Monday, June 20, 2016

Proper "buildiquette" - How To Be A Considerate Builder, Homeowner, Neighbor During Construction

Delton Horst, site superintendent in front
of a Krekow Jennings project in Laurelhurst.
Neighbors praise the firm for “good communication.”

Joan Vesper, a long-time Laurelhurst resident and concerned neighbor living next to a construction site, has written an article about the current building "tsunami" in Laurelhurst.

Over many months, she interviewed homeowners and six construction firms, gathering tips for builders on how to avoid stepping on the neighbors' toes and what architects, contractors and homeowners might consider to be good neighbors. 

Joan told the Laurelhurst Blog that her goal in writing the piece was to "educate architects, contractors, and homeowners on ways to show courtesy to neighbors during the building process."

The topic as she calls it "'Remodeling Etiquette" serves to promote a "kinder, gentler neighborhood" by offering suggestions for builders and homeowners and neighbors "to help maintain Laurelhurst as the considerate neighborhood we all love."

Here is the article:

Buildiquette—Creating good vibes in the neighborhood during construction

Our family has lived in Laurelhurst since 1970, when we bought an old house and over the years raised a family.  We value the residents who’ve made our neighborhood a treasure, starting with Colonel McInnis who envisioned the Laurelhurst Beach Club and more recently Jean Amick and Dixie Porter who created a beautiful pocket park near the elementary school— with many, many neighbors contributing to the common good in between.   

Now we see first hand a different kind of development in Laurelhurst (and in greater Seattle)—a tsunami of new residences and remodels.  Close-up experience with this construction leads me to ask: do the people involved care about the neighbors and the neighborhood?

In April 2016 I interviewed representatives of six firms doing work in a five-block area in Laurelhurst. As Mike Suver of Lockhart/Suver LLC points out, “We are not developers or speculators; we only build high end custom homes and strive to be good neighbors.”

Consequently, these examples may not be representative of other builders in Seattle neighborhoods. I also talked with homeowners.  Their experiences include living adjacent to construction projects, building an addition to their own home, and watching a neighbor’s tree felling.

Five of the six representatives of firms said they communicate ahead of time with adjacent neighbors to avoid potential conflict, most by letter. Those firms are Bender Custom Construction, De Forest Architects, Krekow Jennings, Lockhart Suver LLC and Model Remodel.

John Ellingwood of Bender Custom Construction says the on-site supervisor goes to the doors in person, because that’s the person the neighbors would talk to to resolve problems. He (or she) is the neighbors’ first contact, but they are “free to phone the company if that doesn’t work.” Dave Pitkethly of Krekow Jennings invites neighbors to provide their email addresses if they would like to receive updates on the project. The firm responds to every inquiry.  

A neighbor adjacent to the Krekow Jennings site affirms that the company is known for its consideration of nearby residents during a project. For example, the firm alerts her to any particularly disruptive phase of the project. Her husband agrees that they have had “good communication” with the firm.  

Lockhart Suver’s superintendent hands out an introduction letter to surrounding neighbors and introduces himself or herself at that time, encouraging the neighbor to contact the firm with any concerns. Incidentally, Kyle Lasicka of Best Plumbing, a subcontractor for Krekow Jennings, provided the builder’s equivalent of  “hoot” in the table above.

Instead of a “stink eye,” he added thoughtfully, “We follow the rule, ‘If you see something, say something, especially if it’s unsafe.’ We try not to give each other the stink eye.”

Jason Legat of Model Remodel sends a letter to neighbors that includes this paragraph:
“… It is our intention to keep our impact on the neighborhood and the environment to a minimum.  As an example, if you have a particular parking space to save during the day, please let us know… you may contact the Project Supervisor (phone number) and he will accommodate you.  If you notice anything unusual, day or night, please contact us any time.  

Our goal is to perform the work in a professional manner and be a good neighbor...” Because Model Remodel works closely indoors with families, Legat says his workers (unlike surfers) try hard to look clean cut.  Besides the parking issue that Legat mentions, contractors cite the need to keep the site clean, particularly of nails and screws.  If seeing piles of building materials bothers neighbors, Krekow Jennings uses tarps or on occasion builds a temporary wooden fence.  

An exception to communicating with the neighbors is the sixth firm interviewed for this article. The site supervisor neglected to notify the neighbors of any phase of a major remodel, including exterior sanding and 7 a.m. concrete busting that were air- and noise-pollutants.

When the next-door neighbors complained, he said, “We don’t have time to walk around and notify the neighbors of every little thing.  Nobody does that.”  When informed that other firms do notify the neighbors, he said, essentially, Everyone does things a different way. His actual words need not be repeated here.  

Later, the CEO of his firm and another worker apologized to the neighbors for this incident.  The CEO explained his company’s policy is to give the homeowners a work schedule with the expectation that they will inform the neighbors “because they know them.” He further explained that the schedule is changeable, so that if a job doesn’t occur on a scheduled date, the neighbors are disturbed again.  He reiterated that the firm is on a tight schedule with no extra time to talk to neighbors.  

Because they work in a city built on hills with potential views of mountains and water, these firms are aware of neighbors’ concerns about loss of view. But, as Ted Cameron of De Forest Architects says, “If you want control of a piece of property you have to own it.  You can’t do much unless the owners are sympathetic.  

Some people want to build bigger and taller.”  He says, “The dramatic changes taking place in our city” lead people to seize “every available buildable lot” either to build on themselves or for speculation.  “Construction is very expensive and part of making the investment worthwhile is by maximizing a view, often at the cost of someone else’s. It is sad, but it happens all the time. I don’t know that fair is part of the equation.”

For example, in the experience of a family who lived in their Laurelhurst home for almost half a century, a young family moved into the house next door and, after seven years (and the birth of two little girls in whom the old couple rejoice), mentioned that they would be doing some landscaping and remodeling.

They proceeded to build an extension that shrank lake and sky views from five windows of the neighbor’s house and blotted out Mount Rainier—views that were a reason the long-time residents had purchased their home in the first place.   

Suver’s comment (he is not the builder in the 90-year-old house example): “When someone cuts off another’s view corridor, it’s a bummer even if it’s technically allowed by code.”  He adds that neighbors’ trees as well as buildings can be view blockers. A local realtor says that neighbors are also bothered when new construction blocks their source of sunlight.

Pitkethly explains that the contractor’s job is to execute the architect’s plans.  Those plans are regulated by City codes. Suver says that some people might view the codes as technically allowing them to remodel with the justification, “I can get more value, it suits me, and I’m within my legal rights.”  

That attitude is not something the builders can control, he adds. Contractors sometimes have to be middlemen to calm the neighbors’ concerns, Legat says.  “They may explain certain codes and restrictions that the City has and show neighbors other houses in the neighborhood” that may appear to cross the line but that follow the rules.  “Taking five minutes to talk with the neighbors makes a big difference.  If neighbors don’t know what’s happening, they make up their own stories.”  

Many homeowners, according to the contractors and architect I interviewed, reject a strictly legalistic definition of their rights and instead consider the effect of their design on the neighborhood. “Most of our clients are aware of the neighbors.  

We don’t get many who are disrespectful of the neighborhood,” says Cameron.   He mentions a current owner who could have put a higher roof on his home but was “always mindful of neighbors uphill who had a view that looked over his house.”  That was more important than building something “taller and grander.”  

A distinction may occur between concern for “the neighborhood” and for “the neighbors.”  In the example of the young family above, after the addition was complete, the husband explained that they chose a peaked-roof addition to match the Tudor style of their house and of many houses in the neighborhood.

A flat roof clearly would have looked like an add-on, he said.  In short, aesthetics were an important factor in the equation for these owners and their architect. It did not occur to them that the addition would block the neighbors’ view.  When the husband looked at the effects of the addition from the neighbors’ windows, he apologized.  The neighbors accepted this as an effort toward empathy from a father whose children had, during the construction process, made a path of pink camellias between the two houses.  

A further example of factoring the neighbors into the equation is that of a couple whose building project included adding an elevator capped by a relatively small stand-alone structure in front of the house, new steps, and landscaping. The couple distributed three letters over a six months’ period to nearby neighbors. “We were going to cause disruption for our neighbors and we wanted to get out in front and try to keep them in the loop.”

In the letters the couple explained the reason for the project (safety and accessibility); described each phase and its projected timing; apologized for delays and inconvenience; and offered contact numbers and an invitation to “check it out” when completed.  Had any neighbors complained (which they did not) “we would have come up with a compromise,” the husband says.

Another long-time Laurelhurst resident says, “Not all neighbors are as considerate” as the couple described above. She tells of a neighbor who was “building a concrete divider between our two properties without talking to me first.  His contractor proceeded to mark off the boundaries. That’s when I had a survey done.” It indicated the divider was on her property.   

After the correct line was drawn, the contractor still “had to go on my property to put down wooden forms for his concrete. He never asked permission and acted as though I was being fussy.  His workers played loud music while working and I was home bound for a couple of weeks with a knee replacement.”  The resident went on to describe, in contrast,  “the lovely folks down the street who alerted us all that their tree was being cut down.  As it went down, a lot of us watched and mourned together, along with the owners.”

Would it make sense to adopt a code of etiquette for architects, contractors, and homeowners as a way to keep alive the Laurelhurst tradition of constructive caring?  Call it “buildiquette.”  It could be as simple as one-two-three:

  1. Communicate (particularly with the neighbors)
  2. Look both ways before starting your project
  3. Communicate

We applaud architects, builders and homeowners who already follow this code.

Joan can be reached at


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