The White Cane Approach To Quality Renovation


What’s Wrong Becomes Self-Evident — After The Fact

See also
“The Gaping Design Hole”
“Kitchens Come From Boxes, Don’t They?”
“Upside Down Kitchen Cabinets”
all in
Our Story


Note to all parties:  This is not to sell more of a job but to factor in the reality of the experience that TMC [Trust Me Construction, (footnote)] has often found. 

While a job is under way, a logical, what’s right approach occurs where certain potential things that could be done to a house become self-evident and this upper limit [$110,000] recognizes this truth. 

(Windermere real estate agent Paul H. Stickney, speaking of Trust Me Construction’s renovation and pricing philosophy.  Excerpted from Stickney's transcript of a tape-recorded meeting between Bob Trustworthy, Paul Stickney, and the DeCourseys on June 8, 2004 at The Cottage, 8208 172nd Ave., NE, Redmond, Washington.  EXHIBIT phs 9.  Stickney is vice-president of TMC, and his word should stand as an executive promise.)

When explaining cost overruns, the first line of defense for some contractors is to cry: “CHANGE ORDERS!  CHANGE ORDERS!  The customers kept changing their minds.”  It seems many dissatisfied customers are whimsical people, changing their minds with the breeze.

We were promised a competent, professional job for $90,565.27.  But we have been charged $211,166.  Some of the promised work was not done, and much of the work that was done needs to be replaced or repaired.  What happened?

Let’s deal with that issue right now.  What made the prices go up?  Were there lots of change orders on the DeCoursey job?  If so, who issued them, and under what circumstances?  Or was much time and labor spent on correcting TMC bungling of ordinary tasks?

1.  What Are Change Orders?

No doubt, it sometimes happens that after the homeowners have decided on Plan A, have it costed out, and maybe have it partially built, they change their minds and decide on Plan B.  That may waste time, material, labor, and everybody's patience.  And it can make a job much more expensive than it would have been if either Plan A or Plan B had been followed from design to completion.

But what if the contractor worked from his own erroneous architectural drawing and as a consequence made construction errors — would correcting those errors be a “change order”?  Or what if the contractor installs a frame for a window cock-eyed, and the customer insists the frame be made level — would that be a change order? 

What if a contractor promises that his price includes an allowance for changes that become self-evidently “right” as the project unfolds (see below) — should the contractor be held to his promise that the changes are included within his price? 

What if a contractor assures a customer he has “long experience” with serious renovation projects, and the customer’s fiduciary — a reputable Windermere real estate agent — assures the customer that the contractor’s work products are excellent.  Is it reasonable for the customer to believe the contractor has the skills to do the job?

With invite you to consider these questions, using the wealth of documentation on this website.  In particular, we invite you to review:

2.  Before And After — Spot the Boo-Boo

Let us look at The Cottage before renovation, the October 15 TMC architectural drawing of the planned renovations, and the renovated house.  We will see that TMC made a basic error at the beginning of the project, and we will discuss the consequences this error produced.

Above, The Cottage in June 2004 before renovation

Above, Worthy's architectural drawing for the planned renovation, produced on October 15, 2004 (Exhibit tmc 6.)   Compare it to the photo of the unrenovated house.  To the eye, Trustworthy’s proportions are wrong, particularly around the front door.  Notice also the pitch of the shed roof over the front door.

Above.  The Cottage after the renovation, June, 2005.  The location of the new gable (break in the roof line) was dictated by an interior wall that was fixed and did not change during renovation.  Worthy's proportional errors in his Oct. 15 drawing caused some errors in construction.  These errors became obvious after the work was done, and corrections were required.   Notice the pitch of the shed roof over the front door, and compare it with Trustworthy’s drawing — the pitch now matches the other rooves.

Above.  The unrenovated house and Trustworthy’s Oct. 15 drawing have been overlaid for comparison.  We scaled the photo to line up with two features in the drawing — the west (left) corner of the house and a jog in the front face east (right) of door, indicated with red arrows.  This overlay shows Trustworthy’s error in locating the front bedroom windows (dictated by interior walls).  The windows crowd the door.

Above.  The renovated house and Trustworthy’s Oct. 15 drawing have been overlaid for comparison.   We can see Trustworthy’s error clearly.  Again, the images have been aligned on the west (left) corner of the house and a jog in the front face east (right) of the door (indicated by red arrows).  In the photograph, the intersection of the gable with the front surface is emphasized by a bright white line and white arrow.  In the drawing, the intersection is emphasized by a violet line.  The location of the new gable was dictated by an interior wall that was fixed and did not change during renovation — as a key element of the renovation, it should have been known from the beginning.

3.  We Correct Front Window Error

There were practical consequences of the errors in the TMC October 15 drawing.  TMC used the drawing to determine the size of the window over the front door.  TMC ordered a 46x58 inch window and it did fit the erroneous TMC drawing.  But the 46x58 window was too small for the space in the real world.  Thankfully, that truth became self-evident before the window was installed.   

We ordered a new window measuring 46x72 inches.  A new header and frame had to be built and the larger window was installed.  It was correctly proportioned fit the space.  It also allowed the panorama of the sky and trees into the house.  Architecture that takes advantage of natural beauty of our state is surely an important element in creating real estate value.

Thus we see this correction in the renovation process came about as a correction of an TMC error, not a whimsical change of mind on our part.

4.  We Correct Shed Roof Over Front Door

We planned a simple shed roof over the front door, just big enough to give us shelter from rain while we found our key. 

Problems ensued, however, when the shed roof was built on the basis of the erroneous Oct. 15 drawing.   The space available for the roof had been misrepresented in the drawing, and a shed roof was built to fit into that space.  But when it was attached to the area over the door, it looked like Hitler’s moustache — tiny and crimped up.  The pitch was wrong and it looked ridiculous compared with the pitch on the roof.  Over the succeeding days, the little shed roof was repeatedly taken down and reattached — it was either too high over the door, off center, or tilted at an angle.  (TMC workers were all too often reluctant to use a level.)  We had to ask Peter Oakes, TMC foreman, to rebuild from scratch.

We say had to, because even our neighbors were stopping by to comment on it: “What's wrong with your new little porch roof?  It seems too high . . . crooked, etc.”  Once again, the corrections were not the consequence of a whimsical change of mind . . .

5.  Self-Evident Error: Pass-Thru Wall

We have already described what happened when we followed TMC directions concerning the design of the kitchen cabinets (see Our Story Part III, “Kitchens Come From Boxes, Don’t They?”)

Now let us focus on the pass-thru wall between the kitchen and dining room.  It was designed to support upper cabinets on the kitchen side. TMC and the Canyon Creek Cabinet Company met with us at The Cottage.  TMC and Canyon Creek both measured the space.  Canyon Creek drew up specs, sent them to TMC, and made the cabinets.

The cabinets were delivered and installed.  Then a problem became self-evident.  The pass-through wall stuck out four inches past the row of cabinets.

We asked that the wall be shortened by four inches, and watched as repairs were made.  The repair took a one-man half a day.  Again, the change was not the result of whimsy on our part, and was hardly a “change order.”

An experienced renovator later visited our home and told us:  “That’s what happens when you order cabinets, and you don't have the manufacturer install them.” 

6.  No Lessons Learned Through Long Experience?

NOTE:  This Estimate SHALL NOT BE CONSTRUED as a FIRM BID.  It does, however, reflect long experience with home improvement work, and successful conclusions of many projects of this nature. (TMC Estimate, July 2, 2004.)

We chose Trust Me Construction to do our renovation because Windermere agent Paul Stickney bestowed lavish praise upon the company, assuring us he had seen its work over the years and was convinced its work product and pricing system was far superior to others.  He lauded the competence of TMC President Bob Trustworthy, a retired industrial engineer. 

We wanted a good job done.  We did not want the house to look like a “Handyman’s Special.”  Let us see how Stickney’s TMC performed one of its very important assigned tasks and ask if Stickney correctly represented TMC expertise. 

7.  Bad Design, Wrong Material, Faulty Execution = Cantilever

Plans for renovation included a 4½ foot extension of the kitchen and dining room. Before describing the problems with the extension, it should be pointed out that extensions — particularly in kitchens — have become a standard part of a renovator’s job.  Given the alleged long and successful history of Stickney’s TMC with renovation projects, we might expect building a four and a half foot extension would be a task TMC could perform successfully. 

Trustworthy told us from the beginning that TMC could not consider adding additional concrete foundations to support the extension, because the Redmond building permit process would be too onerous.  He said that the extension should be built on a cantilever, and that it would be build with wood.  We did not know then it was a bad idea, but we would find out.

Trustworthy also told us that getting concrete to the back yard would be physically difficult or expensive.  Since that time, we have realized the deck would also need concrete supports — how would TMC get the concrete into the backyard for the deck when it was impossible to get concrete into the backyard for the extension?  We don't know.  Since that time, other contractors have looked at the lot and declared that getting concrete into the back yard would be no problem.  In fact, the fireplace mason brought a small mixer in for his work.

The cantilever was built, and at first, the new floor was flush and level with the old floor.  Photo available in Construction Defects, Section 7.2.)  Over the months, however, the cantilever floor shifted; in some spots it was 3/8 of an inch lower than the pre-existing floor in some areas and others, ½ inch lower.  

When it came time to install the hardwood floors, First Washington Hardwood Floors refused to do the job until the uneven surface was corrected.  We suggested placing plywood of various thicknesses on the floor to make up the differences, but TMC rejected this solution.  Instead, they laid down a coat of Thinset (watery concrete) to make a level surface.  The hardwood floor man came back, only to say he could not nail hardwood to concrete.  The Thinset had to be chipped out, and plywood laid in its place. 

In retrospect we wonder if TMC had any knowledge of how hardwood floors were installed.  It seems obvious hardwood nail guns cannot penetrate concrete.

We now understand the shifting of the floor of the cantilevered extension was an early sign of instability.  We have seen other signs that the cantilever is unstable, including the hump in the Formica counter and other phenomena described in Construction Defects, Section 7.2

Yes, in downtown Seattle there is the famous Rainier Square example of a cantilevered office building.  But they didn’t use wood to build it, they used steel and concrete.

In our case, however, TMC used wood.  In the best of all possible worlds, wood is known for its tendency to shrink and flex and warp.  Today, because the timber industry brings wood from young trees and brings it to the market “green,” using that wood to build structures like our cantilevered kitchen/dining room extension is even more questionable.

You may have already read “Tile Work From HELL” in Our Story.  Peter Oakes excused the tile job, at least in part, by saying that the plumbing wall in that bathroom was warped.  He blamed the alleged warp on the young wood used for lumber these days.  That is, “The Tile Job From HELL” could be partially blamed on the quality of modern lumber. 

Yet Trustworthy designed, and Oakes built, the cantilever with this same green lumber-store wood.  Think about it . . . Oakes built the cantilevered extension for the kitchen/dining room with a material he believed was easily warped.

In restrospect, why should we be surprised?  Now that we have done our research on Peter Oakes, we know — as his employers, Bob Trustworthy and Paul Stickney, must or should have known — that Oakes had a problematic history and had been successfully sued by a previous customer for failing to perform services "in a good and workmanlike manner."  Oakes's $12,000 bond was awarded to the plaintiff.  (See Exhibit pfo 4.)

Perhaps he and Trustworthy could have ameliorated the effects of using young wood by substituting engineered wood.  But neither suggested or used even that precaution.

They could have taken another approach to the extension:  This house was built in a time when wood was plentiful and cheap in the Northwest.  The flooring was constructed with large 6x12 joists approximately 36 inches apart, topped with 1¼ inch plywood sub-floor.  The new cantilever was built by bolting (“sistering”) new joists to the old and extending them out past the house.  New heavy plywood was used for sub-flooring on those extended joists, making the old floor flush with the new. 

Given mature lumber, a carpenter might have cut the old sub-floor back two or three feet so that the new plywood could span the joint between the old and the new joists.  They would screw the heavy plywood to both sets of joists, adding further stability to the whole surface.  However, TMC did not do this.  TMC simply butted the new plywood up to the old with the joint in the sub-floor directly over the joint in the joists.  Even that opportunity for added stability was lost. 

Of course, before the plywood sub-flooring was added, the floor framing inspection (420) should have been signed off.  But that was not done either.  When we moved in on May 10, 2005, long after the floors were sealed and inaccessible, the floor framing inspection (420) had not been signed off.  (Exhibit cor 3).

We now have a situation where half the weight of the roof rests on an unstable cantilevered extension.  The extension clearly should have rested on concrete. 

Does it sound as though Trust Me Construction had the long and successful renovation experience Stickney and Trustworthy claimed?

23.  Conclusion

We invite readers to review the October 15, 2004 renovation plans drawn up by Trust Me Construction (TMC) and study the October 12, 2004 TMC estimate. Compare the information in those documents with the descriptions of changes contained in this document.  Many of the changes and redos described herein were necessitated by errors made in TMC draftsmanship and planning. 

The five genuine change orders we requested — two small windows in the living room, moving a heating duct one foot, changes in sconce wiring, and one wall repainted — should have fit very nicely into the “upper limit” of the TMC “What’s Right Becomes Self Evident” design and pricing policy.  These change orders could not possibly account for the over $100,000 disparity between the October 12 estimate and the final statement of April 22, 2005.  Nor could the changes explain the differences between the promised early December 2004 finish date the actual mid-May 2005 very unfinished date . . .

Now we suggest you re-read “February 10 Statement Is Proof Of Pudding” in Our Story.  By February 10, 2005, TMC could not possibly claim that our house offered them any new surprises, or that we had changed our minds about what we wanted. How well TMC met its own February 10 projection by the time we moved in (May) provides the best possible independent evidence of TMC’s performance vs. TMC’s promises.

Thank you.