Last summer, my family decided to renovate two bathrooms and hired a company with a great BBB rating to design and oversee the renovation. I was excited because I wanted to use the opportunity to negotiate eco-friendly terms into the contract - that they would recycle everything they could and seek eco-friendly and sustainable products. I thought it would be a small way to stay "green" even as we remodeled. The company agreed to do both things and ... didn't really. That was really just the tip of the iceberg, though. Let me start at the beginning...
Knockout Renovation in NYC advertises itself as "an ultra concierge style interior design and remodeling service" that will "handle all things interior for your complete apartment remodel." Unfortunately, we did not find this to be the case. Overall, Knockout provided a superficially decent remodel, but failed to provide consistent, timely work or the attention to detail necessary to call themselves "an ultra concierge" style provider. I will explain, in detail, what worked, what didn't and why for our remodel, however, for those that don't have time to read it, I'll simply say if you have a small to medium sized basic job that is not time sensitive and you don't sweat the small stuff or little details, you may be fine. If, however, you want excellence, you probably need to look elsewhere. I would strongly urge prospective customers to contact at least three RECENT clients of Knockout to interview who did projects similar to the ones they are contemplating before hiring Knockout. It's been over a year since our renovation and we continue to encounter problem after problem after problem with the remodel from our faucets refusing to produce actual water to the lights stopping working to pipes cracking and on and on.
We came to Knockout in the spring of 2017 needing to renovate two bathrooms. We explained we had three critical needs: (1) Exceptional care taken to try to contain the construction debris and reduce dust for a severely allergic occupant (hence, why we went to a supposedly high end "concierge service" provider); (2) that all reasonable efforts be made to use eco-friendly materials and recycle demolition materials; and (3) time being of the essence. We explained that, at the absolute latest, the project must be done, in its entirety, by the middle of the summer (July). Knockout assured us, in no uncertain terms, that this was no problem for them and would be done. Based on those assurances, we signed a contract with Knockout, into which we ensured those three needs were specified. Knockout failed to keep their promises. As of me writing this blog post, Knockout is still making repairs and fixes.
I have done many other renovations and understand that issues arise from time to time. Because of that, I pre-identified and took care of everything I could anticipate – from ensuring the building gave its approval of the project in less than a week to connecting Knockout with “Big Reuse” and “Terracycle,” two recycling providers that work with big items, demos, etc. Because of this, we were able to begin the project a week early and thus were told it should also be completed a week early.
At astronomical expense, at Knockout’s urging, I rented alternate housing for two months, but explained to Knockout's staff that, financially, I had to be back in my home by July 4th. Knockout assured me that I would have at least one fully completed and useable bathroom by July 4th. That did not happen. Knockout delayed, for no legitimate reason, until July 10th, at which point, I moved back in. I found myself in a demolition zone, not a construction site.
The Knockout coordinator had not ensured draping of the kitchen, furniture, books, etc., despite the medical issues discussed extensively in the spring. My floors were covered with dust and debris, the air was filled with dust, my books and personal items were poorly draped or not draped at all and completely covered in construction dust (try getting dust, dirt and construction debris out of a novel, page by page. It's not fun), the kitchen had not been draped and the sink, countertops and stove were full of construction dust. Furniture, including a sofa and framed artwork, among other things, were simply left uncovered and filled with construction debris and, in some cases, unsalvageable. For the sofa in particular, it is very hard to remove two and a half months of accumulated construction debris from fabric. This is not necessarily the fault of the individual workers who came to do the work; this is the fault of the project coordinator, whose job it is to oversee, supervise and direct. The project coordinator was well briefed on the medical issues and therefore should have assured draping and periodic vacuuming, for example. Needless to say, the project was not completed on time – it went months over. There were many takeaways from this experience. They boil down to three main issues: (1) A Failure of Pre-Planning and Coordination; (2) A Failure of Oversight; and (3) Communication Break Down. These are discussed in a little bit more detail below:
I. Failure of Pre-Planning & Coordination
Multiple needless issues and stresses arose as a result of lack of pre-planning and coordination. For example:
A. Properly Investigating Materials
The project coordinator’s job includes proper investigation of materials used so s/he knows what is being used and can guide the client and vendors in order to execute the renovation agreed upon. In this case, the coordinator promised to ensure environmentally friendly items and efficient items and ensure and oversee product purchase to make sure it fit the design, building and all other specs.
Our inquiries regarding environmental and eco-friendliness have remained primarily unaddressed and this agreement does not appear to have been met, but just agreed to get us to sign a contract and engage the company for the remodel.
Knockout's failure to properly research products caused needless delays. For example, their overseer, Mr. Daskalakis, assisted us in selecting the master bathroom bathtub. Mr. Daskalakis’s job was to let us know if the tub would fit, was appropriate for the space, fit the specs, etc. We are not construction or design experts, which is why we hired Knockout. Mr. Daskalakis said it was great and we ordered the tub. When it arrived, Knockout construction staff informed us the tub was actually meant for houses with basements and not for apartments and would be very difficult to install and require the construction of a rise on the floor. We worked with the team to come up with a construction solution. This was something we should not have had to do. The project coordinator should have flagged this issue before the tub was ever purchased and, later on, rather than going to the clients in a panic, the better solution is to come up with a constructive solution and present it in a professional, level-headed manner.
Overall, of course, these oversight, coordination and accountability issues rest with the top – with Mr. Steier, Knockout's owner. When we began raising concerns to Mr. Steier, he did not take action, as far as we could tell, to mitigate the problems until many months later in the process, after the date the project was scheduled to finish.
These are not the only examples of this issue, however, for anyone seriously contemplating a reno, here are some specific examples.
B. Efficiently and Adequately Coordinating Vendors
1. Vendors Inadequately Staffed
When we returned after two and a half months of construction, we were surprised that work crews arrived around 10am and left at approximately 3:00 or 3:30pm each day, even when no equipment was being carried in or out and no clean up efforts were being made at the end of the work days. We inquired about this several times and Knockout did not directly answer the question. In many instances, only one or two men would be working even though two bathrooms needed to be renovated and we had contractually, explicitly all agreed and acknowledged that time was of the essence. We had requested on multiple occasions that at least one dedicated crew member work on the smaller bathroom while the larger team worked on the large master bathroom. We renovated both bathrooms at the same time to make the process faster and therefore should have had two crews working simultaneously in each bathroom. On many occasions, this did not happen; wasting precious days and hours that could have been effectively utilized to complete the project. We saw inadequate numbers of workers for few hours and a failure to have workers in both bathrooms.
A neighbor who checked in the project inquired of the workers why they were present so few hours on any given day and they explained to her that Knockout assigns them 3-4 job sites in a given geographic area and they go from site to site every day and do not concentrate on any one given site. This is certainly not what Knockout told us and not a professional or acceptable manner of working when you have contractually agreed time is of the essence.
To check on whether only a few hours of work per day occurred throughout the project, we obtained the building time log, which meticulously lists the days and times each and every single person enters and exits the building. The log showed that, over the course of the construction, roughly 2-3 men on average days starting around 10 am and ending around 3 or 3:30 pm for two months. (For context, our property permits construction work to 5pm.) This is not adequate staffing for a project of this magnitude, especially, again, when Knockout had explicitly contracted for a “time is of the essence” project. Most of the workers we met took pride in their jobs and paid attention to details, which is a very good thing. That takes time, though, and people should have been working 8 hour days with sufficient people to work on both bathrooms simultaneously. If an 8-hour work day was too onerous for some individuals, the coordinator should have scheduled different people in shifts so that sufficient numbers of people were working for the full work day on the project. Unfortunately, this did not happen and it led to a rushed project, botched jobs, delay, frustration, and worse.
Almost two months after the project was supposed to have been completely done, Knockout still had not managed to complete all the repairs from their work or enable water to come out of the main showerhead. Workers were consistently late in coming to do work. This was part of a consistent pattern of late arrivals and early departures throughout the course of this renovation.
2. Coordinating Vendors Inefficiently
Vendors were not efficiently coordinated. I spoke to everyone on the crews and was consistently told that vendors were scheduled on top of one another, making it impossible for them to effectively do their jobs. This is not the fault of the individual vendors; it’s the fault of the coordinator. The coordinator’s job is to plan the job, get into the space and figure out how and when to schedule tasks. For example, one crew was told the plumbers only needed one day to work on the second bathroom. In fact, the plumbers needed three days and the other crew was effectively stonewalled from being able to do anything. They were forced to “hurry up and wait,” which stressed both them and the plumbers and caused everyone on both crews to feel hurried, rushed and as though they didn’t have the time they wanted and needed to do a good, thorough job. Worse still, nobody was on site from Knockout to oversee or supervise most of the time and, since there was no “boss,” there was no effective chain of command and everyone fell into bickering, which is not an effective environment for getting good work done. When Mr. Daskalakis did show up, he was not the kind of personality that is needed to address the issues. He threw up his hands and exclaimed this was too stressful for him when he needed to implement a clear chain of command and a proper and well thought-out schedule for tasks and crews.
Repeatedly, we heard the vendors complaining vociferously to Knockout that they were not given adequate notice of tasks that needed to be completed. I overheard one vendor expressing incredible frustration and saying, “You never tell me anything until the last minute and then you expect me to work miracles. It’s not fair.”
Another illustrative example occurred on the day before the drop dead deadline. On that day, one member of the two-man crew was waiting for grout that Knockout had supposedly ordered for delivery in the morning. When the grout had still not arrived at 2pm, we asked if there were other tasks that could be done to make efficient use of time (there were) and why grout could not be obtained from the hardware store. We were told the grout was in a warehouse in Queens and the only Knockout staff member who could obtain it was unreachable by phone. Finally, the package arrived around 3pm. It had been delayed because Knockout addressed it to the entire floor, as opposed to our particular unit. The fact the Knockout staff member was unavailable or couldn’t have simply picked up the grout (Queens is still New York City, last we heard) and that the full crew wasn’t instructed to complete the myriad of other tasks besides grouting that required finishing was inefficient, inappropriate use of time. That day, the crew left by 3:50pm. On the day before a drop dead deadline, at least one crew member did no work other than wait for grout that never arrived. That demonstrates Knockout’s failure of oversight, coordination, accountability, and lack of commitment to its contractual obligations and client(s).
Nearly a month after their promised drop dead stop date, Knockout finally scheduled a countertop installation. On the morning of the installation, Knockout emailed that they would not be installing the counter because of issues cutting the stone. We asked why the stone was deemed “ready” but, only a weekend later, was suddenly not ready. Knockout had no response.
Likewise, Knockout’s vendors did not properly affix lighting or faucets and, it took until roughly a month or two after when the project was supposed to be completely over to fix most (but not all) of these issues. Knockout cannot provide any justification or excuse for their errors. These “small, sloppy” errors occurred throughout the project, for which Knockout billed us tens of thousands of dollars. More on these damages are discussed in section (E), below.
C. “Don’t Get Fat”
One day, Mr. Daskalakis asked me to walk back and forth between a wall and shower in the master bathroom and complained the space was very narrow and he never could have anticipated how narrow it would be. He advised me, “Don’t get fat.”
This is problematic for many reasons and, as an example, typifies the general theme of what occurred throughout the construction. As the designer, Mr. Daskalakis both could and should not only have anticipated but clearly known the proportions of the rooms he himself designed. To throw away an error and advise a client to deal with it by not getting fat is unprofessional, at best. When I tried to raise concerns, I would be talked over and mansplained to.
D. Incorrectly Installed Plumbing – Twice.
After Knockout left the property, informing us that all rooms were ready for use subject to the items that Knockout did not install in time,we discovered that no water at all came out of the Master Bath shower head. After all the other issues we endured, a sealed up wall with brand new plumbing did not work.
Plumbers were scheduled to come to address yet more incorrectly installed fixtures (master bath tub spout and guest bath thermostatic control), and we retested the master shower to make sure it worked. We were shocked to see no water came out of the showerhead again. The plumbers’ said it was “another bad piece”. That was their response to the first time the shower did not work. It is highly unlikely that pieces bought months a part had the same bad issue when the other pieces of the same kind bought at the same time did not. Plumbing and tiling had to be re-done several times to address this, which took much more time and caused significant inconvenience.
E. “Small” Avoidable Damages Throughout Add Up
There were multiple small but aggravating issues throughout such as grouting without cleaning so there was dirt, dust and debris dried into the grout, missing grout in some places, damages to the walls in the main living areas from construction workers and tools, clogged pipes from the sink being used (against our specific instructions) for mixing chemicals, staining to the toilet, damage and debris to the sink, mirrors, etc. There were a myriad of other "small" issues that were, at best, disappointing, especially given the amount of money we were spending for a "concierge" service. There were also major clean up issues. As we discussed at the beginning, keeping the construction zone to the two bathrooms and the room between them was of paramount importance. Instead, the construction zone was spread throughout the entire home. Chemical solvents were mixed in the living room, kitchen and bathroom. Drilling took place in our living room and nobody thought to clean up afterwards. There were shoe marks and heavy thick layers of dust on uncovered floors throughout. No effort was made to cover food surfaces, kitchen cupboards, open dishware, air/ac units, windows and furniture such as a side table which was covered with plaster dust, dried solvent and other debris. Framed art was treated roughly and knocked out of its matting and two pictures needed to be professionally repaired.
Another example of the repeated small details that were continuously overlooked: no one over a 2.5 month project bothered to check the bathtub motor plug to see that it was a Canadian plug. On the date we were supposed to receive our useable master bathroom it could not be plugged in. We were told it needed an adapter to plug in but no one had obtained one. Days later we learned that this was incorrect. Instead, Knockout’s team just had not seen the separate plug that was already provided with the product and had been there all along. They missed a simple item of seeing a plug that needed to be plugged in.
Even our closet did not go unscathed. An eveining gown (?!) and a bed sheet were used as drop cloths and were stained and mis-handled during construction. A ceramic elephant, given us by a now deceased grandparent, was left in the construction zone despite warnings to move it. Ultimately, the elephant got knocked about and a move was forced. Luckily, the elephant survived but this is another small example of not respecting the clients’ property in the way you might, for example, respect your own.
This is only a partial list of “small” items, however, added together, they create an atmosphere of failure of attention to detail and disrespect of the client(s) and lack of oversight by the project coordinator (s).
What should have happened?
• A project coordinator should do just that: coordinate the project. That means overseeing, supervising and following up. It means adequately staffing the project and ensuring sufficient hours are worked to get the job done right and on time. Sometimes, you have to give people deadlines and follow up more than once. That’s part of the job.
• Listen to the client(s) AND the vendor(s). They may have valuable information that can help you be more efficient. The vendors repeatedly vocally begged for more advance notice of the tasks they needed to do and what their deadlines were and complained about multiple crews (e.g., plumbing and electrician and painter) being stacked on top of one another without guidance so nobody could get work done and fights broke out. Had the vendors been listened to and their concerns addressed, the project would have moved much more quickly.
• Don’t wait until two days before a drop dead deadline to call your vendors about missing pieces and then tell the client(s) and say oh, well, “fingers crossed” it works out. Clients don’t want your fingers to be crossed. They want you to be a competent professional who they feel comfortable can handle the job.
What DID Work?
• Some of the individual vendors (electrician, painter, etc.) we met personally were very kind and appeared to take pride in their craftsmanship.
II. Failure to Properly Oversee
A. Allergies and Asthma
For anyone with allergies and asthma or a family member or friend who suffers from severe allergies and asthma, you know these conditions are very serious and potentially life threatening. They are not a joke. We were very clear with Knockout, from before we ever entered into an agreement, that containing construction debris was of paramount importance. Knockout agreed and assured us it would be no problem; that they would drape everything, run an industrial grade HEPA air filter and keep the construction zone to the enclosed area between the two bathrooms and the two bathrooms themselves. The project coordinator was responsible for ensuring that this would be done. As mentioned above, Knockout staff requested we move out for the renovation, which, at great personal expense, we did. We returned about two weeks before the project completion deadline and one week before the anticipated finish date (remember that we started the project a week early). We trusted the Knockout coordinator(s) to oversee and supervise and ensure the project was done in a manner consistent with our agreement, however, when we returned, the air was full of dust, the HEPA filter, while there, was very dirty, not running when we arrived, and the filter looked old and clogged and clearly had not been changed anytime recently. Multiple areas had not been draped, including the kitchen, which was covered in a layer of dust and debris, and the HVAC units, which we had to turn off immediately after turning on the AC and having debris shoot up into our faces like mini projectiles. Our brand new wood floors were dirty throughout the entire apartment. Within a week of being back, one family member had to go on steroids. We had to replace multiple of our own air filters, again, at great personal expense. On one day, after we moved back into our home, Mr. Daskalakis took off his glasses and laid them on the kitchen counter. When he picked them up again, he complained at the amount of construction dust on them. We noted it was a real problem and asked about the draping and why the HEPA wasn’t running. Mr. Daskalakis replied that really, we should have moved out and should not be there. We replied that we did move out, for two months, and the project was supposed to have been done already. When it became clear that Mr. Daskalakis had nothing further to say on the subject, we draped the inside of our own closet and plugged in and ran the HEPA air filter ourselves. These are very simple actions that any project coordinator should have been able to quickly and easily implement to minimize pollution, discomfort and health hazards.
What should have happened?
• A project coordinator should have ensured proper draping of vents, furniture and areas where food is prepared
• A project coordinator should have ensured that rips and tears in the existing draping were patched with tape.
• A project coordinator should have properly educated his or her crew on special medical needs, the necessity of running the HEPA throughout and protecting the floors, furniture, and keeping the construction to the three areas agreed upon, as opposed to spreading it throughout the entire home
• When asked by the client to drape something or run the HEPA, the coordinator should do so unless there is some sort of exigent circumstance that militates against doing so (which there was not)
III. Communication Breakdown
A. Failure to Communicate
Knockout failed to keep us apprised of their lack of progress and delays. When we returned to our home after two months, we were shocked by how little had been done. Despite knowing how behind schedule they were and that they had no legitimate justification, Knockout continued to bill us tens of thousands of dollars between the start of the project and the current date.
Knockout did not give us adequate notice they would fail to meet the drop dead date, which Knockout was informed was critical to accommodate business and personal needs. Indeed, up to the day of the deadline, Knockout staff assured us they would in fact meet the deadline. Actually, they failed to do so and the water did not even run in the bathroom. Knockout sent one single cleaner to handle a significant clean up job and we ended up having to oversee Knockout’s errors and last minute “emergencies.” Knockout caused us embarrassment and significant financial hardship. The facts can only lead us to believe that Knockout agreed to things they couldn’t or wouldn’t do simply to get us to sign the agreement and to take our money.
B. Excuses Instead of Solutions
As soon as we returned after the first two months of construction and saw the state of the project and the damage to our personal property, we notified Knockout. We were positive and constructive, going through exactly what had gone wrong and how it could be fixed. Knockout made many excuses – blaming their vendors, blaming slow elevators, blaming traffic – but did not offer any constructive solutions, nor did they take into consideration any of the remedies we suggested, such as improved, structured methods of communication or a having vendors work a full day instead of a quarter or a half day.
What should have happened?
• A project coordinator should have provided the client with a reasonable schedule and kept them apprised of the general status of the project to prevent surprises
• A project coordinator should have offered positive and constructive solutions instead of excuses. For example, instead of complaining “just because [x] happened while we were here doesn’t mean it’s our fault…” a more appropriate and professional response would be, “[x] happened because [y], which we know from [z] and we’ve addressed it by [a]. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.” The second method of communication shows a level of professionalism and pride in one’s work, a respect of the client(s) and a genuine desire and willingness to problem-solve constructively. The first exhibits a “CYA” (Cover Your A**”) mentality of excuses, avoidance and obfuscation. That kind of attitude engenders anger and frustration from the client(s); whereas the first response engenders a feeling of gratitude and validation – even if the problem isn’t necessarily completely solved, the clients feel good because they perceive the coordinator respects them and is working hard to address their concerns and will thus be far more forgiving if things don’t work out entirely the way they’re supposed to.
• A project coordinator should have been sure to be in regular and consistent with her or his vendors and crew to avoid surprises, such as telling the client 48 hours before a drop dead deadline that, actually, the project may be delayed for two more weeks, without any justification other than trying to blame it on others.
• Passing the buck. The coordinator(s) should not be blaming the crew, the vendors, etc., since they’re responsible for selecting these people and maintaining open and regular communication with them to address issues promptly when they arise, not letting the ball drop and waiting until the last minute when it’s too late. Inability to accept responsibility for dropping the ball and consistently blaming others for every issue only makes you look bad. The better course of action s to accept responsibility and take positive and constructive action to fix issues promptly as they arise. This is basic business 101.
What DID Work?
• On communication, very little, unfortunately. This is a serious area in which Knockout must improve if it cares about its customer and vendor relationships.
Our neighbors complained of water leaking and alleged Knockout improperly dumped construction debris down the drains, causing clogs in the pipes that ruptured one, causing leaking. Knockout did ultimately repair this, but it felt like a never-ending train wreck.
We appreciated some of the craftsmen we met who were very kind to us. We trusted Knockout to do their job and therefore did not really become involved with the individual workers until we came back two months into the renovation and it really hit home how terribly Knockout had failed to properly or efficiently coordinate or oversee the project, but in that limited time we had with the individual craftsmen, they were polite to us, although they expressed a significant amount of frustration with Knockout.
I would not use Knockout again. They failed to keep their promises, did not deliver what they said they would when they said they would and they did not properly staff the project, leading to a complete breakdown of communication and massive amounts of unnecessary stress. This renovation should have gone very smoothly. No unexpected or exigent problems arose. The issues that arose were the general, run-of-the-mill issues that anyone who has done a renovation before comes to expect, anticipate and plan for.
Perhaps most disappointing of all was going to the owner, Keith, with our concerns and not receiving much in the way of a response other than “I’m sorry you’re frustrated.” I would have preferred positive and constructive solutions. What I got was last minute meetings that delayed, demoralized and distracted the on-site crew and gave the project coordinator the opportunity to raise numerous unhelpful excuses (as opposed to solutions (like telling me not to get fat - so helpful)). In fact, soon after we initially spoke to Keith, the project coordinator went on vacation, even though our project was nearly a month behind schedule, leaving us to repeatedly call and email random Knockout staff for estimated times of completion.
The time and costs of this project – including “little” things, ranging from the evening gown ruined in the closet to the diploma that had to be repaired and reframed due to rough treatment to the multiple medical grade air filters to the long term hotel stays (when originally Knockout told us we could stay home during the reno, which people do all the time) to our personal sheets and towels being used as drapes and ruined to the powder room being left with fecal matter and other unpleasant materials dripping down the side of the toilet and left for the clients to clean to having to put guests in hotel rooms because they couldn’t stay with us post the drop dead deadline that Knockout failed to meet to a bizarre dishwasher short – were not worth the end result.
The bathrooms are superficially pretty though still sporting damages which have yet to be repaired, which is sort of nice, but not nice enough to have put us through all of this.