NYC Renovation Chronicles

NYC Renovation Chronicles: Who is your contractor complaining about now?

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As an architect, my major responsibility on the jobsite is to represent my client’s interests. But as the primary liaison between the contractor and a host of potentially conflicting parties, I also serve as a conduit for complaints. In the role of diplomat and therapist, I have heard a lot of bellyaching.

Complaint #1 – Building Workers

Whenever a seasoned contractor begins a renovation project, he greases the palms of every building employee whose services he might require.  Despite these insurance premiums, there are occasions where someone will still make trouble.

In one case, a distraught contractor complained that a handyman in a nice Park Avenue building had been harassing his building crew daily. As the part-time service elevator operator, this same worker would leave the crew waiting for 45 minutes at a time and then end their day prematurely claiming the elevator would be going out of service shortly.  On several occasions, the building worker entered the jobsite to grumble that the construction was too noisy, that odors were affecting residents, that the workers had been tracking dust in the public halls – none of which had ever been mentioned by anyone else.

Entering the building with the (well-dressed) contractor through the front door one early morning, I witnessed some of this aggression first hand when the elevator operator pounced on my GC for not using the service entry “as all the dogs do.” After bringing this to the attention of building management, we were informed that the disgruntled building employee had recently been passed over for a promotion to superintendent. However they dealt with the situation, there were no further incidents.

Complaint #2 – Interior Decorators

Some good contractor vitriol is always reserved for interior decorators, particularly with regard to paint sampling. During this process, the contractor is asked to obtain a variety of colors and apply them to the walls in various rooms. Contractors almost universally see this as an enormous waste of time – and sometimes you can understand why.

Working with an interior decorator, one contractor I worked with was asked to provide over a dozen custom 4’x8’ paint samples, each subtly different shades of the same color. On the decorator’s following visit, several additional samples were requested to be painted over a large section of wall. Once the colors were chosen, the paint was purchased and brought to the jobsite. After the final coats were applied to the walls, some of the colors were rejected yet again in favor of others. Eventually the job was completed and everyone truly loved the paint choices – except the contractor.

Other decorator grievances circle around commissions and kickbacks. Interior decorators typically purchase materials for the owner at a discount, and bill the client the material cost plus commission. More than once, I have heard complaints that interior decorators were seeking commissions on all finishes purchased, whether specified by the decorator or requested to the general contractor directly by the owner. I recall one job in which a contractor, attempting to be helpful, purchased a tile from Home Depot instead of Ann Sacks where the decorator had an account. He received a lashing demand that everything from that point forward be ordered only through the decorator’s office.

Complaint #3 – Owner-recommended subcontractors

Complaints about owner provided subcontractors are typical and almost always without merit. Prior to being awarded a job, contractors will happily agree to use the owner’s recommended plumber or electrician, but during construction there is no shortage of scapegoating. I recall one job in which the contractor had severely miscalculated how long the work would take and found himself several months behind schedule. Somehow, the bulk of this time was attributed to a perfectly competent electrician the client had asked him to use.

 Complaint #4 – Other residents

As New Yorkers, we all tolerate some degree of neighborly noise. But construction work is not stamp collecting.

Most buildings have strict policies about limiting work hours and notifying neighbors of imminent construction, and this goes a long way towards preventing arguments, but sometimes with particularly cranky residents, a contractor will find his hands full.

I once found myself between a contractor and carping board president three floors below. The board president, who worked from home, raised numerous complaints with building management – noise, heating issues, plumbing problems, scratches on the public hall walls and front door – quibbles that, more often than not, had nothing whatsoever to do with the work underway. The contractor found himself spending more time defending his work than doing it. As a consequence the job went far longer than expected, and the cranky neighbor was impacted that much more.

Complaint #5 – Owners

No job is complete without at least a little contractor grousing about the owner. Indecisiveness is at the top of the list. Complaints of undue pressure to complete the job are also common as are payment delays.

One of the more amusing complaints I ever heard from a contractor was that the owner would not make a decision without consulting his mother. During meetings, the client would disappear to a back room for a quiet phone call and return with answers to the contractor’s questions. Decisions were mysteriously delayed whenever mom was on vacation and made very quickly whenever she was in town. Despite this minor quirk and the demands it put on the job, the contractor came to appreciate the client and refers to him affectionately today as mamma’s boy.

Next up: Mixed messages and other sources of renovation confusion.


David Katz (www.KATZarch.com) has been practicing architecture in New York City for the last 20 years. Detail oriented, nervous and a little neurotic,  he specializes in co-op and condo renovations.

Disclaimer: Information provided herein is not to be construed as professional advice. Readers are urged to consult with a licensed architect regarding their specific circumstances prior to undertaking any renovation work. (We do not want any buildings falling down!)

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