Constructive criticism

Working with builders can be stressful, whether you’re creating a restaurant or a home extension. The cowboys of the trade have Colum Lowe in their sights

Every now and then you embark on some new venture in the full knowledge it will be a total disaster, something that will push you to the point of a nervous breakdown and put huge pressure on your marriage and family, something that, while not totally avoidable, is also to a degree self inflicted. I am, of course, talking about ‘getting the builders in’.

The only way mere mortals such as myself can afford to buy a house in London is to move to the south east and buy a wreck that needs doing up. This is exactly what my wife and I did a few years ago and, eventually, after we had done all we could in terms of modernisation, we faced up to the horrifying inevitability of our situation. We needed a builder.

It took two years to drum up interest; at first they wouldn’t even quote. They came, looked around, realised it was a ‘messy’ job (meaning it needed a variety of different tradesmen and some project management) and left with assurances of an imminent, but, ultimately, never-to-materialise quotation.

I then produced more working drawings to prove it wasn’t that complex and everything had been worked out. We did then receive a couple of quotes, but unfortunately for double the price the contract was worth. These were the sort of quotes that say, ‘I really don’t want this job, but if you’re desperate then I’ll take your money’.

I was a little desperate at this stage and thought I would apply a little amateur psychology. When I used to quote for design projects I followed a five-step principle:

Step 1 Calculate the cost of the resource required to do the job and include a percentage for overheads and profit.

Step 2 Determine how big the client is, for big clients add 25 per cent, for small ones subtract 25 per cent.

Step 3 Establish how big the job is: for big strategic jobs add a further 25 per cent; for small tactical jobs subtract 25 per cent.

Step 4 Try to develop a feel for how much the client is expecting to pay and then compare it to the results of steps 1-3 (try not to panic at this stage).

Step 5 Steps 1-4 should give you a vague idea of a figure, now multiply it by the number of staff at head office, divide by the number of empty desks and factor in your own personal stress factor (between 1-5), write this down on a scrap of paper, put it into your back pocket and at any time during the presentation be prepared to double or halve it.

Based on this logic, I decided to make the job ‘look’ small and easy by producing all the drawings on little bits of paper and only including general arrangements and specifications, no detail. I was impressed with my attempt at miniaturisation and, lo and behold, we got a couple of quotes that were just about what I expected to pay, so we accepted one and off we went; to hell in a wheelbarrow. Builders, I discovered, are expert negotiators; they steal your kitchen and bathroom and knock a few external walls down so your house looks like something from a newsreel of Sarajevo, and only then do they try to negotiate the actual price and programme. Clever, I know. They are also masters of disguise – well, they keep disappearing, which is much the same thing, and if you complain too vociferously or make too many demands there is always the thinly veiled threat of them walking off site and refusing to finish the job, the consequences of which you do not even want to begin to contemplate.

There are the usual lessons I will take from this little episode, stuff about peanuts and monkeys, paying one way or t’other, free lunches, supply, demand, and so on. But the main thing I’ll take out of it is a real empathy for the absolute hell most clients go through when trying to realise a vision they have had for a shop, office, restaurant or whatever. I’ve only (nearly) built one little extension and it’s nearly killed me, imagine what building an entire house must be like – gambling all your savings, putting your life in hock and your trust in a bunch of strangers. Scary.

Still, one day soon my extension will all be finished, I’ll have a wonderful home to enjoy and it will all somehow seem worthwhile, and I won’t go to bed every night dreaming of wild Celtic warriors rampaging across the bog lands of Ireland killing and mutilating all they encounter, especially if they come across people building houses – kill’em, kill’em all!

Colum Lowe is design manager at the National Patient Safety Agency

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