Renovations in Bangkok
The Long and Sordid Story

This story began in the summer of 2001, when I threw caution to the wind, and had most of the first floor of my duplex apartment demolished. That was easy enough to arrange, and it provided a good chance to see what I had to work with underneath. Little did I know, I would not be able to use those spaces for another two years. About six months of that doesn't count, since I was out of the country. But even 1 and 1/2 years, and untold amounts of frustration, probably weren't worth it. I love it now and don't want to trade it for anything in this town, but had I known in advance, I probably would have done things differently. I wonder how I even did as much as I did. Construction work is famously nightmarish in any country, let alone a developing country. Furthermore, no one I worked with spoke English, and I had to do negotiate everything in Thai language.

I had a pretty good idea what I wanted, and tried to get those ideas down on paper. After some time, I taught myself enough AutoCAD, and using other drawings as examples, drew up most of the plans myself. That all took a few months, but it was my own work, so I didn't mind.

Then it came time to find a general contractor. Brave people might hire their own workmen and save some money, but that would have been crazy in a foreign country. When I started the bidding, the economy wasn't too good, but apparently a lot of the contractors were busy enough to promise me a bid and never send it. Actually, this was probably just my first taste of contractor indifference and irresponsibility. Eventually I got a bid from a contractor with a good reputation, and at a reasonable price, and we started the real work in November 2002.

During the whole construction phase, I lived upstairs while they renovated downstairs. This was bad, in that it was an uncomfortable and very messy way to live. But, this was good, in that I could constantly check on the work. Perhaps in other countries it is OK to check on your project once every other day or so. In Thailand, you really should check every few hours. Invariably, if left alone for four or more hours, the workers would start doing something totally wrong. They often told me it was because the plans weren't professional enough, which I might have believed, until I found out they didn't even bring a copy of them. The struggle continued with quality control issues. Most things had to be done at least twice. Some major tasks, like the floor, or steel cabinets, were done three times with a huge loss of time and materials. I asked around, though, and this is typical on a Thai project. In any business, Thais are notoriously incapable of direct communication, so the result is they often don't question or provide feedback, hope you'll accept it, and then resign themselves to doing it again when you point out it is all wrong. To their credit, since the country is developing, many of these guys have probably never even seen quality workmanship, so they don't know what they are aiming for.

You might think with the cheap labor (the average painter was making around $6-7/day, the electricians a couple dollars more), that I would just sit back and have it all done for me. Not really. In the end, I found it was easier to do many little things myself. I bought a power drill and installed my own picture rail in the bedroom, for example, because I knew it would take them longer to figure out what I wanted before I did it myself. They spent days unsuccessfully trying to mix a color for the tile grouting, so I figured out the ratios for them. I probably knew more about painting than any of the workers they sent, and I had to teach them how to load and use a roller properly. I also learned where to source a number of fittings and gadgets around town.

The initial contract was for 2 months, but didn't include the floor. By the time we wrote a contract for the floor, we were well in to the 3rd month, so I (fairly I think), extended the contract to around 4 and 1/2 months, hoping not to invoke the late penalties otherwise they might flee. But by this point, it was clear something was going on. Days would pass without any workers and they started showing up in funny hours. The foreman quit without notice, and for a few months, there was no replacement. It gradually began to look like the project was never going to end. I don't lay any blame on the workers themselves. They were all a nice bunch, if not too bright, and few of them had any agenda. I befriended several; maybe the weekly beer and chips I handed out on Fridays helped. They confirmed for me that the Thai economy was suddenly booming, and that the general contractor had overloaded with projects. Since my project was small, and as a foreigner I wasn't likely to represent a lot of repeat business, they obviously chose to make me a low priority.

After the disaster of installing, re-installing, and re-re-installing the floor, we were close to finishing. Enough was complete around August 2003, roughly 9 and 1/2 months later. I was not happy, as I was more or less trapped in Bangkok and could not get out to do any work overseas, or do much else for that matter. I frequently have guests staying over, and it was depressing not to be able to use my full apartment. I also like to host dinners, and this was not feasible without my dining room for all this time. When they presented the bill for the final payment, I had no qualms about invoking the penalty clause, which didn't seem to surprise them, and the last payment came to zero.

I did learn a few lessons about making things run better, which more or less apply to any professional project, like the computer projects I have been on in my career. It is essential that your contract specify how often you will meet with your foreman and for how long, at least twice a week, preferably more. They should be forced to create a work schedule, and each and every meeting you must go over the progress. An outstanding issues list, with even the smallest of issues in writing, with copies made for everyone, must be reviewed at each meeting. My biggest problems came when they sent workers without a foreman, and this I feel was entirely their fault. No one was in control. It is also important to make everyone realize how seriously you take the contract and its terms. Be nice, and be fair, but don't let them think you are going to let them get away with whatever they please. Aside from timely payments for them, most of the terms in it protect you. Any changes you make should always be in writing, and never ever let them vaguely redefine the deadlines. When we had to negotiate any extra work, the deadline ramifications were clear and in writing. Finally, the contract needs a penalty clause, and don't be afraid to remind them about it every week starting from the first week. Oddly enough, in my case, they wrote the contract and I accepted it as they gave it to me, so this could hardly have been a surprise to them.

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