The Farm House Journal

Volume 4: It's The Old Army Game

Chapter 3: Fields Had It Wrong

Part 1: Good Fences Make Good Targets

Now that I was back in the land of the living, Lydia and I resolved to begin tying up the many loose ends that had been fraying away during my long illness. Chief among these loose ends was the completion of the general contractor's work.

Our relations with the contractor had been very cordial throughout the first year or so of the project. Work proceeded quickly, and its quality appeared first-rate everywhere I looked. The foreman and his crew were quite pleasant to work alongside, and most of the subcontractors were as well. I have spoken at length in these pages of the astounding skill of the foreman and the finish carpenter, and it seemed to me, judging by the care they took with their work, that they cared about the Farm House nearly as much as Lydia and I did.

When problems did arise, as is inevitable in a project of this size, the contractor was always readily available and quite accommodating. Any conflicts were quickly resolved, usually with little or no argument. For example, just after the drywall was installed, I noticed that the rear-facing windows in the addition had been framed incorrectly; they had aligned their tops with the top of the doors, but they were supposed to sit four inches higher. While this may seem a small detail, it would have put the bottom of the window level with the kitchen counter directly behind the sink--a n awkward arrangement for double-hung windows. When I pointed this out, they promptly re-framed them properly and without complaint.

Over time, I came to like the foreman a great deal. He was a very interesting fellow, intelligent and well-educated with a wide range of interests, many of which we shared. He was truly a man of many parts. I admired the way he brought his many talents to bear upon his work, his meticulous attention to detail, and the quiet satisfaction he derived from a job well done. We communicated extremely well; he would understand exactly how I wanted something done with the simplest of instructions, and he taught me a great deal about how to work with wood, how to install hardware, and the proper way to use tools. In turn, I taught him what I knew about wood finishing, plant propagation and beer brewing. It seemed to me that we were forming a friendship that would last beyond the end of the project.

As the time for the final inspection approached, however, things began gradually to change. The contractor became noticeably less accommodating; conflicts became more frequent and protracted. We began to notice growing friction between the contractor and the foreman. The contractor even began expressing frustration with the foreman's careful, thorough mode of work, as if he expected us to sympathize with him.

This eventually led to conflicts between me and the foreman, as I noticed him beginning to cut corners in his work and called him on it. I soon figured out that he had been feeling great pressure to adopt a quick and dirty approach to his work--not from the contractor, but from the company's business manager, who happened to be the contractor's wife. This made the foreman unhappy, but not nearly as unhappy as it made me. Things became quite bizarre, as the foreman began to make extremely idiosyncratic distinctions between what work was covered under the contract, and what wasn't. He was finding more penumbras and emanations than a Supreme Court justice in high gear. For example, he ruled that the installing of the deadbolt in the front door wasn't covered under "installation of all door hardware."

I soon realized the futility of my arguing with him, because he was after all merely following orders. I let the foreman's rulings stand when I could do the work myself; otherwise, we took up the matter directly with the contractor, who took it up with his wife. We strove to be tolerant of the situation, because at that point we were still happy in the main with the contractor's performance, and with the final inspection approaching we wanted to keep the work flowing smoothly.

Gate modelOnce the foreman began work on the fence, things seemed to return to normal. The foreman greatly admired my design for its simple elegance and its extreme efficiency in the use of wood; virtually all of the stock required to build it was utilized, with almost nothing lost in the cutting. He took special care to translate my plans into reality, even going so far as to build a  scale model of the fixed gate to ensure that it would mesh properly with the live gate, and to work out some of the construction details. I felt quite gratified at this approval of my modest efforts by someone who knew what he was talking about, especially because that was something I was trying to achieve in the interest of keeping costs down.

The foreman was inspired to do the best possible job on the fence, so he significantly beefed up its framework from my specifications. He used quarter-inch thick steel box girders sunk four feet into the ground for the internal uprights, rather than the simple chain-link fence poles I specified, and he had steel straps welded to the girders to support the rails, instead of simple bolt-on brackets. Since the fill (the system of rails and pickets between the uprights) was extremely light and open, the fence would be able to withstand the stiffest winds without flexing or sagging.

Fence as designedWhen it was all done, the result of my best efforts and his was beautiful to behold. It was simple, stately and solid, perfectly mirroring the classical proportions of the Farm House without distracting attention from it or separating the back yard visually from the front. It achieved magnificently everything I had intended it to, and I was profoundly proud of it.

Then came the flat pronouncement from the inspector at the final inspection that the fence exceeded the height limit, and would have to be cut down. To quote the great Dean Martin, ain't that a kick in the head. I pleaded desperately with the inspector, pointing out its extreme fidelity to the Bungalow Heaven design principles, and the fact the design had expressly been approved by the Cultural Heritage Commission, who were real sticklers for the rules. I also pointed out that only the posts on each side of the gate exceeded the height limit, and that to cut them down to size would completely destroy the proportions. He waved me off with a breezy, "Oh, the Commission guys never put a ruler to anything." Indeed.

Fence as defenestratedI believe there is a special place in Hell reserved for the soulless petty officials who luxuriate in wielding their tiny bit of power to its utmost, those inspectors, bureaucrats and umpires who never miss a chance to be a Big Shot when it presents itself. Our inspector could easily have taken the view that the Commission's hard-won imprimatur was sufficient justification to let the fence stand unmutilated, that these qualified, credentialed officials had noted the code exception and had allowed it in order to set off the house in an historically-accurate context.  He could have considered that the intent of the height limitation was to prevent the blocking of sight lines from the street, while our fence blocked nothing. Unfortunately for us, however, this soulless churl could not miss the chance to show up the big boys earning the big money back in their big offices downtown. As a bonus, he got to ruin my day, my fence, and my faith in the whole damnable process.

I have a deep loathing of editors, but if my work must be edited I'd just as soon do it myself. So I hastily redesigned the fence, cutting down the gate posts to the height of the others and cutting down the pickets to maintain the suggestion of a proper relationship among the various elements. It was the only solution I could come up with that would not require a complete rebuild. The foreman performed the mutilation of our lovely fence, and the house passed final inspection in due course. Ironically, this put us in technical violation of our permit, because any changes to the plans that are visible from the street are supposed to be approved by the Commission, but I certainly wasn't going to point that out. The prospect of dueling bureaucrats may seem funny, but one of the key features of irony is that it is almost never funny in the heat of battle. That's why it's called "irony," and not "beanbagy."

The experience left a sharply bitter taste in my mouth. The Cultural Heritage Commission had made us jump through a seemingly endless series of hoops during the design phase, in reverent obedience to the Ten Principles of The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Rehabilitation as if they were the Ten Commandments. As annoying as the process was at times, we did not approach the effort cynically, for we were just as determined as the Commission to ensure our design complied with these Principles; our only differences were in the interpretation of them. But there were many such differences, on items ranging from the cladding material for the foundation to the number of lights in the garage windows. They made us fight tooth and nail for almost every detail, no matter how trivial. Ironically, the sole element of the design the Commission approved without resistance was the fence. They thought it fit the spirit of the Secretary's Standards quite elegantly. We had received official written authorization to build it, only to have this decision countermanded irrevocably and without recourse after the fact by our own personal Big Shot, who cared nothing for standards. So much for due process.

Still, the fact remained that the fence was in technical violation of code, and it occurred to me that I was focusing my anger on the wrong person. After all, we had paid good money to both the architect and contractor to ensure that such things didn't happen; while the inspector had been doing his job (however misanthropically), clearly in this case neither of our paid professionals had done theirs. Both had worked extensively in Pasadena, and the architect had himself once been a member of the Cultural Heritage Commission, so there was no way either could have been ignorant of the height limitation.

Busted!Sure enough, when I looked carefully at the plan, I noticed a tiny little notation next to the line representing the fence: "6' high fence & gate." The architect did know of the limitation, although he didn't share that information with me; I guess he hadn't put a ruler to my scaled drawing either.

Even though he vigorously defended the inspector as a "nice guy who really worked with us", the foreman was not happy about having to mutilate the fence either, and he wanted to make sure I knew it wasn't his fault. He brought the contractor's set of plans from the office and showed me where the contractor had circled the architect's notation and rewritten it in large red letters: "6' HIGH FENCE."

"The problem," said the foreman, "was that he never transferred this notation to the working set of plans as he was supposed to; we only work from the working set of plans that always stays here at the job site." So the contractor had known, too. If he had done his job, I would have had the opportunity to scale down the design, preserving the proportions. It was his carelessness that made him most responsible for the fence fiasco.

I was willing to let this pass without comment, because I knew the contractor was going to suffer for his error by having to absorb the cost of the labor to fix it, and I saw no point in piling on. Then, in the next round of billings for non-contract work, he included a charge for that labor. Bold move, that. We weren't about to pay for his error, and we told him so, but I guess you can't blame a guy for trying. Well, I guess that strictly speaking you can, and in fact I did, but I kept that part to myself. For one thing, I just wanted them done and gone as quickly as possible; for another, we could always withhold any invalid upcharges from the final payment. That was our ultimate ace in the hole, we thought.

To Part 2