Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Annual Maintenance, a Tough Sell
by Daniel Frisch
Posted January 7th, 2021

Personal experience illustrates that I could do better heeding my own advice.  The most recent indication can be summed up in one word, “filters.”  In my particular case, the term applies to both water and air conditioning filters. This past summer our house water pressure had diminished, slowing to a trickle, and our air conditioning was struggling to keep up with a heat wave.  Both problems were solved when technicians discovered that the house water filter needed changing, and that it had needed replacement for some time; and similarly, our AC filters were dirty and needed cleaning.  If I were looking for a free pass, I could assert that others should have taken care of servicing the systems and cleaning and changing filters at our house, but it would be disingeuous.  The responsibility to stay on top of these things is mine, and I blew it.

Since architects solely provide design services and don’t manufacture, fabricate or build, we don’t have a product to guarantee.  Even so, we enjoy ongoing, often lifelong, relationships with many of our clients, and treat these relationships as if we had offered a lifetime warranty. Even if we haven’t kept in close touch, we are often the first call when something goes wrong.  Sometimes a request is as simple as checking our records for a paint color for touch-ups; other times more extensive repairs are required due to mechanical failure or a leak.  Instead of feeling imposed upon, we see visiting with former clients in their homes as an opportunity to say hello, reminisce, and assist.  All too frequently, these visits also bring to light that our clients haven’t followed our advice regarding annual maintenance any better than I have.  There are many reasons for this.

Even when we most strongly advocate for clients to budget for annual maintenance, it often gets overlooked.  There never seems to be a good time to re-grout tile or refinish wood floors, nor are contractors easy to find and schedule.  In many cases, the contractors who originally built the residence have become fully engaged with new work and coming back to a previous project is an inconvenience.  Additionally, contractors are invariably hesitant to appropriately charge for a call-back, even years after the work has been completed.  A charge, even one which is not great enough to cover the contractor’s cost, feels like a nuisance fee, and the interval between project completion and repairs rarely feels long enough for the homeowner to feel the contractor shouldn’t be accountable.  Contractors appreciate the sentiment and to protect their relationship with their former clients either put off or ignore the request, or more likely try to accommodate the request, treating the work more as a favor than legitimate business.  More homeowner-contractor relationships have deteriorated in this manner, when it would have been simpler for the contractor to schedule the work, to perform the work consistent with the original project, and to send an appropriate invoice.

Having witnessed the above scenario countless times, we have come to understand that general contractors and maintenance companies are two profoundly different organizations.  General contractors excel at scheduling and executing full projects from start to finish, managing and coordinating teams of subcontractors and vendors.  Maintenance companies arrive at an occupied home to perform discreet repairs. Rarely have we found a single organization that excels at both types of work.  While this observation clarifies the difficulty, it doesn’t pose much in the way of a solution to the challenge of essential ongoing maintenance, and although we continually try, we have yet to find a one-size-fits all answer.

With much encouragement, we have found some general contractor’s are better at performing maintenance work for former clients.  Some recognize the value, as we do, of nurturing these relationships and have integrated maintenance work into their organization.    When we do recommend a general contractor come back years after project completion to perform out-of-warranty repairs and maintenance we always recommend they charge for the work and that clients pay with a smile.  This is the best outcome, but unfortunately, somewhat rare.

For other clients, we need other solutions.  The first and most essential is to have clients set up service contracts with certain trades to perform regularly scheduled maintenance, just like we all do for our cars – and for our teeth.  Cleaning and changing filters can be a calendar event, and an appropriate service company will even send out reminders.  Try getting a general contractor to do that!

Service contracts will keep you cool and your water pure, but fail to address other needs like re-finishing floors, paint touch-ups, stone sealing, and fixing things that break (motorized shades).  A number of companies in Manhattan and Brooklyn have been formed to provide jack-of-all-trades repairs for homeowners.  Unfortunately, we’ve found the best of the breed are prohibitively expensive, and lesser companies are under-resourced or inappropriate for our client’s homes and quality expectations.

In the meantime, we nag our clients and friends to have us over for a glass of wine, otherwise known as an inspection, and prepare an annual scope of repairs, which we will then help them source.  In the best cases, our general contractor partners join us in the endeavor.  To date, I can think of only three friends/clients that have taken us up on this year-in and year-out.  They have all been very successful in business and life – could their approach to their home and their other endeavors be related?  I like to think so.