12 August 2013

On the roof in Zaloze Russia

This summer we put a new roof on our village home.  I saw again how price is negotiated differently in Russia, and the slack safety attitude here.  I also was surprised at my inability to project costs accurately.

Larissa was eager to replace our roof .  Between you, me, and the lamp post, I didn’t want a big project this summer.  If I lived alone, I think the old rood would have been on another five years.  But, I remember the misery of trying to catch the flood of falling water in buckets balanced in windows back in Lebanon NJ years ago.    A leaky roof can stress a marriage!

Last summer Larissa talked with Vasily, a Ukrainian (known as Vaska) about our 123 square meter roof.  He said he could replace it for around 30,000 rubles this summer.  This rough and ready, but highly skilled 55 year old carpenter mechanic has been in Zaloze every summer for six years building a house for his Moscow employer... and fishing whenever he can.  When his boss is away Vaska and his relatives do work for other residents.

In America nothing starts until work and payment is agreed to.

Americans like to deal with things up front and right away.  They like clear agreements on paper.  To them, that’s just good business, and avoids future problems.

In Russia, how much payment is, is only clear at the finish of work.

Nobody we’ve hired has provided a written estimate.  What we end up paying isn’t clear until work is completed and pay time arrives.  The workers can try to raise the final price as the work goes on.  The payer can play with this vagueness and exploit the worker.  The owner has final say about price. This casual system of setting price is more complicated than it seems, and makes me want to grind my teeth.

Part of this behavior is to avoid taxes and harassment.  Partly it reflects the Russian characteristic of стесняться... pronounced stess-ni-it-sa... a hesitation to express what is on your mind.

‘Pay whatever you want.’  I hear this phrase from workers but it doesn’t reflect reality.  The worker is hoping you will pay more than usual... but it’s hard to determine the moving target of what is usual!  If he is unhappy with your stated price he may say, мала... meaning, that’s too little.

Calculating numbers...

I’ve never been strong with numbers.  When I first heard 30,000 rubles I thought... Well, not bad for a new roof! I was forgetting that we would also have to purchase materials.

It seems that all this summer Larissa has been sitting at the table calculating costs for roofing supplies, calling for delivery quotes, arranging to share some delivery costs with neighbors. We ended up paying 38,240 rubles for materials, including delivery to our isolated village. 

We find another brigada overnight!

Finally all supplies were here, and the weather was better.  But Vaska’s boss gave instructions for a long concrete driveway as well as a roof on a new log garage.  So the Ukrainian crew suddenly couldn’t do our work.

Larissa called her doctor cousin in Peno for the phone of the brigada (construction team) that did construction work for her. The leader, Slava, said they would be at our house ready to start around 7 am the next morning.  That quick response I admire, especially when compared to the other prospect, who never called back.

A basic roofing system...

Slava,  Sasha, and (another) Vesily completed work in two and a half days. They worked well together.  Vesily was the top man who lower the old panels with a rope, and pulled up the new pieces.  Sasha was low man.  Slava hefted on the ground but was at the peak at times, also.

They installed 174 x 100 cm wavy concrete roof tiles, called шифер... pronounced shee-fer.  They also added an aluminum cap on our chimney, and put up gutters.

Russians are less concerned about safety than Americans...

They smoked, but I saw no signs of drinking, which makes a big difference in work quality.  They had power equipment and a small truck, a long bubble level, T squares... but still borrowed from my shop an old hammer with a loose handle and a nail puller.  I saw one of them flailing nails at the peak with this untrustworthy tool.  Their footwear wasn’t the best and the ladders they used were borrowed from our farmer cousins... some constructed from odd bits of wood. They nailed  ladders together for height.

Few written records...

They aren’t a registered business, have no insurance to cover any accidents, no bonding, no cards, no advertising on their truck... a typical incognito Russian enterprise.

MacDonald’s three rules of thumb for Russian roofing...

Cost of labor is roughly the same as the cost of materials, 50 – 50.  (For a large project)

Roofing  tile cost is 50% of the cost of all materials

Roofing tile cost is 25% of the cost of all expenses of the completed project

Our costs when everything was tabulated...

 Our materials cost 34,740 rubles, plus 3,500 for delivery and incidentals... a total of 38,240.  The cost of just the sheefer was 20,500.  We originally mentioned 30,000 rubles for labor.  But the boss said they  needed compensation for travelling from Peno.  Larissa suggested 35000 (too much extra).  But they did a lot of heavy work on  hot summer days.  I paid close to our materials cost, at 36,000 rubles, around $1200 in American money.  Our total cost for material and labor was 74,240... around $2,500 for a 123 square meter roof.

When everything had been put away, cleaned up, or returned, Slava walked over to me... the moment of high drama.  I look him in the eye and said, ‘36,000 enough?”  He seemed to startled, then said, ‘Enough’.  At last he and I knew what the cost of labor was.

Why we pay well..

I’ve told Larissa that we should be careful with our money, but also remember we are paying for labor we no longer can do ourselves.  We have to be grateful for good workers and show it in money terms, as well as treat them well on the job.  I would rather pay over the going rate than feel I have exploited anyone.

 Was it worthwhile?

Putting on a new roof was a bigger project than I had envisioned.  The house looks neat and well cared for. It rained a few time since, and the few slight leaks didn’t appear again.  The gutters get water away from the building. For a house we only used three months a year $2,500 seemed a big expense but still worthwhile.  How does roofing in rural Russia compare with your locality?

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  1. Just wondering why the title mentions Tajiks but the article discusses Uzbeks instead of Tajiks?

  2. Thanks for taking time to comment, Hugh. I rewrote this post before I saw your question, in order to concentrate on how Russians work... but your question had me checking my facts.

    I remember saying that the Tajiks flew to Tashkent (capital of Uzbekistan) but that's because two of them live in that country, as do many Tajiks. They do have a European look, being Indo-Europeans. So, why do you think I have them reversed? You can reply here or send an email by clicking the Contact Us tab in the right margin. Thanks!


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