Chapter 21. Madam Project Manager

My life as a home builder began with a book I purchased off the internet for $49.95.

It was called The Home Builders and Renovators Survival Guide, and was written by a New South Wales builder who believes that inept communication causes most of the problems that happen while a house is under construction.

The book spoke in layman’s language, explaining terms and detailing the process simply. It had sample contracts and quotations. Most of all, the guide had all-encompassing checklists – one for each of the many stages of construction (first the site preparation, then excavation, concreting, brickwork…), capturing all the decisions that were going to have to be made at each step of the way. It concluded with a big glossary (“…barge tile, batt, batten, batter, bay window, beam…”) with which I hoped I’d never have to become fluent.

I had some corporate project management experience and I’d watched closely while my father built a house thirty years ago – plus I had a bit of common sense. These capabilities, plus The Home Builders Survival Guide, were the sum total of what I had to bring to the table as the Shedder responsible for making sure the house of our dreams got built.

Staring at the book spread open in front of me, I found myself on occasion revisiting the question: why me?

Most of it was simple logistics. Rick and I lived a few metres from the building site, while everybody else was 300 kilometres away. As well, I had left my job behind, while the four Sydney-siders were still hard at it, working nine to five.

But there was more than just availability, the Shedders had said a few weeks previously when they sat me down and asked me to take on the position. I listened meekly as they cited other reasons.

They said, you’re good at planning. I thought of the spreadsheets and project plans that had been part of my working life and couldn’t argue with that. I had to admit the very thought of organising the building of a house was enticing.

They also said, you’re unstoppable. If you take this on, it will get done. “You mean stubborn?” I laughed, to cover up my nervous pride. I hadn’t always been sure that our team appreciated my dogged determination throughout our journey, and I loved that, at least in hindsight, they saw it as a virtue.

What it came down to was that somewhere along the way I had become willing to be responsible for this big thing in our lives. I had stopped pretending that I didn’t care if it happened, and I now radiated a conviction that this house was going to get built, built well and built on time.

“And you’ve got me,” Rick added. We all knew that he would be the perfect buttress for the project. Although he had little interest in scrutinising checklists, planning a critical path or negotiating with builders, he loved the idea of this house and would be there whenever I wanted for brainstorming, decision-making or just plain moral support.

That builders book of incomprehensible terms and alien concepts reminded me I’d been given a sacred trust, one that was well outside my normal expertise. But I was going to make it happen; I had rarely been more sure of anything.

The reasons for taking on the job of project manager seemed clear enough. But I hadn’t really considered the reasons why NOT until I looked at those checklists – almost 50 pages of them. They were truly alarming. Each stage embraced dozens of decisions: Moulded or flush window frames? Narrow or wide skirting boards? Pelmets or none? What style vanity cabinets?

After eliminating the things I would have to rely on Dallas to resolve, my personal checklist still had ninety items on it. Ninety decisions to be made.

I’ve always been confronted by micro-decision-making. I do better choosing whether or not to move continents, change career, sell a business or build a retirement community. However, deciding what colour to paint the bathroom can nearly do me in. It was obviously my time for a breakthrough when I agreed to be responsible for getting a house built.

*    *    *

I soon discovered that challenges with micro-decision-making were only the tip of the iceberg.

Conventional wisdom says there’s nothing like building a house together to test a marriage. You hear statistics to the effect that couples are 43% more liable to divorce during house building than at any other time. The message is: it’s a testing time, and treacherously difficult to get aligned and stay peaceful with your partner.

So, imagine! – ninety decisions to be made and five partners to be aligned. I could see that what I was really up against was having the Shedders all informed and aware, participating enough that they had ownership of the project and would love the result, while not being driven crazy by having to deal with daily emails.

There was also Dallas who had to be satisfied with everything we chose. I wanted our team decision process to be invisible to him, which meant that I would have to get feedback from the team and be satisfied with the result myself – all within his timeframes. I asked Dallas if he’d generally be able to give me lots of notice about key choices to be made. “I’ll try my best to let you know well ahead of time when things are coming up,” he said. I read between the lines and figured that as often as not he would realise at 8:00 in the morning that he needed some material or other for the day’s work – and I might have to get five other votes sorted in a matter of an hour or two.

The whole thing was going to take some very smooth dancing and the prospect cost me a night or two of sleep as the project geared up. I tried to picture myself as an artiste of the construction tango: restrained yet passionate, subtle yet tightly controlled. It was a tantalising image but I wasn’t sure it would have much bearing on reality.

*    *    *

And so construction began.

The first part of the building process was the easiest for us, because the decisions were structural and had already been made by our designer, John, and local council. Dallas disputed a few things on the plans, and I organised for him to get into the ring with John. I trusted them both and knew if they agreed on something, it would be in our best interests. There seems to be a natural wariness between a designer and a builder (perhaps related to who’s going to get blamed when things go pear-shaped) but John and Dallas appeared to work differences out amicably enough.

Rick and I watched from The Shed door in fascination as the surveyor pounded in his pegs, as the excavator dug long trenches for the foundations, as five-man cement crews manoeuvred their massive trucks into the yard and levered around the fat pipes that dispensed cement. There were days when I watched the workmen scuttling over the building site, trucks lined up as if our nature strip were a parking lot. I would stand in The Shed doorway doing some basic maths – ten men in view, times an average of $40 an hour, times eight hours a day…not forgetting to add in ton after ton of materials. In all my life I had never seen money get spent so quickly. Our money, that is.

There were also days when Rick and I sat with our noses pressed to the glass while rain slanted down, filling trenches, pooling on the cement slab, soaking into the clay around the building site. Often the weather would send the workman off to other jobs where there was a roof overhead. The word was the five year drought had broken – no doubt a good thing but why just when we were trying to get a house built?

On those days we thought, will this house ever get built?

Rick started a weekly photo blog called “Building our Mitchells Island home”, which became widely read among friends and relatives both here and abroad. Comments flourished. The Shedders in Sydney used the blog to keep abreast of daily developments. Rick and I used it to remind us that progress was indeed being made.

Rick developed a level of engagement with the construction unfolding in front of us, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. He spoke about it with as much pride as if he were building it nail by nail himself.

One afternoon when the workmen had left, Rick and I climbed a ladder to stand where someday our kitchen would be. We paced out the length of the island bench and stood where someday windows would give us superb views as we washed up dishes. “This is amazing,” he said, looking dumbfounded. “I’ve lived in dozens of houses in my life and I’ve even owned a few, but I’ve never felt as if one was truly my own. This is MY house.”

My skin prickled as I allowed that sense of ownership into my own body. I knew exactly what he meant. And it wasn’t his house, or even our house. It was the Shedders’ house. But our sense of ownership was absolute.

*    *    *

The last time I had been closely involved in a building project was many years ago when my parents had rebuilt their home on the Canadian prairies, in Alberta.

It was hard to see our construction job as being on the same planet. There were no long and bitter winters here, so no need to build a big basement deep below the frost line. There was no need for triple-glazed or even double-glazed windows to keep out the biting winter winds. The top-grade insulation that Dallas proudly showed me was less than half the thickness I remembered from Canadian building sites. There was no expensive underfloor or central heating: “Install a fireplace and wear a cardigan if you’re thin-skinned,” John Basden had advised us. I was reminded yet again what a benign part of the world we lived in, and how our building costs would reflect that.

I thought of tradesmen I knew in Alberta whose livelihoods stopped over winter as soon as snow and frozen ground brought building projects to a halt. Dallas and his crew – his son Mitch, his apprentice Mike and his old friend Matt – might lose a few days to rain but rarely would climate stop them in their work.

No wonder my Australian countrymen seemed so happy and laid back, and no wonder why the country itself was so prosperous. I was seeing first-hand one piece of the puzzle explaining why.

*    *    *

 The first real challenge to our teamwork came early in the piece. The foundations were down and the walls were slowly rising. Dallas stuck his head into The Shed one day to announce that he’d need to order the exterior cladding within a few days, so could we let him know the exact colours we wanted.

The cladding in John’s plans was to be Colorbond, alternated with painted composite timber in the deck areas. The Shedders had been over this a number of times, and had pretty much come to an agreement. The roof would be a light shade of Colorbond, in keeping with the demands of passive solar. For the cladding we had a couple of choices; we leaned toward muted colours called Paperbark and Evening Haze. We wanted a sweep of contrasting colour as well, a terracotta-like red, perhaps in the composite timber.

I emailed the Shedders, summarising our discussions and conclusions so far, and detailing the finishes for the exterior. Ring me if this isn’t how you see it, I concluded.

That afternoon I got a phone call from Michael.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “We’ve got this beautiful rural setting and this remarkable house design, and it would be a real shame if we wrapped it in ordinary old Colorbond. I wonder if you’ve ever considered cladding in corrugated iron?”

“Corrugated iron,” I said, attempting to sound as if this weren’t the wettest idea yet to have been put forward for the project. “Corrugated iron, like tin sheds.”

“Exactly,” Michael replied with no loss of enthusiasm. “Corrugated iron has a history, a tradition in country living. And it’s a beautiful finish, a gleaming, polished sort of lustre.”

I counted to ten. He might as well have been proposing we change our plans and build a ski-resort instead, or perhaps, considering the silver metal, a space station.

“Corrugated iron as in tin sheds?” I repeated. “Like the rusted out derelicts we see scattered across the countryside?”

“Corrugated iron is a beautiful finish,” Michael said again. “It has character; it has that steely sort of glow. It doesn’t have to be rusted out, as a matter of fact it’s highly durable and not prone to rusting at all. Listen, I can tell you’re not enthusiastic but let me send you a couple of photos.”

“Michael, we have only two or three days before the cladding has to be ordered,” I said in strangled tones. “This is a major departure from our planning.”

“Well, it’s not so major, really. It’s just another type of Colorbond; they call it zinc alum these days. And I’d love you to just have a think; in a way, it’s the most important part of our house. I’ve been mulling this over for a while, sorry I haven’t said anything, but I think you’ll love it when you get used to the idea.”

Get used to building a space station instead of a country house? I could have told him it would never happen. “Sure, send me the photos,” I said resignedly.

Minutes later, Michael phoned again. “I’ve got an even better idea,” he said. “Let’s get my friend Richard to have a look at the plans. You remember Richard? He’s done a lot of design work for Judy and me, and he’s never had an idea I didn’t like.” I did indeed remember Richard, having worked with him on a theatre project in another lifetime. As a designer, he had inventive and eye-catching ideas. “Let’s have him put some suggestions together. Listen, I’ll pay for the consulting myself. You could just send him the house plans and give him a briefing. I know we’re on a tight timeframe but I’m sure he could have something within a day or two. It’s too important not to explore every angle, Heather,” he added.

In his inimitable style, Michael had me cornered. What could I say?

My email brief to Richard was comprehensive, and intended to restore sanity to the cladding decisions. I sent him a number of photographs of John Basden houses with Colorbond cladding, saying what we had decided we liked and didn’t like about them. I told him the colours we’d been leaning toward. I told him we were on a tight deadline, and delicately implied we were reasonably happy with our current solution, and if he didn’t have time to work on it, he wouldn’t be letting us down.

Richard rang almost immediately. He loved the plans and was happy to look at the design elements. He’d get back to me straight away.

Two days later, a couriered package arrived from Richard in Sydney. It included a design plan and samples board.

Zinc alum! Zinc alum everywhere, except for the extensive decks, where the walls were to be in natural wood, and the trim, which would be in off-white and bushland grey-green. The little chip of zinc alum on the samples board was innocent enough, but my imagination was capable of converting it from a few square centimetres to hundreds of square metres. Corrugated iron would stretch from one end of the house to the other, like an aircraft hangar. Or a space ship. At best it would be wanky and over-modern. At worst it would look like, well, like a tin shed.

The timber in the deck areas I was ambivalent about. I have always loved natural wood, and thought it would be by far the most beautiful finish we could have. But on the other hand, we had been warned that timber would require re-staining at least every other year. I wasn’t sure I could in good conscience agree to have this on a home for six increasingly-ageing people.

I sat at the table, looking at the offending samples and wondering how on earth I was going to deal with this situation.

The phone rang. It was Eve, calling from Longueville, where another sample board and design plan had been delivered. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said. “Don’t you think it’s a wonderful design?”

My heartbeat raced. I suddenly remembered an imaginary lunch that was about to burn and begged off the call. I thumped my forehead with the handset.

I went back to the samples board and looked again. I fingered the sheen of the zinc alum. I went to the door of The Shed and tried to map that sheen onto the vast expanse of house I was looking at. The decks of my imagination, swathed in honey red wood, looked lovely. But the rest of it resembled a tin shed.

Maybe.

Or maybe not.

Later, I grabbed Rick and we went for a drive. We stopped the car by a tin shed a few kilometres down the road.

The shed was old, dented and rusty where the rain and years of hard wear and scratching cattle had attacked it – but all the same, there was something about it. It gleamed faintly with a burnished quality that captured the warmth of the late afternoon sun.

When I got back home, I shot off an email to John Basden, my trusted designer guru. I sent him Richard’s proposal and expressed my concerns.

He phoned back that evening. “Look,” he said, “I think the guy’s ideas are inspired. I wish I’d thought of those finishes myself. The house will be a thing of beauty; I can see it in my mind’s eye clear as anything. You don’t need to worry, you’ll love it. This design redefines the place.”

My next guru was our builder Dallas. I cornered him first thing in the morning and showed him the sketches and samples board.

“Wow, look at that,” he said. He fished out his reading glasses and studied the samples more carefully. “That’s really something.” He looked at me over his glasses. “I think it will be beautiful. Really, I do.”

I looked at the house rising behind him, for the thousandth time trying to picture the finishes. “What about cost?” I asked.

“Shouldn’t be much different at all,” he replied. “Maybe a bit more time required for staining the timber on the decks, but, no, this won’t cost much more.”

“What about maintenance for the wood?” I asked.

“We’ll make sure the timber is where the decks are, within easy reach,” Dallas said. “No ladders required. It won’t be hard to look after.”

It was decided. Zinc alum was the go.

A few weeks later Rick and I left for a long drive up the coast to Noosa. On the way we stopped in a small town and drove to the top of a crest overlooking the ocean. The ocean view was wonderful, but much more exciting was the sight when we turned around – a house finished in zinc alum and natural wood. It was spectacular. The zinc alum glowed, looking modern, sophisticated and yet completely Australian. It wasn’t a house you’d see in France or Canada or Thailand or even in Sydney. It was unusual but not in the slightest pretentious or even shed-like.

Not only was zinc alum the go, but it was looking like the RIGHT go. Madam Project Manager, aka Madam Control Freak, had learned something about letting go.

Two months later, I stood on the driveway with Michael, who’d arrived from Sydney to inspect the progress on the cladding. Most of the zinc alum and wood was up.

“It looks great,” I marvelled.

Michael was far too urbane to say it, and far too generous to even think it – but anyone else would have said, “Well, DUH.”

John Basden was right: the zinc alum redefined the house and gave a new level of integrity to the design. I smiled at Michael with pride and great affection. It was his victory; he’d had the vision for it and taken it on with ferocity. He’d been unstoppable himself – and we’d all had a significant win.

*    *    *

There was something I had come to realise: the role of a professional in helping to align six differing and largely uninformed opinions was worth its weight in gold.

Three years ago, we had used Cheryl to bring us to consensus about our furniture and art work when we had moved into the Longueville house.

We had used John Basden to take us out of the morass of conflicting ideas about what kind of house we wanted. He just went ahead and designed one that none of us could fault.

We had used Dallas to offer knowledgeable advice about materials and construction methods.

We had used Richard to come to agreement on the exterior finishes of our home.

In this same way, we designed our kitchen. We had twenty or thirty design magazines that had been gifted to us by a friend, and in spite of all the dog-ears and yellow post-its we still didn’t know exactly what we wanted. So we found a fellow from a local kitchen company who was highly recommended, told him what was important to us, and asked him to design a kitchen to fit our floor plan. With pleasure, he said, and then came up with a plan we all got behind.

For decisions on finishes and colours in the open plan communal area, we went straight back to design wizard Richard. In a flurry of speckled neutrals and pale wood, with a smattering of zinc alum thrown in for good measure, Richard put together a design that not only looked warm and wonderful, but blended perfectly with the house exterior.

Next came the lighting plan. What I knew about lighting you could have fit into one night-light globe. That all changed rapidly as I swotted up on internet lighting links and read piles of brochures. Finally, I contacted Valerie, a consultant at the local lighting shop. She went through our house plans room by room and designed an elegant lighting plan. The Shedders thought it looked fine and granted approval.

That left the bathrooms – one ensuite in each personal area, one guest bathroom. This time we decided to do the planning ourselves, part of a resolution we had to keep our bathrooms basic and inexpensive. The Shedders all went on research missions. I compiled the research and worked with a local supplier to put a list together. Rick and I happened to be in Sydney, so we were able to meet to pull together our bathroom plans.

Bathtubs we settled quickly. Shower heads were agreed upon in a flash. Tiles and decorative finishes got a quick nod. Cabinets and toilets were easy. Fifteen minutes and we’d handled everything on the list.

Except taps. The Longueville contingent favoured dual taps (separate hot and cold); Rick and I had settled firmly on “mixers”. For over an hour, we hammered back and forth with research, opinions and opinions masquerading as research. By the end of the hour, the dual tappers were more committed than ever, and the mixers still weren’t prepared to budge an inch.

For the first time in five years of complex decision making, we were at loggerheads.

I drew on my background in effective corporate decision-making: “Well, I’m not having dual taps,” I said, folding my arms and glowering.

“Well, I guess that’s it, then,” Michael laughed. “Sounds like the boss cocky has spoken.”

So, mixers it was. I won, and was mollified, but it’s surprising how hollow a victory is when it doesn’t arrive by consensus. As I stood at the desk in the plumbing shop a few days later to order the taps, my eyes settled on the somewhat guilty-looking person reflected in one of the mirror display units on the wall beyond.

As I looked at her I thought, it’s a good thing you didn’t use bullying tactics any oftener than you did, or this house, rising so beautifully before our eyes, might have been built on a very dodgy foundation.

Integrity is hard work, and sometimes took more than I could give.

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