The Glaab family came home one September night, let the dogs out the back door and saw Frazier and Champ plunge into darkness.
The dogs had fallen into the unmarked hole dug that day for their new addition. The mishap was the first sign all wasn't well with the Glaabs' renovation and expansion project.
Three months after the work was supposed to be finished, the house on W. 25th Street in St. Louis Park remains in a state of construction limbo. Kate and Joe Glaab live amid exposed studs, protruding wires and broken drywall; construction materials are scattered all over the yard and the unfinished green vinyl siding outside was installed so poorly it violates the state building code.
A new contractor is picking up some of the work, but the family and the original contractor, who can't stand the sight of each other, still have to find a way to work together. The Glaabs' ordeal offers insight into what homeowners can do if they find themselves at loggerheads with their contractors -- and the limits of government agencies to help them.
John Tilton, St. Louis Park's building official, said his goal is to get the work done, but the vitriol between the parties hasn't made it easy. "To get to the level it's gotten to, it's pretty unusual," he said.
Last year, Kate and Joe Glaab moved from Texas to Minnesota, and bought the old rambler in St. Louis Park in June. They wanted new windows, a renovated kitchen and basement and an addition with a bedroom and bathroom. They interviewed several contractors before signing a contract worth $85,000 with North End Construction of Burnsville, whose president, Kirk Duckwall, showed them examples of his previous renovation and construction work.
Without telling the Glaabs, the excavation contractor dug the foundation hole. The back-yard light had been disconnected. Frazier and Champ were startled but uninjured by their unexpected plummet. To the Glaabs' frustration, the hole gaped empty for weeks. Duckwall said the project was delayed because of a problem with the architectural plan.
Inside the house, workers moved forward with replacing windows and insulating walls. Outside, a siding contractor nailed on strips of green vinyl.
By early October, the relationship between the Glaabs and North End Construction had broken down. Brian Resler, who held the state contractor's license for North End Construction, sent a handwritten letter to the city saying that the company had been fired, and asking for the cancellation of building permits.
The Glaabs say they never fired North End Construction. Still, with the work stopped, a city inspector took a look at what had been done. On Oct. 22, the city issued a 12-point order to North End Construction to resolve numerous code violations. Among them, the contractor had failed to install headers over the windows, weakening the structure of the house. The siding job had also been abandoned midstream, while the sections that were installed were nailed so tight that they had the potential to bulge once the weather warmed up.
Where there was no siding at all, the winter chill seeped through walls left naked even of plastic sheeting.
"The only thing they did half-right was the basement demolition," Joe Glaab said. Everywhere else, he said, "they just made a mess."
Duckwall acknowledged that they didn't do the windows correctly at first, and that he fired the siding contractor. But he blamed Kate Glaab for changing her mind constantly about what was wanted, and for badgering the workers so much that nobody wanted to stay on the job.
"I have a homeowner who is unhappy, understandably so, due to the time frame," Duckwall said. "On the other hand, I'm trying to help out and get it taken care of."
Duckwall said he has started to put his own money into the project, whose costs have already exceeded the $30,000 that the Glaabs have paid him. The whole project has caused him such stress that he feels "almost physically sick" every time he hears Kate Glaab's name, Duckwall said.
Since the city cited the code violations, North End Construction fixed the windows, but the siding remains unfinished. The parties have gone to mediation. Six siding contractors have turned down the job, Duckwall said. Yet if the Glaabs' new contractor touches the siding, they're responsible for it.
The Glaabs think North End Construction should refund them $16,000, and they're frustrated that the authorities haven't been more assertive.
"You really think, with building codes, and building inspection officials, you'd think there would be some protection," Joe Glaab said.
Punishment isn't the objective, those officials say.
"Our goal isn't to issue a citation or take someone to court," Tilton said. "Our goal is to make sure the work is done in compliance with code."
The state Department of Labor and Industry regularly punishes building contractors who violate the terms of their licenses. The Glaabs haven't complained about North End Construction to the state, and it's not clear that the state would have grounds for enforcement if they did, said Charlie Durenberger, enforcement manager for the agency's contractor unit.
"We will only pursue enforcement action in a case like this if the city is citing building code violations and the contractor is refusing to correct them," Durenberger said.
So far, that's not the case. Duckwall said he's trying to figure out a solution that finishes the siding, while he and the Glaabs both feel they're owed money.
Today, the hole is gone and a new addition is in its place. Frazier and Champ still aren't allowed in the back yard, because the fence is gone. Instead, Kate Glaab has to tie them to a tree in the front, and their paws have ripped up the yard.