The Farm House Journal

Volume 4: It's The Old Army Game

Chapter 3: Fields Had It Wrong


Part 2: Never Give A Sucker An Even Break


Even though we'd passed the final inspection and the house was mortgaged, there was still some contract work left to do, such as the railings for the front steps. But the contractor had lost interest in our project, and had shifted his focus to a big new job up in Santa Barbara. Thus, after a brief flurry of activity completing some non-contract work arising from the aforementioned penumbras and emanations discovered in the contract, the contractor and his crew disappeared up the coast, reappearing perhaps one Friday afternoon in a month to do a few hours' desultory work addressing the many mistakes made by the plumbing subcontractor. While this plumber was competent enough at the rough-in plumbing, he proved completely inept at the installation of the specialized, period-specific plumbing fixtures we specified for the Farm House. He used comically inappropriate modern plumbing parts to hook the fixtures up to the system, the chrome plating of which clashed with the nickel-plated fixtures like brown shoes with a black suit. What was worse, the fixtures all leaked from every joint. He didn't even tighten the set-screws in the handles. On second thought, I'm being far too charitable to the guy; he was in fact completely inept at finish plumbing, period. There's not one fixture he installed with which we did not subsequently have problems, including the modern ones.

We had made it clear to the contractor in the bidding phase that we expected all visible plumbing parts to be period-accurate, so the right thing for him to have done at this point was to hire a finish plumber familiar with this sort of work to get everything done at once. Instead, he tried to do it on the cheap, assigning the job to one of the men on his payroll. Now, this guy was a genuine artisan with concrete and masonry, and he definitely knew more about plumbing than anyone else in the contractor's employ, but his ability to communicate--in any language--was abysmal. He'd come in late on a Friday and attempt to describe the parts he needed, mostly through the use of gestures, and the foreman (who spoke his language) and I would do our best to figure out what he meant. I'd go out and get the parts we thought he'd been describing, but when he showed up again a month or so later, at least half the parts I had gotten were wrong. It was if he were doing it on purpose, so he could go home early on a Friday. This went on for months, with very little of the remedial plumbing work getting done. I gave up and fixed most of the leaks myself after one of them got out of hand and made a big water stain on the den ceiling, but beyond this we pretty much just let the matter ride, because we were so frantically busy with our own tasks. Lydia did get after them rather firmly in July to put in the front railings after I sprained my ankle, but they didn't get around to installing them until November.

Back when we were planning the restoration, we decided to forego the expense of having central air conditioning installed, hoping that the extensive shade provided by the trees would keep the temperature inside the house tolerably cool. Still, we hedged our bets by specifying the installation of all the required internal components, electrical circuits and plumbing so that if we did decide to install air conditioning we wouldn't have to pay to have the system revamped. All we'd have to do is have the compressors, the major cost of an air conditioning system, installed.

Even before we moved in, it became obvious that the trees were no defense against the viciously hot Pasadena summers. In August, while my ankle was imprisoned in the boot, Lydia and I decided to take the whole crew, Mom, pets and all, over to the Farm House to camp out for the weekend. This would give Mom a good taste of our future home, the cats a distraction from their ongoing tong war, and me a chance to putter around the house a bit and get a few things done. We spent a miserable but informative weekend in the mind-numbing August heat, and that Monday we began to solicit bids from HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) contractors to install the compressors.

The first contractor candidate took one look at the downstairs furnace installation and pronounced it obviously in violation of code. He said that there was not enough level, unobstructed space in front of the furnace, and the main duct coming from the furnace had a pronounced downward sag in it that acted as a heat trap, significantly impeding the passage of hot air and thus severely diminishing the heating efficiency. After a detailed inspection, he added that all the ductwork under the house was so amateurishly routed and assembled that it would all have to be redone completely.

We were highly skeptical of this report. After all, the inspector who signed off on the HVAC installation was the same one who had been so scrupulous in his attention to the most trivial details of the code at every turn. It would have been quite inconsistent for him to have missed such a juicy opportunity to snap his whip as this contractor described, especially where critical safety issues were involved. We concluded that the guy was simply trying to promote a big payday for himself, and moved on to the other two bidders.

Both these contractors were unanimous in their disagreement with the first. Both held that he had understated the seriousness of the situation significantly. In addition to every flaw the first contractor cited, they added that the first floor air intake was woefully inadequate for proper air circulation, and that the condenser coils (the internal half of the cooling circuit) of both systems were insufficient for the Farm House's cubic footage.

Here we found ourselves confronted with yet another botched job by the contractor, only this time we were not looking at another case of mere carelessness or incompetence. This situation bore the unavoidable signature of conspiracy to defraud. If the code violations had been obvious at first glance to the three HVAC contractors, then they must have been obvious to the general contractor, his foreman and the inspector as well. Moreover, though I had no knowledge of HVAC codes, I had complained to the foreman many times that the downstairs furnace installation looked way too crowded; my concern was that it would be extremely difficult to get past when I needed to get to the rest of the crawl space. His response every time was, "Well, it passed inspection." I completely failed to notice at the time the curious non-responsiveness and uniformity of his answers. It never occurred to me that this was nothing but a talking point.

Suspending judgment for the moment, we brought up the HVAC problems with the general contractor. His incredible response was to suggest that we contact his HVAC subcontractor directly, to get them to fix their shoddy work. This was a no-go on two fronts: first, we have learned never to give anyone who has proven himself to be incompetent, dishonest or both a second crack at us; second, this was the contractor's responsibility to take care of, not ours. So, we had our new HVAC contractor do the remedial work and bill us separately for it, so we could deduct it from the final payment to the general contractor.

Later, on one of his by now rare visits, I brought this matter up with the foreman. I expressed astonishment that our fastidious inspector had let such obvious code violations and shoddy work slip by. He finally admitted that the inspector had never looked at the installation of the first floor HVAC installation directly; he had never taken the essential step of crawling under the house to look at the ductwork, nor had he taken the extremely simple step of looking through the passageway to the crawl space in the basement to look at the furnace installation ten feet beyond. Instead, he'd directed the foreman to take a picture of the furnace installation, and he merely approved what he saw in the picture.

The legendary and fictitious detective Columbo often remarked that when he noticed someone diverging from well-established habits, he couldn't help but see that as significant. I found it highly significant that our inspector had diverged from his well-established, almost compulsive habits in the one aspect of the general contractor's work where major code violations existed. Suddenly the foreman's earlier defense of the inspector as a "nice guy who really worked with us" made sense. I hadn't considered the possibility that "us" didn't include Lydia and me. Well, I guess you can cheat an honest man after all.

To Part 3