I was pacing, as much as was possible in the confined space of our overstuffed Shed.
There was a tough conversation looming that I didn’t want to be involved with. But, as the Shedder responsible for the building project, I didn’t have a lot of choice. That’s the downside about being boss cocky: you might get to win every now and then by throwing your weight around (as I had in the mixers-versus-dual-taps conversation), but you pay by having responsibilities that can be highly unsettling.
The conversation was going to be with Dallas. He’d just arrived in his white truck and was talking on his mobile to someone, probably getting a final quote from one of the “subbies” (sub-contractors) he brought onto the job. He was pacing as well, barking into the phone as he moved.
We had a 7:00 a.m. meeting scheduled, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t looking forward to it any more than I was.
* * *
In the early stages of the project, Dallas and I had met every couple of weeks. We would review what had been spent in the previous period, and speculate about what major expenses were coming up. Dallas had provided an estimate for each major stage of the work, and we would check to see that everything was tracking against budget.
Then, five months into the project, Rick and I went overseas to spend a few months in Canada with relatives and friends. We were slightly ahead of budget at the time; Dallas declared he was confident we would finish up on track. We worked through our communication methods: Dallas would keep sending me his expense sheets so that I could stay on top of spending, and he would phone Eve if anything came up that required a quick decision. Most of the ninety items on the checklist had been resolved by this time, so we knew Eve’s task wouldn’t be onerous. Dallas promised to let us know if the budget threatened to slip at all.
Sometime in August, shortly before we were scheduled to come back to Australia, my spreadsheet began to bulge as Dallas’ figures pushed out past the expected amounts. By email, I pressed Dallas on the subject and he admitted by return mail that the project looked like going some 5 percent over budget.
As I broadcast the news, the Shedders dived into a panicky round of email communication. The conclusion was that 5 percent over budget was to be expected and we could live with it. I gave Dallas the go-ahead to continue.
When Rick and I returned home in early September, I once again tackled Dallas about possible overspend. He said he felt he was holding it to “approximately” that 5 percent blowout. But there were clues that his totals were adding up differently from my own. I wondered if he’d included the lighting equipment, which Rick and I had picked up and paid for. Or the front steps, which I could see had not yet been delivered. Was he including the kitchen, still to be installed? And the figure he’d estimated for the plastering – could it possibly pay for the army of contractors in speckled coveralls I watched day after day after day putting up gyprock and filling cracks?
Accordingly, I had asked Dallas to come with a full and complete list of what was still outstanding so we could confirm a true cost.
That request had happened yesterday; today was Thursday; tomorrow our partners were coming up for the weekend. Whatever the news was, I needed to know now so I could alert them.
* * *
Right on time, Dallas arrived at the doorstep. He was clearly nervous as he pulled off his workman’s boots and sat down at the table with Rick and me. He flashed his amiable grin and said, “I don’t think this meeting is going to be my finest hour.”
My heart sank. I didn’t think it was going to be my finest hour, either. I’ve had many turbulent conversations in my working life, sacking employees or administering tough performance reviews. I always dreaded them. Part of the angst is the violation to my unflappable niceness (which I like to attribute to my Canadian heritage). Another part is that I always feel guilty myself: if I’d monitored their work more carefully along the way, if I’d had more empathy, if I’d been cleverer about how to give them what they needed – they’d have been successful. If I’d been perfect, clearly they’d have been perfect.
There’s another more logical part of me that says people do what they do and you simply hold them to account for it, but admittedly that’s not the part that had my hand trembling as I passed Dallas a cup of tea.
Here was the thing: I liked and respected our builder very much. Dallas had always been a joy to work with. He was competent, capable and respected by his team. He was one of the few tradesmen I’d met who kept his word, his head and his sense of humour through whatever adversities occurred on the building site. His work was clearly several cuts above the average – a number of people I respected had commented that he was probably the only local builder who could have accomplished what he was doing with our house. And he ran a tight ship. The guys showed up on time, they cleaned up after themselves each day, there was no swearing on site. There was only one time (I don’t imagine it was a coincidence that Dallas was off surfing in Bali) when I’d had to clear up a few empties after the guys had downed tools on a Friday and brought out a slab of beer.
All of this was playing in my head as I set the tea in front of Dallas and sat down to hear out exactly how the project was going.
Since we’d spoken yesterday, he’d analysed what was still to be done and found a number of things left out of his previous costings. We went through the new list of things still to be done, an item at a time, first of all checking his estimates, which he admitted were mostly “best case”. Then I started questioning, “Does this include…?” As I feared, he hadn’t included the lighting or the front steps. When it turned out he hadn’t included the kitchen, I knew we were in big trouble. The 5 percent blowout had to be now sitting closer to 15 percent. And even worse, in my mind’s eye I could see shadows of unknown things that were not yet on our lists. These shocking figures were unlikely to be the end of the blowout story.
Fifteen percent and climbing! I was paralysed by the thought of the meltdown this was likely to cause among the rest of the Shedders.
Dallas bemoaned his “optimism”. Rick agreed we’d all been optimistic (read, “in denial”), including John Basden with his initial estimates. I declared that the 15 percent blowout we’d just defined would cause a panic among the partners – and if it got worse than that, the whole project would be in trouble.
Dallas said he understood. He pressed his palms to his forehead, mumbling, “Well, if you guys can cope with the 15 percent, it might be fair if I pay for anything beyond what we’ve identified today. After all,” he added, “it’s my estimating and communicating skills that have let us down.”
It might just have been the most honest and open I’d ever seen anyone be.
As we ended the meeting, I said, “We’ve got some time to think it over. I’ll talk to the rest of the guys this weekend and we’ll get together again Monday morning.”
Dallas pushed back his untouched cup of tea and popped on his floppy hat. “Well, back to work then,” he said.
It was a tense day on the building site. The advantage of having construction right outside The Shed door was that we could enjoy the shenanigans, satisfy our curiosity, and watch the progress. The disadvantage was that sometimes we saw things we’d rather not have witnessed. Today that included a number of huddled conversations between Dallas and his team, between him and the plasterers, between him and the painters. He spent a lot of time on his mobile. Although we couldn’t hear what was going on, the tenor of the conversations was almost palpable. My imagination filled in the audio. “Is there a way you can lower your margin on this?”… “Can you do it in four days rather than six?”… “Can we cut costs here somehow?”
I sat down that afternoon to try to figure out a new agreement to put in front of both Dallas and the Shedders – something that could navigate us out of this mess.
How much was our fault, how much was his fault? Who was going to pay how much for our mutual denial?
This was the central issue: we had a cost-plus contract, meaning we had signed an agreement with Dallas the Builder that said we would pay for whatever it took to build the house. The contract named his estimated building costs, but it wasn’t a fixed-price contract. However, we had a verbal agreement with Dallas the Gentleman that costs would not go over his initial estimate, and that if that ever threatened to happen, he’d give us plenty of notice so we could plan what and how to cut.
Legally, we might be held to the contract, though there was ample precedent that the law took a dim view of builders who underestimated costs to their clients. Morally, Dallas was an honourable man who valued the weight of his word. He liked us, and we liked him. He was someone who would bend over backward to do the right thing.
So what sort of agreement would be fair?
Rick and I could personally afford a 15% blowout, and I felt that our partners could well come to the same conclusion for themselves. But could we ask Dallas to cover anything beyond that amount, as a consequence of having cornered us at the last minute when our decision-making was so limited? It did seem fair, and Dallas had muttered the suggestion himself in a moment of remorse – so that was the approach I took. I defined every dollar, dotted every “i” in creating a simple one-page draft agreement with spreadsheet attached. If Dallas accepted, the constraints on him would be stern.
But bottom line, I couldn’t see that the money was there for any further spending. Either Dallas picked up the overspend from here, or we stopped the building and completed it over time as funds came in. I knew Dallas didn’t want an unfinished house any more than we did. He took great pride in his work, and as well viewed this project as a show piece for future marketing.
Rick and I decided we would offer to work regularly on the site, helping sand, stain, clean – anything that would save Dallas time and money.
Essentially, the new agreement would get us to a fixed-price contract. We would pay up to a certain amount (well over what we had initially planned on) and Dallas would finish the house to a clearly defined standard.
…If we could get our partners to agree.
* * *
The city-dwelling Shedders arrived the next day. They went on an enthusiastic tour through the house while I followed them around, uncomfortable and keen to get the hard news out of the way as quickly as possible. Minutes later I settled them around the table in The Shed to talk them through our latest challenge.
Rick and I reported our recent conversations with Dallas and then I led everyone through the draft agreement I’d put together, capping as it did the 15% blowout and leaving Dallas to wear any costs beyond that amount. I’m sure the atmosphere got a little confused as I tried to combine empathy with matter-of-factness and responsibility with nonchalance, but the team heard me out. Finally, I stopped talking and sat back to listen to the aftermath.
It took some heavy-duty processing time, as everyone talked through the implications of the blowout on budgets and lifestyles. Even divided three ways, it seemed like a big chunk of money, one that could impact retirement dates, holiday plans, expected purchases. Shock turned into anger, sloshed around in blame and finally moved into strategising.
In the end, the Shedders were generous. We all knew that every ounce of Dallas’ denial was matched by our own. There had been warning signs, and we were mad to have hoped we could get this house for the price John and Dallas had originally estimated.
Daniel summed up his views saying he’d never thought we’d get by for less than 20% more than the original estimates. He had mentally set aside extra funds, he said, and this news wasn’t too much of a bombshell.
Michael thought the new agreement we’d set out for Dallas was fair and honest, and if we could get him to sign it, Michael’s faith in mankind would be restored.
Eve felt we were getting a beautiful house and five years from now we would not regret what we’d spent on it.
Judy expressed a deep scepticism about builders in general but conceded that the new agreement was our best shot.
When I apologised for the shock they’d encountered, Judy responded, “Look what a wonderful house you’ve been building for us. Don’t ever apologise.”
I peered out the Shed door at the house in question. I thought about project management wisdom that says you can complete a project on time, on budget, or to your desired quality, but you can never have all three. Well, we had a beautiful house, at least to the quality we had wanted, and it was going to be completed on time – so it was obvious in hindsight that those were the priorities of this project manager. “If we’d known at the beginning that it would cost this much, would we have done it?” I asked.
“Probably not,” said Michael. “And what a shame that would have been.”
After a few more times around the traps, discussion petered out and we agreed that I would try to put in place with Dallas the agreement we’d drafted.
* * *
Besides, we had other important things to consider.
It was time to address the burning question of who would live in which part of the new house.
It was a topic of great general curiosity. The builders, painters and plasterers all had strong opinions and would regularly ask if we’d made up our minds yet. Every friend who visited had a view about it. And it was certainly a regular topic of conversation for the six of us as well.
I had spent many hours, at first poring over plans and eventually wandering through the skeleton house, pondering the question of which area I preferred. Could I be content with any of the three suites if we held a lottery?
Each of the personal suites was identical in size. Each of us would have a big bedroom with ample wardrobe space, an on-suite bathroom with both bath and shower, a spacious deck and an office/living area of more than enough size for two desks and an easy chair or two.
However, each suite had its own distinct personality, its own aspect. From the suite nearest The Shed, you could step outside and be in the gardens; as well, it was handiest to the guest quarters, which appealed to me. The suite nearest the road satisfied my natural curiosity about the comings and goings of our neighbourhood while providing spectacular views of the distant hills. And I loved the privacy, the sense of height and entitlement, and the serene outlook that the third suite gave, high up and overlooking our little valley as it did. This was the favourite among the builders, who liked to have a swig from the thermos while dangling their legs off its balcony.
In truth, I liked them all. To the great credit of our designer, there were no losers among them.
“Shall we do a lottery?” I asked. “Pull straws and take what we get?”
After some tentative discussion, someone said: I think Heather and Rick should get their choice. After all, they’ve put so much into this project.
Everyone else acquiesced. I thought it imprudent to raise the subject of the 15% blowout at this time, and graciously accepted. We said we’d choose the suite nearest the road, a decision that in part came down to our cat, Tori. As an indoor-outdoor cat, this area would give her direct access to the gardens.
I suggested that there was nothing to say we couldn’t switch suites from time to time if we wished, and everyone agreed – though I think we all recognised that once you do all those little things to make a place your own, inertia takes over and you’re unlikely to want to move again.
* * *
Meantime, back to the blowout challenge.
Monday morning, after our roller coaster weekend with the rest of the team, Dallas showed up a few minutes early for our meeting.
I put a cup of tea in front of him, then began by describing the weekend meeting, and the heated discussions that the blowout had ignited with the Shedders. I explained that Michael and Judy had expressed the view that they would have to delay their retirement. Eve and Daniel were going to have to cash in some of the investments they had set aside for retirement. I was going to have to forego the swimming pool I’d hoped to install somewhere on the grounds.
I acknowledged the cost-plus contract we had signed together a year ago. I emphasised I wanted to find a fair solution. I reminded him about his comment that he might be willing to wear costs over 15%. Then I outlined what we wanted and went through the agreement I’d drafted, with its accompanying spreadsheet of projected costs. I added that Rick and I were prepared to work our hearts out for the next month doing whatever was needed on the building site.
As Dallas got clear about the cage I was asking him to lock himself into, he was agitated. “You drive a hard bargain,” he said, and I watched him picture his profits from the job dwindling before his eyes. He looked torn between anger and a sense of fair play. “But I can tell you, I don’t intend to take the contract to court,” he said. “A builder can’t get anywhere doing that.”
He sat quietly for a while.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
He glanced at me, then bobbed his head. “I have this mental image of you guys sitting there this weekend, rubbing your hands with glee that you’ve got the better of me.” He grimaced ruefully.
His openness touched my heart. I shook my head. “That’s not at all what I was dealing with, Dallas. I was dealing with people saying, we shouldn’t have started this project at all; we’ll never get to retire at this rate; we’re going to have to remortgage…”
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I know.” He grabbed the pen and signed.
“Are we okay?” I asked when I bumped into him on the site the following day.
“Yeah, we are,” he replied. “I’ve learned a lot from you,” he added. “Nobody’s ever held me quite to account like this.”
“No more than I’ve learned from you,” I replied, thinking about what I was absorbing from the decency and openness of this man. “I think I’m beginning to get the builder’s world.”
“We should do this again sometime,” he chuckled.
I couldn’t help but agree. What a shame to learn all this and only use it once!
As Rick and I scraped plaster off the plywood sub-floors that afternoon, I watched Dallas measuring up for the front steps. I thought back to the time almost a year ago when we had chosen him as our builder.
Well, we’d wanted a house that was well-built, and full marks to us in our selection of a competent builder.
What we hadn’t articulated so clearly was our need to select someone who lived inside the paradigm of negotiation – rather than the more common one of confrontation, justification and blame. Perhaps instinctively we’d recognised this quality when Eve and Daniel had seen Dallas on the beach at Old Bar, courageously intervening among the sparring teenagers to help resolve their conflict. In the construction of our house, when push came to shove (as I’d guess it does more often than not in a building project), we had someone to work with who understood the importance of sitting down at the table and talking through to a solution. If there ever was a time when we needed a partner, rather than an adversary, this was it. I didn’t even want to consider what a shouting match followed by a day or two in court would have looked like.
Our budget might have blown out by at least the usual amount, but I reckoned we would have a fine house and a solid friendship to show for it.