Danielle Crittenden's 1905 house in Washington, D.C. has been undergoing a major renovation for the past year (and off and on for over a decade). In this weekly summer series, which appears Fridays on HuffPost, Danielle records what it has been like for her and her family to live through the construction with their builders, Virginia-natives Brent and John. To read previous installments, click here.
"HOLD IT like this. Right here. Watch me."
Brent eyed a spot on the wall in front of him. He swung the sledgehammer will full force and, POW, plaster exploded.
An enormous slab, shaped like Australia, landed at our feet.
"COOL," said my then-thirteen-year-old son, Nat. He took the sledgehammer, drew it back with rather more wobble in his swing than Brent, and smashed the wall. More shards landed at our feet. "Can I bust the cabinets too?"
"No," I said firmly. "Some of them have glass fronts."
"I KNOW. That's what would make it FUN."
And thus began the destruction of our kitchen. We had already packed the car and were ready to roll away on summer vacation, leaving the remainder of the demolition to Brent and John.
As my husband backed the car out of the driveway, he said skeptically: "Are you sure this isn't too big a job for just Brent and John? We're talking about the whole ground floor."
I had to agree that it would have been more reassuring if our builders had arrived with a large work crew. Just down the road I'd watched a brand new home rise in a matter of months. Every day I passed it, the job site crawled like an art farm. One day there's be no windows--and the next, poof, every single one installed.
"They assured me they could bring in help as needed," I replied, not very convincingly.
"John has family who can come in."
I suspected my husband was remembering the disaster we'd had with one of John's brothers during the previous renovation. There was still the cigar burn in the bathroom tile to remember him by.
"His son," I said quickly. "Gus. Gus is good."
"Yes, Gus is fine," my husband allowed.
"And also that ex-boyfriend of Brent's daughter. You know who I mean?" This young man's face reminded me of a young Confederate soldier, if Confederate soldiers had pierced their eyebrows.
"And Brent's daughter is excellent. I'm sure she'll help out."
"It's still not going to be enough people. You know it isn't. And it's going to take them years. Look how long it took them with the second floor!"
"Yes but remember our so-called architect back then was a disaster. It wasn't Brent and John's fault we never got proper plans." In fact, John was of the (most likely correct) opinion that our then-architect didn't even have his professional degree: He always sneered at him as "your decorator."
This time, though, we were sure we had found the right man, Richard Williams, a brilliant and elegant specialist in historical architecture.
"Besides, what else were we going to do? Find other contractors?"
My husband agreed this could not even be considered. He might as well suggest getting an additional wife in order to give me more assistance around the house.
No other contractor would accept the financial arrangement we had with Brent and John. (Nor would any other client have accepted theirs with us.) We had never had a written contract. Brent just scratched out figures on the back of a board. With Brent and John there are never petty change orders: only a muttered expletive when they find something behind a wall they didn't expect.
At our first budget meeting, Richard was visibly surprised by what he would later describe, diplomatically, as the "unorthodoxy" of our arrangement with our builders.
Brent arrived looking like Brent--the-wise-man-of-the-mountain-in-a-paint-spattered-baseball-cap. At my insistence, he'd brought a pad of paper--although at his insistence, he wrote with a knife-sharpened pencil, a tool which looked only slightly more technological than the chisel and hammer used by the Flintstones. John looked like John: aerated t-shirt (it wasn't comfortable unless there were multiple rips to facilitate air circulation), baggy jeans, and a look of discomfort at the prospect of having to sit in a chair.
Richard and I flipped open our laptops. We began crunching numbers.
Brent made a few scratches on his note pad. John cleared his throat, which for once was unimpeded by a lump of chewing tobacco. He hated meetings like this. While Brent takes the view that a person is fine unless proven an idiot, John assumes that everyone is an idiot unless proven otherwise. With one huge category of exception: architects. To John, architects are always idiots. Worse, they are pretentious idiots. Had John been a foreman at the pyramids, he would have wondered: "What sort of idiot would want a building shaped like a triangle?"
Brent presented his first "range" of numbers for the project:
"This is lowest it's going to come in. This is the highest."
Richard looked at the notepad, nodded, and added in his estimates: cabinets, trim, appliances, etc.
So far, the plan entailed enlarging our existing screen porch, adding a new garden room to our dining room and a breakfast room to the kitchen, and restoring some sort of porch to the house's façade, which had been ripped off in the 1930s.
I looked at the figures. "Yeesh. What happens if drop everything but the breakfast room?" We couldn't live without the breakfast room. The other things could/might come in time.
Brent scribbled some more, and presented a new set of figures.
"Okay. That's doable."
Brent and Richard consulted with each other further while John glowered. His opinion of architects dropped further below zero every time Richard deployed his architectural vocabulary: muntons, rabetting, charettes.
Richard summed up: "By doing this with the staircase, it will form the necessary transition--the connective tissue, if you will--between the formality of the downstairs hallway and the area visible at the top of the stairs."
John snorted. Richard looked up at John, John intensified his glare, and Richard looked away uncomfortably, resuming his conversation with the more civilized Brent.
Frankly I didn't care how they got along. My husband and I were swooning at the prospect of Richard's design. We couldn't wait to get started! It was all going to be so wonderful, so gorgeous! The house and kitchen of our dreams!
Which, come to think of it, maybe put us in the idiot category.
A typical "progress" meeting between John [left], Brent and Danielle.
This series originates in the National Post.
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