Promotion to General! by Ronald Mackay
“You can serve as the general contractor, Ron!”
Joe’s unexpected deflection of my invitation to supervise the building of our planned new house surprised and puzzled me. I was surprised because as the general contractor he stood to gain. I was puzzled because it had not occurred to me that I might be capable of undertaking the duty myself.
“I could?” The thought attracted me. Me! Responsible from start to finish for supervising the building of our new home.
“A general contractor is simply a good project manager.” Joe nodded. “You’ve managed projects all over. You can do it yourself.”
“But my projects have been mainly in agriculture.”
“Building a house is a project. A project is a project!” Joe was tempting me.
“But…” I began.
“Lookit! What skills have your agricultural projects demanded, Ron?”
“Organising the steps necessary to meet a technical objective, control of the budget, hiring and managing the labour force, advance planning to meet the deadlines without overspending…”
“These are the same skills you need to build a house.” Joe made it sound easy. “Be your own general contractor.”
He saw both my desire and my indecision.
“Lookit, Ron, here’s my cell phone number. If you run into any difficulties, just give me a call.”
Joe’s country-boy style, his ragged winter jacket and his muddy boots belied a sharp mind and a keen ability to judge people and situations.
He rummaged in his truck and produced a dog-eared book. “Buy one of these. Read it from cover to cover before you start. Keep it handy for reference.”
I looked at his copy of the Canadian Wood-Frame House Construction manual.
“Everything you need to know about building a house in Canada is there.” He paused. “Well, there’s one thing missing.”
“Befriend the building inspector. Barb Waldron is employed by the municipality to enforce the Ontario building code standards. Listen to what she says!”
Joe had hooked and reeled me in with ease. He’s transformed me from his potential client to the general contractor responsible for turning a set of drawings into our new home.
Viviana smiled but I couldn’t tell if in admiration for my thrift in eliminating a 20% cost, at my foolhardiness, or in confidence that I could perform well.
Since arriving in Canada in ’76, I’d helped friends renovate their homes. I’d repaired barns, poured concrete and rewired drive-in sheds. But for big jobs, I’d hired contractors and earned the money to pay them by taking on consulting contracts around the world. The downside was that contractors had all the fun while I laboured far away in Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, Guyana, or Tanzania.
Taking personal responsibility for first demolishing our old cottage and then building a new home appealed to me. This time, I would enjoy all the hands-on fun!
Remembering Joe’s warning, I arranged to meet our municipal building inspector after demolishing by hand our 70-year-old summer cottage.
“I hope you’re not here to teach me my job!” Ms. Waldon warned me.
“On the contrary, I want to learn from you. As general contractor, this is a first for me.”
Reassured, she gave me a series of valuable tips on how to manage tradesmen. By the end of the conversation, we were at ease with one another and on first name terms.
I studied my copy of the construction manual produced by the Canada Mortgage and Housing. It covered all the standards for wood-frame construction, everything – from safety, permits, excavation, drainage, footings, foundations, framing, trusses, plumbing, wiring, energy efficiency, and heating, to protection of materials on the building site.
Nothing, absolutely nothing was left out.
Informed, I solicited multiple quotes for different tasks, interviewed tradesmen, and inspected their previous work. Following both Joe and Barb’s advice, I asked each for evidence of their status as qualified tradesmen.
I turned an existing garden shed into my office. Worktable, construction drawings, notebook, pens, and began scheduling each stage of the work.
Excavation for the foundations was first. Hours before Steve, the backhoe operator, was due to arrive I’d marked out the hole he had to dig.
With Steve half an hour and then an hour late, I called his office and got his answering machine.
Two hours later, unperturbed, he arrived with his backhoe in tow.
Disguising my annoyance, I explained how I’d left a message on his answer machine. He looked puzzled.
“Your number in the telephone book!”
Steve laughed. “You’ll never get a tradesman by calling their home! You need one of these!” He took a cell-phone from his pocket. “Today, this is how we communicate. Get the cell-phone number of all your sub-contractors. The night before, call him. Call him again, half-an-hour before he’s due to arrive.”
“Isn’t that overkill?”
“Lookit! In Canada, we tradesmen need to squeeze twelve months’ work into the warmer period of the year. Use your cell phone and you’ll get things done!”
Then Steve expertly excavated the hole to the required depth and piled the soil where I indicated. The challenge had begun!
I mastered the basic operations of a new clamshell cell-phone, then requested and entered the numbers of all the tradesmen I’d contracted.
“That’s the corners set!” Johnstone gestured to the network of bright red cords that marked where the concrete footings would be poured. “Schedule delivery of the pre-mix for tomorrow first thing.”
From standards tables in my manual, I determined the exact mix as well as the volume needed and called the supplier. I added a cubic yard to the order. Better safe than sorry.
Next day, the truck arrived at precisely 8 a.m. just five minutes after Johnstone and his team.
“Ready to pour!” The truck driver lowered his chute. His day was full. Not a moment to spare.
“I’m a man short!” Johnstone scowled.
“I’ll replace him!” I stepped between the handles of a steel wheelbarrow.
Johnstone looked at me impassively.
“Done this before?”
“Yes!” I didn’t say I’d put myself through university doing this fifty years earlier. I felt confident that at 68 I was still capable.
We completed the footings before lunch. By then, Johnstone and his men were treating me with not just the respect due to the general contractor but with the camaraderie shown to a peer.
“I hear you got on well with Johnstone.” Joe called me that evening.
“How do you know?”
“News travels fast. If a general contractor puts a foot wrong even once, his reputation suffers. You’re earning yourself a good reputation.
They say that time flies when you’re having fun. Well, the next six months flew! By then we had the house framed and closed in ready for the interior work of wiring, insulating, and getting the heating system and then the drywall installed. Between these critical phases undertaken by skilled tradesmen, I undertook the unskilled labour myself. Using a skid-steer, a small excavator and a tamper loaned to me by Joe, I backfilled, tamped sand and stone, cleaned and sealed concrete, put in the drainage system and made sure that everything was ready for the next tradesman in line.
The owner of Elmhirst’s Resort, right next door to us, came by to inspect progress one day. I was unloading building materials from the back of my tiny Honda Jazz/Fit.
“Borrow our ¾-ton truck any time you like, Ron.”
I did and Peter’s generous offer liberated me from the uncertainties of delivery and saved dozens of trips to the builder suppliers in my tiny Honda. With Elmhirst’s ¾-tonner, I could have materials on-site within the hour.
By December, all the skilled jobs were done. Tradesmen disappeared. The remainder of the work – putting the finishing touches to the interior as well as the unskilled exterior tasks -- was all up to Viviana and me. Together, we laboured from dawn till dusk, loving every single minute of completing our own home.
And that is how, instead of contracting out the construction of our new home to someone else, Viviana and I enjoyed the satisfaction, as well as the responsibilities and the very occasional headache that Joe was quick to resolve, of doing the job ourselves.
The day Joe promoted me to “General”, my satisfaction and confidence were complete.
Joe’s happy words: ‘You can do the general contracting yourself!’ still ring in my ears.
“Thanks for the heads-up and for all the support, Joe!”
Ronald and Viviana at Homebank August 2021