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A lawyer discusses when contract administration goes south: Compatibility between work styles

C. Jaye Berger, Law Offices <br />C. Jaye Berger
C. Jaye Berger, Law Offices
C. Jaye Berger

There is a boom in the construction industry now with renovations occurring in every type of structure both residential and commercial. Townhouses are being renovated into either rental apartments or co-ops. Families are buying multiple co-ops and combining them. Stores and offices are being leased and renovated. As these projects reach the point of 40% of completion, some of the weak points in the relationships between the team members starts to show.

When clients hire a design professional, they are mainly concerned with their aesthetic vision of the project. Will it be designed to have the "look" they want to have? Clients check out other projects they have worked on to see how those turned out; however, no one really knows what it is like to work with someone until you actually work with them.

The same thing is true of the contractor. The client negotiates a good price, it goes to contract, but you don't know what they are like until you actually work together. There is a whole other dynamic in the relationship between the contractor and the architect, which clients do not tend to think about. Some contractors are craftsmen and do detailed, careful work in close collaboration with architects and follow their plans and specifications. Others are more "seat of the pants" in their style. They are the ones who make suggestions to the client during construction about taking a non-load-bearing wall down to "open up the room" without consulting with an architect. Clients will often say about them, "I never see them holding a set of the plans." Some clients naively follow those suggestions and find they are left with a damaged floor where the wall used to be and damage to pre-war molding.

So imagine what can happen when a very detail-oriented architect is "matched" with a seat of the pants contractor on a substantial renovation project. The architect will have certain expectations about what the contractor should be doing to achieve the desired "look" and the contractor may have a very different vision of how to get there. This can lead to a lot of arguments between the contractor and the architect with the client being caught in the middle.

The fall out from this bad pairing is usually delays and higher costs. The architect may be waiting for shop drawings before the project can move forward. The contractor may not share the architect's enthusiasm about the need for shop drawings and feel that he should just be allowed to do things his way or he will stop doing any work at all. The contractor will claim that because the architect slowed him down with so many demands, he is behind schedule and needs more time and money to cover general conditions. For contractors who want to "do it their way or the highway," this can be a disaster.

Clients need to consider before starting a project that there has to be some compatibility between the work styles of the architect and the contractor or it is like oil and water. Sometimes this comes from having worked together on another project. Sometimes the client will be wary of such a relationship for fear that the architect will be less likely to be critical of the contractor's work if something objectionable occurs. Other times, that closer relationship is beneficial since they know and respect each other's style of working and are more harmonious.

If their incompatibility leads to a halt in the work, the parties on the team will need to re-group or there is a great likelihood that the project will completely derail. On more than one occasion when a client has brought me on to the team, I have asked everyone to slow it down just a bit, so that we can make sure that everything is in place and that the project is set up in the most favorable way for the owner to have a satisfactory, non-litigious outcome. Taking a little extra time to consult with legal counsel knowledgeable in this area at this point in the project can go a long way towards getting the project back on track and having a more satisfactory outcome.

C. Jaye Berger, Esq., is the principal of Law Offices C. Jaye Berger, New York, N.Y.