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Part 4: Learning to live in a construction zone

“We tried phone calls. We tried meetings. The scene was getting tense”

Life under construction—or, at least, living in our future rental unit above what will be our apartment—comes with a thin layer of dust. The soundtrack is drilling and thwacking in the early morning and, by the end of the day, the whirr of the Shop-Vac. That’s when the pipe soldering doesn’t set off the smoke alarm.

We have learned workarounds to the intermittent interruptions: no heat (a space heater, extra blankets, tea), no hot water (boil cold water, pour into basin like the Victorians did), no water at all (wipes, learning to live with our own stink). It has been months since we had a working oven or gas range, since the upstairs gas line was leaking and had to be turned off until the whole system could be replaced. We cook on a plug-in camp stove that takes about twenty minutes to boil a pot of water.

None of this really bothers us, apart from occasional crankiness, because all this means work is underway. What we consider the worst is over, and proof comes in the series of papers taped to our front door. Permits. Beautiful, rapidly issued permits. Having heard all sorts of horror stories about the Department of Buildings holding up projects for month after cost-mounting month, these papers fill us with relief.

Here’s how we got them. The electrician pulled his own permit, which took only a couple of days, before we even had finalized the project. For the plumbing drawings, Otto enlisted mechanical engineer Kevin Kendall of Kendall Engineering to help figure out the complexities and hone the plumbing scope for the contractors.


Once we’d finalized our layout plans, Otto prepared exhaustive construction drawings, which he self-certified according to code. (Self-certification is intended to streamline the insanely drawn-out permit process, but you could still be audited, slowing the whole thing down anyway.)

The filings also had to include a form known as the ACP-5, which were certified asbestos test results. (Woe betide you if asbestos is found in your plaster in a wall you plan to demo.) $665 to H.A. Bader later, we had our paperwork certifying that we were asbestos free.

That’s when we were introduced to the legal racket that is the NYC expeditor system: You have to pay someone just to file your paperwork for you. (Good luck doing it without an expeditor, is what we were told again and again.) We ponied up $1,500 to Jenny Flores Expediting. They got the job done: Within five days of getting our paperwork, they informed us our permit had been approved.

But not so fast. Just as we were about to begin, in mid-March, we learned CNS, our contracting company, had parted ways with its plumber. Otto came to the rescue with Ariel Oriol of 2MMechanical, who ably stepped in. We asked CNS for a detailed schedule. What we got was a little vague, but turned out to be basically accurate.

The first week, they’d tackle the demolition over the course of three days. Next, simultaneous framing, plumbing, and electric, taking us into the fourth week, which also included prep work for the tiling. The fifth week on the job would include finishes for the flooring, painting, doors, and appliances, which would all be finished in roughly nine weeks’ time.

We watched in awe as the house filled with skilled craftsmen. Though we were technically the owners, we felt like interlopers when we burst through what we nicknamed the plastic vagina protecting the staircase, meant to shield the upstairs unit from dust.

The birth canal between the first and second floors:

Devon Banks
Devon Banks

Silvio, the genial head of CNS, had told us that it would at first feel like everything was happening quickly, then feel like it was slowing down. It was true; we couldn’t believe how fast that disliked kitchen wall came down, how swiftly the turquoise toilet was upended. At the end of every day we would run downstairs breathlessly to survey the work.

CNS’s crew was courteous, efficient, and did beautiful work. Around that time, though, we cursed the day we had ever hired a subcontractor directly. It had seemed to make sense to hire the electrician separately, because we needed to rewire the second floor to move up there. But on the ground, it was a mess. We were stuck coordinating with everyone. Worse, they were barely on speaking terms just a few weeks into the work. CNS accused the electricians of being careless, making huge holes in the plaster and the tin ceilings; indeed, they splintered our only original plaster ceiling medallion and wound up cutting it off the ceiling entirely to avoid further damage. (The electricians agreed to pay for its restoration.)

We tried phone calls. We tried meetings. The scene was getting tense. One day, Marco, CNS’s foreman, showed us that the outlets in the kitchen had been installed in the wrong place, and the recessed lighting in the bathroom was crooked. Brought in to survey what his crew had done, Paul, the chief electrician, insisted that the bathroom lights were fine, it was just that the walls were crooked. I watched, bewildered, as he climbed up on a ladder and got one measurement of the lights to the wall, while Marco got up on the same ladder and got another one. All this while the floorboards were going down. “Are you trying to say I don’t know how to do my job?” shouted Paul, over the drumbeat of CNS’s nail guns.

That was before he surprised us with an additional, retroactive bill for $7,750 above what had been agreed upon, on the reasoning that we had significantly expanded the scope of the project. That’s when it got to the stage of strongly-worded letters, citations of contractual provisions noting that all change-order fees had to be agreed upon in advance of the work, a speech about how he had thought we were friends, and an eventual negotiation of what, in fact, had been extra. (Around $1,600 above the contract.)

Lesson learned. Though, as I write this, we have yet to pass inspection.

Next week, on Renovation Diary:

In which our renovation scribe learns why houses in magazines look so spiffy: all the junk is hidden inside clever storage.