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Big Jobs

Now and then as a project manager you get a “big job”–a job that is bigger, faster, or higher profile than anything you have ever done before. When you actually get the job you are overwhelmed at the size. It seems impossible to complete it on time. By the time you catch your breath the first emergencies have arisen. Somehow, you get through it. Usually, as soon as the job is done and you cash the check, something three times as bad comes along and the whole thing starts over again. You have to start somewhere, though.

In the winter of 2002, I was 23 and had just dropped out of engineering school to become an itinerant handyman. Officially I had been a contractor for almost three months but so far had done only small jobs for hourly pay. A couple for whom I had been doing odd jobs called up and asked for a price to repaint their entire two-story house and replace most of the siding and trim on the south side. I carefully typed a proposal on one of the school computers, my old estimating textbook in hand. The sticker price came to just over $5,000. My biggest invoice before then had been for less and $500. Timidly I dialed the clients to ask if I could meet with them that evening. My bid was well received. I later found that local painting contractors rarely painted two story houses for less than $10,000. We signed a contract on the spot. Although they wanted me to start right away, the weather in North Idaho was still too cold. I promised to return on the first clear day after May 5th.

The weeks passed quickly. I was already terrified of the job. Would I have enough equipment? Exterior painting requires a commercial pressure washer and an airless paint sprayer–each with enough hose to reach the upper stories. After many phone calls I decided to buy the pressure washer and rent the airless. I had already burned through half of my initial draw and I had not even bought the paint. I knew I did not have nearly enough ladders, but there was no money left to buy more. I began building ladders from scratch in my mother’s driveway.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend and I were evicted from our trailer. As May 5th approached we were staying in my mother’s garage in Kalispell–almost 300 miles from the job site. I had not figured any hotel budget in my estimate. I realized we would need to camp out of the truck for the duration of the job. We were experienced backpackers, so we were used to living rough. I was still only figuring four days for the job: one for prep and carpentry, two for painting, one for cleanup. Four days in a campground did not sound like much of a hardship.

As the sun set on May 4th we loaded my old work truck and rolled out into the reddening light. I had no employees yet, so I brought my unemployed girlfriend along to be my helper.
There is a special expectant feeling about driving through the night to a new job. It feels as if nothing exists in the world except a ton and a half of truck and tools flying through a tunnel of light to its inevitable goal. I have encountered the feeling many times since. On that night, however, it was new and especially strong.

Problems began almost as soon as we unloaded. The first step in painting a house is to blast off the dirt and loose paint with pressurized water, which dampens and swells the underlying boards. Then as they dry they shrink again, loosening the remaining paint. Unfortunately, my new commercial pressure washer was twice as powerful as any I had used before. When sprayed directly at siding, it was as likely to cut completely through the wood as to strip the paint. No matter how hard I tried, most of the sun-rotten plastic window screens were also blown to shreds. The temperature that morning was still less than 50ーF. By the time

I finished spraying the house I was soaked. I shivered uncontrollably as I surveyed the broken screens and cratered siding. I got in the truck and cranked up the heater while I drove to the hardware store.

It was after lunch on my first day before I had re-screened all of the windows and patched the siding with putty. My assistant was making slow progress indeed scraping and sanding. Professional house painters know tricks that she had not learned in veterinary school. By dusk the paint prep was less than a third done. I had not even begun to repair the rotten siding on the south side of the house.

As the sun crested the mountains on the second day I prepared to start the woodworking portion of the job. When the house had been built it had been clad with a type of fiberboard siding that was textured to look like boards. To save money the builder had omitted window trim on the back of the house. In the harsh northwestern winters, water had soon seeped in around the windows to rot the siding. It had become so soft that I could force a screwdriver completely through it with one hand.

I set out for the local lumberyard to find suitable replacement siding. It did not take long to discover that the product in question was no longer available. In fact, it had been recalled nearly five years previously. Nothing of similar appearance was available in town in my price range. I was sure I was seeing the last of my profit vanish.

There is, however, one thing that looks quite a bit like mock-board siding: real boards. I was in the middle of timber country and could get pine boards cheap. There were problems, however. Real 1×6 boards are both wider and thicker than their fake equivalent. They come from the mill with a smooth planed finish that looks very different from the “rustic” look on my siding. Still, it seemed like my best option. I bought a truckload of boards.
Ripping the the boards to width was easy with my power saw.

Resawing them to the appropriate thickness was much harder. The only saw on my truck that could penetrate the entire width of the boards was my old handsaw. It took two more twelve-hour days to saw the rest of the boards. The resulting surface was very uneven and had to be dressed with a hand plane.

Even after dressing my boards the the right dimensions, I had to figure out how to match the texture of the original siding. Luckily, I had learned from my earlier mishap with the pressure washer. A few blasts with the medium nozzle stripped away the softer parts of the wood, leaving as rustic a surface as one could desire. Before they were even dry, I had most of the new boards nailed up. By the end of the fourth day (when the job should have been done according to my original schedule) I had siding and window trim installed Most of the scraping and caulking was done. We were mentally and physically exhausted. We had yet to spray a drop of paint.

On the morning of day five I sent my girlfriend to pick up the paint and masking supplies while I finished the prep work. I had just finished when she arrived with tears in her eyes.

“What happened?”

“You know how the tailgate doesn’t always shut? It opened up on the road and dumped most of the paint. I didn’t know what to do so I just drove away.”

This was serious. Our initial draw was gone. What cash we had was barely enough to cover food and campground fees for the next few days. We needed money to buy paint or we could not finish the job.

At least we had plenty of tape and paper to mask off the house. Most of the primer had also been spared because it was farther from the tailgate. We went back to work. At lunch time we picked up the sprayer and began spraying the first coat of primer.
A couple hours later another client called. She had several damaged fences on her ranch that she needed fixed immediately. We could also make some money by mucking her stables. The amount would be enough to buy more paint and feed us for a few days. Working on the ranch meant leaving the job site. Luckily, the next day was Saturday. Residential contractors normally work at least six days a week, but my clients raised no objections when I told them we were taking the weekend off. They didn’t look worried yet about the job.

By Sunday afternoon we were tired and stank of manure. Then again, we had cash in our pockets. As we drove back to camp, the truck’s engine coughed and burst into flames. Somehow we managed to extinguish the fire and push the truck into a parking lot. Water got into the carburetor, so I had to take it apart and dry it by hand before the truck would move again. The truck died several more times on the way back to the campground but never again ignited.

We set off on foot the next day to finish our painting job. The campground was only about five miles from the job site. I borrowed a car from an old buddy to pick up the paint.
Compared to the previous tribulations, the actual painting went beautifully. By Wednesday afternoon my clients had the best looking house on their block. Neighbors asked me for my card. When I opened the envelope with my final payment, I found a $500 tip.

My first “big” job was done. It took more than twice the allotted time and far more money than I had expected. Even so, I came out of it with a new pressure washer and a small net profit. It was a success.

The day we left town I ran into some of my former classmates. They were on their way back from their own graduation ceremony. We chatted for a bit and I realized I did not envy them at all. Despite all of the stress, uncertainty and discomfort, I realized I had found the right life for me.

These days I work for another contractor. I manage commercial construction jobs for him that can cost more than a million dollars and employ dozens of skilled tradesmen. Every few months I get another “big job”. Each one has emergencies, tragedies, and moments when I do not think I can bring it in. When things get really bad, though, I think back to a certain house in Idaho and smile to myself.