March 19, 2021

What a Pergola Can Teach You

In this post, I’m going to share some valuable insight I’ve learned over the years from making mistakes—something we all do. It just happens. It’s how we handle those mistakes, learn from them, and move forward is what really counts.


When I was in college and working part-time as a builder, I built a pergola for a customer. Now, it’s never easy to admit when you’ve done something wrong, but I think it’s even more challenging as a builder, craftsman, or artisan. That’s because we naturally take pride in what we create, designing from scratch, pouring our heart and soul into the project, and when it doesn’t come out just right (or even worse—completely wrong), the harsh sting of failure slaps us in the face.

Reality check: Sometimes we don’t get it right. Sometimes it’s a huge fail. My pergola was one of my fails. After I had completed it, I knew in my heart that it wasn’t done correctly. And I really wished I could have fixed it, but at the time I was financially strapped. So, I did nothing.

Now, most people wouldn’t readily tell the world about their project mishaps or mistakes, but my brain works a bit differently. I found myself sharing this story while I was onstage speaking at the International Builder’s Show. Great timing, brain.

As I spoke, I noticed some in the audience nodding (yeah, you’ve been there) and then I had an epiphany—I knew exactly what I needed to do—I made a promise to myself that when I returned home I would drive to that very house, knock on the door, and tell my former customer that I was offering to replace the pergola. I was going to make things right.

And I actually did it (not gonna lie; I felt pretty proud of myself); only upon my arrival I found the pergola was gone (not terribly surprising). I remember thinking: ‘Sweet! I’m off the hook!’ and drove home, only to discover my conscience wasn’t about to let me off the proverbial hook just yet. That’s the thing about mistakes…if you don’t address them right away, the guilt lingers, like a gnawing sensation just begging you to do the right thing and own up.


Lesson 1: Do not ignore or hide the mistake or attempt to rationalize it away.

Lesson 2: Admit you’ve made a mistake and assess the damage. I should have told the customer, “Hey, this isn’t really up to snuff; this isn’t what I was hoping to deliver.”

Lesson 3: Be proactive in trying to make things right: “I can’t afford to replace this right now, but I’d love to come back and have the opportunity to fix it. Let’s discuss a plan for me to do so right now.”

I have chosen to incorporate my mistakes into life lessons. This particular situation convinced me to choose excellence—every time, for every customer, big or small. Doing so has allowed me to provide a level of professional commitment to everyone I work with. And I am confident that it has elevated my craftmanship and NS Builders as a whole.

Turns out, you can learn a lot from a sad little pergola.


The kitchen experiment was just that: a chance to have our team work with another kitchen builder to see if we could ramp up our production time. The goal was to utilize small shops and thus expand our production and finish jobs quicker. Unfortunately, the plan backfired and upon inspection of the finished work, we realized it didn’t meet our high standards. Ken, the director of millwork, and I spent an entire day onsite at this botched kitchen job, trying to determine if we could salvage the project, and actually be proud of it at the end of the day.

No chance. My conscience wouldn’t let me walk away from that job and sell it to the client that all was well. Because it wasn’t done right—not up to NS Builders standards and reputation. So, I had to chalk it up to miscommunication, on the part of the builder we hired out the work to and to some degree ourselves. If we had laid out in more precise terms what was expected, exactly how it had to be done, perhaps we would’ve had a better outcome. The question now was: How do we make this right?

I had to call the architect and explain the situation; it was difficult, humbling. I called the client and explained that we were going to replace the kitchen. And I reached out to the other builder with professional courtesy explaining why we were replacing his work, that I wasn’t asking for his help or any money to be returned, and specifically outlined my concerns and the issues we ran into. And that we both could’ve communicated better on the project. It was well received and we parted ways. My team got to work immediately for our client and replaced the whole kitchen; the client was ecstatic.


It’s a slippery slope to mediocrity. If you let one thing slide on a job, hoping the client or architect won’t notice a mistake, it’s only too easy to let it happen again…

So, don’t step foot on the slope—run the other way! I came away from this experience convinced that my team and I had to make a professional commitment to each and every customer that we would complete the job exactly as it should be done. No corners cut. Fixing mistakes no matter what the personal cost.

And that an open line of communication with a healthy dose of humility can make all the difference in the world; it solidifies the relationship and trust you have built with the client.


So, don’t let discouragement crush your enthusiasm as a builder when those unavoidable mistakes happen on the job—simply refocus and do everything within your power to make it right.

Speaking of making it right…

Many of you are working from home and find the current home office space to be seriously deficient in terms of design, functionality, and comfort. Now’s the time to consider renovating that unused basement space into the home office of your dreams. For a little inspiration, check out this Newton Basement Studio renovation and give us a call to find out just how easy it is to make your next project a reality.

-Nick Schiffer


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