This One Rings a Bell (16)

I’m sure a lot of regular readers of his blog may have been wondering as to the status of the Japanese bell tower project I was so earnestly designing in the fall of last year. I’ve had a few emails querying the progress on that job, and said I would post something soon enough.

The drawing consumed hundreds of hours of my time and pushed my technical drawing to new heights and limits – much of that due to issues with SketchUp, which is not especially well-designed for double curvilinear work. Other problems were discovered in my Japanese layout texts, and it took me quite a while to convince myself that the texts were wrong and not my drawings. Anyway, in the end I conquered the problems and submitted the drawings to the client as .jpegs, the same pictures shown in the previous post in this thread.

Then the client asked me to put a cut list together, and given that the tower needed some 15,000 board feet of timber, all of it custom sizes, that cut list generation took me several days of work.

Then the client had me communicate with a sawyer in Alaska and indicated it might be better if I looked after all the material sourcing.

Then something happened, I have no idea what. I suspect the price of the material, at @$5/board foot, was more than the client was expecting, in relation to the volume of wood required, which he may not have also been expecting. Suddenly the client wanted to “shop around” some more and talk to other mills. Perhaps he hoped to find cheaper wood. Then the client was talking about taking a trip to Ketchican AK to visit the mills, an idea I had floated months earlier, and then he wasn’t talking about it.

The client asked me to submit drawings to his engineer, which required I clean them up and convert them to .dwg format, and that took some time.

With the drawings submitted, I asked the client about coming to satisfactory contractual arrangements. He asked me to draft a contract proposal. Again, a few more days of work. I submitted the contract proposal, and waited. And waited.

A few weeks later I called the client to ask him what was happening in regards to the contract. He hummed and hawed and said he had read it and was “thinking it over” but with “so much on the go right now” he was feeling “frozen” about the whole thing but assured me he would be getting in touch. He said he was looking to get the drawings through the building department “first”, and that the engineer was “busy with other things”. Okay, whatever.

By this point the Ming inspired table project had taken flight so I decided to give that my full attention and let the bell tower client sort things out.

In mid-December, a few days before Christmas, I suddenly got an email from the engineer asking me to submit the complete drawing again, in .dwg format. I thought that things must be moving along, so I sent the file. Then the client contacted me and asked for photos of a bell tower that had served as a point of inspiration for the tower design. He said he’d lost the ones I’d sent earlier. I sent him the photos and gave a gentle nudge in regards to the contract negotiation.

Then just a few days before Christmas came an email from the client thanking me for my work:

“Regarding a construction agreement for the Bell Tower, I have wracked my brain over this and have been unable to imagine how we might work together successfully given the complexity of the project and your considerable distance from _______. So for now I have decided to try to work with a nearby Japanese daiku who just recently came to my attention. You may know him since he also worked on the Ellison project. His name is ______. If this doesn’t work out, I will again try to figure some way you could work with us. One never knows what the future will bring.

Again, thanks for your formidable effort in designing the Bell Tower. We shall be forever thankful.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

Gassho”

“Merry Christmas” he said….

That was quite a stunning and entirely unexpected email to receive, one of those I can’t believe this moments, familiar to all who are self employed.

I was doubly stunned because I had done all the drawing work based on a very clear conversation with the client in the Fall of 2010 where I told him that the only way I could be involved in the project would be if I fabricated the tower here in Massachusetts. When he gave me the signal that that would work for him, I did the drawing work for a fixed low price of $1500. I felt it was a fair exchange at the time and told myself that even if the project didn’t materialize, the chance to draw such a structure would be reward enough. I still feel like I gained so much from designing a very complex Japanese traditional structure – I don’t think there are too many non-Japanese carpenters who could have designed it – and very few on this continent.

I’m really not sure quite what happened, however I suspect that the client was never really comfortable with me fabricating the structure out here, out of his daily purview. I got the sense he wanted more control and oversight of things. He wasn’t very trusting I guess. Many timber frame structures are shop-built at distance from the site where they will be later erected, so it was nothing unusual to me.

So, bummer, but I still view it as a gain overall. I was frankly shocked at the way it devolved, though I must admit that the warning flags had been present from the outset. I made further communications with the client advising him as to copyright regulations and unauthorized use of my drawings, and then received a reply which clarified much about the client’s way of being, which, upon further reflection, has led me to feel most pleased to have no further involvement with that person and his project.

So, I’m sorry there will be no more continuation of this thread, but you never know what might happen and it’s possible another similar project will come along one day. If it does, I am very well-prepared!

I learned some new things too about clarifying contractual arrangements and perhaps being a little more careful when the project is such an attractive glittering jewel to me that I overlook signals in the communication with the client that should have led me to a more prudent course of action. Live and learn.

In my experience so far, the jobs that have gone well have involved a direct personal connection with the client. In the case of the bell tower, the client was someone I never met in person, spoke to only a couple of times on the phone, and had always unnerved me with his terse and inconsistent communication style. For me now, such things are clear warning signs.

I have developed great relationships with the clients I have had thus far, and this experience with the bell tower design process, despite the unfortunate outcome, has only served to cement a conviction in my heart as to how important a successful partnership with the client is to the outcome.