Working With Alward Construction? [PART 2 of 13]

A story of a Frank Lloyd Wright Residence in the 21st Century


Maynard understood my reluctance to give him a price for replacing the lost house.  After all, it wouldn’t be a very meaningful number since the house as it existed wasn’t going to be rebuilt.  But a bid for a new house seemed a reasonable request.  Walter and Maynard both wanted to know if I would give a price for the new house once the plans were far enough along.  I really preferred working on a Time and Materials basis without a fixed price and thought this project really called for that approach.  I would have to wait to propose this.

The day of my second visit to the house was the day the issue of a fixed price first came up.  It was also the day Walter brought out two new sets of drawings.  One was a drawing with lots of details on how the new house would have a rain water leader system to handle roof water.  In the original house, Wright had drop outlets (gutter pipes) that penetrated the wide overhanging eves.  Water from the roof drained through the drop outlets and splashed onto the concrete walks below.  Wright liked the sound of the water on the pavement.  However, after years of having water splashing on their pants and dresses, Maynard extended the drop outlets so they drained into the plant beds beyond the walks.

The visual effect was that every 12 feet or so there was a pipe coming out of the overhanging eves making a right angle to the drop outlet and extending out horizontally for a foot or so.  Walter carefully explained to Maynard how the new system would divert water to pipes in the inside of the new walls, thus eliminating the need for the improvised extensions.  As always, the drawings were complete and masterful with lots of ½ full scale details.  Everything was thought out.  However, in the dismissive sweep of his arm, Maynard declared that he wouldn’t need this expensive detailing; that the present arrangement would work perfectly well for the new home.

Walter turned rigid and all enthusiasm and pleasantness left him.  “I always understood that you weren’t happy with the way the roof drained Maynard.” Maynard seemed totally unconscious of Walters change in mood.  It was an uncomfortable moment.  I tried to help by infusing a bit of humor.  I suggested that the present drains, and there was one immediately in front of us as we talked, looked a little like cannons under a fighter plane wing.  I might have been unconsciously drawing on Maynard’s interest in guns.  He responded enthusiastically.  “Yes, 30 millimeters on a Hellcat.”  He didn’t see or want to acknowledge my point and the matter was dropped.  (in the end, the RWL were placed inside the walls and the drop outlets and their extensions were no longer part of the new house although they remain in the original house.)

The second drawing concerned changes in the elevations from the exterior walkways to the interior slab.  As with all Usonian houses, the Buehler House was built on a slab, the same slab with the same elevations for both indoors and outdoors.

Walter’s new plan showed about a 5/8 inch difference in elevation.  Again ½ full scale details showed how this would work at doorways and exterior walls.  And also again, Walter’s plans were rejected.  Maynard said “Walt, I don’t want a step to trip over.  Just make it all the same like it is.”  Walter reminded him how over the years he’d complained that this was an impractical detail on Wright’s part; that it allowed water to enter under the doors and also discolored the lovely exterior redwood walls that came right down to the top of the wet slab.  “We’ve lived with it 50 years Walt.  The rain comes in, the rain goes out.  I suppose we can live a few more years with it.”  Maynard seldom second guessed himself.  He had spoken his mind and that was it.

This was not a successful afternoon for Walter.  Not only had his two drawings been rejected by his client, but the contractor he had recommended to produce a bid for the insurance company, i.e., me, had refused to do so.  Perhaps the day could be reclaimed if I would concede to giving a bid for the new house when the plans were complete.

I was asked whether in fact, they could expect a bid from me.  I thought a fixed price on the job was not a good idea, at least not good for me.  It seemed that the events of the afternoon were very much to the point and I thought I might as well bite the bullet and share my sentiments.

I said, “You know, in the last hour or so, I’ve watched Walter present his ideas for your new house and I’ve watched you reject them.  I suspect this house will be going through revision throughout its construction and that if you want something changed, it’ll be changed.  I don’t think you can expect someone else to tell you what this project will cost.  You’ll get the best insurance settlement working with Van-Catlin and then the new house will cost what you want it to cost.  I can give you a budget which really will be whatever Van-Catlin comes up with, but I can’t give you a fixed price because I know whatever plans you come up with will change.”

Walter and Maynard stared at me in disbelief.  Shortly, Maynard put his position on the table.  “When the plans are done, I’ll look forward to knowing what you will charge me to build it.”  I put my position on the table.  “Nobody knows what this project will cost until it’s completed.  I can give you choices but the decisions will be yours.”  Walter and I drove home in silence.

Keith R. Alward
August, 2011