Article / Reducing the intrusiveness of building work in residential projects

For a homeowner having strangers walking through the front door with all kinds of materials and equipment, making lots of noise and bringing dust to the most unlikely places disrupting his daily routines, tranquillity and private space, can become very upsetting. Nevertheless there is much that we as designers/architects/builders can do to lower the threshold to stress free building work.

One of the most intrusive events in ones private life one willingly engages into is home renovation or building work.
Sadly enough, building work in a client’s home often happens with the necessary amount of stress. Apart from the worries about the construction processes and the workmanship, the homeowner also needs to cope with the much less considered and investigated but nevertheless important aspects of privacy intrusion.

In order to understand why building work can be so disruptive to our client’s lives one needs to take a closer look to interpersonal relationships and more specific to environmental psychology. It is beyond doubt humans have innate characteristics traceable to instinctive animal behaviour and whether or not we are aware of those it influences to a large extent our interaction with our surroundings and the communication we have with other people.
These characteristics have been largely investigated by anthropologists and psychologists, and the results of those studies have been actively integrated in marketing and commercial architecture.

A too narrow shopping aisle in a supermarket for example is very likely to induce what retail anthropologist Paco Underhill calls the “butt-brush” effect, where a customer will almost instantly loose interest in the product he was looking at when he feels someone brush against his back or backside while passing by. The customer’s intimate space was invaded and as a result, as studies have proven, the customer will often walk away and leave the product.

In proxemics, a term first introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, social distances between people can be divided into 4 groups: intimate space, personal space, social space and public space. These spaces correspond to the personal distance a person takes (often unconsciously) to other people, events and its surrounding. Intimate space for example is reserved for actions like embracing, kissing, touching or whispering, where personal space is for interaction with good friends. The intrusion of people into a space not appropriate to their social distance may feel uncomfortable and invasive. In environmental psychology this is termed as “crowding”. It is the psychological phenomenon when one is no longer comfortable with the number of people present and the extend by which they are invading ones space.

In home building or renovation work it often happens that the physical distance between someone of the building team and the homeowner is as such that both invade a portion of each others space which under normal circumstance they would not do. This is accepted however because it is temporary and necessary to achieve the work that needs to be accomplished. Very much the same goes for territoriality, a concept in environmental psychology associated with the nonverbal communication that refers to how people use space to communicate ownership/occupancy of areas and possessions. The intrusion of builders into private territory (the client’s home) and clients partly exposure of personal life and belongings is again tolerated because it is temporary and necessary but nevertheless will feel uncomfortable to them.

Equally important are the effects of excessive noise, uncontrollable dust or changes in daily routines like wakeup hour or facility disruption.

With some effort however many of these effects can be minimized and reduce the stress that often accompanies building work. Although much can be done from the builder’s/designer’s/architect’s side, a truly successful plan involves the cooperation of the homeowner. Although being a good and reliable builder or interior designer/architect is a good start the key to provide your client with stress free building work is preparation. This refers to the work that needs to be done before the first builder sets foot on the property.

Contract

Making a good contract with your client is an important initial step towards a solid relationship. Include exactly what the building project will be and what each others obligations are in terms of work progress and payment periods. Including a late penalty fee will give your client the confidence that you are a reliable and serious builder/designer/architect. A contract will equally provide some security on payment schedules and minimize the risk of you slowing down or even interrupting building work because of late payment. Good contracts make good friends. Sample contracts can be found at http://www.fmb.org.uk/find-a-builder/free-contracts/download-contracts/.

Action plan

Give your client a day to day action plan. This action plan should include how the building work should progress. It will give you and the client a guideline. It will also pressurize you to stay on schedule because your client will be aware if you are falling behind. It should list the people with their respective names that will be on site on which day. Preferably you should introduce them to your client on their first day of work. Knowing their names will make them a bit less “stranger” and will take worries away to whether or not a certain person should really be in their home.

Noise

An action plan should also include a noise schedule. Although noise is constantly possible during building work, there are days when it is more likely then others. Inform your client about this. It is psychologically proven that noise generates stress but also that this stress diminishes if that noise is anticipated.

Dust

Dust is very annoying for a client and since it adheres to shoes and cloths it gets carried around everywhere one walks, even in places no work is being done. In order to keep this to a minimum and reduce the feeling the whole house is like a building site, limit access for you and your team to the absolutely necessary rooms. Ask your clients to keep doors of all other rooms shut and advice or provide to put mats in front of those doors to wipe their feet before they walk in. Make sure to remove curtains and lampshades in working areas, it solves having to clean them after the place has been covered in dust. Carry out dusty operations like grinding stones/tiles, cutting wood, etc. outside.

Money, time and damages

A good relationship with the client can be instantly put in jeopardy when: more money needs to be asked then quoted for, the project runs over time or personal property not part of the project gets damaged.

Avoid damages

Clients are concerned about their belongings and about the damages that may happen to it. Since at the beginning and during the project many things (materials, tools, etc) need to be brought on site make sure the passage to the site is clear and protected. Ask or help the clients to remove everything that might get damaged: paintings, art work, personal belongings, etc. Ask them to store loose things like papers or letters temporary somewhere else. Many homeowners leave incoming mail or office papers on cabinets at the front door. Except for the fact they leave personal information for anyone walking through to see, because the front door will often remain open for longer periods during building work air displacement is likely and may blow things on the floor or behind cabinets. Although clients will not rapidly accuse builders of theft, they will usually start by asking “you haven’t encountered this or seen that item?” be assured when things go missing, and since lots has been moved misplacement is likely, they will be annoyed and theft will have crossed their minds. In order to avoid this ask them to take precautions and remove those items.
Adequately protect all none movable items like cabinets, floors, etc. Put a large cardboard against the walls to lean large board materials against. It avoids touching up paint work or wallpaper scratches.

Avoid running out of time

When clients engage a designer/architect/builder for a project they have many expectations. One important expectation is the time at which they will be able to enjoy the work, effort and money they have put into the project.
Although building work is quite comprehensive, in its abstract form clients are just buying a product, a product which has an agreed price and an agreed time of delivery. Buying a product generates an emotional expectation which should result in an expectation fulfilment. The clients have an emotional expectation about the price, the timing and the quality and performance of the product. The emotional attachment to these expectations is in direct relation to the amount of effort (emotional, financial, physical and psychological) the clients had to invest in obtaining the product. And since building work is often expensive, requires time and involves clients mentally and physically, -remember clients see the product being build which is very uncommon for a bought product-, the emotional expectations will be very high. The emotional expectation builds up as the finishing date approaches and will reach a climax fractions before delivery. Many clients will even have informed friends and family members about their undertaking and when delivery is late the expected climax does not get fulfilled. Consequently disappointment will transform the excitement into a worry. Since the promise to deliver failed all other expectations and promises like quality and performance are put in doubt. Although the final result may turn out to be satisfactory the only thing this does is ease away worries, the excitement however has been lost.
In order to avoid this, give clients an estimated termination date with a run over period and include this in the contract. Keep clients up to date on the progressions and new estimated termination dates.

Avoid asking for more money

Even worse than running out of time is having to ask for more money. Building work is for most clients a financial strain. Some will even have taken loans and feel the financial pressure of the undertaking for years to come. They have made a financial provision and any extra’s comes often to the cost of something else: vacation budget, entertainment budget, etc. Except for the fact every extra eats into the saving of another account clients feel cheated and this feeling will last considerably after the project is finished. Clients trust is gained by being financially transparent. In building work when opening up walls, ceilings and floors there are often unforeseeable situations and having to ask for extra finances is not uncommon. It is therefore always good practise to inform your clients about this and include a financial margin in the contract, a percentage the final price may deviate from the initial quotation.

Preserving the clients privacy

A builder has needs when conducting on-site work. Typically he needs storage space, water, electricity and a toilet. Informing your clients about your needs and adequately arranging for its provision will reduce significantly the intrusion into the private life of your clients. Ask your clients which sockets you can use for electricity and which toilet and water facilities are to your disposal. You will need a basin to wash your hands but you will also need some water supply to fill a bucket. Since most toilet basins do not cater for this a water hose outside can be a handy solution. In order to avoid anyone wondering through the house or go search for a bathtub or a kitchen sink inform all building members of the facilities that can be used. It helps to put signs on the doors. Private signs on doors that are not meant to be disturbed or water and toilet signs. During the course of the building work you will often need to speak to the homeowners to discuss various building issues. Knocking on doors to find them is an option but often construction noise may work confusing for the clients to adequately hear that someone needs them. Since the front doorbell is frequently used for deliveries and does not necessarily need your clients attention every time it is being run, temporarily installing a wireless doorbell (less then 20£ in most DIY stores) inside the house to get there attention is an economic option.

Final note

Sound communication with the client is important. It is also well worth to invest an extra couple of hundred pounds in some doormats and protective material and make sure that what needs to be in place is in place, what needs to be removed is removed and what needs to be protected is protected. It is very common more time and money is spent at the end to rectify damages than the time and money it would have taken to put necessary precautions in place.

So key is, act before you start, and remember that a successful building or renovation plan involves the cooperation of both: you and your clients.

© Copyrighted by Lizzy Design
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About the author

Interior designer Lizzy Van Lysebeth

Lizzy Van Lysebeth is a belgian furniture and interior designer living and working in London.

Before moving to London he worked with GK-Design in Tokyo and for various companies in Spain. In barcelona he was course director of a master in furniture design for an associated college to the university Ramon Llul.

In 1999 Lizzy became freelance and started Lizzy Design. In 2006 he moved to Chiswick, London were he lives with his wife and newly born son (Aug 08.)

Lizzy Design, Interior and Furniture Design
London, UK
www.lizzydesign.com

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