (10 feet) tall, soaring to 7 meters (23 feet) in some places to accommodate their desire for a two-story home while maintaining privacy. They approved that part of the budget and we began construction on the wall.

But it quickly became clear that this wasn’t enough to satisfy them. They told us they wanted to see results on the house itself. “What’s going on? We don’t understand.” They kept reminding us of their deadline: “We want to be moved in time to have a Christmas party!” We agreed to start the construction, even without a finished cost analysis. As for permits, we quickly did some preliminary work with a contact at the Ayuntamiento – just something to tide us over provisionally. The rest was to take a while.

Analyze this

We continued the cost analysis for the main house diligently, and presented our clients with costs as they came in.

Remember: a project of this scale involves many sub-contractors, including carpenters, ironworkers, masons, electricians and plumbers, not to mention well-diggers, pool contractors, septic tank builders, gardeners, equipment companies (for pool filtration systems, water softening systems, irrigation systems, etc.), painters and others. While the final responsibility to complete the quote is unquestionably ours, extracting prices out of these subcontractors can be very time-consuming and frustrating, since they are often engaged in completing other projects and not predisposed to sitting down to concentrate on the possibility of future jobs.
Do your research with any other reputable contractor in town, and you will find that an elaborate, custom project such as this turned out to be can take a month or more to estimate and arrive at a credible cost analysis. And even more if the client rejects the cost analysis and requests design modifications, putting you back to square one. Of course, a cookie cutter approach to a home with off-the-shelf finishes and fixtures (which many local designer/contractors offer) or a simpler project will take less time. But this house was anything but off-the-shelf.
We admit that the costing phase took longer than anyone would have liked (the full costing took six weeks from final approval of the plans.)

We also regret the fact that we succumbed to our clients’ pressure to begin the construction anyway, in spite of the fact that full costs were not in. Sometimes, in trying not to disappoint your clients, you disappoint them anyway. Such is the nature of our work.

Blog smog

In the meantime, something had dramatically disturbed us. JoAnn – who posted an online “Dear Diary” about living in Yucatán in general and the progress of their building project in particular – had erroneously reported to her reading public that she and her husband were building a 4000 square foot home for $25 US per square foot!

How could that be? We had it in black and white that they had agreed to $45 per square foot, which at 4000 square feet totaled their benchmark budget of $180,000 US. But at $25 psf, for a 4000 square foot home their budget would only have been $100,000. Clearly Tom and JoAnn were blinded by some form of denial, were out of touch with what things cost in Mexico, and were fully expecting to get a mansion for cheap.
The clients had seen and approved the plans, knew that the home was considerably larger than the 4000 square feet of their benchmark (in fact, almost double), and so – like that car salesman – we assumed they understood their home was going to cost more than the original figure they tossed out.
But as queasiness clenched us and the truth gradually sank in, we began to realize that Tom and JoAnn – with their “fuzzy math”– had somehow concocted a scenario in which they would get a 7000+ square foot home for $100,000! Impossible – even in Mexico. And unfortunately, JoAnn’s online fantasies duped a lot of unwitting Mérida newcomers into believing that outlandish myth.

Under budget!

On the day we finally presented the completed cost analysis, we were pleased to announce that the budget had come in on target!

Well, not the $180,000 with which our clients had started (much less the $100,000 of their lovely fantasy), but indeed under the $45 per square foot that they had accepted in our letter of agreement. We were so pleased with our accomplishment.
We naturally pointed out that we had read their “mistake” online, reminded them of the $45 psf we had all agreed to – and they acted as if they didn’t understand what we were talking about. In fact, we had to show them their own correspondences in which was recorded our agreement.
Nonetheless, sensitive to the fact that the total price was more than our clients had originally hoped for, we stressed that day in the meeting that we would gladly do anything they liked to make revisions and cuts to adjust the total budget. Was there anything they wanted to eliminate to reduce the price? As had been their tactic throughout the entire process, they offered no suggestions. Quite the contrary. JoAnn remarked: “We love it!! We can’t wait to live in it!!” We did, however, notice that Tom was smoking more than usual and gritting his teeth.
As they walked out the front door after what was to be our final meeting, JoAnn said “All we want is to get published in Ambientes!” (a local glossy interior design and architecture magazine).


Three days went by with no communication from the clients. In retrospect we can only imagine the conflict that ensued between the two of them when they got home. We don’t love being in the middle of domestic or personal conflicts, but unfortunately that is occasionally one side of our business.
A few days after that last ebullient meeting, we received a vitriolic communication from them telling us summarily to fire our entire crew. They didn’t say why, but were only left to surmise that in fact we were all fired. But they never told us that we were fired, neither in person nor via e-mail. Instead we learned more about their feelings and thought processes from JoAnn’s online diary – the existence of which was pointed out to us by a friend – than we ever learned directly from them.

One day good and trusted friends. The next day bitter enemies.
One week genius designers. The next week utter incompetents.

We still don’t have a way of explaining this dramatic attitude flip-flop. Whatever the case, they had clearly gotten very cold feet about investing in such a large house. And in some twisted way, in their minds it had all become our fault.


In our battles to get them to pay their final balance, the clients expressed that they felt they had paid too much for what we had already delivered.

To go back to the car analogy, try leasing a car, and in the last few months of the contract tell the leasing agent that you feel you have paid enough already . . . and see how far you’ll get.

But their argument doesn’t even make good accounting sense, much less does it speak well of our clients’ vigilance – nor honesty. During all of our projects, we submit full reports (informes) every few weeks, with complete receipts for every single expenditure, right down to rolls of cable and cinder blocks and bags of cement. It is a totally transparent accounting system, and in fact is supervised by a licensed CPA. Upon receipt of each informe it is the client’s responsibility to review it and question any expenditure that he may not understand or agree with. Only at that point should he submit another deposit.
But Tom and JoAnn consistently received the informes, reviewed and approved them, and sent deposits to continue the work. This was their tacit approval of the expenses incurred. One assumes (and expects!) that they did their homework and found that our very standard prices were acceptable.
The bottom line and the end of the story is that Tom and JoAnn received a house nearly half completed, but stiffed us out of the last payment they owed us. We lost $3,000 US and they lost a couple of good friends.
Contracts – we realize in hindsight – are as much for the protection of the designer/contractor as for the client. While clients rightly insist on positive recommendations for the contractors and designers they hire, we on the other side of the 50-story wall can never fully know the character of the clients for whom we are working – and for whom we are assuming considerable financial liability.

All’s well that ends

We are still trying to come to terms with the moral of this “Tale from the job site”. Perhaps there are several:
• Insist on a contract. But a sensible one.
• If you’ve had a bad experience with contractors more than once, it may be you, not them.
• Be patient with your team – you’re part of it!
• Be patient with the process – haste makes waste!
• Yield not to client pressure!
• Keep your expectations realistic.
• Keep the lines of communication open.
• Maintain a spirit of compromise.
• Maintain a professional stance, especially when tensions arise.
• Never work with friends.
• Laugh every 10 minutes.

Post script

Thanks to JoAnn's online diary, we have learned more about the dénoument of the couple's "not-a-dream-home" since they hired another pair of "genius" designers:
• "We are right on budget" – to paraphrase their diary entry – although the couple admits to having increased the budget to $300,000.00 US.
• "We are right on schedule" – again paraphrased – although a home that was supposed to be completed in time for their Christmas party in 2006 wasn't move-in ready until early 2008.


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