How to treat the builders: the bottom line

Are you being nice to your workmen? Big mistake, reckons Christopher Middleton. If you want the job finished on time, show no mercy
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The Independent Online

You wouldn't have thought a temporary loo could wreck a marriage, would you? Well, a couple of streets away, one of those green plastic conveniences came close to doing just that.

The couple concerned were having a ground-floor extension built, but their marital falling out was not over choice of curtain material or wall colour - but the builders' toilet arrangements.

She didn't want dusty-booted construction workers tramping up and down the (newly carpeted) stairs to the loo. He maintained that to forbid the builders access to indoor lav facilities was to treat them as sub-humans and probably infringe their human rights. To which she replied: "It won't be you that has to vacuum up the mess on the stairs." To which he replied: "Well, you never do the housework properly anyway" - and so on.

On day one of building work, a Portaloo turned up in their front garden - to the evident dissatisfaction of the husband. So much so that before going out to work, he gathered together the somewhat bemused workforce and announced that as far as he was concerned, they were free to use the upstairs loo. Ten minutes later (when he was gone), his wife made it very clear to the site foreman that upstairs was strictly out of bounds to all personnel, so that when it came to his men relieving themselves, it was the Portaloo or bust.

It was probably that single, discreet act of wifely deceit that saved the marriage. Every morning, the husband would stride off to work convinced he had struck a blow for oppressed working people, while all the time, the Portaloo he thought was being boycotted was, in fact, doing big business with the assorted bricklayers and plasterers.

What this saga underlines is the age-old problem of how to treat the builders. Should you be nice and kind and hope you'll inspire them to do a good job, or should you go on the basis that given an inch, they'll take a mile and still get the measurements wrong?

"It all starts with making the tea," says a friend of mine who's just had a new kitchen installed. "If you make the builders a cup of tea on the first morning, you'll be making them cups of tea throughout the rest of the job. It's essential to let them know right from the start that if they want tea, they've got to make it for themselves. And bring their own milk and sugar."

On our first period of builder occupation (loft conversion 1997), we surrendered in spineless fashion. By the end of the job, we knew exactly how many sugar lumps each of them took, whether they liked tea or coffee - and whether their preference was for digestives or Hobnobs. Not only did I fail to make a fuss about them not finishing the work on time, but I even bought them all bottles of whisky at Christmas.

So how do you strike a balance between weedy-liberal subservience and the motivational methods used by Egyptian slavemasters on the Pyramids job? The answer, it seems, is to find a nice builder.

"I've been on plenty of jobs where the clients have been polite and considerate, and the blokes have just taken it as weakness." says Peter Sewell, a definitively nice builder based in Wimbledon Village. "The tea and coffee thing, you have to play by ear. Some builders moan about being on a "dry" job (the homeowners don't make them tea or coffee), but there's plenty who bring and make their own and don't make a fuss.

"As for temporary loos, it's fine to ask builders to use them if the work you're having done is on a big scale and going to be messy. If it's just putting up a few shelves, though, perhaps not."

Five ways not to get bullied

* Don't get into a routine of making them tea and coffee. And don't feed them, either.

* Establish which bits of the house you don't want them to go into. If that means a Portaloo, so be it - you can always use it too.

* Every time you pay them money, write the amount on a piece of paper and get them to sign for it.

* Get their mobile phone number and ring it the moment they don't arrive at the promised time.

* Don't buy them seasonal gifts (Christmas presents, Easter eggs). It just encourages them to extend the job.