Wood Stairwell Screen Is Going In

Probably the biggest architectural design statement in our house is our staircase. A big part of that is a wooden “screen” that extends over 30 feet creating a bit of a wall in the stair hallways as you go up. It’s made out of the old floor joists from the building, so it’s our stab at “original details”, since we had none to start with inside the house.

stairwell screen out of reclaimed lumber

Clearly it’s the rustic element in the stairwell. Here’s another shot looking from the other side…

wood stairwell screen

(The electrical cord wrapping around it is temporary.)

There are still curvy/organic frosted plexiglass panels that have to be installed. The architect went over proper installation with the contractor today – so they’ll be in soon.

What To Do When You Get A Mechanic’s Lien

[This blog post is not “legal advice” – readers should consult a lawyer for all legal matters. Instead, this blog posts reflects what Dan and I, as homeowners, have learned by going through the process of having liens put on our homes and being sued by contractors.]

Our townhouse got its first (and hopefully only) mechanics lien last month. Our contractor decided to not have his stair subcontractor (and “friend” – Adam Wedrychoski of ABC Stairs Builders Corp – aka “Traditional Stairs Corp”) complete the stairs because he was too expensive and the budgets had gotten tight. Adam got disgruntled and is now going after us for $9,600.

We’ve gone through this before when the contractor for our apartment remodel (Bill Angelov of ABS Construction) went after us a few years ago (a blog post is pending on that one). We were amused that Adam Wedrychoski / ABC Stairs Builders even used the same lien service Bill Angelov / ABS Construction had used – Speedy Lien. Unfortunately the New York court system, and companies like Speedy Lien, make it so disgruntled workmen/contractors/subcontractors can put liens on your property without any proof that they have a legitimate claim.

This isn’t a horrible thing… Liens are good in that they alert purchasers of a property that there may be claims on a property. They also insure that people who add value to a property are compensated when the owner sells the property. But ultimately, they’re just a first step and the workman / contractor / sub-contractor needs to prove their claim in court.

In this case Adam Wedrychoski / Traditional Stairs Corp has no basis for putting a lien on our property. He has no contract with us, nor was there an implied contract with us (e.g. we never paid him directly). He was a subcontractor working for our contractor. If he had talked to a lawyer, he would know that all he is legally entitled to do is sue our contractor. We do have a contract with our contractor, but every time he gets a payment from us he signs a lien waiver stating that all of his subcontractors have been fully paid.

The amount of the lien doesn’t even make sense – which seems typical of liens by Speedy Lien… He took the total amount he would have been paid if he had completed the job, subtracted what he had been paid, and then put a lien on us for the difference. So he’s essentially asking for money for work he didn’t do. Thankfully our court system doesn’t think the same way Adam does.

When we contacted Wells Fargo (the lending bank for our mortgage), what they said worried us – they stop all payments of any kind if there is a lien in place. They wanted us to “settle” with Adam Wedrychoski / ABC Stairs Builders Corp and they erroneously told us that they don’t accept bonds.

Thing is, bonding the lien is the correct way to deal with the situation. It’s actually sort of cool how bonds work… You contact a surety agent (ours is Elmer Hyde Agency), and give them 110% of the lien amount plus a few hundred in fees. They bond the lien, and you file that paperwork along with some other affidavits with a clerk at the court building (harder than it sounds) and the lien is discharged. Once the lien is discharged, it no longer exists. That means your title is clean and your bank will be happy.

If the workman/contractor/subcontractor sues you and the court finds in his/her favor, the bond is used to pay the judgement and you get whatever is left over. Liens are for one year and they can be renewed once – so they can only exist for two years total. If the workman/contractor/subcontractor doesn’t sue you during that time, then you get the bond amount back with interest. However, the workman/contractor/subcontractor can sue you for up to 6 years (in NY), but after the bond expires, s/he just has to hope that you can still pay.

While it may seem odd to welcome a lawsuit, we’ve been through the process before and our attitude is “bring it on”. Adam Wedrychoski / Traditional Stairs Corp is in an impossibly difficult position. Because he is a corporation he is not allowed to show up in court without a lawyer. Because lawyers typically take a percentage of the settlement, they won’t take the case on unless they think they’ll get paid. They would typically get 1/3rd – and 1/3rd of $9,600 ($3,200) isn’t enough for them to bother with the case. And that assumes they’ll get the full amount – which they know they won’t. That means the only  way Adam Wedrychoski / ABC Stairs Builders Corp can get a lawyer, and hence the only way he can sue us, is if he pays his lawyer hourly. Bottom line – he will lose a substantial amount of money if he tries to sue us.

While Adam Wedrychoski / Traditional Stairs Corp has to have a lawyer, we’re individuals, so we can represent ourselves (this is one of the advantages of not putting our building in an LLC). The courts are very lenient with pro se defendants – there are actually judges that only hear cases with pro se defendants. Plus pro se defendants can go in and get free help with filing paperwork, etc. So while it can be time consuming to show up at all the hearings, it doesn’t actually cost us much of anything. Meanwhile he’s paying his lawyer hourly, so if you do the math its in our best interest to drag things out and have as many hearings and motions as possible. 😉

If Adam Wedrychoski / ABC Stairs Builders Corp sues us, the first thing we’ll do is a show cause motion – making him prove that he has standing to sue us. He will fail because he can’t produce a contract with us. No contract = no enforceable terms.

Incidentally, people often think that the loser pays the winners attorney fees, but that’s not the case at all (at least not in New York). That only happens if you have a written contract saying that’s what you agreed to – and of course Adam Wedrychoski / Traditional Stairs / ABC Stairs Builders has no contract with us. That is why we’re confident Adam will lose money if he pursues this, but it gets better…

If he does survive the show cause motion, our next step will be a counter suit. The stairs in the rental are not according to plan – they’re too narrow (the stringers are not flush with the sheetrock), and they’re made of red oak, not white oak. On top of that, the stairs in our unit are not square and the contractor had to correct a number of things that Adam / Traditional Stairs didn’t quite get right. In fact things are so bad our architect suggested either we or our contractor sue him for everything he’s received – about $20,000. At one point we detailed a whole list of things that we wanted him to fix and he never came back to fix them – instead the contractor had to take care of it.

In case you’re wondering, Adam’s / ABC Stairs Builders Corp’s lien is an attempt to get paid for having to fabricate and install the flight of stairs from the parlor to the 2nd floor three times. When this was all going down we insisted that he do shop drawings, he refused and promised to fix any problems that resulted from not having shop drawings. I even mentioned that understanding up in a blog post. He even started before our architect gave him the green light. If he had just waited for approval to start we could have avoided at least one of those fabrication/installs. Plus, we’ll have our contractor, and our architects testifying that that we did in fact insist on shop drawings and that he agreed to fix anything that was a problem.

There is simply no way he can win his case, but I’m pretty sure we can win a fair amount of money on our counter suit. That means if he sues us, between lawyers fees and our counter suit, it will be a lose-lose proposition for him. Which is why our attitude is “bring it on”…

Thing is, all of this affects our contractor more than it affect us. The contractor is liable for the actions of his sub-contractors – including any liens they put on us. So the bond money is coming out of what he would have gotten at the end of the project. All Adam has accomplished with the lien is hurting someone who used to consider him a friend.

The bottom line is, be careful in dealing with contractors and subcontractors. Lien waivers and receipts of “final payment” are always a good idea. And summarize important conversations in writing/email after they occur so there’s documentation. Then when you get a mechanics lien, just bond it and put the ball back in the workman/contractor/subcontractor’s court.

Honestly, I think a lot of (sub)contractors don’t understand the process and have never heard of a bond. They just hear that liens scare some homeowners into settling. They don’t understand that they may actually have to sue the homeowner to get any money. They definitely don’t seem to understand that filing a lien starts a process which could result in them losing a considerable amount of money…

As a homeowner just realize you don’t have to settle with someone who is putting a lien on your property to harass and intimidate you – you can bond the lien and regain the upper hand in the situation.

Progress On Parquet Floor & Stairs

Our contractor has been making progress on a few things the past week. The parlor floor was sanded, and stained with 5% white Monocoat – it will get the first two coats of sealer tomorrow.

living room parquet

We went with a basket weave sort of pattern in the living room and dining room. It’s a pattern I found by surfing the Internet – not sure what the proper name of it is…

basket weave parquet

We like it because it makes the room feel wider. We were afraid if we went with the standard linear pattern it would make the parlor floor feel like a bowling alley. We do have a standard linear pattern in the kitchen, but since it doesn’t go the whole way so it looks fine.

One thing that we have been a little ambivalent about is the color variation – we were expecting less variation. The 1930s apartments that we’ve been living in for 15 years now have pretty consistent floors – but the wood was higher quality back in the 1930s because it came from older trees. These days the engineered floors are so highly processed they have consistency of color, but “real wood” isn’t as high quality as it was back in the day. If I had it to do all over again I might get “clear grade” instead of “select grade” even if I had to go down to flat cut (from quarter/rift sawn) to get the better, more consistent grade of wood. We’ve also heard bleaching the floors can make the color more consistent – but we didn’t think seriously about that until after it was too late. Still, I think what we have is pretty good and it does seem more consistent once it’s sealed.

The other thing that’s progressing is the staircase in our unit. The top flight has been painted white…

white steel

And they’ve been working on the treads. Quite a few of them have been stained and will be sealed soon…

stair treads stained

We’re going with flat cut on the top two flights of stairs and quarter/rift on the lower two flights. They’re starting from the top down, so what you see is the flat cut treads.

You can see some of the variation I’m talking about in those treads – there’s one against the wall and another in the second big panel that are pretty dark except a strip down the edge that’s quite light. They still look pretty cool though.. 🙂

The contractor has also started putting the kitchen cabinets together – seeing them go in is yet another thing that makes the house feel like it’s “getting there”. Pictures of that soon…

Dan’s Dirty Studio Gets Dirty

One thing that’s being worked on at the moment are the final steps for the staircase. Finding wide plank white oak has been a challenge. Each tread is 11 1/2″ or 12″ by 36″ by about 1 3/4″. There are 60 treads plus there are platforms at each corner which are the same idea with multiple pieces stitched together. Needless to say we had to buy a lot of pretty prime wood. They’ve got it all cut up and sanded…

wood stair treads

In the process of cutting up all that wood sawdust was flying everywhere. There was so much sawdust being created that it has literally coated the walls of the dirty studio where they were doing the work…

dirty studio wall

The T is one of the workers starting to write his name on the wall with the air pump… They also wrote more mundane things in the sawdust on the walls…

'hello' in sawdust on wall

Today the contractor discovered that the stairs aren’t square. Blame it on the foreman he had on the project initially, or blame it on the guy who fabricated the stairs, or blame it on the contractor himself for not double checking things – but the end result is that the stairs are pretty obviously out of square.

stairs not square

[Then again, the building isn’t square either – it’s bigger in the rear than in the front.]

So that means they have to make things that aren’t square appear to be square – which is more difficult than it should be, but the guy working on it is up to the task.

After they get things cut so they appear square, they have to stain and seal all those boards. Meanwhile another guy is painting all the steel white…

Ryan painting stairs

He’s actually a guy who I’ve had working for me sporadically for 3 years now. Good guy, but very afraid of heights. In the picture he’s about 40 feet up off the parlor floor. He said it was the scariest thing he’d ever done (which is why he’s wearing a harness)…

I’m pretty sure that’s just primer – so they’ll have to come back in and do it all again with the final coat of white.

Lots Of Progress: Stairs, A/C, Sprinklers…

We had another week of full-speed work this week – lots of stuff got done.

Steel for main staircase is now “done”

The steel for the 4th and last flight of stairs went in this week – from the top floor to the roof. It’s sorta cool to be able to walk all the way up and down on close-to-normal stairs. I say “done” because there are still finishing details that have to be taken care of, but it’s all there, and looking good.

One thing that needs to go in are the railings and side panels. There will be simple steel frames with plexiglass panels attached to them. The plexi will be somewhat translucent, but you can imagine that it will block a fair amount of the light you see coming through in the picture below…

Last flight of stairs up to roof

Here you can see down (and down and down…) It’s a long way from the parlor floor to the roof in a quadplex…

Looking down four flights of stairs in a browstoneIt’s really not all that spooky with all the height and the open risers – unless you’re silly enough to actually look over the railing and down the center core… Here is the view looking up…

4 floor staircase looking upThere had been some debate between the stair guy and our architect. Our architect insisted on a pretty gentle 7″ rise from step to step. The stair guy was used to doing 7.5 to 8″ rise. Logistically we had to do 7.5″ rise on the top and bottom flights, but the two in between are 7″ rise. I gotta say you don’t get all that winded walking up the stairs when the slope is nice and gentle – our architect really knew what he was doing…

Here you can see the stairs from what will eventually be our roof deck…

Stairs to roofmini split refrigerant linesA/C refrigerant lines going in

Another bit of progress this week was the refrigerant lines going in for the mini-split A/C system.

If you’re not familiar with mini-split systems they’re those cassettes that you see on the walls at restaurants and small shops. There’s a condenser unit outside and then refrigerant lines are run from the condensers to a unit inside that has a fan that essentially pushes air over cold coils.

Mini splits are quite efficient and they give you a “central air conditioning” effect without the cost of a forced air system. You also don’t give up valuable floorspace to duct work. About the only downside of a mini-split (+ radiator) system is that no fresh air gets into the building. Forced air systems usually have a fresh air intake with a heat exchanger. It’s not an issue in an old drafty building – but we’ll have to see whether it’s a problem in a well-insulated building like ours will be.

sprinkler supply linesSprinkler risers going in

Another exciting bit of progress is that our sprinkler system is starting to go in. They’re just starting with the riser pipes.

There was supposed to be one riser going up the center of the building through the plumbing wall, but then we had the problem of how to get the plumbing lines past the stairs to the front of the building. That problem was solved by using two risers – one for the back of the building and the other for the front of the building. Now the supply lines can run through the walls and then up into the joists. (That will all make sense when it starts taking shape. But the bottom line is that with two sprinkler risers we don’t need to drop the ceilings to get the sprinklers where we need them to go – we get maximum ceiling height.

Gas lines installed

Another item they worked on this week were the gas lines (the plumber has been busy). It’s always good to see them doing pressure tests of gas lines – it’s not something you want leaking… 🙂

gas line testingGeneral plumbing being completed

And there’s more plumbing being done… The plumber hadn’t done the copper supply lines in the rental apartment and cellar probably in part because the basement and cellar aren’t locked up as tightly as our unit is and copper is popular with thieves. But it’s finally going in as they finish off the plumbing. We did have to remind him at one point that gas and water needed to be separated for the two units.

plumbing control valvesStreet torn up, but water main connection delayed

I should have taken a photo, but forgot… I was expecting things to be really torn up when we got there today, but they weren’t. There was a big plate in the middle of the street where they had torn up the street and then put a plate over it. I guess they need to trench all the way to the house, but they haven’t done that yet.

They were supposed to start tearing things up on Monday. Then they said Tuesday. Then they said Thursday with DEP coming on Friday. But then hurricane Irene became an issue and folks at DEP were told to do storm prep, so our water main connection is now supposed to happen on Monday (possibly).

I get the sense that the water main sub-contractor (different from the plumber) is a bit of a prima donna since they deal with something that is rather complicated and delicate. They show up when they show up… But it’ll get done fairly soon – just not sure exactly when.

Ducting being put in

Last week they started running ducts. This week they went further. There’s the dryer ducts, the bathroom vent ducts, and the chimneys for the boiler and water heaters.

Ductingnew stoop archStoop restoration begun

Another cool step forward is that they’ve begun work on the front of the house. To the right you can see that they’ve rebuilt the arch that holds up the upper part of the stoop. That brick will be covered in “brownstone” stucco.

The foreman debated how to build the arch and opted for a nice delicate arch. I like it. It’ll let in more light and give more headroom when getting to the door to the basement apartment.

They are actually two (French) doors into the basement rental unit – the one under the stoop and what used to be a window originally. The one under the stoop is too narrow to be a legal fire egress, so we had to maintain the other door that was originally a window. Since we raised the floor slightly in the basement the step into that door needed to be redone…

the step into the basement apartmentThe narrow portion is new, the wider area is the original portion… Looks pretty good…

Fireplace delivered

Right as we were leaving today the contractor pulled up with the fireplace. It was enormous – at least the crating was… So that will get installed soon… Here’s a picture of it the following day after they had gotten it into the house…

fireplaceYou can’t really tell from the picture, but it feels like a bit of a monster in the space. One thing we like is that it has glass doors (required by code), but they can be retracted into the sides so it sorta looks like it doesn’t have glass doors.

Clerestory window debate

We put clerestory windows (eyebrow windows) from the stairwell into the front bedrooms in order to get light into those rooms. In the picture below you can see the big opening at the top of the wall – all of that will be the clerestory window.

Clerestory windows from stairwell into bedroomsWe figured the bulkhead would catch a lot of light and we wanted to make the most of it. But back then we thought the stairs up to the roof were going to be L shaped – we didn’t realize they would need to be U shaped. The extra run blocks a lot of light from getting down into the stairwell – unfortunate, but it is what is is.

I was standing one flight down and noticing that the light from the bulkhead doesn’t get that far down into the building so I was wondering whether we should keep the 2nd clerestory window. Mind you, once the walls are in and painted white there will be a lot of indirect light bouncing around, but very little direct light. But then Dan noticed that even though it was early afternoon and no light was directly hitting the front of the building there was light coming in the front windows and getting through to the stairwell (though the metal studs). So that made us wonder whether we should keep the clerestory window – not to get light from the stairwell into the bedroom but to get it from the bedroom into the stairwell. Then that made us wonder whether we should put a clerestory window on the 2nd floor as well. Gotta figure that out now too…

So all in all a pretty busy and productive week.