Monday, October 25, 2010

Contractors: the older brothers I never had, the cool kids I never got to hang out with

I don’t know why I like contractors so much. I mean, technically I should like them because they build the things I draw, and some of them build those things very well. To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever met a bad contractor (and I’ve met very few bad subcontractors)—since I do healthcare and other large-scale commercial projects, I think that’s helped to separate the crap from the mulch*. But I just like being around them—I feel like I’m being allowed into an exclusive club, or even being allowed to observe a completely different species in its natural habitat.

We sit down around a folding table in the construction trailer at 7:30am, ready to start our OAC**. I have to do a job walk afterwards, so I’m wearing pants and closed-toe shoes, but I’m still dressed like I have a white-collar job. The contractors with whom I’m working on the Gestalt main floor renovation, Glasnost Construction, range in ages from late-20s to mid-50s. Leaning on the table with wide, tanned forearms, looking intensely at the meeting minutes and each other, Gestalt baseball caps covering the hair that’s been plastered down by hard hats for almost three hours already***, the various superintendents, foremen, and project engineers look like giants compared to me. Their XXL t-shirts stretched over barrel chests and chiseled biceps and 36- to 38-inch inseam jeans lapping over size-14 Redwing work boots belie a seemingly-unspoken hiring rule at Glasnost: you must be at least 6’-0” tall and 240 lbs to run a project. I’m not even kidding: the shortest contractor on my jobsite is the project engineer, Vlad, and he’s 6’-0” tall and in his early 30s, while the other three are 6’-2” (Boris, late 40s), 6’-5” (Ivan, early 40s), and 6’-7” (Yuri, late 20s). (The Glasnost project manager, Darko, is maybe 5’-9” and in his 50s, but he’s worthy of his own post, that guy.)

The size and cultural difference is most noticeable in the field. After the OAC, we walk around the parts of the main floor of the Bierstadt building under renovation. As we approach the job site, Yuri hands me a pink hard hat. “It’s not a statement about you, Pixie,” he says. “It’s just the only way we can guarantee that none of the other guys will wear your hardhat and get their head funk in it.” I tighten it down onto my head and walk into what looks like a street scene in Iraq—fluorescent lights hang crookedly while sparks fly from someone welding support steel for a coiling door across the room. I can look straight up to see wires, ducts, and even the underside of the next concrete floor above us. As I lift my leg to step over some construction debris, Ivan steps down onto it to flatten it out so I don’t have to step so far. I ask to look into a portion of the exterior wall that’s about eight feet above the floor, and someone produces a ladder. As I climb up, two large men hold the bottom—it’s overkill for stabilizing a ladder for someone barely over 120 lbs, but it’s very kind: don’t let the little architect fall. As Yuri and I take measurements of an undocumented fire extinguisher cabinet (we’ll have it deported the next day), a drywaller across the room lets loose with a string of F-bombs. Boris takes two steps towards the man and silences him with an icy glare: watch your mouth, there’s a lady present.

It’s educational and downright fun sometimes to hang out with contractors. You listen to them talk about past projects and problems they had on those projects and how they solved them. You even hear them describe, sometimes unintentionally, what makes a good carpenter/plumber/electrician/painter/whatever. You hear them gossip about other clients, even people they haven’t worked for. Turns out my Glasnost crew at Gestalt have friends who worked at MHRC back when I was working with Squidwort, and they heard what I saw firsthand—a research clinic with a lot of money and the entire management eating bowls full of crazy for breakfast every morning. I’ve found overall that the best way to work with contractors is not to assume that they’re always right or always wrong. They’ve seen some stuff, and you’ve seen some stuff, and between the two or three or twelve of you, you can find a way to solve anything.

*I hesitate to say the men from the boys, as I’ve met some good women contractors and carpenters. They’re few and far between in commercial work, but they do exist. My mom is one of them.

**“OAC” is short for “Owner-Architect-Contractor meeting”, which are held periodically to discuss progress on a project, bring up present or future concerns, discuss the best solution for intractable problems, and so on.

***In renovation projects where the building has to remain operational, contractors will often start work very early in the morning to get noisy stuff out of the way, like core drilling. Plus, starting early in the morning allows them extra time in the afternoon to fix something in case there’s a problem.


paul mitchell said...

I certainly wish more professionals had the same ideology that you toward contractors. When I was in architecture school, the professors tried to impress upon us, as much as possible, that the situation was Architects v. Contractors. Having been a contractor before I went back to school to get my architecture degree, I had a different take. The reason that the professors felt that way was because they had no clue what they were doing and could not take criticism from the people that were actually building the ridiculous crap the architects drew.

A pink hard hat? Cute.

Vic said...

I worked on a large power plant project. Favorite. Job. Ever.
Those guys define salt of the earth.
I had no idea your Mom was a contractor. How did I miss that? The woman is a bestseller waiting to be written.

amr said...

Agree a little with Paul's comment above re profs. Though I get the feeling the contractors like having a female around.
In my part of the world some contractor's pour scorn on the architects and the different coloured hat/vest to everyone else is usually just for that.
But most work together as it benefits everybody.
Being a contractor, sub contractor and architect helps a lot for me though.
When I was working for an architect prior to taking the plunge on my own with amr International, I worked with a tiny petite young girl who wouldn't be 5' with killer heels. When we did site visits the guys would all fawn over her. Sickening to watch really, but a great girl who used it to her advantage on site. We used to laugh a lot on the way back to the office.

Willderness Gina said...

Wait. You had a hard hat with a knob on back to make adjustments on the fly? SWEET!!! The ones they gave me were very hard to adjust. The only way to keep the other carpenters from stealing my tools was to carve my name on the handle or buy really crappy tools.

That 'tude is taught? No wonder I saw it so much. Some poor intern (PROBABLY) would show up on a site with a list of demands from Atl. and some old guy without sence to pour piss out of a boot, and get The Stare from all the bigger than life fully armed and operational Death Stars working on the crew. I always felt sorry for the dude. His was the proverbial rock-and-a-hard-place existance.

You probably like people who actually build stuff cause your dad, mom and most of her family are craftsmen. When someone starts swering start looking around and tell them you're looking for El Seebano, with language like that he's bound to be somewhere.

Miss Kitty said...

Awesome and informative post! Maybe you get along so well with sub/contractors because Daddy was one, and because Mom is/was a carpenter.

I should have gone to architorture school. Even my word verification says so: UNSHR.