Let's visualize the perfect high-end subcontractor. He has the people-pleasing personality of a golden retriever, the diplomacy of Churchill, the craftsmanship of Michelangelo, the timing of a Swiss watch, and the precision of a brain surgeon. He's also part CPA — his bills are detailed, on time, and accurate down to each brass screw. Overbudget? Not him, because all client-requested changes have been preapproved by you.
He puts protective booties over his shoes to keep debris off the client's Oriental rugs. He never uses the heirloom mahogany sideboard as a workbench. And he wouldn't dream of plunking down his toolbox on the just-installed granite countertops.
He wears a clean shirt every day and keeps it on all day. His jobsite is immaculate. He doesn't smoke, and if he has a beer now and then, you'd never know it. There's very little warranty work, and he comes back promptly to do it when there is. He knows he's good, but he charges fairly because you're his favorite firm.
That was fun. Now, back to reality.
High-end jobs mean costly materials and sophisticated designs, and finding and keeping “golden” subs is critical. The other end of the spectrum means job delays, warranty work, and strained customer relations. “A careless plumber can cause a lot of expensive destruction in very little time,” says Alex Dahlgren, partner at Acheron Construction in Garland, Texas. “One wrong turn of the wrench can ruin a $700 faucet.”
Things are a bit different at the top. High-end clients have high-end expectations. They bring in pages from shelter magazines — “They're great page-tearer-outers,” Dahlgren says — and want their rooms to look just like what's in the picture. Only a team working in concert can deliver a top-notch job that meets or surpasses those kinds of expectations.
“Our clients are powerful people,” says Charles Grode, VP at Chicago-based Bowen Group Design/Build & Construction. “Their attitude is ‘just do it right,' and they're willing to spend the money to get it the way they want it. If it's going well, they're all nicey-nice, but if there's a problem, they can get pretty terse.”
Grode builds homes in the $3 million to $8 million range, so he knows the challenges at the high end. “Often, the clients want exotic materials and fixtures,” he says, “which is fine, as long as the subs can handle it. The more wild and complex it gets, the more difficult it is to find talented subs.”
Take tile work, for example. There's a growing demand for fancy tile, often hand-painted, laid in complex patterns. Normandy Builders in Hinsdale, Ill., recently installed an $8,000 kitchen backsplash in hand-painted tile. But Jack Steindl, the firm's VP, wasn't worried; he knew his tile man was up to the job. The contractor is one of Steindl's golden subs who has worked with him for 20 years. Steindl says the sub's longevity is due not only to Steindl's paying him quickly, but from “not beating him up” about prices or questioning extras, like the additional cuts needed when the client decides the bathroom floor would look better laid on the diagonal or when a fancy tile floor needs another layer of underlayment — things the sub hadn't budgeted for because they didn't come up until he was into the project.
Peter Feinmann, of Arlington, Mass.–based Feinmann Remodeling, concurs about the special skills needed for custom tile installations. “Often, the actual tile sizes are different from what's in the manufacturer's specs,” Feinmann says. “The tile contractor needs to know about those kinds of challenges before they become problems.” The right tile sub knows how to lay out the design, is able and willing to make intricate cuts, and coordinates with the electrical contractor on where to position switches and outlets.
Thinking ahead pays off. Maybe the client should be consulted. In the case of hand-painted tile, the clients might have hand-carried the tile home from Spain, where they purchased the last batch from the children of an artist who has since passed on.
Special circumstances are the rule, not the exception, in high-end work. Paul Winans, co-owner of Winans Construction in Oakland, Calif., and current president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), explains it this way: “Anytime something out of the ordinary is used, it generally costs more, does not arrive on time, comes broken or with parts missing, is more difficult to install, and will likely require follow-up service after installation.”
Some trade contractors don't make the cut from the minors to the major leagues. Getting it right gets to them. Some detonate under the pressure. Grode has seen it happen. “The criteria are different in high-end jobs,” he says. “Some subs get tense. They don't like to come back once they've loaded up their tools. They find it easier to work with developers where they can get in and out fast.”