A sour taste in my mouth

This essay is a review of Cubic Construction and its principal proprietor, Qulzam (Cooly) Mahmood. I am surprised by the absence of other reviews on the internet, either positive or negative, since my experience was so extreme. My goal, therefore, is to provide a thorough and accurate assessment of how this company performed when I hired them to build a house extension in 2010.

At the time, my wife and I lived in a small mews terrace in Rodley overlooking a road junction, a couple of well-known pubs, and the Leeds to Liverpool canal. Needing to expand the space around us, we chose a three-bedroom semi-detached in Tranmere Park, Guiseley as the place to build our future. It had an extensive south-facing garden, off-road parking and, crucially, scope for development. If we removed an old flat-roofed garage there was ample space between the house and the boundary for a two-story extension. We wanted a kitchen-diner on the ground floor and a master bedroom with en-suite upstairs thus creating a modern four-bed semi. Being near good schools and transport links, the home would provide all our needs for the duration of our working lives and prove popular, when the time came, on the market.

Planning permission given, we were immediately swamped by flyers advertising builders’ interest. The first through the letterbox was from Cubic Construction, at the time a trading name for the sole trader Qulzam ‘Cooly’ Mahmood. I was impressed by this proactivity. It showed the spark and enterprise I was looking for in a builder and because the company was located in Stanningley, only a stone’s throw from Rodley, I kept edging Cubic through my selection process.

Builder selection is the key decision in any renovation. I had budgeted for the refurbishment and extension to cost in the region of £100,000. To some degree this was a finger-in-the-air figure, but it was not without grounding. I had read the excellent Haines Manual on home extensions and spent an age researching trade secrets on the internet. I dreamed this would be my Grand Design, but I was not going to be the one gently teased by Kevin Macdonald into admitting that I was forty per cent over budget and three months behind schedule.

Of the eight builders I contacted, three replied. One quoted £250,000 having never visited the house. The second (who came recommended and wanted the job because he was local) quoted £140,000. Cubic was the only company under budget, at £70,000.

Perhaps at this stage I should have been more wary. Why was there such divergence in the pricing? Would the second quote provide any better service than the third? Was the budget reasonable? But in simple terms I could not afford to make any other choice than Cubic and imagined the spare £30,000 would be sufficient to cover any shortfall. I didn’t know that Cubic’s strategy was to under-price in order to win the work and I had no cognisance of what was to follow as they clawed back profit. But to say the decision was merely financial is incorrect. Cubic came with trade membership of the Federation of Master Builders, something I understood to be an assurance of quality. I asked all tenders to produce a project plan and Cubic were the only ones to provide a week by week breakdown. They wanted to be paid partly in cash, which was fine by me. And there was something I thought I recognised in Cooly Mahmood; the same striving for professionalism at the heart of my own life. It was the start of Ramadan, and he was fasting.

I was elated. Through a diligent selection process I had discovered a building company that was capable, affordable, and managed by men of integrity. How wrong this assessment proved to be.

Building commenced in August and the ground works crew proved to be just as tenacious as I expected. In a matter of weeks the old garage had been removed, the footings put in place, the drainage laid out, and the walls erected and insulated. One day of slippage here and another there did not seem to matter and I paid according to a schedule agreed at the outset.

The cost profile of building projects is front weighted to cover the supply of bricks, blocks, cement, concrete, scaffolding and so on. Labour costs remain pretty much consistent as one trade hands over to another; ground works to roofers, first fix (plumbers and electricians) to second (plasterers and painters). I had agreed how much would be paid at what stage but as the project plan slipped, I was slow to realise that I was paying for work that was yet to be completed.

By the end of the first month, the project was a week in arrears. By the end of the second month, it was not much further on. As autumn chilled to winter I was keen to get the building water tight before the rains started, but the barriers to this were, firstly, that Cubic underestimated how long it would take to source matching concrete tiles and secondly, that they had to find and price roofers who would fit them.

Small building companies are, I realised, not cohesive units but fluid federations of independent traders. This suits the building industry as demand expands and contracts in line with economic prosperity. It was quickly apparent that no roofer would do the work required for what Cubic were prepared to pay and as a result my project became further and further delayed. The rains started. Water poured in where the rafters of the old house had been exposed. It pooled on the concrete foundations. The stacked plasterboard disintegrated and the damp rooms began to smell of mould.

My guess – and this is supposition as I was not party to the discussion – is that Cubic made a decision to accept the cost of the roofing but would seek other ways to recover their profit. With the roof completed the building was at last watertight and it looked for a brief moment that we might enjoy Christmas with our family in our new home. This was something we dreamed of, but I did not take into account the quality of Cubic’s first and second fix tradesmen, nor Cooly’s ability to manage them.

While the water and drainage was disconnected, Cubic failed to supply a portaloo until I told them it was not up to me to manually empty the toilet into the sewer. A crate of beer I had been keeping went missing. New fittings were broken by careless handling. I found the remains of an electrician’s sandwich stuffed under the floor boards in what would become the spare room; an obvious enticement to rats.

By now in was mid November. The temperature fell by the day and icy mud got stamped everywhere through the house. The skip became so full that the collection lorry could barely lift it. Litter blew through the cage of security barriers and caught in my neighbours’ gardens, sparking one or two angry exchanges. Though they did not express it directly, it was obvious that they were tiring of the traffic, parking, dirt, swearing, music, and hammering. My immediate neighbour the other side of the semi had to ask an electrician to stop hammering in the attic at five o’clock in the morning. The noise was keeping his six year old son awake. I repeatedly had to apologise for the work vans gouging deep tracks out of his pristine front lawn.

Now in financial difficulty, Cubic started inventing additional charges and cost savings for work that I considered part of the original specification. Having explicitly ordered a closed-system boiler at the tender stage, they proposed fitting a combi-boiler because it would be cheaper to do so. Fitting a closed-system boiler, they said, would cost equivalent to a total refit of the central heating system, about £5,000. Rendering a twenty-metre retaining wall would cost an additional £1,800, a figure so exorbitant as to be laughable. Very quickly, the spare £30,000 evaporated and I had to break out my pension pot and long term savings to get the job completed.

I agreed to pay the additional charges because I realised that Cooly had under-priced the job. I lay awake at night fretting about the spiralling expenses and what I should do about them. It dawned on me to stop paying and hold the remaining budget until everything was done. I was in an invidious position. About £30,000 worth of work still remained and yet I had only £10,000 still to pay. I couldn’t sack Cubic because no one else would do the work for what I could afford and I was stuck with a company no longer incentivised to do a good job. All that mattered to Cubic was cost reduction, something they set about with unparalleled skill. A carpenter who had been sacked was suddenly reinstated. Jobs did not get done unless I was there to observe. My ignorance was brutally exploited.

But nothing was ever simple. Working on a building site with teams of various disciplines, one becomes swept along in the shifting tides of human relationships. I had, from the start, made a point of treating the men with excessive generosity, providing fish and chips for everyone on Friday lunchtime. As a result they would whisper to me if others, Cooly included, were cutting corners. One man was incredibly multi-skilled and hard-working, able to turn his hand from roofing to bricklaying to carpentry as need dictated. Others were difficult to pin down, unwilling to assume any managerial responsibility. When the beer went missing I had to interview them all like school children to get to the truth.

It was awkward. I thought I understood what motivated people. I had, I told myself, been leading teams since the age of nine. But this dynamic was one I never mastered. The loyalties were too thin, too shallow to truly grasp. Someone would steal from me one minute and then down tools to help with heavy lifting the next. Another would apologise for being late one morning, explain that his grandmother was dying and thank me for an expression of concern, but brazenly walk out when others were depending on him to complete a job by the afternoon.

If I was expecting Cooly to provide any form of governance, I was wrong. In the end I stopped giving instructions to him and gave them directly to the builders.

But it would be wrong to say that Cubic were completely incompetent. In one particular instance their technical advice was quite brilliant. The architect’s original plan was predicated in the upper floor extension having a ceiling clearance of seven feet, very low for someone as tall as me. Cubic’s solution was to raise the ceiling using a rolled steel joist, saving me having to duck every time I entered my bedroom. There were times when the subcontractors’ behaviour became so wayward that Cooly had to step in noisily to maintain any semblance of order; something I had neither the skill, nor the knowledge, nor the inclination to do.

Yet by the start of December we had tired of each other and tired of the project. The temperature rarely got above freezing and even simple jobs became painful. The constant worry and competing demands had made me irritable towards my wife, whose expectations were never being met. We were obliged to vacate the house in Rodley as the buyers had a baby on the way and wanted to be in for Christmas. There was a time when I thought we would have to move into a hotel and put our furniture in storage. I wanted them out, no matter what remained. I would borrow more money and get someone else. I made the decision: we would cut our losses and Cubic had to go.

Two weeks prior to Christmas I told Cooly that I was sacking him and de-scoping what remained of the build. Despite this, I would pay everything still owed, including his additional charges, as soon as I was handed a certificate of completion from the planning authority. This was duly provided, and I handed over the cash. On the last afternoon the electrician gave me a certificate of electrical safety but was too drunk to drive home. I told his crew to leave his van, which was eventually collected three days later.

I now had two weeks to finish all the remaining internal work and move house so that we could have my family for Christmas day. The house was dry and warm with the heating on full, but much was still to do: mounting the doors and kicker boards on the kitchen cupboards after the fitter disappeared; carpeting; painting; replacing the recessed lights in the bathrooms where the electrician had drilled holes too large for the ones I had supplied; replacing the lights in the kitchen the electrician broke; filling round the window boards that had been lazily cut nearly half an inch too short at either end; blocking the drafts round the doors; fitting handles; laying insulation in the roof spaces.

The more I looked, the more I saw. In the kitchen the units had been erected without removing the blue protective film. Where they butted up against each other, and the gap was too small to slip any implement, I was left with a ragged corner of film taunting me. The floor boards in the bedroom had been insufficiently nailed down. Anyone walking upstairs sounded like Captain Ahab pegging across the poop deck of the Peaquod. I found guttering that sloped the wrong way; and more in which a hole had never been cut for the downpipe. The rendering so expensively applied to the retaining wall fell off in chunks because it had never set in the cold. The freezing orange mud got tramped everywhere into the house, staining the new carpets, because the patio was never finished.

One of the best bits of advice in the Haines manual was to keep back a retention, around 5% of the total sum, for six months to ensure a builder is motivated to return if any snagging is required. My problem was that the work completed was so shoddy, and the remaining works so extensive, that the paltry retention would never cover it. I told Cooly that I would be using the money to finish work, such as the patio, that I had de-scoped from him. If there was anything left, I would pay it in six months.

Laying the patio cost more than double the retention, but at least I got a reputable landscape gardener who did a brilliant job very quickly. The impact of the patio was immediate; the kitchen ceased to be streaked with drying mud and there was less to tread through the corridors and up the stairs. Drilling away the crumbling render and replacing it cost another £3000. This, of course, required repainting.

In the year following the build I spent around £20,000 either finishing off the programme or repairing work that Cubic had done badly. To my chagrin, this put me well over budget and way behind schedule. A window shattered in its frame because it was under torsional pressure from when it was mounted. Another window, the largest one in the living room, warped from being inadequately fixed into the gap. I had to plug the centimetre wide space to stop the rain and spiders creeping in. The insulation Cooly swore he had fitted had to be laid. The expensive bamboo flooring in the kitchen had to be replaced after the planks warped and buckled. The manufacturer told me I should take Cubic to court; the instructions said clearly that the flooring required a totally flat screed base (the absence of which was one of Cooly’s cost savings) and an impermeable water barrier.

Indeed any number of suppliers and contractors started chuckling when I described the utter hell I had experienced with Cubic. The owner of the window company provided the replacement for the shattered panel at cost. He sent his own men to fit it because I explained that I was never allowing Cubic on my land again.

“You’d be surprised how many times I hear that,” he said.

The cruelty of the project crept into every aspect of my life. Every day repairing and replacing made me coil with anger. An insidious seething permeated the house like a cold mist. Every creek of the floor, or draft of cold air, brought back the helplessness of being trapped in a contract that never seemed to progress and never seemed to end.

And it wasn’t just me infected by the disease. In the summer after the build, the plumber rang me to ask my advice on how to get money out of Cubic.

“He’s took his own profit and not paid me,” he said. “He’s saying you kept money back and I have to take the hit.”

This appalled me. Not only had I effectively paid twice for the central heating system, but I had never held any payment back. In a spirit of goodwill I had even paid Cooly a representative figure when the retention was due. It came as something of a shock to hear he was blaming me for his inability to pay his tradesmen. It came as more of a shock that the plumber was asking for help.

While my family were staying with us for the Christmas immediately after the build, a dark stain appeared on the walls where the stairs doubled round. At first I thought it was water, or steam from the boiler escaping in between the brick skins of the building. I pulled up the newly laid linoleum in the bathroom to investigate, feeling along the water pipes for a leak, but found nothing. Finally, after three days, a creeping stench told me to search underneath the toilet and there I found the cause. The outflow from the loo was inconclusively locked into the soil pipe. Solid effluent was leaking into the walls and every flush of the toilet made the stain richer. It was Boxing Day. My family were downstairs putting on a brave face for my sake. There was nothing else I could do except roll up my sleeves.

***

It is now five years since the build programme. The floor of the bedroom still creaks like the deck of a dhow, and mortar still falls from the roof ridges in high winds, but the majority of the repair work has been completed. I no longer shiver when confronted with a building project and in fact am keen to undertake another. The experience of employing Cubic has been educational. I know for certain that building contractors expect to be treated in an extremely transactional manner. Kindness leaves them uncertain of the boundaries between supplier and client. Some builders, like Cubic, are probably very effective on small budget projects like patios and loft extensions, but they rarely have the capability or experience to manage protracted, inter-disciplinary extensions. Always, always, always employ on recommendation. If a builder charges a premium, you are paying not for additional skill but for integrity. I lacked the hardness required to drive Cubic to meet my expectations and, of course, had created much of the mess by paying too much, too early. The quality assurance I expected from the Federation of Master Builders logo on the Cubic website was utterly vapid. Their level of membership is not a statement of capability but a paid subscription issued to anyone who signs up to a code of practice. I didn’t even bother writing to express my concerns. Furthermore, I had selected Cubic on the strength of something I thought I saw in Cooly. Perhaps, if I am honest, my liberal sensibilities had led me to select a muslim against the prevailing trend of racism I saw around me. I wanted to prove he would be reliable. His failure to be so reflects not on him, but on me. It is five years since I sacked him and I noticed recently that he is using photographs of my house build on his website to advertise his business, which suggests that he did not learned anything from the experience.

In early January 2011, a few weeks after the build, Cooly asked to meet me to discuss why I sacked him. We met on neutral terrain, Costa coffee in Guiseley. He was nervous and uncommonly obsequious, insisting on paying for the drinks. He asked if I wanted anything to eat, then nearly begged me to let him finish the patio in exchange for what was left of the retention, to be paid on completion.

“This project has left a sour taste in my mouth,” he said. “I want to prove I can do a good job.”

I declined. I had spent the morning replacing a leaking outflow in the shower. If he had a sour taste in his mouth, perhaps he could imagine what was in mine.

 

Bibliography

Rock, Ian, Home Extension Manual: Step-by-Step Guide to Planning, Building and Managing a Project (London: J H Haynes & Co Ltd, 2010)

Cubic Construction http://www.cubicconstruction.com/ [accessed 20 June 2015]

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