Working with Builders, Contractors and Trades

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fitting a new kitchen - the joiner levels up the unitsto save time and money the contractors decided on pumped concrete foundationsfitting a glass kitchen splashback

People tell us that one of their main concerns with a home renovation is working with builders, contractors and trades. That’s partly why they engage us to manage it all for them. However, the reality is that the vast majority of contractors are decent folk looking to delight their clients. Remember that reputation is everything. If you are going to renovate a house, the chances are that you will need to employ a contractor, and that should be a pleasurable experience. You just need to prepare and plan well, have realistic expectations and make informed choices. Problems will arise from time to time, but overcoming those problems with a quality contractor can be an enriching process.

working with builders, contractors and trades

We’ve written previously on how to engage contractors in our piece on home renovation. We won’t repeat that here; instead we want to focus on the importance of finding quality contractors; those that don’t just go through the motions but are ready to offer professional insights and advice for the benefit of the project.

what is quality?

One of the first questions I was ever asked at interview was the meaning of “quality”. Of course, there are many dry, textbook answers and I probably gave one of them; “fit for purpose”, “meets the specification”, “fulfils expectation”, and so on. But over the years, I grew to look at quality differently.

picture light

Quality, for me, is about becoming at one with a task. That task may be providing a service or creating a product. It applies as much to a car or a dining table as it does to a designer, footballer, scientist or plumber. This sounds a bit deep, but “quality” really is about understanding the true requirement and delivering against it. If you’ve ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, you’ll get a sense of this. Amongst its many complex themes is the idea that if you ride a motorbike, care for it, understand its nuances, and sense any change in performance, you effectively become at one with the bike. Only by completely understanding the machine will you know how and when to maintain it, solve problems, and truly enjoy the relationship.

Motorcycle maintenance is of course a metaphor for many walks of life. So what does this mean when working with builders, contractors and trades?

quality and professional contractors

True quality in a tradesperson comes not only from knowledge of the trade, but also from completely understanding the task in hand; how that knowledge relates to the broader implications of your project, your circumstances and your constraints. From your brief, a quality tradesperson will have a vision of your finished project and will see how his or her activity will fit in. He or she will ask you searching questions about what else is going on, and offer thoughts and advice that you may not have considered. These are characteristics of a professional, quality individual. You can spot this when interviewing your potential contractors. Do they ask relevant questions? Do you feel that they are listening? Do you get a sense that they really understand your project? Do you feel comfortable with them?

fitting oak steps

confidence and trust between client and contractor

You may be meeting a contractor face to face for the first time. You don’t know them; they don’t know you. It is important from the start to build trust; trust in the sense of being able to discuss a project frankly and openly. Whilst you may have a very clear specification (see How to renovate a property) you should still encourage contractors to offer suggestions. This may save you money or perhaps increase the budget, but if it delivers a more cost-effective solution, it would be worth considering. This relies on trust. It irks me to hear of contractors simply following orders (you’ll see some examples below) when dialogue would have delivered a much higher quality service. You will gain more confidence in a contractor who examines your project and draws on experiences from previous similar projects. Look out for this when making your choice.

Examples of Poor quality

Applying our definition of quality, we’ve see a range of work over 13 years of visiting clients’ homes. You’ll see below that whilst some of the “fitting” is perfectly fine, the quality was dreadful because it failed to consider the totality of the work:

  • The plumber who fitted budget radiators throughout a grand, period property. In the main drawing room he installed two single 2m radiators along the main wall, preventing any furniture from being positioned there. He should have checked with his client but was largely left to his own devices. His “plumbing” was fine; his “quality” was poor.
  • The tiler who we met tiling a shower cubicle. The grout lines weren’t vertical and varied in thickness. He mentioned that the wall was out, yet he had the opportunity to square it all up before he started.
  • The electrician who fitted a row of three sockets and switches in a tiled kitchen splashback. Rather than chasing each pocket separately allowing for neat separation between the backboxes, he had cut a single slot for all three butted together. When the job was finished, you could see the chase in the wall through the gap between each cover plate.
  • The joiner who did a good job of fitting built-in shelves and cupboards but who used a type of filler that he knew was a problem for the decorators. It made his work look good, but he knew that the subsequent paint finish would not be great.
  • The tiler who fitted a broken tile behind a toilet waste (and so was hidden at the time), without realising that the waste was only temporary;  when moved, the broken tile was visible.

We could go on, but you get the idea. Quality trades wouldn’t do these things. First, they would take pride in their work; second, they would check the totality of the project with their clients; third they would undertand how their work interacted with that of others; fourth, they would look ahead and avoid future problems. You can learn a lot from seeing previous work of these contractors.

examples of good quality

We would never suggest that we know everything about everything. But where we are pushing our boundaries, devising concepts and creating novel designs, we know the questions to ask, what looks right, and what is basic common sense. We’re also blessed with many quality contacts who provide sound advice. Here are some examples:

  • The contractor who suggested making a complete daylight effect ceiling by fitting daylight lamps above a translucent ceiling panel in an otherwise dark cloakroom with no windows.
  • The contractor who suggested using a durgo valve for an upstairs WC. This saved having to run a fully vented waste pipe internally to the ground floor, and through the glass ceiling. We could then dispense with an internal wall, opening up a new kitchen diner completely.
  • The joiner who introduced us to an unobtrusive push-to-open mechanism to enhance our sleek TV and hi-fi cabinet design.
  • The supplier who found a way of fabricating a 3m glass kitchen splashback in one piece.
  • Our upholsterer who advised on the types of fabric that would and wouldn’t work with the old boardroom chairs that we were upcycling.
  • One of our bespoke furniture suppliers who worked with us on our basic concept to create a beautiful bedroom chaise.
  • The electrician who designed and installed a switching mechanism to allow a flat with limited supply to operate all the electrical appliances we wanted.
  • The decorator who advised us not to buy two different paint colours for above and below the picture rail. He would mix 3 parts white paint to one part of the main colour to create a perfect tone above the rail.
electician at work

We have many examples where collaboration with quality trades has improved the end deliverable. As a designer and project manager, whilst we always have a tight specification for each project, we are also open-minded to suggestions from quality contractors who ply their trade day in, day out.

Property renovation

We hope you have found the above insightful. When working with builders, contractors and trades, the key is choose those that really understand your project. The chances are that these will also be the ones that you like personally, and with which you feel most comfortable.

If you’d like to read more advice on renovating your home, you may find the following useful.

Bath interior design

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