Microconstruction and Me: The Varied Pleasures Of Home Renovation

I have been accused by baffled friends of perpetrating endless home renovations because I unconsciously crave discomfort.

The charge is not unreasonable. Since buying a small West Village townhouse in the fall of 1999, I’ve been working on it most of the time—not working literally, except for a little painting and cement and some grunt work, but serving as my own contractor. My friend Silvana said of the ongoing work at my house, “You like Afghanistan so much that when you can’t go there, you make a little Afghanistan in your house. You have to wear a coat indoors; there’s usually something that’s not working, or something that you can’t walk on or touch. It’s the opposite of a permanent vacation.”

It’s true that I have a measure of contempt for some ordinary comforts. I wrote a whole book sitting on a wire Bertoia chair in an unheated room one winter. But I draw the line at bathing and bed linens. If the hot water is out for a day, I panic. And I sleep on vintage linen when possible, under a mink bedspread from Afghanistan ($90) in my (deliberately) unheated bedroom. My commitment to roughing it is partial.

But what grabs me about this state of permanent revolution—I mean renovation—is what’s obvious in the word: the possibility of change. And speedy, visible change at that. It may be a life-cycle thing. A friend of mine, Alex, says that all upper-middle-class New York fortysomethings find themselves engaged in “microdevelopment”: serving as your own contractor on small-scale real-estate projects, blurring the line between home renovation and investment (as indeed the line is blurred when one can hardly afford to live in one’s own home). He thinks the reason is economic—since the markup in “retail” real estate is so high, it makes more sense to do the work yourself.

While that’s a lot of the explanation, another part is the promise of renewal so important to people our age. In construction, unlike life, you can always make a fresh start. And in construction, most mistakes can be fixed if you have the money.

There is also a simple exhilaration in physical effort. Most of the men I know who’ve done microdevelopment have worked alongside their laborers at some point in the project, sometimes because a leader is supposed to share the burdens of his team, sometimes to win respect, sometimes for the fun of it. At 120 pounds and five feet six inches, I’m absolved of any real competition with the men; I get credit for trying, but not blamed for failing. I’m much prouder of being able to carry 75-pound cinderblocks than of anything I can do at the gym. But I hate to admit it’s not all size: Some Mexican masons no taller than I were carrying four 50-pound bags of sand apiece in my house the other day. Ten dollars an hour in cash is enough to get dozens of calls from men, but no women responded to my Craigslist ads for laborers.

If there’s any generalization I’d make, it’s that people who do construction work part-time are more agreeable and more imaginative than most. They take pleasure in doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Some of them answered ads I placed on Craigslist for people to dig and lift dirt at $10 an hour. They removed 30 tons of dirt from my backyard by hand so that I could build an underground addition to my house. The men who came to work included an Irish lawyer, a merchant seaman, a 60-year-old wino and a lot of young African-American men—actors, models, students, Web designers, even fashion designers. Many were smart and hardworking; a couple were annoying or downright mad. And a surprising number of them took my interests as their own, taking cares they need not have taken.

Construction is an escape into a simpler time, when tasks had an end, and a point, and the measure of value was clear. That’s part of its satisfaction. And although everyone complains about the costs, in truth there are astonishing bargains: someone will build you a custom-made metal gate, or wooden door, that will outlast your kids, all for the price of a shitty evening at a “lounge” or an ugly knock-off of a 70’s handbag. In fact, construction materials are incredibly cheap. A 75-pound cinderblock is $2. Actually, it costs less than it does in Afghanistan (where it’s imported from Pakistan).

This facet co-exists with another: the largely unregulated nature of the business. They’re all thieves might be your first reaction to the idea of hiring laborers, especially if you’re accustomed to operating in the tamed wilds of the financial or legal world. Yet in construction, there’s an almost Middle Eastern bazaari mentality of pure capitalism where everything is negotiable. This cuts both, or rather, many ways.

For example, Craigslist functions as a kind of reverse auction-pricing mechanism where you can list a job or project at progressively higher prices until someone responds. (If you get 30 responses as soon as your ad hits, you’re paying too much!) The price differences in bids are enormous: $5,000 and $2,000 for the same commodity-type job. Sometimes it’s just a question of who has a crew to keep busy as opposed to who’s overbooked. Sometimes the price difference is the flipside of that auction system: one guy can afford to wait for the greater fool to come along and pay him $40 an hour, while others are happy with $20.

The food chain is more complex than it appears. The Mexican guys working for that 50-year-old Italian mason may be doing great work for little money, but when they started working for him a few years ago, they had never seen a trowel. Offer one of them the chance to work for you directly and he’ll become the middleman in his turn, hiring more recent immigrants to do what he was doing, for the same pay he was getting. As ever, you have to ask who exactly is going to show up to do the job—otherwise, instead of the reassuring 50-year-old mason, you’ll get a 20-year-old kid.

And then there’s the irreducible fact of skill. There are people who have a feeling for what they do, and then there are the rest. The contractors who want to look first at the architect’s drawings before seeing the jobsite should be gently led to the door. There are other guys—and so far it’s just guys—with golden hands who do beautiful work, whether in wood or iron or tile or cement.

This is a material world, and I’ve grown addicted to fine craftsmanship, examining the paint jobs in rich people’s houses to see if they’re as good as the ones I’ve had done in mine (not usually!) and developing a neurotic aversion to bad woodwork and clichéd kitchen counters.

Because, despite my secret (or not-so-secret) craving for a little disorder, for a way of living in the Third World here, I also have a hard-to-hide craving for perfection. Microdevelopment is also a way to get things right on a small scale, to create an enclave, however modest, where all is right with the world. And if a semi-permanent renovation is the price—well, who is to say it’s worse than any New Yorker’s other coping strategies?

Ann Marlowe’s second memoir, The Book of Trouble: A Romance, will be published by Harcourt on Feb. 1, 2006.