And They Built A Crooked House, by Ruth S. Martin


The Builder is Banned

On March 2 two `junior carpenters' came to correct the sloping laundry room floor. They were new to the problem but had been told what to do. They proceeded to repair the sloping floor with irregular pieces of particle board. Evidently embarrassed with their work, one of the carpenters said to me:
"You're not going to like this, M'am."
I could not believe my eyes. Pieces of particle board had been laid down in seemingly random fashion, leaving a gaping crack open to the basement underneath. Worse, the floor still sloped! The repair was amateurish, almost an act of hostility. And the final straw. Imagine our situation. For over six months we had been after Murdock to fix the sloping laundry room floor. Attempts at bolstering the floor with a vertical beam had only succeeded in cracking the wall above. Messing with the joists had also failed. Our letters repeatedly emphasized the sloping floor as a major concern. Murdock and Nelson had discussed this problem more than any other. Only three weeks earlier our lawyer had sent a letter threatening possible legal action if this floor, among other defects, was not fixed in a proper fashion. We thought Murdock would pay special attention to this particular defect. Instead, he sent junior carpenters to make a totally substandard repair.

It was not the junior carpenters' fault. In truth, no repair to the floor would have helped. The problem wasn't the floor itself, but a basic structural defect. However, at the time we viewed this repair as the final piece of evidence that Murdock had not built our house correctly and was not capable of fixing it. His repairs were worse than useless; they were causing further damage! To have him continue making repairs would have been sheer lunacy. It was time to find out what was truly wrong with our house. All that week Larry and I had discussed getting an independent opinion and on March 3 he called Schroeder to ask for the name of a consulting architect. Schroeder recommended an architect I'll call Nigel. Larry promptly called Nigel, who agreed to visit the house the next night, March 4. Meanwhile, on March 3 I came home to find that Murdock had left a pamphlet and a handwritten note regarding the kitchen floor.

The pamphlet contained a set of builder's standards, and clipped to the page on floors was Murdock's note:
"Ruth, please call me about this."
"This" was a discussion about natural separation of wood flooring; it said nothing about the degree of sloping in our kitchen as being within builders' standards. I was upset over Murdock's cavalier attitude and called him right away. His response was that any sloping in the kitchen floor is an optical illusion, that "the joists might be a little crowned but are still within builder's tolerances." He also stated the laundry room floor repair was "fine." I told him it looked just awful, like a slop job. He didn't respond. Then I told him we had a structural engineer coming to the house the next evening. Nigel came on March 4 and spent about three hours, comparing what he could see with the architectural plans. He was appalled by the construction and felt that inadequate joists might explain some of the sloping floors. Several areas on the plans that called for double joists had only single joists! The repairs so far attempted in no way addressed the structural defects. About the laundry room floor repair, Nigel only laughed. We were dismayed and depressed, our worst fears confirmed. As it turned out, Nigel knew Jim Nelson and didn't want to get involved in our problem. (He never sent a bill for his time.)

On March 6 Larry called Murdock and told him our house had structural problems, but didn't mention Nigel by name. Larry told Murdock that we needed an independent appraisal of the house, and that repair attempts should cease until he heard from us.
"Larry, I follow what my architect tells me to do."
Murdock did not seem to understand anything about the construction problems. Toward the end of this brief conversation, the last either of us ever held with him, Larry asked:
"Frank, what went wrong with our house?"
"I don't know," he said.
And he really didn't know. Or seem to care.

* * *

On March 9 we sent our fourth and final letter to Murdock, with copies to Nelson and Cooper. After detailing what we had learned about the house, including Nigel's discovery of the inadequate joists, we summarized our sad position.

It is now so painfully apparent that our house was constructed at variance with good building standards, and not even according to your own contract specifications (i.e. double joists in certain areas). Your letterhead says `Frank T. Construction. Custom Builders.' Our house was custom built, but surely not in the way you or Mr. Nelson intended. In our last conversation with you, when you were informed about the sloppy mud room floor, you repeatedly said "I follow what my architect tells me to do." But then you added "It's my responsibility, I'll take care of it." We are truly sorry, but events have proved that you are not capable of fixing our house.

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