Years ago, before starting my San Francisco contracting business, I was in software. A basic rule of programming is the 3-way tradeoff among features (what’s in the product), resources (people and money), and time (how long it takes to complete the product). If you want more features in your software, the project will take more time or more people; you can sell the product sooner if you add more developers; and so on.

We almost never talked about quality. The pretense was that the product would always work optimally: no bugs, no missing functionality, no end-user head-scratching. That wasn’t the truth, of course.

In some cases, lesser quality is OK. The no-frills cell phone that I buy for my junior high-age son doesn’t need web access or custom ring tones; he needs to be able to call me to tell me where he is.

In construction, quality is part of every decision. When construction people talk about high quality, we are referring to delivering the most value possible for our customers’ money and materials, consistent with surviving as an ongoing business. I’m not revealing an industry secret when I say that not every element of every project gets or deserves to get the absolute best workmanship, artistry, and care. Economic realities mean that the most effort and care gets invested in areas that are important to the customer, and lesser care goes into the other areas.

Mouldings are my favorite example of this rule. If I’m remodeling a house with new 7-inch birds-eye maple crown mouldings in the study, I will be very involved in the mouldings. I’ll closely supervise the work, making sure the carpenter copes the corners, and I’ll help select the prime pieces for the most visible areas. I won’t hesitate to tell the carpenter to take work down and do it again, but right this time. The materials might cost $20 per foot; including finishing, labor will cost the same or more. The work will be a showcase of my employees’ talents and of the customer’s good taste and design sensibility.

In the kids’ bedroom, where we’re installing 2-inch painted picture rail, I’ll deploy a less experienced carpenter. He’ll miter the corners, and if he messes up, he’ll fix the smaller mistakes with caulk. I’ll check the job a few times, but I’ll have someone else do the basic supervision. The work will be clean and expert and functional, but it won’t make a big statement. The work will cost 1/3 as much as the work in the study.

This is how the customer wants it: the most time and money should be invested in the most important spaces and finishing details.

Here is the lesson for homeowners: Make sure that your contractor knows where you want the highest quality labor and materials to be invested. Your contractor will make decisions about materials and labor every day, and quality will be part of every one of those discussions. We have some basic ideas about the important locations – entry hallway, master bath, kitchen backsplash – that have served us well in past jobs. If you have specific special areas or expectations about finishes, let your contractor know.

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