Ah Tong Tailor

Refurbishing a Shop House in George Town, Penang

Posts tagged ‘dealing with contractors’

After Contractor C’s disappearance we took a deep breath and considered our options. We had few. We knew several folks in George Town who had gone through, or were in the process of, a refurbishment/renovation. None of them had many kind things to say about their contractors. For a while we considered hiring one known for his excellent work …. and also for disappearing for weeks at a time, multiple times, in the middle of a job. If you watch him very carefully and keep a tight reign on the money (ie., keep him tethered to the job by doling out payments in tiny increments) you might be able to make it work, a couple of people advised us. The fact that we mulled this over for more than one minute indicates that we were edging towards desperation.

But it was desperation at a low level. Sure, we wanted to get going on our house so that we could finish it and move in. Yes, we didn’t relish the thought of paying rent and a mortgage indefinitely. But after a month or so we entered a sort of “let it be” mindset similar to that which we’d experienced after our first offer on a George Town property had fallen through. The rent-mortgage load wasn’t killing us, yet. If it was meant to happen it would happen. And if it didn’t … well, absolute worst case scenario we would (with regrets) sell Ah Tong Tailor and move on.

Then, about two or three months after Contractor C absconded with our plans, a friend of a friend referred us to a contractor his family had been using for additions/renovations/odd jobs for over two decades. This was good — a personal connection, weight to bring to bear if need be. Dave telephoned Contractor T and we made an appointment to meet at the shop house in January of 2011.

We met underneath the Ah Tong Tailor sign board late on a Sunday afternoon. What Dave and I saw: a wiry Chinese Malaysian man with a crooked smile, a shock of gray hair and a tape measure clamped to the waist band of his blue jeans. What he probably saw: two foreigners dumb enough to pay more for a dilapidated inner city property than any seasoned Chinese Malaysian man ever would. Before we walked inside Contractor T sized us up, and I guess we looked pretty green. But we liked him right away. Maybe we were just overly hopeful, but we liked that he wasn’t slick, wasn’t polished. He looked like he worked for a living. His English was just OK, but he could say all he needed to say about building. He was direct. Everything about Contractor T said “No B.S.”

Contractor C (on the right): slick, polished

Contractor T: a guy who gets his hands dirty

Once inside the house we handed Contractor T the list, minus quotations, drawn up by Contractor C. We walked around and he looked and looked, moving his hands over walls and poking at rotten wood. Right away he began to find problems with the first quote.

“You’ll have to replace many beams. Look at the holes. The wood is rotten and that’s the house’s support.”

“Look at cracks on this concrete pillar and the cross beam. It means the extension upstairs can’t support a new bathroom. You’ll need to knock it down and rebuild it.”

“Better just knock down the outhouse and build a new one. You can’t just knock down the wall separating toilet and shower because the rest won’t hold.”

“The doors are good but alot of the wood in the room partitions is rotten.”

“The boils go only halfway up the wall but if you don’t replaster the whole thing it will just continue. Better take it all off and clean the bricks and plaster floor to ceiling.”

“I think maybe you need to replace 3/4 of the ceiling upstairs. We can try to patch the roof but no guarantee. Maybe a whole new roof.”

When we’d done the walk-through with Contractor C he’d answered “No problem” every time we asked “Can you do this? Can we change that?” At the time that was comforting. But now, as Contractor T pointed out Ah Tong Tailor’s tiny-to-the-unschooled-eye but critical structural issues it started to seem that Contractor C was probably the kind of guy who quoted low to get a job, rushed it, collected his money, and walked away. If there was hard truth to be swallowed we wanted it fed to us before we got started on the refurbishment — not after we’d moved in, and all of the problems we should have taken care of in the first place surfaced one after another like pimples.

Another thing we liked about Contractor T: his obvious appreciation for old stuff. We didn’t know it at the time, but he collects old wood, old metal, old fans, old cabinet pulls, old Anything to Do With Buildings, and keeps it all on his property. He sells the stuff of course, and he uses it in jobs that he works. The man has an appreciation for the way things were made back whenever. And as we walked through the house he demonstrated this by knocking on the heavy timber door with its thick sliding bolt that separated what would be the master bedroom from the bathroom, and nodding when we said that we wanted to keep it unfinished. We wanted to reuse as much timber as possible, and that didn’t seem like a foreign concept to Contractor T. We said that we would keep Ah Tong’s signage, and he smiled a little bit. This made us feel that we wouldn’t be fighting every step of the way to retain as much of Ah Tong Tailor’s history as we could, while turning the shop house into a useable, liveable space.

Contractor C had said he could complete the job in 6 months. “Oh no. Eight to twelve months at least,” said Contractor T, who would be paid by the job, not by the hour. And he was busy with another job, so couldn’t start on ours until June 2011. We were now looking at moving into the house not later that same year, but in the second half of 2012.

A week later Contractor T had his daughter email us a quote (the man doesn’t do email). We met him once more at the house to make some changes and additions. It ended up being 2/3 more than Contractor C’s quote — mostly because of additional structural work. A month later we shook on it.

In September of 2011, one year after we’d taken possession of the property, we handed the keys to Contractor T. We’d already unearthed and carted home a few keepsakes, so we told him to go ahead and clean out everything that was left: beaten-down furniture, the old kitchen sink, pots and pans, broken plates and chipped glasses and other odds and ends. A few days later we stopped by the house to see what it looked like empty. Contractor T and his crew had moved in saws and a worktable; there was paint-speckled metal scaffolding propped against the walls.

And there was one small object that Contractor T had found, and saved.

Hung from an old nail near the front of the house was a handmade dart board he had found tucked into a storage area under the shop house’s eaves. A square of wood painted dark sea foam, wire strung in a crosshatch between 84 nails edging a dirty paper square. A strip of yellow with Chinese characters that say something like “does not count if you break the wire.” (Thanks to commenter Albert for that translation.) The board is pocked with hundreds of dart holes; we imagine the tailor made good use of it between customers.

Dave and I had confidence about Contractor T going in. But perhaps more than anything else, seeing that dart board hanging on our wall assured us that yes, we were all on the same page. We know that Contractor C would have chucked that old piece of wood out without a second thought. Contractor T gave it pride of place in what would be its new home.

As work on our shop house has progressed over the last thirteen months that dart board has been cleaned and dusted and carefully moved from the front to the back of the house, from the ground floor to the first floor and back downstairs again. Whenever our refurbishment enters a new phase Dave and I walk into the house and look for the dart board. And when we find it, we imagine where we’ll hang it when Ah Tong Tailor is home.

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I got ahead of myself with the last post, and actually this one has been sitting on my computer, half-finished, for some time. Before we could begin demolition and clean-out at Ah Tong Tailor, there were procedures to be followed and permission to be gained.

As much as we love George Town (an ardor that grows every time we drive into town to check on progress at the house, which inevitably carries us down a side street which, on that day, is home to some curious happening or another, like this), we would never have purchased property in the city if it were not a UNESCO world heritage site. Why? Because the world heritage designation guarantees — or gives as close a guarantee as is possible here in Malaysia — that neighboring structures will not be pulled down and replaced with a 25-story condo building.

You laugh, but I am serious. In Hong Kong, in Shanghai, in Bangkok, in Saigon — in every Asian city in which we’ve lived, except for Kuala Lumpur — we have, for all or a portion of our residency, lived next to or within earshot of a construction site. In some cases we lived beneath a unit being renovated while living next to or within earshot of a construction site. In this part of the world (Singapore may be an exception here) there is no public consultation vis a vis demolition/building, nor are there any rules once construction begins. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself living next to a construction site, which can happen with no warning whatsoever — as in Saigon, when I woke  one morning in our lovely just-renovated French colonial villa overlooking the park in the center of District 1 to find the equally lovely French colonial bungalow next door being bulldozed (by the City of Hanoi, but that’s another story) — you may fall asleep (or try to) and wake to the glare of floodlights and the sound of jackhammers. Dave and I often joke that our years in Asia have left us with construction-related PTSD. Though that’s probably not a joke at all, because it is still the case that whenever I hear jackhammers my stomach folds in on itself.

But we are protected from that in George Town, we think. Technically speaking, buildings within the world heritage site cannot be torn down and replaced unless they are structurally dangerous and beyond salvage. (That said I have seen at least two structures in Little India fall to the wrecking ball since we bought Ah Tong Tailor. There are always property owners willing to — and well-connected enough — to flout laws and regulations.) We may yet suffer through top-to-bottom renovations in the two shop houses with which we share party (common) walls. But renovation noise is a far sight less painful than the rhythm of a pile driver.

There are other building/renovation regulations in George Town (or any UNESCO world heritage site) — facades must not be altered, extra stories must not be added, etc. And one of the means of enforcing those regulations is by requiring all property owners to obtain permits before beginning work. Many property owners don’t bother with this formality; they just slap up metal hoardings around the structure and go at it. To some extent I sympathize — the bureaucracy surrounding permit acquisition is thick as mud, and if you are a business owner bleeding money waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn is especially painful. But our plans for Ah Tong Tailor were not complicated, nor were they against the spirit of the heritage guidelines. We did not plan to sneak an additional story in under the cover of darkness, nor did we want to make other alterations to the structure or its facade that would radically alter its character. And so we suspected that securing a permit would present no difficulties and could be accomplished in a timely fashion.

“Do it legally,” a local conservationist admonished me in her best imitation of a school marm when I happily told her, during a chance meeting at a favorite coffee shop in George Town’s Little India, that our purchase had finally gone through. So much for “Congratulations”. She needn’t have snarked; we’d planned to do it by the book all along.

Our planned changes were so minimal: removing/moving the timber room partitions, updating/rebuilding the ground floor outhouse, updating the upstairs “bath”, reversing the direction of the staircase and building a kitchen where there wasn’t much more than a sink and a portable gas burner. We would be refurbishing rather than restoring (an important distinction — here is an excellent, fairly detailed blog on a conservation/restoration project in George Town). So we didn’t need the consultation of an (expensive) restoration specialist architect. Instead, on a recommendation from a friend we hired an agent or consultant who could take us through the permit procedures for a reasonable fee.

The whole process took about 6 weeks. In September of 2010, about a month after we’d taken possession of Ah Tong Tailor, we met Agent O — who, as a sometimes-contractor, knows all about buildings and refurbishment of “heritage” structures — at our house and did a walk-through. He relayed our vision to an architect with whom he had worked in the past, who then put it all down on paper. We were living in Kuala Lumpur at the time so the architect emailed the plans. We asked for a few minor adjustments (such as move a partition here, make the rise on the stairs lower and the tread deeper), the architect made the changes and, all told, we had final plans within a couple weeks. (The plans are up top.) We filled out some forms, made photocopies of passports and deed and other documents and wrote a check and Agent O filed a permit application with MPPP (Municipal Council of Penang Island). Three or four weeks later our application was approved and the permit issued. We were now good to go.

Easy enough. Now it was time to get down to the monetary nitty-gritty. We needed to find a contractor and find out exactly how much our vision would cost us.

Agent O introduced us to C, a stocky guy with a big stride and a firm handshake. Experienced in all kinds of renovations, he told us with a big plastic smile, referencing a few projects around George Town that weren’t quite to our taste. One of our biggest concerns relating to finding a contractor was identifying That Certain Someone who could appreciate old stuff. Old timber, old beams, old paint, scuffs and scratches, the marks of time, the bits and pieces of a building that would tell its history, or at least say “I have been here for a long time.” Much in our refurbished shop house would of course be new. But we didn’t want it all new. We didn’t want matching floor and ceiling boards and shiny varnished shutters and inexpensive, easy-care synthetic roof tiles. We didn’t want to trap Ah Tong Tailor in a time warp — it had to be liveable — but at the same time we didn’t want it to be a theme park-y ode to Old Skool George Town. We needed someone who “got” all that.

A quick tour of George Town will show that not many contractors do “get” that kind of refurbishment work. Renewed structures like this and this are more our style than this. And we surely did not want this.

So we had some doubts about Contractor C going in. But we figured that if his quote was reasonable we could make an effort to be on the scene often enough to reign in his love of varnish. (We are a freelance travel writer and photographer. In retrospect, how realistic was that line of thought?) We met Contractor C at Ah Tong Tailor on a sweltering morning and did a long, long walk-through, front to back, up and down the stairs. We examined boils on the plaster, rot on the beams. We measured stair height and length, stuck our fingers through crumbly wood partitions, took measure of the out house (it would all have to go), examined cracks in cement. Contractor C took lots of notes and so did we. We handed over a copy of the plans and he promised a quote within a week. In two weeks, after a bit of phone tag, he sent one  by email. It was as detailed as we could have wished, and three pages long.

Here’s a shortened list of what the house needed:

  • Demolition and site clearance
  • Hack concrete slab at airwell area and create drain
  • Construct 15-ft concrete counter for kitchen
  • Remove staircase and rebuild
  • Rebuild and tile outhouse
  • Chip off all water damaged plaster and replaster with lime (appox 60% of walls)
  • Restore rear G/F window to original size, paint and varnish (!!!) doors/windows
  • New timber door for outhouse
  • Repair existing G/F concrete slab
  • Remove all upstairs floor boards, keep what’s not rotted and replace what is
  • Salvage existing bedroom doors, make good and build frames
  • Make modern the bathroom upstairs
  • Remove all timber ceilings upstairs, keep timber not rotted and replace what is
  • Repair entire roof and retile using existing tiles if possible, repair/replace gutters
  • Replace asbestos roofs in courtyard and over outhouse
  • New piping throughout
  • New electrical throughout

The cost of which came, in total, to around what we had been quoted in 2000 for a high-end (but small) kitchen renovation in our 1930’s San Francisco Bay Area Mediterranean bungalow. But this would cover the structural and cosmetic refurbishment of an entire structure with about 3,200 square feet of living space (including courtyard). It did not include the cost of replacing beams (because it wouldn’t be known exactly how many beams needed replacing until we got into the structural work), paint, appliances (fans, aircons, kitchen stuff, water heaters, etc.) or bathroom/kitchen fit-outs (sinks, toilets etc.).

Still, all in all this seemed like a doable project, certainly one we could never afford to undertake anywhere in our home country.

After receiving the quote we drove up to Penang for another meeting with Contractor C. There were a few things we wanted to clarify, and we thought we’d ask for some changes that would likely increase the amount of his quote. We met at Ah Tong Tailor, Contractor C took more notes, we shook hands and he promised to get back to us within a week. It was early November 2010, and we hoped to be in the house by autumn 2011. After all, we had seen refurbishments in George Town that had been completed to satisfaction within 6-8 months.

Then Contractor C disappeared. No second quote. We never got our plans back. (Luckily we had another copy.)

It was the best thing that could have ever happened to us, or to Ah Tong Tailor.

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