Saturday, November 14, 2020

A bespoke rustic look

A customer asked me to repair his side wall. He didn't want it to look fully restored, but rather, he want it to appear "rustic". Here are the before shots:
This was our result:

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Damage reversal

I came across this situation recently.

Even after I removed the offensive mortar joints, there were remnants of cement smeared onto the bricks in places to still be dealt with.

Once I was able to make the mess disappear, I was left with this result and was ready for the replacement mortar.

In the meanwhile, I had proceeded to figure out the proper mortar mix. The vertical joint on the left is my sample. The one on the right shows the house’s original mortar.

And this is the final result.

Here is the review the client has posted on my Google page, should you be curious to know just how satisfied he was.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Making some distinctions about our pricing understood

This post is admittedly long, therefore depending on your appetite for reading such ramblings, you may choose to glance it over or decide not to be bothered all together. If you feel that by now you do have a vested interest in better understanding why my price is what it is, how much consideration I have put into the matter, and what my mechanism is for arriving at a valuation for my services, then it’s all there for the reading, should you be willing to drudge through the whole thing. Otherwise, the mere fact of having written it has been a useful exercise in thought clarification for yours truly.

In the last post, I’ve explained the raison d’être of my company: producing masonry restoration work that is considered art in its own right, above and beyond its structural integrity properties.

Furthermore, I’ve been working assiduously since the onset of my business on honing my work ethic. My goal has always been for the client, to not only be satisfied, but to become elated. This requires a multi-faceted approach to customer satisfaction; every single step of the company-client interaction has to pass muster. In order words, someone embracing this level of commitment can’t be late to start a project like (sadly) most contractors often are. The work has to be delivered on time and on budget. It requires consistently showing up and working with dedication day after day from start to finish, thus demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt to the client that their project is currently the most important thing on the contractor’s mind. The property has to be kept maniacally clean throughout the project to an awe-inspiring level. The communication skills have to be above average, first class even. One has to be receptive and responsive to the client's or neighbours’ needs, and more.

I’ve personally turned this strategy into a soft asset over time that I’ve been polishing to a shine. I’ve quite often heard it said by our clients that we are the only contractor with whom there wasn’t even a single glitch. [If I find myself getting "rusty" in some spots -- if you will indulge me for one metaphor --  I tend to deeply self-reflect about the situation and seek to get to the root cause of the matter so as to course correct.]

But, when we started Invisible Tuckpointing back in 2001, our prices were below the median rate that well-established companies were charging during that era, eventually leading to my complete unhappiness, getting home from work between 9:00 and 11:00 pm nearly every night, and yet not earning an adequate compensation for my efforts.

In summer 2002, I had raised our prices to be within the median range, but by 2005, I was getting sick of it and ready to go back to roofing, and my wife and business partner partner — Sandy — was ready to return to being an esthetician in a nail salon. There just wasn’t enough “cheddar” for us to be motivated to continue to undergo the constant pressure of making sure we were always on time for the next job all the while matching the bricks and mortar to the existing masonry to a level that could be classified as full blown OCD — this, in addition to staying an extra hour (or two!) every single workday just to make sure that the site was being kept (ridiculously) clean.

The fact is we couldn't help ourselves: we wouldn’t have it any other way as we had become addicted to the joy of witnessing our customers get progressively elated, and at times, even “losing it” a little because they were so damn delighted. But we had become tired of the business in general, our happiness level was on a downtrend, and we were strongly contemplating getting out and doing something "less intense".

Perhaps it should be attributed to luck, random timing or “destiny” that the next few (highly) interested prospects (I recall there being three) took it so negatively that we were quitting. They no less demanded that we be doing, at a minimum, their project before “checking out”. Simply put, they couldn't care less about our drama: we had to do their work — only then would they “set us free”. If my account of the events sounds a little exaggerated, it could be closer to what really took place than you think. I remember pacing back and forth after one such conversation, disturbed and conflicted about what to do. The solution came to me over the following few days: we would charge what we really wanted to, so as to feel stoked about the prospect of giving it our 110 % — perhaps so much that nobody in the right mind would want to hire us ever again. “Problem solved”, I thought, except that we got crazy busy from that point on. The new price pushed away those who were not interested in what we best had to offer, but it apparently made much more sense to those who valued it. I remember going out to do sales calls on Saturdays in Spring 2007 and, for several weeks on end, coming back with 40k to 50k in sales every time. And with wanting to keep the team to 2 or 3 of us so as to not dilute the experience, the wait time for customers became customarily extended.

I’ve since been gradually inching up our prices to what they are today, always with the balancing act in mind of trying to ascertain what our unique offering is worth, to us on the one hand, and to the type of clients we best cater to on the other.

Our current pricing structure has had a forcing function on me of having to assume the extra responsibility of ensuring we only focus on prospective clients who definitely want our skill set. I constantly ask myself, “Does it make sense for us to do this job?” “Is it in the best interest of the client, or would it be just a sale to line my pockets with?”

For example, let us assume that a house had previously been repaired in many places with visibly unappealing grout; and now the owner wanted to repair a portion of newly deteriorating brickwork, only to leave the ugly grout intact for budgetary reasons; then I believe I should pass on that job. I could best be helpful at this point by referring other companies who are self-admittedly more suited to the task…that is unless the owners were planning to address the grout in the next year or so; which however, is most always never the case.

If, on the other end, I can bring a building back to its former glory — since the skill set is more than just rare — then I feel I should be the one to do the work, and I would do it without any qualms whatever about my price, provided the customer concurs and wants the result more than hanging onto the cash, if I can speak candidly.

There are clients who contact me to have work done for whom my price doesn’t even raise an eyebrow and who are happy to proceed, and even grateful that I can and am willing to do the work and have not yet, for example, gone into early retirement. Those are the people I'm meant to work for, I believe.
There are also those who try desperately not to hire me, but after having researched their options, come to the conclusion that they do need to enlist our services, based on the sheer fact that they are a stickler for a highly harmonious result. With these individuals, I always try to do a reality check and explain that the last thing I want is a situation in which, at the end of the project, I’m told that the work is great but the price too high. I further explain, that although I would otherwise be more than happy to do their project, should this in fact be their sentiment, I wouldn’t want to proceed since their feeling would indicate to me that they are prioritizing price over outcome; and while there may be nothing wrong with that, it would mean that I am not a good fit for them; and as such, they should stick to their guns and try and find another company that will be more aligned with want they truly want: an acceptable job at a much lesser price.

And at times, there are those who unfortunately have not done enough homework / due diligence and decide to hire me nonetheless not knowing fully what's involved; or one of the partners badly wants our services while the other resents the price. These last two customer profiles are the most hazardous to me as they can slip by unnoticed: it appears I’m working for my target audience, but I’m in fact not.

I’ve had one fall through the cracks this past week that was a combination of the two, which is what has prompted me to write his post.

Before getting to the details of the latter, I’ll add that by July 1st, we had done only three projects up to that point this year. I had initially refused to do two of them, having had doubts that we were the right fit for these clients; however, the owners of both residences did insist that they only wanted to be dealing with Invisible Tuckpointing. They convinced me and so we performed restoration work for them. Jubilance abounded for all three households in the end.

Then, having lumped a few smaller projects in July for which I nonetheless felt we were a good match, we did one such job the week before last, and the clients — husband and wife — were both effusively thankful for the result; while Sandy and I were ecstatic for having meet them and for having had the opportunity to apply our creativity to their home with an outcome that was highly pleasing to the both of us as well. There was no price tension whatsoever. With all the work mentioned thus far in this post, I can imagine how someone could either be horrified as to how much we charge per hour per person, or be fine with it because the result cannot be had otherwise and speaks for itself — all depending on what is most valued.

Then came last week’s job, a very lovely family — all of them, down to the dog. It started last summer when I showed up to provide the wife an estimate for repointing the front of their house. Actually, I immediately said I’d pass and was ready to leave, when she gave me an incredulous look and, of course, asked me why.

I explained that the brick needed to be cleaned and offered my opinion that, as my price is definitely not cheap, it would be a waste of her and her husband’s resources to go ahead and repoint the brick as it was. She exclaimed that the brick had just been cleaned. I replied that it was a poor job then, and I still felt the same way. She asked what she should do. I suggested getting someone who knew how to clean bricks and, upon request, provided her with the name of a respected acquaintance of mine in the field. She asked what my price would be. I told her. I explained what my scope of work would be if I were to do the project. Meanwhile, her husband had showed up and the three of us talked for some time longer before I finally left. I was pretty sure I would never hear from them again.

Lo and behold, I got a call from her in October 2018. She had had the individual I had recommended clean the brick for her and thanked me profusely for having made the suggestion; and she wished to go ahead with the work and wanted it done no later than by March 2019. I replied that I was booked until July or August, and couldn’t change the lineup, at least until the end of June. After a moment of silence and expressing her clear disappointment, she agreed that she would wait and mentioned that July would be better than August. In the days that followed, I checked out the property and agreed that he bricks had been cleaned beautifully. I made a couple phone calls and was able to book her around mid-July. I called back to confirm and her husband signed the contract. I had assumed, based on the above-mentioned events, that they were by now in the first bucket of client types I mentioned earlier.
Last Monday, I finally arrived and was greeted warmly by the wife who was at home that day. Theirs was a tricky job in terms of colour match, which required all of our prior experience to successfully pull off, and which I believe we did. But it wasn’t a time consuming job, as many all-too-often are. I had sold it as “1 unit” — my own methodology for selling work that IMO works better than any other method, such as pricing by the foot, by the brick, etc. One unit can range from 4 light days to 5 long days, although I’m always clear that I do not sell time, but a result. Anyway, I had seen her on Thursday afternoon and she had liked the outcome, calling it “seamless”. I mentioned we were essentially done, although we had to come back on Friday morning to do some final tweaks and to clean up the porch floor and window sills with soap and water and pick up our equipment. We made an appointment then to meet at 2:45 on the Friday so she would pay us.

The following day, as she came out with her checkbook, she mentioned that her husband felt they were overpaying, and as the work had taken less time than they had thought it would / should, she was asking for a 10 % discount — not unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination, and she was kindly asking, but definitely not what I had bargained for.

I must admit, I never get upset with customers -- not even the only one who has ever screwed me -- but I did initially get angry. I felt it was unfair to re-negotiate after the job was complete; and so beautifully done to boot. My personal contention was I had never twisted their arm. She had insisted we be doing their work; and as long as the result was as artful as all our other work is, we deserved to get paid what had been agreed beforehand..

She remained remarkably composed and polite, but kept shaking her head slowly while looking at me as though she really needed this concession. I offered to charge her nothing -- not a penny -- as long as she’d let me take out all the mortar joints that we had put in so she could find someone cheaper to fill them back in (good luck on getting it matched, however). She didn’t want that. I pointed out toward the second neighbour’s house where some unsettling pitch black repointing had been performed and contrasted sharply with the original mortar. I asked her whether she would honestly have preferred to pay someone else half my price to get that result. She said would not have wanted that. She mentioned that what happened was they had no idea about what was involved about this type of work and, although they were perfectly happy with the work, they simply felt it had not taken enough hours for the money charged.
So, having learned better about keeping harmonious relationships with clients than to make a big fuss about something, I calmed down and told her I accepted her offer in order to take my share of responsibility for how she and her husband felt about my pricing, and for not having seen this train coming. I was still less than pleased about the situation, but I went along with it. She wrote the cheque, thanked me profusely for having obliged her and we talked some more, rather cheerfully actually. It was during that last bit that it dawned on me what had really happened, and I put forth to her that perhaps she had been the one to insist on getting the work done while her husband had not really wanted to go ahead, and now maybe — just maybe, she had put herself between a rock and a hard place, having to pay heed to her husband’s sentiments that surfaced when our price-to-hours ratio became evident. She replied that I had nailed the dynamic "on the head". Knowing this made me feel okay about having to part with the 10%, but I'm resolved to make sure it never happens again.
I often tell prospective clients that essentially the only “downfall” with me is the price, (which usually yields a laugh or two). I then clarify my statement by promptly adding that nothing else will go wrong.

You do get what you pay for” is often an accurate statement....

I will also say that my price may seem high, but only compared to the companies I find myself in competition with in the residential market. I don't think personally it is high at all. In fact, the very premise of this blog is that it aims to suggest to residential home owners that they can avail themselves of institutional, historical landmark level, heritage work at a reasonable price, hence this blog's subtitle, "A refreshing perspective for residential owners of historic brick / stone homes -- when you're the one footing the bill, not the government." Go to the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals' website and locate the firms who have worked on Old City Hall, the Ontario Legislative Building, Casa Loma and Parliament Hill, amongst others, and ask for an estimate! That would certainly offer another way to look at things.  

Everything is relative and keep in mind, I live in a world in which clients will gladly spend $40,000 on a trendy fridge and a fancy French oven, but would consider it heresy to spend that much on the exterior of their home, save for windows and landscaping. That is just the sad reality of it, I'm afraid.

In this same world WSIB, since 2013, wants up to $10,000 yearly to insure small masonry business owners on a compulsory basis, whereas in the past, only one’s employees had to be covered through them; and a $175 monthly independent insurance policy would be all that was required for the principals of the company. And we all know what the implications of income tax are.
In short, in addition to be performing the work myself with my business and life partner, I also have developed an intellectual property related to our work which I do license to others outside of Central Ontario, and which I feel I deserve to get paid for, whether I'm doing the work myself, or someone else is "upping their game" by using my system. I’m also a musician and science-fiction writer, but I don’t realistically expect to ever get remunerated for those endeavors. The masonry work is a creativity outlet I very much enjoy, but it is also the one I can and do monetize.
If you value the work we do and want to avail yourself of it, I ask that you please make absolutely sure that you are comfortable with the price we command, and focus solely as your yardstick on whether we succeed in blowing you way with the result.
And we shall give you our 110%.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Harmony versus dissonance

I entered the masonry industry while I was still the owner of a roofing company. I couldn’t believe how ugly the majority of repointing projects getting done around Toronto at the time were.
At times, the work wasn’t too badly done, but the repair was still “visible”.
I made an effort from the onset to produce nicer-looking work than most of what I was observing being done.
I heard it being said one day that a percentage of customers wished that tuckpointing work could somehow be blended so well that it would in fact become “invisible”. That set off a light bulb to ignite in my head and I knew right then and there that I could be the one who would figure it out. That took some doing, obviously, but I got there and so Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd. became the one company that could and can be counted upon to deliver a real match every single time.
Promising that the replacement mortar would match the original to the point of customer elation was most always adding pressure to my life, but it kept me on my toes and forced me to continually challenge myself.
Came a point, though, when the endeavor crossed over into the field of the arts and the objective became to produce a result so harmonious that it could be considered a form of artistic expression, much like a musical composition, a play, a novel, etc. would.
This year so far has been particularly artful. I’ve just finished my third facade restoration of the season and I feel as though I’ve just completed three highly satisfactory (to me) paintings.
I love the creativity element of this line of work.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Why you will likely try *not* to hire me for your brick repointing project at first — and why you may end up changing your mind

From 2001 to 2007, potential customers would pretty much make a decision on the spot, or fairly close to it, for the most part.
I remember doing my sales calls on Saturdays in the spring of 2007 and coming back home with $40,000-$50,000 of sales every week. I can recall that by April 29 of that year, I was already booked until early November, which is typically when the season ends for me on any given year.
Since then, we’ve had the global financial crisis in 2008, the $10,000 home renovation tax credit cancellation in 2010, and immediately following that, the retail sales tax went from 7% GST to 13% HST.
As a direct result, homeowners now have less disposable income to direct towards home renovations, and they have to be substantially more thoughtful about their choices in this regard than they’ve had to in the past.
Furthermore, WSIB’s Bill 119 was the last straw to cause home renovation prices to collapse — even as the price of homes continues to rise — as it places contractors in the uncomfortable position to largely have operate in the black market in order to remain viable.
And don’t forget that there is what I call “the Homestars effect” which has greatly contributed to further commoditize the market.
The upshot of it all is that potential customers now take longer to make their decision. They no longer thank me for simply showing up to give them a quotation, as they now have 9 or 10 other estimates from contractors who are hungry to get the job.
So prices crashing is a good thing, right?
That depends.
Not if common sense fails to prevail.
If you’re not fussy about getting the repointing done to a high standard and making sure that the new mortar matches with the original on the house, then you will feel well-served as this is a buyer’s market.
But if you are seeking highly professional workmanship, you may find the process more frustrating that it needs to be.
Recent and thorough market intelligence tells me that a few estimates will be as low as 4 times cheaper than the highest quote, while the bulk of the proposals will fall pretty evenly between being priced at a 40 to 75% discount to what the top of the range is at.
You will pretty much be met with someone who will nonchalantly walk around your property with you asking you what you want done, as if they weren’t sure themselves about how to proceed.
Some of these contractors will make assessments of the situation or impose conditions that will make you feel as though they are “winging it” and are “making it up” as they go. You will be left feeling like no one has a process. For example, some shall insist that all the mortar needs to be 100 % replaced while others won’t. Some will tell you that a particular item needs attention while others will tell you the exact opposite.
Several of the estimates you will be getting will be from a masonry contractor or a salesperson who hires others to do the work while they aim to make a markup in the range of 35% of the contract amount. This will all-too-often mean that your masonry restoration project will be performed by a crew of two people paid approximately $18 an hour. You know what they say, “If you pay with peanuts, you will get monkeys”. So don’t be all that surprised if you come home from work one day and engage one of these crew members and they act like apes.
Most importantly, no one will stick their neck out and say they can accurately match the existing mortar when you press them on the issue (even though they might initially pay it lip service until you demand some assurance). They will usually say that they can “only do their best” — which means absolutely nothing, let’s be clear on that).
Now, circling back to the title of this post, let me hit you once again with this perhaps startling statement:
You may very well be the type of prospective client who will try not to hire me when I first provide you with an estimate.
You’ve read correctly.
What do I mean?
When you get a quotation from me, I will most likely be the highest. It’s not that I’m gouging the customers; it’s that I’m doing the work to a whole different level.
In the “golden years” that I have referred to above, I would close jobs easily because 1) customers had more disposal income, 2) it was quite hard to even get quotes from contractors; and 3) the spread between my price and that of others was smaller.
What happens now is that a segment of potential clients take longer to make a decision as they have to justify to themselves paying what appears to be a premium to have me do their work.
But in fact, many times, I’m not more expensive at all: I’m simply pricing the job so the result is what I consider a professional outcome, whereas much of my competition might charge 1/2 the price for half-time spent to produce what constitutes, in my opinion, an abortion. (There’s no need for me to chew my words, is there?)
So a fair percentage of them charge the same per week, or slightly less, but the outcome suffers greatly.
My biggest challenge is to remain believable when I make my claim to you that, upon conclusion of the project, your house will look as though “time has only kissed it” — meaning that the brickwork will be harmonious to a degree such that it will appear as though it aged gracefully and never required restoration.
That is why I’m saying that, in the current market reality we find ourselves in at the time of writing in 2016, you most likely will try not to hire me when going through the process of getting pointing estimates and are getting a wide range of prices to repoint your house from several (or many!) contractors who are hungry and more than eager to shove a quote in your hands.
But if you are a stickler for having brick mortar replacement work that truly matches the original (and is in fact art in its own right), and if you do your due diligence, you then very well may find yourself in that cohort who ultimately realize that I’m indeed their best option.
For the sake of your house — which clearly can’t speak for itself — I urge you to truly do your homework and make sure you’re making the best choice all around.
And if, for some reason, I think I’m not the right contractor for you, I’ll be the first one to let you know.
Happy hunting.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Homestars Effect

I remember back to around 2003. Most contractors were still “offline” in their advertising and marketing efforts.
I felt as though I had the internet pretty much to myself in those days.
I had a website that was more than just a “glorified business card”, and I had a web presence through having written articles for Masonry Magazine and the Mason Contractors Association of America, among other things; thereby channeling to me the more thoughtful and research-inclined potential buyers — and they were more than halfway sold by the time they contacted me.
I had learned in the nineties, in my roofing contracting days, to stay away from buying ads in the yellow pages, unless you had a way to stand out; otherwise you would drown in a sea of “me-too-ism”.
And this is what Homestars personally reminds me of.
It might be different with other trades such as roofing, window replacement, etc., I’m not sure — although I personally gave up using it last winter for my own residence when I was looking to find a plumber and eventually had to resort to Google Ads, which I normally don’t rely on either, as I typically prefer the organic search results.
What Homestars has done, at least when it comes to masonry work, and more precisely, repointing, is to turn everyone into a commodity service provider.
Some facts have recently surfaced for me through market intelligence, for example when most — if not all — masonry contractors are pressed to answer whether they can truly match the original mortar, they will say that “they can only do their best”, explaining away how difficult it is and all. This is whether they were discovered on Homestars or not, I must add. Also, they will typically ask the customer what he or she wants in a way that imparts that they have no clear process or framework with which to approach this type of work, giving off a strong sense that they are “winging it”; and most often offering contradictory opinions from one contractor to another, as in “This wall needs to be entirely ground out and fully repointed” in opposition to “That wall is perfectly fine, I would leave it”.
The result is a range of price options and scope-of-work recommendations that vary greatly for the same project; not to mention that the result typically lands somewhere between having a “ghastly” to a “ just OK” appearance that steers clear of being “artistic”, harmonious” and “beautiful”.
The secret question that no one asks me, but that they all seem to be thinking of, is “Why is no one else emulating what you are doing if you are in fact so good at it?”
The answer is that “I can be bothered”. It is not rocket science — I’m no Elon Musk  — but it does require being committed to spending hours (or days!) on every job, as required, so as to eventually “get the mix right”. Sometimes it comes easy, especially with years of experience, and sometimes it comes really hard, still, even for me; however, it’s the niche I’ve carved for myself in the marketplace. And the reason why no one has been in a hurry to “dethrone” me is that maintaining a high bar requires “keeping one’s feet to the fire” all the time. It is more pressure than anybody likes — even me — to always have to live to the promise that the mortar will closely match in color, texture and composition.
The “typical” masonry contractor doesn’t like that pressure, as it is certainly uncomfortable — more so at times than at other times — but it is always an extra pressure to have to be dealing with; and I’ve been intentionally putting myself between a rock and a hard place for years and years, and so I can take it.
What happens when you open Homestars on your phone, tablet or desktop, is that you are greeted with dozens after dozens of masonry contractors offering  tuck-pointing, who (in my opinion) can’t factually match the old mortar that needs to be reproduced, who will offer you different and contradictory opinions, and who at times have hundreds of positive reviews and/or have been appointed “Best of Year _____”.
How is this possible?
Based on what I have learned through my interactions with Homestars, the mechanics of the site which make these dichotomies possible are as follows:
  1. 1- The business model: as soon as a contractor has one single review up on Homestars, a sales rep of the company is guaranteed to call on this contractor and offer a premium profile (at a cost of $300/month, on a 1 year-minimum contract!). The basic (read “free”) accounts are not allowed to link to their company website or upload photos and a logo — which makes these profiles look bland.
  2. 2- The exposure boost: if that wasn't enough, right smack in the middle of a basic profile will appear several attention-grabbing ads to promote premium profiles, just below where it says: “You might also consider…”
  3. 3- Reviews can written by the contractor as a perk: you’ve read that right!  Premium profiles have access to a smartphone app which allows them to write their own review, push it to the customer’s phone who then can post it by simply pressing “OK”. I can promise you that no one naturally gets 200, much less 575 reviews! It just doesn’t happen. I have only 16 reviews on Homestars, at the time of writing this blog post, after several years on the service, to boot. They are all organic and real, mind you, but they don’t come by very often. I have customers who have physically hugged me because they were so elated, but they wouldn't write a review -- no way! No one has the time these days : since the advent of social media, consumer attention is a scarce commodity .
So there you have it.
I personally have always declined and still am refusing to pay Homestars $300 a month for a business model that I disagree with. Their sales personnel keeps contacting me every time a client leaves my company a review or whenever a prospect shows interest despite my having clearly and repeatedly requested not to be contacted -- deaf ears is what I'm getting.
So what is the "Homestars effect", you ask? It is the added noise of having so many contractors, all presumably satisfying their clients to the point that they all have become a commodity by having no differentiating traits of their own.
Having a review system that keeps everyone on their best behavior is a definite plus — as any seasoned eBay buyer will tell you — but I would argue that putting everyone on the same footing, when there are in fact great variances in competence and outcome, is not in the best interests of the consumer; not to mention that it is unfair to those contractors who are truly raising the bar, but refuse to be "held hostage" to the fact that Homestars ranks high in the Google results — something the company is clearly eager to monetize.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Let it be known I no longer work through the Toronto Heritage Grants Program

Every Spring I get a good share of phone calls from potential clients who are interested in having me provide them an estimate so they can apply for a subsidy with it from the City of Toronto’s Heritage Grants Program.
And every time it results in a rather lengthy conversation in which I explain why I’m no longer interested. Some thank me for my time and move forward in their quest to get a grant, while others decide to not bother applying so they can have me do their work in view of my stance.
I’ve had a successful run with the Program until 2009, at which point there was an extended garbage strike — if you’ll recall — that involved the same union for both parties; and when the dust settled, the personnel configuration was very different and the beautiful dynamic we had had, had been decimated. I gave it a try a couple more times, but subsequently decided to “run the other way”.
In any case, there in no need for me to publicly get into the specifics. Suffice to say that I have contacted several individuals involved at City Hall about my dissatisfaction, and no effort has been made by any of the parties to mend my position.
They aren’t many contractors who are as skilled in artistically restoring vintage masonry as I am; and so I feel it’s a shame that some civil servants would alienate those who can best serve the interests of the residents; but as someone so directly involved, I would think that, wouldn’t I?
My message to any potential clients who I shall have directed to this post in the future is to do your research carefully about the type of result that you want. If you’ve ended up successfully vetting a contractor who also works through the Grants Program, then you’re in luck. If you can’t find what you like there, then I suggest passing on that process and you might be happier to have done so in the end. Ask neighbors who’ve gone through the program in recent years what their experience was like, and that will give you a sense of whether or not it’s for you.
Finally, I will leave you with a visual example that might give you some insight as to my position in this matter.
This first set of pictures relates to the left side of a Cabbagetown duplex that has been "restored" about three years ago through the Toronto Heritage Grants Program. Notice the dark red tint color that has been applied to all the bricks at the front of the house, as well as the condition of some of the bricks that you’d hope would have been remedied for a project to qualify as heritage work that was subsidized by the taxpayers’ purse. I've included three closeups which show the worse as well as the best of this particular job. 

Earlier this year, I had no trouble convincing the neighbor on the right side of the same duplex, to forgo the Grants Program and hire me directly to restore the facade of his house.
Here are some before pictures:

And this is the final result that we’ve produced:

Here you can see both side by side:
Which one do you want?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A little pro bono work…

A Chicago architect contacted me last year asking my advice as to what mortar mix was best to use in reassembling a pre-1850 rural Illinois building his firm was involved with.
I was happy to help and fired him an email.
He has subsequently sent me some pictures of the work in progress.
It’s coming along nicely it seems.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why are there red lines over the original yellow mortar of my Victorian house?

Sometimes I meet prospective clients who own a Victorian house and who ask me why there is some sort of combination of red and white (and sometimes black) lines on top of the yellowish lime mortar with which the brick walls were constructed.
Many people assume that it must have been done after the fact.
It wasn’t. What they are looking at are the remnants of true tuckpointing.
I say “true tuckpointing” as opposed to simply saying “tuckpointing” because there is a confusion about the correct nomenclature.
These days, when people say, “tuckpointing”, they usually mean “repointing”.
In Victorian times, they were very different things.
This is tuckpointing:
And this is repointing:
Here are the proper definition for each of the related terms, taken from an article I wrote for Masonry Magazine over 10 years ago:
“Jointing” referred to the process of finishing the joint as the brickwork was erected. Jointing is what all bricklayers do today.
“Pointing” denoted the placement and careful tooling of a mortar joint between bricks or stones. In contrast to jointing, pointing was the process of raking back the mortar joint a few days after the completion of the brickwork and was usually done by a different crew that was skilled in delivering a high-quality, consistent decorative finish to the joint. Also, jointing was performed at the rear and sides of a building, with only the front façade being pointed.
“Repointing” referred to replacing a mortar joint when it had failed, on average about once a century. This was typically the type of restoration work completed on older mortar.
“Tuckpointing” is an interesting one, which will need further explanation.
The word “tuckpointing” once referred to a specialized application of pointing that consisted of first sanding the bricks to a smooth, even surface, then masking the original mortar joint with a thin one that matched the brick in color, usually red. One would have created — up to this point — the illusion of looking at a solid wall of clay, as opposed to a wall consisting of individual bricks. Then, after having rubbed the red mortar with a piece of jute and dying the work to a uniform color, fine lines were cut with a knife into the “masking” mortar while it was still soft, in a rigidly symmetrical fashion to produce a perfect geometrical outline of each brick. At that point, a fine, usually white, lime putty mortar joint was tucked over the lines and meticulously manicured, you might want to say, so as to create the illusion that the wall had been laid with perfectly rectangular bricks in a mortar bed as thin as 1/16th of an inch!
Tuckpointing originated in England in the 17th century as a cheaper alternative to gauged brickwork — which was the ultimate method of laying bricks, consisting of rubbing the stones to exact dimensions and perfect edges, then dipping them lightly into lime putty, providing a true 1/16" joint. Tuckpointing subsequently became the pointing style of choice during the Georgian and Victorian periods, minimally for the front façade of brick buildings.
So now you know what these red lines were and why there are there.
In most cases the tuckpointing has mostly come off over the years, and most of the white (typical) or black (less common) ribbon is gone and what you have left to a varying degree is some red mortar over the yellow mortar.
Knowing what to do with that is important in my opinion.
Some people repair the failed mortar with a yellow mortar, which makes a strong, unsightly contrast. Others use red mortar to perform the repair, which doesn’t look quite right either.
Removing all the mortar so as to repoint the entire wall is not recommended either as the original character will be lost.
So what is one to do?
What I do is I perform the repointing work, matching the mortar to the original yellow mortar on the house, and then I run a thin red line in the center of it so as to blend the work and eliminate the offensive contrast.
This is an example:

Another possibility, although all-too-often prohibitively expensive, is to remove all the mortar and redo the true tuckpointing.
In Toronto, at this time, I don’t know of anyone who can do it to a high level. It is a lost art. It took me 13 1/2 years of research and practice to arrive at a point where the result is good. Not exceptional, just good. And I’m still learning. Workers were surprisingly skilled back in the day…
Here is an example done by another contractor in Toronto who claims the ability to perform tuckpointing:
As you can see, if not done properly, tuckpointing can appear messy and ghastly.
Here is a job I’ve just completed last week:

Here is a short video that shows it in action:

With practice, it would come closer to perfection, but the issue is that virtually no one is prepared to pay for it, and so my approach of putting a red line over the yellow mortar has been seen as a great solution by essentially all the homeowners for whom we’ve done it.