Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lessons Learned in Building

In the past twenty-some years, we have built two homes. I learned one major lesson from supervising the two building projects--in quality control the customer must balance expectations with respect for the craftsman.

Let me explain. My father was big proponent of doing a job correctly. When I was seven or eight years old, he had a teaching moment. Because it was my turn to do the evening dishes, I loaded the dishwasher, wiped the table, scrubbed the pans, and pulled the drain plug as I finished. Then I went to bed.

Later, my father woke me from a sound sleep. "Maurie, you did not finish your job. Come and Ajax the sink."

Sleepily, I went to the kitchen and looked in the sink. I could see the scum covering the stainless steel. Dutifully, I pulled the cleanser from the lower cupboard, sprinkled and polished the surface, finished my job correctly, and went back to bed. (Obviously, my daddy could have made me clean the sink the next morning, but it would not have left the same impression!)
Counterbalancing that principle, I learned another truism from my mother's customers. For years, my mother ran a drapery/design business. Once when she was in the hospital, I delivered some draperies to a customer, a type-A+++ perfectionist. She inspected every seam, every hem, every pleat. Of course, nothing suited her, although the workmanship was impeccable, as far as I could see. My take-away from this biddy was not to be an obnoxious client, but to be reasonable in expectations and kind in expressing them.
With that backdrop, fast forward some years to when I was the customer of a construction project. Daily, I checked the craftsman to explain my expectations and avoid potential problems as the building progressed--always trying to be kind and reasonable.

However, in life things aren't perfect. Sometimes stuff happens. At such moments, the customer has to look at the situation and balance the two competing principles: expect the job to be done right, but respect the craftsman.

My dining room wallpaper is case in point. Design aficionados will recognize the Gracie wallpaper splurge. The silk, hand-painted paper is exquisite, and ties my whole ground floor color-scheme together.
Before the paperhanger tackled this project, he called Gracie in New York for advice from their expert hanger. After reading the packaging directions, I went to the best wallpaper company in town for paper liner required beneath the silk paper. Very carefully, the paper was hung. That night, just before retiring, my husband and I went out to admire the job. Perfection!

In the morning we went to peak again, but to our dismay the paper was hanging off the walls.

Our paperhanger came back and applied more paste to re-adhere the paper. Alas, the silk had shrunk leaving quarter-inch seams between the panels. Furthermore, air bubbles kept popping up at various places around the room. He rolled out the air bubbles, but silk cannot be stretched. What a disaster!

What should I do? No one wanted to assume responsibility...not Gracie, nor the company who sold us the liner. And how could I expect my wallpaper hanger, a gentle- souled widower raising six children alone, to pay for this colossal mess?

I thought of my dad. I thought of my mother's demanding client-biddy. And I thought of the Haitian women I knew who wallpapered their homes with pages of magazines.

"Maurie," I said to myself, "get a grip. People are more important than things. Make the best of this."

Thereupon, I went to the paint store, matched the paper color, and painted the spaces between the panels.

...and I have lived happily ever after with the result...No, that would be a lie. When it still bugs me, I mentally have to review my options: let it fester or choose to keep a people-centered perspective.

"Let your sweet reasonableness be known to all men" (Philippians 4:5).


  1. Mrs. Piepgrass--
    I've enjoyed reading your posts! I am far from a perfectionist in interior design, but there are areas of my life that I feel I can apply the principles that you share. Thank you!

  2. What great lessons you learned! My favorite "People are more important than things."

  3. Hi Maurie,
    Dank je wel voor het bezoek en het verlaten van dit mooie reactie op mijn blog! Het is altijd zo leuk om contact met nieuwe bloggers te maken!

  4. Thanks for this lesson Mama! It is still something I work on daily. Keep the right perspective. Don't get hung up with being so much of a perfectionist that you lose sight of the people around you. Another great reminder today.

  5. Maurie! Your best yet, thanks for the beautiful reminder! See you soon, pj

  6. What a great lesson to take away! So glad I stopped by your blog -- love it!


  7. Dear Mrs. Piepgrass:

    I love seeing press for Gracie but we don't strive to provide character building experiences! So sorry to hear of your troubles with the installation. My hat's off to you for making it work out beautifully in the end.

    Mike Gracie