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Train Wrecks

In January, we invited readers of the CRAN Discussion Board to submit anecdotes about train wrecks they’d been involved in. We asked for stories about projects that went wrong, a client you let go, something you forgot to include in your drawings, missed deadlines, etc. We had no idea that some readers would take offense to this subject matter, and it almost caused us to rethink the theme of this issue. However, enough readers submitted examples of train wrecks that were funny, or that provided an example of a good lesson learned, that we decided to forge ahead. Please note that some details were changed to protect the innocent (and possibly the guilty), all submissions were edited, and with one exception, we have granted anonymity to the authors of the anecdotes. We were also unable to include all the submissions.

-- The Editors

    Zen and The Art of Contract-Writing

We are all aware that contracts are extremely important, but sometimes we learn the hard way:

Contract Troubles

We had a client recently who signed a contract for schematic design services. Throughout the project the client was unresponsive and when we did communicate he was belligerent. We never knew when he would fly off the handle. There are many factors which played into this particular project, but as we continued to work with him, one thing we learned was that he never really read our initial contract and did not understand the terms he was agreeing to. We had a clause in the contract which allowed the client to purchase our design for an additional fee if he decided to select another architect to finish out the project. Ultimately that is what he decided to do, but not without disputing the fee which was written into the contract. It took several weeks to resolve and it did not end well. Two morals of the story:

    1. Be careful about the clients you select, even if you desperately need the work, as a bad client may be the final nail in the coffin for your business.

    2. Always review contracts with clients. Never assume that they've read and understand what they are signing, and make sure to discuss it with them in person or on the phone as well.

Contract Language is Important

I have had my share of "overly-needy” clients. I have learned that the "exclusions" section of my proposal is just as important as the part that defines the scope. Do not be shy about spelling out what your services do NOT include, because some people either simply don't know, or they will try to see what they can get away with.

Additional Fees: On Getting Paid When the Job Is under Construction

In the past, we have not described carefully enough what additional fees are on a percentage contract. When we have, there is always an exception to the rule which does not make its way into the contract. These fees, which can amount to quite a bit when the job is under construction, are up for negotiation once the job starts construction.

We had a client with whom we were doing a large, expensive new home. Our mechanical engineer, who on larger jobs, acts as our consultant to the project and is paid by us, was taken out of the contract and paid by the owner directly. We did not take a fee on the mechanical engineering of the job because, we reasoned, the mechanical engineer was being paid directly by the owner. All the coordinating we did with the engineer, the other trades, and the design and location of decorative grills, etc., should have been part of additional services, paid to us hourly. However, since we left this description out of the contract I felt that to be fair, I should ask the client if it would be ok to pay us hourly for the work done to coordinate the complicated mechanical systems on his home.

He called me back the next day and said that although he had thought about it he had decided to bow out and say ..... NO. He did, however, thank me for asking him.

This is what I learned: Be careful with the description of Additional Services and do not give the client the opportunity to say NO (if at all possible).

Deviation from Plans…

In one of our projects, the client and builder decided to rotate a 3’ x 5’ framed chimney with brick veneer. In our design, the chimney was oriented front-to-back and capped by a brick arch. The builder turned the framing, but unfortunately failed to adjust the dimensions accordingly. The result was a 5’ x 5’ chimney with a 5’ wide brick arch—a massive element on the house roof. It was very ugly, no question about it (except “who designed that?”).

The client asked me why the chimney was so ugly. I pointed out that it was not built per the plan. So the client decided he wanted it fixed, to the point of rejecting the finished work. His position was based on my comment it not the size we drew.

We were not included in the discussions that led to the rotation because the client did not want to pay us to attend an hour-long meeting. Had we been included, we would have issued the appropriate bulletin drawing.

The builder ate the cost for not following the drawings, all $8,500 worth of renovating a brand new chimney. All this aggravation and cost could have easily been avoided had we been involved. The client ended up paying us for 4 hours of meeting time to deal with a combined builder/owner error. And the builder had to pay to fix something when he thought he was executing the owner’s direction.

Some Things Cannot (and Should Not) Be the Architect's Responsibility

We did a house for a client in Napa Valley on a 110 acre site. The well was drilled prior to us being hired, and was approved by the county. After the house was built, it was determined that the well water contained a high concentration of acid which ate through the copper hot water lines. In arbitration, the contractor and I were assigned $25,000 in damages each while the mechanical engineer (only job I've done with full mechanical drawings), the water softener company (they said they didn't test the water), the plumber, and the well driller were assessed only $5,000 each. The moral of the story is to include a list of anything you won’t take responsibility for in your contract, such as well and septic on rural land. The saving grace for us is that the client recognized we had nothing to do with the problem and we have done four more projects with the same client since. 

    You Gotta Know When to Hold ‘Em, and When to Fold ‘Em… When to Walk Away, and When to Run…

Sometimes the best response is to walk away from a project, and sometimes it’s best to capitulate to maintain good relationships:

To Terminate or Not to Terminate, That Is the Question

This Shakespearean reference from Hamlet seems appropriate in describing how to avoid a train wreck with a client who chooses to ignore the advice of his architect and side with the contractor.  I had designed a private hunting lodge in a rural location approximately 1-1/2 hour drive from the closest city. My office was excited to be able to design what promised to be one of those high-end private hunting camps that many of our past clients frequented. The finishes, fixtures, and materials would all be exemplary and in huge contrast in the lush forest. We felt that it was going to be a beacon of refined culture that would make the guests comfortable and take notice of what can be done with a "proper" budget. The owner insisted however, on using a local contractor in hopes of having someone on call and readily available to handle maintenance issues. This seemed logical, and we agreed to proceed with a contractor who, despite some peculiar mannerisms, seemed adequately capable on modest projects in the area. I figured we could outsource much of the work to be fabricated offsite with site delivery and specialty installations included. 

All went well until our fourth site visit to inspect the foundations and steel placement prior to pouring the concrete. What we found was alarming. The steel cages were haphazardly assembled, misaligned with trench walls, and following random curvilinear paths up and down. I had never seen such amateurish foundation work, and relayed this to the contractor with the directive to STOP progress until the steel had been corrected and inspected by my office. Insulted and emotional, he informed me that he had already ordered the concrete pour for the following morning, and added a few words in Cajun French that he figured the "Big City" architect would not understand. I responded with a chuckle that my mother was actually a church-going woman, and that he must simply postpone the concrete pour.

That evening I prepared my field report with notes and photographs of my observations and instructions to halt the pour, and emailed this to both my owner and to the contractor.

Not hearing back from the contractor about scheduling an additional site inspection, I called him. That is when I discovered that he had ignored my instructions and poured concrete the next morning without adjusting the steel. Further Cajun French insults were delivered before I heard a dial tone. 

A little while later I received a call from the owner that he was disappointed in my inability to "properly " control the efforts of the contractor, and he wanted to know who was going to now pay for the corrective work. I informed him that the contractor would have to pay for the corrective work, as I had not approved payment on the foundation work, and  would not do so until all was arranged according to my drawings. "That's not going to do me any good" replied the client, "I have already paid him in full for the digging, steel, and concrete, and if you can't fix things I want to terminate your services!"

I told him that I thought that termination was a good idea, as he was now, due to his own actions of ignoring terms of our AIA contract and general conditions, in a pickle. I also told him that I thought that he was making a big mistake in siding with an incompetent builder, but respected his opinion and authority as the owner. 

My last invoice went unpaid, but I figured that as it was less that my insurance deductible, I would make it a business decision to simply walk away.

About one year later I ran into a fellow architect who ended up being hired to complete the project, and I asked him how it was going. He responded that not long after he had agreed to work on the project, he became concerned with the activities and work of the same contractor, and informed me that the owner soon fired and replaced him with another local. However, he too had been terminated from the project and was unsure who was going to finish it, but was concerned about the latent volatility of the client and the potential for being brought into future litigation over what finally gets built.

My lesson to share with this is to take issue when a client, or a contractor, refused to follow the procedures wisely included in the standard AIA contract General Conditions. That was all the confirmation I needed to lessen the hurt from the partial fees I lost. Those were a cheap alternative when compared to the expense and emotional stresses of construction litigation. Train wreck avoided!

Sometimes It’s Not Worth the Fight to be Right

I made an error when I measured a client’s basement that resulted in a column being documented incorrectly. The client ordered cabinetry based on scaling my design drawings, and unfortunately the column location was critical to the cabinetry layout. The contractor and I determined that the best solution was to move the column. In order to figure out the appropriate new column layout, the structural engineer determined that the existing steel beam that the column supported was undersized by a fairly large factor. When I told the client about this, he admitted that he had instructed the original homebuilder to add 2’ to the back of the house, and apparently the homebuilder simply ordered the same size steel beam, 2’ longer, for this location. I thought the client would be happy that we uncovered this potential structural issue at this time, when it could be easily replaced, but he was livid. He demanded that I pay to replace the entire steel beam and pay for the column relocation. I pointed out that the client should not have ordered cabinets until the basement was framed, and that the beam being undersized was not my fault, but, after much thought and consultation with my attorney and my insurance company, I decided to pay for the beam replacement to keep the client as happy as possible. Of course, I admitted no liability and had the client sign a letter absolving me of any responsibility before I wrote the check. Luckily the contractor was someone I had worked with many times, and he split the cost of the column and beam with me to help keep the peace.

Needless to say, my design drawings now include a note advising anyone looking at them not to order cabinetry until the project is roughed in.

    Document Everything!

We all know that it’s important to document your conversations, meetings, negotiations, etc. Not doing so could have led to some train wrecks in these stories:

Fee Negotiations and Renegotiations

Several years ago we had a client, a young couple in their mid thirties, who hired us for a major master suite remodeling. Because the client was the son of someone who owned a wood veneer supply company, the design was extremely detailed and the finishes were at a luxury level. We negotiated a contract that was for fixed fee, but as soon as the project started, the client expanded the scope of work. This did not present a problem as he was happy to renegotiate the fee. All the negotiations of the fee were tracked through email and we had paperwork that amended the original contract.

Tragically, the son died in a freak snowboarding accident. The son was the driver of the project and his wife had little input. Upon his passing, the father stepped in to assume overseeing the contract and the wife was out of the picture. The father, having only had documentation of the original contract, and not the subsequent correspondence between us and his son, was holding our fee to the original amount. Of course, the father thought we were out to take advantage of the situation and, having just lost a son, was taking out his grief on anyone involved with the project. Thanks to having all the documentation that we did have of the renegotiation we were, after several weeks, able to demonstrate the additional fee we were entitled to, but it was painful. The moral of the story is twofold: consider that the clients you start a project with may not be the ones you finish it with, and keep records of any renegotiation of fees along the way because you never know who will become involved with a project in the future.

Good Documentation Helps Avoid Increased Costs and Longer Timeframes

We employ a phone call form that documents whom you speak to, when the conversation was, for how long it was and of course, what were the salient points discussed in that conversation. The best examples of this for our design/build firm are the never-ending issues during construction dealing with costs and scheduling. On almost every project, we have a subcontractor or vendor who changes their story somewhat regarding costs or time to complete, deliver, etc., and we politely remind them of a specific call where they said something different than what they are saying in the current moment. As soon as you hit them with the date and time of call of the call and then how long the call was, you can almost hear them sinking in their chair before you get to the point.

    Working in Unfamiliar Environments

Learning the local idiosyncrasies can sure keep an out of state / out of country project far from dull. But in the end, a little patience and perseverance can pay off.

You Don't Want to Get the Machete Union Upset

It seems that clearing a site isn’t always the first thing to be done. For example, on day one of building a house on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas, a 40 ton excavator rolled off its trailer and into the jungle. As much as I thought it’d be better to have the site cleared first, it wasn’t the way things get done in the Bahamas. And certainly wasn’t the weirdest thing to happen.

On day two I arrived at the site to find about 20 people clearing the jungle with machetes. Curious, I thought. “Why not one man with a chainsaw?” I asked. The response was “you don’t want to get the machete union upset.” Since this seemed like a sage piece of advice, I dropped the topic.

Of course, each day brought its own little twist from what could only be considered normal. The footings were set 90 degrees off, something that needed to be addressed (did he just not know how to read the drawings?). And, to my amazement and without my approval, the contractor bought a used school bus for $45,000 to transport workers form the local town.

While the project really turned out nicely (you can see photos of it here:, the project sure did test all of my architectural, and other, skills.


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