House

The story of a young couple on a tight budget, an architect determined to excel, and four carpenters devoted more to craftmanship than to profit

THE following morning Bill and Judith and Jonathan, who is dressed for the office, hover in a ring around Jim. He sits on the opened tailgate of his truck, a pencil behind his ear, and extracts from his leather case the most recent and detailed drawing of the cornice.

"There was always an assumption that the frieze would extend out from the face of the house," Bill says.

Jim studies the drawing for the first time. He looks up at Bill. "Well, I guess the solution is to get the drawings before we build the house." Jim throws the papers down onto the tailgate. He stares at Bill. Judith and Jonathan glance at each other and don't speak.

"It's been different from the way you did it all along," Bill says.

"Not all along." Jim picks up the blueprint and shakes it. "These drawings right here are dated six-fourteen. It's making me mad, all this stuff." He hurls the plans down, glaring up at Bill. Bill and the Souweines stand around the angry builder, wearing helpless, worried looks.

"Your drawings have all these assumptions and implications in them," Jim says. "Now I feel I'm on the carpet."

"I'm on the carpet too," Bill says, very softly. "My feeling is we have to try to correct the frieze in some way that makes sense."

Jim looks away. He takes a deep breath. He gazes up at the frieze. He studies the drawings again.

Jonathan doesn't understand the problem fully. Judith explains it to him, to one side. Smiling, she tells Jonathan that perhaps the solution is to change not the frieze but the name of the house's architectural style. "Maybe we can call it something else."

Jonathan returns her smile. "It'll explain why the Greek Revival didn't sustain itself."

"There are more drawings on this house than on most five-hundred-thousand-dollar houses," Bill says to Jim, very softly.

Jim studies the detailed drawing once again. "It's on here," he says. "I guess I didn't have it in my mind that way. "

Bill stares up at the frieze, chin on hand. Jim stares up at the frieze, a forefinger against his lips. "Hey, Bill, what about the idea of having the frieze go down a little lower?"

"Below the vents?" Bill asks. "I think that would look very strange." Jim's solution would not preserve the proper effect, the sense of a roof floating on the frieze.

"It would be neat," Jim says. "There'd be a line there under the soffits."

They stare upward.

"I would like to be able to say that that's good," Bill says. He looks pained. "I just don't think it is."

The architect and the builder go back to silent, upward staring. There is, it seems, no other way around the problem but for Apple Corps to take down the frieze and put it up again. The repair looks hard to Jim, because they assembled the cornice so carefully and because to change the frieze they must alter the soffits. The repair will mean, among other things, that one of the carpenters must spend a day or more inching along a high staging on his back, cutting over his head with a skillsaw while twenty feet up in the air. A neat job won't be easy. Jim says he doesn't want to ask anyone to do that job.

Jonathan has to get to the office. Bill and Jim should try to find a way to fix the frieze, he says. Then Jonathan turns to the subject of the knots and Jim has the feeling all at once that he is in the witness box in court. "I would consider it an acceptable solution if you will warrant that the knots won't come through the paint for five years," Jonathan says to Jim, "since I do have tremendous respect for your integrity and judgment as a builder and I know you wouldn't put anything there that wasn't satisfactory."

JONATHAN'S strategy, it's real familiar. I m used to it. 'You're a real good, a great, craftsman and I know you wouldn't do anything wrong, so why did you?' It's just what my father would do," Jim says.

Apple Corps has retreated to an Amherst sandwich shop for coffee.

"The frieze?" Richard cries. They will not redo the frieze, Richard declares.

"I was ready to punch that guy," Jim says, referring to Bill. "It feels really funny. I never felt that way about anybody before." He explains that Bill won't accept the easy-looking solution.

Ned says to Jim, "He seems kind of soft and mild in his requests. "

"That's just his manner," Jim says. "He gets an idea, he sticks to it."

"I knew it was going to be like this," Alex says. "An arm-wrestling match."

They vote. It's unanimous. They will not guarantee the knots. Three of them vote no on repairing the frieze. When that ballot reaches Jim, though, he doesn't vote. He says, "I wish these issues were perfectly clear. I'm not quite sure when those plans arrived."

"Aw, shoot," Richard says. "I'll take your skillsaw, get up there, and thrash it. I don't mind. I'll do it on my back with a rope around my neck."

Ned searches for a general explanation and a remedy. "I sort of feel Jonathan and Judith need to know how much of an imposition this guy's being on us," Ned says. "The guy wants to build a Cadillac, and they only want to buy a Chevrolet. "

"They know he's upping the ante all the time," Jim tells Ned. Jim lifts opened palms to his partners, that old gesture of innocence, and says, "Everybody knows everything. But everybody wants something different."

APPLE corps holds a conference on how to become more businesslike than they have been - - an annual, sometimes semi-annual, soul-search of an event at which many motions are made and many are tabled. Tonight they agree that they ought to think about hiring a lawyer.

"We could hire Jonathan," Ned says.

"He'd probably do great things for us," Richard says.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he was real good," Jim says.

When Jonathan sent them his first bill, they could knock $660 off it, Jim says. They laugh and turn to other business, but they meant what they said. They believe that Jonathan could handle their problems easily - - the customers who take months to pay, for instance - - if he handled their problems half as adroitly as he has handled them. It seems to Jim that every time they meet to discuss money these days, Jonathan begins by praising Apple Corps. Jonathan closes a big meeting on change orders in the same way: "I think this went exactly as I hoped it would. Not everyone's happy about everything, but that's life.... Again, keep up the good work. The house is looking great. Everyone who sees it says so." He turns to Jim and Richard. "The work looks great." He turns to Bill. "The design looks great." And then he's gone.

At these moments Jim feels as if he's being played in several keys at once. He is reminded of a phrase from an old song whose name he can't remember: "a handful of gimme and a mouthful of much obliged." But Jonathan's praise also sounds authentic to Jim. It pleases Jim to hear it, and it dismays him to feel the strength ebb from the grudges that he's nurtured -- just when he needs them most, to make himself want to hold the line in every disagreement from now on. When Jonathan raised the issue of the knots and said, in effect, You're a fine builder, so I know you'll guarantee those knots, Jim was so disarmed that he didn't think to describe the pains he had taken to do more than the specifications required and find the best number-two pine he could. The upshot of the subsequent meeting with Jonathan looked like a symmetrical exchange. Apple Corps gave in on the frieze without an argument, and Jonathan gave in almost as easily on the knots. But when Jim thinks about it afterward, the trade seems less than even to him. He and Richard yielded on a somewhat debatable issue - - one very early drawing had shown the frieze nailed flat against the house - - while Jonathan merely acceded to the undeniable fact that the specs called for number-two and therefore knotty pine. Jonathan leaves them feeling fairly contented, though, and impressed that they are.

"He's a pro," Jim says, a while after Jonathan has left.

"Yeah, he is," says Richard, who has just seen Jonathan in action for the first time.

THE reality is that if these guys weren't quality workmen and quality people, there'd be fewer problems," Jonathan reflects. "They'd say, 'Fine,' and then just go and do what they wanted. You know why I gave in on the knots? Suppose Jim said, 'Okay, I'll guarantee the paint.' Suppose four years later I called: 'The knots bled through.' What could I do if he said no, he wouldn't fix them? But the point is, if Jim said to me he would do it, Jim would do it."

If you sit in Jonathan's chair and muse briefly, looking out over Main Street, it's clear that he made an even trade on the knots and the frieze. Sure, the specs call for number-two pine, but Jim should have explained the difference between numbers one and two. Jim never said there was an option. So Jonathan did have some grounds for argument about the knots. He gave them up. Jim and Richard gave up no more in agreeing to pay for the frieze.

Jonathan remembers telling Bill again and again that one of these days something would get built wrong if Bill did not deliver drawings well ahead of time. Imagining himself as Apple Corps's lawyer, Jonathan tells the builders, "Don't you touch that cornice. Not until you get the detailed drawings and have time to study them." He'd have added, "If you build it wrong, you're screwed, and if you're right, no one thanks you for it." He would have advised them, "Go tell the owner his architect's holding you up and he's got to adjust the completion date." As the lawyer representing himself, he figures that having hired an architect and builder, he has a right to expect them to get the house built correctly, and not to pay for their mistakes.

Jonathan feels sorry for the trouble the frieze caused, but not for the little imperfection it represents. No one else will see it, but Bill has said that even when repaired, the frieze won't quite reproduce his intentions. Orthodox Jews have a tradition that until the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt, they will not erect a house or building without giving it one deliberate imperfection. Though not a member of the Orthodox branch of Judaism, Jonathan believes in the inevitability of imperfection. So why not celebrate it? "There's a flaw in the house ... ," he says, and he flashes a smile, a shooting star of a smile, "... which the pernicious part of me sort of likes."

Jonathan has already agreed to pay hundreds of dollars for extras that didn't seem like extras to him: for "kickboards" on the front wall (those seemed to appear in the earliest drawings), for "stops" in the small fixed windows (he thought windows always came with those). And Jonathan has already struck many compromises with Jim, including some that Jonathan did not have to make - - the roof, for instance. After Jim had made his original bid, he realized that Apple Corps would have to put into the roof's frame a lot more labor and more wood than he'd imagined. Jim was only partly to blame, but Jonathan could have forced Apple Corps to shoulder the increase alone. Instead, he looked Jim in the eye and asked for a compromise. Jim said the extra labor would come to $850, the materials to $450. How did Jonathan feel about paying for the extra labor?

"Sounds fair to me," Jonathan said, scribbling a note.

Jonathan had accepted the larger part of the change. Jim had returned the favor by shopping around for windows.

People he trusts told Jonathan to stretch for this new house, and he has done so. He's had to count on selling the duplex in Pelham for a tidy profit. They put that house on the market a month ago, and almost no one has come to see it. Jonathan does not feel frightened. "We have a backup plan." Any day now, though, Jim will hand him a stack of change orders, amounting to several thousand dollars, and Jonathan will have to raise the money. Jonathan has already agreed to some changes, without knowing their exact costs. Those he has to accept. There are some other change orders coming, ones Bill wants but Apple Corps hasn't yet built. Jonathan does not have to sign for them.

Jonathan knows that with the kindest intentions in the world Bill and Apple Corps could arrange his bankruptcy. He wants Bill and Apple Corps to be happy with the house, but the house has already been endowed with enough elegance and expense for Jonathan.

JIM leaves work last and gets there first. Some mornings summer fog settles over the valley so thickly that you can hardly make out Judith's parents' place across the driveway. Then the new building seems as lonely as a lighthouse. Jim sits by himself inside the empty house, in gray light, surrounded by gray walls, his calculator on one knee, a yellow pad on the other.

Jim got the sheetrockers to agree to begin hanging the interior walls and ceilings on July 15. He had to make sure that the lumber arrived soon enough for Apple Corps to frame the walls before the plumber's, electrician's, and insulator's promised arrivals. He remembered to call the building inspector, who would insist on seeing the place before the sheetrock went up. You build a job out of a host of promises, and if the electrician gets the flu, the whole procedure can collapse. You might have to tell the sheetrockers to delay a week and then you might lose them for a month. Timing is everything, and the job has not halted or even slowed for lack of the right materials or the next subcontractor. That is thanks to Jim's forethought -- both his choices of subs and his scheduling. In this sense the house really exists in the meticulously printed notes he carries in his leather case. The plan in there is sound. Mechanically this job has gone more smoothly than most construction projects. Jim could congratulate himself for that, as Jonathan and Judith have, but he doesn't seem to be able to find much comfort there.

He has never known a job that aroused such complicated feelings in him. The electrician's bill arrives. It comes to $780 more than the estimate. No one is to blame, Jim thinks, but the Souweines certainly have some cause to balk at paying this overrun. "Here we go again," Jim says when he makes up the change order. But Jonathan does not argue. In fact, he says cheerfully that he will pay the extra charges in full. Jim goes deadpan. "Okay," he says. He actually seems slightly annoyed at Jonathan's largesse.

Jim has a long, exacting memory, especially for his own miscalculations. Sometimes he looks around the house and nearly every piece of it looks like a reproach to him. Then he speaks as if the job has gone so far off course already that no matter what happens from now on, he will be unable to salvage any satisfaction from the work he's done. The act of saying so often cheers him up.

Nearly every day Jim talks about success. His ruminations have a tentative quality. Will he feel successful if they make their hoped-for profit? Will they make any profit? He has resolved to hold the line and charge the Souweines for every change, no matter how mean and small-minded the act will make him feel. Then, in the natural course of the job, an issue such as the windowsills arises.

The specs say nothing about windowsills. The contract would allow Apple Corps to surround all the windows with stock Colonial casings as if the windows were pictures - - to "picture-frame" the windows and leave them without sills. It's a fairly common practice, which saves a builder time. That's what Jim plans to do. This is a contract job. He assigns the task to Ned, the cabinetmaker. When the time for giving Ned his instructions comes, however, Jim can't bear the thought of their leaving a house without windowsills, and he does not want to ask Ned, of all people, to do a job wrong on purpose. Jim doesn't ask the Souweines' permission, perhaps because he fears permission won't be granted, and anyway, how can you agree to build a house for someone and then not give them windowsills to rest their chins and elbows on? So Jim tells Ned to make sills. He does not even ask for recompense. Evidently, he doesn't get much pleasure from the gesture either.

On his next visit, walking through the rooms, Bill notices the sills right away. He sees what Apple Corps has done. He finds Ned and Jim in the living room. He thanks them. "Got to please the architect, right?" Ned says. "No, I'm glad you're pleased."

To Jim, Bill says, "It has mostly to do with taking extra care. That's the nature of quality work."

"Or of not being businesslike," Jim says. He adds, "This contract's wide open. There are fifty places where we could've stuck it to them."

"Oh, I'm sure," Bill says. "That's the nature of ... Well, I'm sure."

Ned laughs. His shoulders shake. "We don't know how."

"Maybe we should take a couple of years off," Jim says to Ned. "Go work for some honcho condo builder and get back to where there's some compromise."

Whether or not they are making money, they have to build this house. The financial side of the job has become immensely complex, a labyrinth of bills they haven't received and ones they haven't paid and ones they haven't yet incurred. Late in July, Jim decides to take Richard's advice and give up trying to compare their real progress with their estimate. He will let Alex keep track of the accounts paid and received and stop worrying about the rest. By the second week of August, Jim admits, he feels much better. He still thinks about money. The issue is always there, he says, but for the time being it sits more lightly on him than it did when he believed he could control it.

THE first mouse is sighted in the basement, by the plumber. The house has rooms, windows, a hearth, some plumbing, exterior doors, electricity, and heat. It still has plywood floors, which now look old and worn. Odors of mortar and special glues come and go. The house always contains the smell of wood and faint, sweetish smells of sweat.

Once the carpenters had framed the walls inside the house and the electrician and plumber had woven the miles, literally miles in all, of wire and pipes into the skeleton, like so many nerves and arteries and intestines, the insulator came and Jim said, "The house will change today." By nightfall it was all muffled up in pink and yellow fiber glass, and loud sounds no longer echoed. That was the calm before the sheetrockers. The carpenters, the plumber, the electrician, the insulator, had all seemed to work quickly. Finishing in three weeks a job that looked like it would take months, the sheetrockers showed what quickness meant.

When Jules saw the sheetrockers pile out of their cars and van, and troop across the sandy ground up onto the new porch, he said, "It looks like the Nicaraguan invasion."

"He's an incredible worker," Richard said, stopping to watch, through a downstairs window, one of the bosses, a muscular young man named Dave Pogue.

Cutting and running, as he himself described his technique, Pogue trotted through the house, slapping huge, heavy gray rectangles of sheetrock against the studs, cutting holes for outlets, screwing the sheetrock in place with an electric drill that - - along with the several others constantly running - - made the house sound like a giant dentist's office. Through the windows the sheetrockers really looked like people working at the wrong speed. They came and went like a swarm and left behind a maze of gray walls with many smooth white seams that would vanish altogether under the first coat of paint.

The carpenters went outside to work when the sheetrockers arrived. A few weeks later, around the time when the sheetrockers left, Apple Corps finished the exterior. Ned put in the last of the southern windows. Alex and Richard finished clapboarding the house. And Jim endowed it with a front door. He built a Greek Revival molding for the entryway from scratch, following Bill's drawing. He did so without uttering a single complaint about architects.

Near the end of August, during a coffee break out on the porch - - those intervals in which they satisfy what Jim has called their "unrelenting quest for sugar" - - Alex produces a list of figures: So far they've worked 2,441 1/2 hours. They've billed the Souweines $104,715. "We paid all our bills, paid off our debt, and we're just about even," Alex says. He figures they should make some $13,000 profit, on top of the $14 an hour each has been making.

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