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Considering the Show “Catch a Contractor”

Architecture and television isn’t anything new. Between HGTV broadcasting a smorgasbord of realty TV shows 24 hours a day (Love it Or List It, Flip This House, The Property Brothers) along with the manipulatively tear-jerking Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Americans really love watching remodels. At least, when they’re only 21 minutes long.

There are countless articles (link, link) out there about the unrealistic scenarios these shows project. Often times, labor is excluded from the price listed for renovations and don’t get me started on the timelines. Most of these homes are preassembled. Paint takes time to dry, so does sheet rock mud and concrete isn’t completely set until 30 days after being poured so it can be fully loaded until then. Really–how you finish a house in less than 30 days?

I’m looking at you, Ty Pennington.

But Adam Carolla’s To Catch a Contractor appealed to me. It’s a different approach—showing the dark side of failed renovations—but with the same reality TV happy-ending pay off. Carolla finds homes in the middle of renovation that were abandoned by contractors.

The only experience I had with Adam Carolla before watching Catch a Contractor was with his radio station, Love Line, which my daughter used to listen to. I am, admittedly, not the biggest fan of his and his pop-culture steeped humor or his misogynistic tendencies. But I am interested in the smarter side of television and architecture.

In his show, Carolla goes through the home with the family and comments on the damage. And I must admit, Adam Carolla really knows his stuff—his commentary on masonry, pressure-treated lumber, electrical outfitting and the use of proper materials impressed me. He also offers sage (albeit cookie-cutter) wisdom, like “never give the contractor more than 50% of the money” and “always ask for accounting.”

There are two scenarios Carolla offers the family. Either they will attempt to find the contractor and make him do the work and do it right. OR if they can’t find him, Carolla’s team will take over renovations and help the family in question take legal action.

In true reality television indulgence, once the contractor is found (and he always is), he is publicly humiliated in a confrontation. Present are the clients, Carolla and his personal contractor (who resembles someone that might crush plaster into dust with his bare hands).

The contractor is then brought through his abomination of a project. Under the watchful and critical eye of Carolla and his contractor, the original contractor must fix his mess. About three television minutes later, we cut to the happy family seeing the finished renovation.

As an architect, I maintain a precarious relationship with contractors. You find a lot of bad ones—overpriced, always behind schedule; they skimp on materials or fine details (I cannot count the amount of misaligned windows I have caught) and some even abandon the job half finished… But, when I find a good one, I hang on tightly as I can (like Thomas George Construction, who worked with me on The Fall House).  Their watchful eye, skills and knowledge are intrinsic to my project getting done. I can’t be present at a site 10 hours a day and I must fully trust the person I am handing the design and money too.

Plus, a little public shaming to those who give contractors a bad name can’t hurt, right? And it is really good after a frustrating days dealing with a not so good contractor, beer in hand.




Little Firm, Big World (in 3 Parts)

Little Firm, Big Building

Part I: The Project

If you didn’t already know, the Downtown and Embarcadero of San Francisco have been—and will continue—to go through some major changes. Namely, a wide spread project called The Transbay Project to improve infrastructure, provide transportation and create housing. It will include 10 new buildings and Fougeron Architecture, along with SOM, will be designing Transbay 9.

The blocks for these new buildings are owned by by the OCII (Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure) which held team competitions for the projects, featuring teams of developers and architectures. After Transbay 9 was announced, I got a lot of questions about working with such a powerhouse in architecture.

Part II: The History

First, it’s imperative to understand the landscape of the world of architecture (pun intended). Within the architecture world, women and minorities are severely underrepresented still. White male privilege reigns supreme and when you take a look at major firms or architectural organizations, boards are often times comprised of one very overrepresented demographic. (Organizations like Women’s Initiative, have made moves towards leveling out skews in the workplace and correcting societal biases.

Having worked in architecture since 1980, having owned my own firm since 1987, and having served on multiple boards taught me that as many changes as I make in my own business and as many personal victories I may have, change must also be an institutionalized decision. In 1998, San Francisco created a series of charters aimed to overcome societal biases for minorities, women and small business owners. In an effort for city growth but also to help prevent existing discrimination they enacted the MBE/WBE/LBE charter (Minority Business Enterprise, Women Business Enterprise, Local Business Enterprise).

These charters allows women and minority owned businesses (as well as small businesses, or all of the above) opportunities to pursue contracts they previously couldn’t, by setting aside micro programs only for small businesses, offering incentives for larger companies to work with smaller companies or taking advantage of an increase availability in subcontracts. Essentially, the city of San Francisco offers opportunity where it would not have previously been. The OCII owns all the land for the Transbay projects and therefore follows the city charter regarding LBE/MBE/WBE participation.

Part III: Little Firm Meet Big Firm

The opportunity to work with a large firm like SOM on the Transbay project was also thanks in part to the Transbay buildings sites being a large, linked project tackled by multiple firms rather than simply one firm taking all ten buildings. The move by the city of San Francisco was imperative for architecture and small businesses to thrive in an all encompassing way. But thanks to the MBE/LBE/WBE charter, another change has emerged.

In architecture, you are almost always up someone else. The existence of your art–your work is contingent on “winning.” It means that everything can be reduced to the haves and have nots. By my getting a job, it means someone else did not. This creates a competitive atmosphere that has its benefices: you are always striving to be better, smarter and cheaper, and cons: you are distrustful, reserved, and collaborations are infrequent.

As Fougeron Architecture works with SOM to build Transbay 9, I am finding that when collaboration is made to be intrinsic to a project, you can find a true example of the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. Because what makes a smaller firm more desirable is balanced with what a larger firm can offer. A larger firm offers you resources in scale: arrays of experiences, materials, people. While a smaller firm can provide greater attention to detail, client interactions and more time spent with the principal architect rather than staff.

What I have found in the Transbay 9 project is that the dialogue is no longer about competition but cooperation. And because any senior architects on the project are equals, you also find a refreshing honesty. Buildings, especially city buildings, can be made better and smarter. And that value is immeasurable.

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