But concrete is harder.
I’m sure that has some philosophical meaning. But for me, today, it’s more literal.
Fresh from a rambling gloat about how well our building project is going, we've run into trouble.
When we listed the requirements for our building project, there were a few must-have items - non-negotiable things that were to set the tone for the finished room and unsurprisingly, devour the lion’s share of the budget.
We horse traded one or two things but ultimately landed on 3 key must-have's.
In reverse order, Grammy style…
- Powder Coated Aluminium Doors rather than nasty PVC
- Sedum Roof - for insulation, cool factor and for the bees (according to Sophie)
- Concrete floor - polished, but not too polished. Industrial but functional. With underfloor heating.
We expected to have to lose one of these within our budget but then relented and decided to spend the extra on all 3.
After all, there are no pockets in shrouds.
Friday was the day the concrete floor was to be laid.
2 months ago, concrete was concrete to me.
Today, I’m an armchair expert (with clean hands). The floor we eventually specified wasn’t polished but was to be Power Floated. This is a process of laying a particular mix of concrete and then smoothing it with a rotating power trowel - kind of like a motorbike attached to a Flymo attached to 5 trowel blades. And, at the other end, attached to a man.
Just as the concrete is going-off enough to bear the man’s weight without making large foot impressions, the concrete is power floated to achieve a smooth, even finish. It's a very time sensitive process with lots of factors like temperature and humidity influencing the outcome.
Arriving at Friday had been an adventure.
We’d taken great care in our brief to spell out exactly the finish we wanted. We’d created ‘mood boards’ (well, Sophie did). We’d sent people to reference sites with similar finishes - IKEA and B&Q were weirdly close.
Then, at the WA Digital launch in a local arts centre, we found ourselves walking on exactly the floor we wanted. We looked at each other and spoke in unison.
" That's the floor... "
We sent out builder there. He sent his concrete contractor - the North’s Power Floating expert - there to look at the finish and colour. Sophie spoke to the caretaker at the arts centre who’d been there 11 years ago when it was installed and has lovingly maintained the floor ever since.
A clear, unambiguous specification.
Implementation experts who’d seen the specification.
And, the final polish on perfection, ‘future back insight’ from somebody who’d lived with it post go-live.
But on Friday, there was a hiccup.
There’d been a miscalculation on the depth of the concrete from the laser level and the concrete mixer arrived with enough for a 4-inch depth when we actually needed 6 inches. Friday is a bad day for concrete. Everyone wants the weekend as extra setting time to start work again on Monday on a solid floor. So concrete supplies are low on Fridays (who knew....?).
Ordering more concrete just wasn't an option. Plus, the risk of a slightly different sand could cause colour variation. And colour was going to be important given the size of the space and kitchen design.
The confident concrete contractor (who was flying out to Patagonia the next day) remained in-control. He decided to lay a 3 inch bed to cover the underfloor heating pipes and then return on Saturday to lay another 3 inches and power float the final finish.
I arrived home on Friday evening to a nice even concrete layer. It looked, with a kitchen arriving in a week and plastering to be done beforehand, like we might just make it.
Saturday, our neighbours were awoken at 6:50 AM by the rumbling of a concrete mixer. Despite a Julian Rawlinson assisted hangover, I managed to crawl outside to watch the final layer going in.
Our Patagonian explorer had even turned up pre-flight to oversee things.
As the concrete was being poured, we laughed on joked with the contractors as we watched them level the concrete and sprinkle a fine grey dust on top - kind of a grey flour that was sieved on for consistency of finish.
Apparently, it was a surface hardener with a dye. A colour impregnation.
“It looks dark…”
Apparently, I wasn't to worry.
“Don’t worry, it’s wet at the moment and will set to the right colour.”
But I did worry. And I mentioned my worries a few times to the builder, to Sophie and to the dog.
The dog seemed to listen most. But he has the biggest ears.
Saturday evening, the power floating was finished. The contractors had worked with head torches to get the final finish and then sealed off the door openings with Visqueen over night to keep out the torrential Northern rain.
It looked dark. But hey, it was pitch black outside.
Daybreak Sunday and I jumped into my tracksuit bottoms to see the floor in daylight….
The floor was almost black.
Between Sunday and Wednesday, we escalated, experimented, researched and lamented.
We heard helpful comments from friends and family like…
Could you not put tiles over it? Or a resign screed?
That’s like ordering chateaubriand, medium rare - then when it arrives well done, the guy on the next table helpfully saying...
“Could you not ask the chef to cover it in Spaghetti Hoops. Or dog shit.”
Luckily, we had a very specific specification that we’d documented. We had emails stating that we didn’t want any colour impregnation. We had meticulously explained the colour, smoothness and finish we wanted. And we had the bag of colour impregnation they'd used with the colour code.
And luckily, we had a builder who cares enough about his customer that he took ownership of sorting things out.
First, he tried to have it diamond ground to remove the colour. But that exposed the aggregate and gave a salt-and-pepper finish. Which was OK, but not what we’d ordered.
Kind of like ordering steak and getting fish. I’m sure it would be nice fish, but we'd ordered steak.
As I write, our builder has a team of people cutting the dark grey concrete floor into 1m squares with a giant road-workers still-saw. They’re taking up 3 inches of floor - hopefully without hitting underfloor heating pipes - and then re-laying a non-colour impregnated power-floated floor on Saturday.
Back. On. Track.
So what went wrong…?
And why am I sat in Cafe Nero spending the best part of a morning writing about it?
Probably, there was a break down in communication. The specificity of the specification didn’t make it’s way down the chain.
Resulting in somebody in a builder's yard saying..
and somebody else grabbing a bag of Grey surface hardener.
Despite the meticulous spec and the dragging of various people to arts centres. Despite finding the caretaker who had 10 years of future-back, post-implementation knowledge that would be invaluable. Despite overcoming initial mis-calculations and having the flexibility to break the job into 2 pours. Despite the dark nights and the torrential rain.
Despite all of that, somebody said "Grey" in a builders yard.
And that grey flour-like dust took the whole project in a different direction.
Lessons for people doing big projects....?
- Requirements are important.
- Having traceability back to your requirements is as important as your requirements.
- But specificity of specification is more important.
- And, ensuring that specificity reaches every person on the project is the most important thing of all.
Even when you think you’ve been black and white in your communication, you probably haven’t.
And, even if you think you’ve been very specific, remember that there are at least 50 shades of grey. And that's just in fiction.
There are 256 shades in the 8-bit world.
P.S. Sophie flies to Columbia tonight - so won’t see the finish she desperately wants until it is really finished - with a kitchen on top. Whether she'll hop over to Patagonia with cyanide is not known at this stage.