Archives For Inspectors

AKA, The Harsh Conversation I had with a Young Carpenter.

A building I designed for a corset maker.

The dynamics of the Vendor/Builder/Festival Management matrix are complex, and there are many places where the deal can go wrong for one or more of the parties. All three legs must be considered for this table to stand. On the one hand, talented carpenters get to design and build whimsical structures. I’ve met architects who have many more years of study, be insanely jealous that my imaginative designs have actually been built, rather than collecting dust in a pile of drawings. Vendors, be they artists or service providers, need to have Builders who understand the Renaissance Faire aesthetic, comprehend traffic flow patterns necessary for sales, and can build to meet local codes. Festival Management needs for the dealings between the Vendor and the Builder to proceed smoothly, and on a time frame that ensures that the shop will be completed to code, and open, with an approved Vendor in place, when the festival is open to the public.

I think it will just be easier if I list some of the things that can go wrong here.

1) Builder runs out of money. This is often because of a misquote or mistake on the bid, but sometimes a permitting process throws extra expenses into a project. It is the Builder’s responsibility to draft a contract that allows for alterations in the price when governmental agencies are involved. Requiring complete drawings lowers this risk tremendously. With a complete set of drawings, a Builder can count every board necessary in the construction of the building prior to bidding the job. Also, by reviewing the drawings, a knowledgeable person, whether a Vendor or a Building Coordinator, or a Building Inspector, can tell quickly whether or not the Builder knows what he is doing.

2) Vendor runs out of money. This may be due to the above-mentioned governmental agencies involvement, but unfortunately it is often due to poor planning, or an attempt to use any loopholes in the contract with the Builder to pay for the building with revenues generated in the building to be built. (Say that 5 times fast; I dare you.) Builders are quite often banking the business growth of vendors due to their own mistakes in contract design. These loopholes have been exploited by Vendors for decades, and unfortunately, due to the presentation needs of the Festival Management … it is sometimes considered business as usual. Some Builders are writing contracts specifically allowing this practice, because it is considered the industry standard.

3) Water gets into the booth after completion. This can happen either because the Builder does not have a familiarity with the specific roofing materials required at a Renaissance Festival, or more often; it is a grade elevation issue. Grade elevations are usually agreed upon between the builder and the Site Manager. Maximum Exterior dimensions are sometimes set by the Site Manager as well, to control roof run-off from one shop to another. (Builders have to remember to include this work in the bid, often with an explanation, because it is almost always an invisible cost to the Vendor/Buyer.) Some of the biggest arguments I was involved in as Building Coordinator involved water, and the fact that a Builder was in the process of wasting a great deal of a Vendor’s money building something that was not in any way able to stay dry. In one case I lost a friend; in another, I made a friend for life when he realized I was saving him at least $50,000.

4) These building designs are each 100% unique. Getting a solid estimate is impossible without an investment of time and energy into the design process. Builders with solid reputations can usually negotiate a change in costs as it is discovered during construction, but it is very difficult for new Builders to adequately cover the risks of designing original buildings in these venues. Again, extensive drawing requirements can alleviate some of this risk, or at least give a clear discussion point with the often absentee Vendor/Buyer.

5) The Builder is such an artist that he designs more than the Vendor can actually afford, and leapfrogs his cashflow from project to project to fund his own artistic expression requirements. It’s hard to see who loses here, other than the Builder/Artist himself, whose standard of living is probably taking a hit. But the festival building market gets skewed to where Builders who do charge a reasonable wage for their time are priced out of the market; and that poor artistic soul cannot afford the help he needs to finish that last job onsite. Unfortunately neither can he afford the therapy he’ll need when his customers are still not appreciative of his work.

6) The Builder and the Vendor disagree on the balance owed. This is usually when the Builder/Vendor contract is unclear on change-orders. Making alterations in a building once it has started involves time and materials, which customers rarely understand. In most cases, the structure is the first time a Vendor has hired a contractor to build them a structure from scratch, and understandably, they may not have been able to picture the structure in its reality. Moving a door or a window is never cheaper than the original bid, often to the dismay of a customer.

7) The Builder runs out of time. Now, this is a somewhat grey area. Again, the contract should state a delivery date, and 1 hour before the festival opens does not give the Vendor (who in his mind may have just spent more on his business than ever before in his career) adequate time to move his product and displays into the new structure. Some festivals avoid this by having cut-off dates for construction that are months in advance of the event opening, but other climates do not have as many months of suitable weather, and thus festivals in these locations cannot use this safeguard.

8) Festival Management does not approve of the design. Okay, hopefully this issue is dealt with before construction begins, as most festivals have to approve a building design before it can be started. However, it has happened that a builder built something other than the drawing that was turned in for approval. In the situation I speak of, the Builder was a full-time employee of the Vendor for whom he was building, and they thought Festival Management wouldn’t notice if they eliminated the two tower portions of their structure. Fortunately this issue usually manifests as a simple request to repaint a structure, because the color that was described in the drawing was not the color that ended up on the wall or the trim. (I recommend paint color chips with all building applications provided to Festival Management. It saves a lot of grief in the long run.)

9) Builder doesn’t get paid, and there is no opportunity for an actual “Contractor’s Lien”. Okay, this is one of the biggest problems to be faced in this industry. All three players must get their needs met. I don’t know of anyone who has been able to get a business loan for a Renaissance Festival structure. Banks are not too keen on loaning money for a building when no Real Estate is attached. That being said, it is not an excuse to enter a contract with a Builder for a product that the small business cannot afford. By the same token, the Builder’s inability to meet the delivery date cannot be held against him if timed payments were not met. He very well may have needed that payment to buy the next round of materials for the structure. But testosterone-laden threats of “Husqvarna Collection Agency” action on the part of the stiffed Builder will not and cannot ever be supported by Festival Management. Festival Management’s first responsibility is to the event itself. Management has to ensure the paying guest has a complete experience of a finished and perfect park. While some festivals have been known to place a label of “Plague House” on a closed up structure due to incompletion or contested ownership; it is a last-ditch resort. Festival Management also has to balance the needs of the talented Builders, and the Artists who have hired them. If that does not sound like an easy task; it is because it is NOT an easy task.

The best contract I know of in the industry is that of a Designer/Builder who is also a furniture maker that has been accepted into several highly juried art shows. His contract (which Festival Management has to sign as well), states that if the customer does not finish paying for the structure, the Festival gets a new furniture maker as a Vendor, and all payments up until that point are forfeit by the Vendor with whom he originally contracted. If all of the Builders on the Renaissance Faire circuit had crafts that would pass a jury, this would be the solution. With this, everyone in the Builder/Vendor/Management Matrix gets their needs met. Unfortunately, most of the Builders express their art solely in the fanciful structures they design for Vendors.


There are surely some other problems, but these are the most common. I’m interested in what the best solutions might be. I know of one Festival General Manager who set up an escrow account through the festival office. Thus the Vendor had to have proven his ability to pay for the entirety before the building commenced, yet the final payment check was not cut to the Builder until all three parties sat together and agreed they were happy. Not every festival will want to be this involved. Some have referred to it as micro-managing, but I can assure you that during the tenure of that General Manager, more than half of these issues were eliminated from the list. He required a Delivery Date early enough that the sit-down meeting would not impact his own time requirements in opening the show, so it was at least two weeks before the opening date.

Some Festivals have a list of approved builders, and while I applaud the attempt to create some regulation in the industry, the reality is often that the Vendor audience for that list makes assumptions about the Builder’s abilities based upon their appearance on the list, when in fact the Builder may have no more skills than those necessary in buying Liability Insurance.

There are things to be said about absentee Vendor customers, and oversight of construction projects, but I will leave that for another article. Requests for a handbook on Festival Building Practices are being seriously considered, as all of my articles on this subject seem to lead to other questions and answers. Instead of answering in extensive phone calls, I’m going to start answering the questions here in this website.

Please, if you know of some “Best Practices” on this issue, mention them or the Festivals that utilize them, in the comments below. (Horror stories are welcome as well, but please do not mention names in those, thanks.)

Every industry has rules. The trick is in knowing how to get what you want while meeting the rules. Venues with a historical theme have tons of several restrictions that help create the environment that fools the public into the fantasy that they are visiting a 16th century village. I won’t get into the finer points on costume rules and building design here, but I will talk about one control that shows up in both those departments. Color restrictions.

There are real reasons for having color restrictions in a historical venue. The technology wasn’t yet invented that could create a hot pink piece of fabric, or a vibrantly purple stucco wall. At least, there was no “affordable” technology that did so. Renaissance Festival costume rules almost universally prevent anyone other than royal characters wearing purple. Apparently in the 16th century, the only source for a purple dye was found in a type of muscle shell found in the Mediterranean Sea, and you needed a lot of them. All of the colors used during the Renaissance Period were from natural sources. Vegetable dyes faded fairly quickly, so the palette of the working class was soft and earthy. I’m not a professional costumer, although I have good friends that are. The end of the color issue that I know better is the one where color restrictions are applied to buildings.

Much like a mall lease contract, contracts for the vendors at a Renaissance Festival or Faire require they do their own “build-out”. They build, or pay to have built, the shops that they will be vending from at that particular festival. Designs have to be approved by the Vendor Coordinator, and perhaps the Site Director and General Manager as well. Each show is an independently owned company with only a few exceptions in the industry, so they’ll each have their own set of hoops for one to jump through. In the best cases, the proposed building design also has to meet with the approval of a Building Inspector.

Because buildings are each designed by an individual, with rare consideration of their neighbors’ designs, the color rules protect us all from garishness. If the color choices were not controlled, each vendor’s desire to be more readily seen than their competitors would quickly spiral upward into a visual cacophony. It happens sometimes even with the color safeguards in place. I myself am guilty of renaming a color when making my building design proposal to management, because it sounded far too purple otherwise.  (Smart building coordinators require paint chips with the proposal.) Fortunately, Park Management has final design control, and can easily tell a vendor to repaint if the color choice was a bad one. In most cases management is considerate to time restraints and may even let someone get a season’s use with the bad color before having to change it for the following season.

I designed and built shops for vendor clients for many years. (Actually, I designed, my husband built, and I painted and trimmed the buildings.) In conversations with my clients, I’d coach them on how to be creative within the color restrictions. I was not telling them how to bend the rule; I like the rules. But, I found that the best explanation was to tell them to “Put some dirt into the color that they most like, and it will probably qualify as an acceptable color.” It was a simplification, but one that communicated well. This is because, while vegetable dyes were used in fabrics, almost all colors used in the building trades came from mineral sources. So I’d ask a client for 3 colors, help them make choices that worked well together, and then if one of those colors was something that would have been more difficult, it became the smallest of the accent colors. In other words, no dark green walls, but perhaps some dark green trim.

It isn’t that any of this is rocket science. But the builder has to care about the illusion that she is helping to create. Renaissance Faire builders are amongst the luckiest designer/builders in the country. They get to design whimsical structures that actually come to fruition. More often than not, they are building inside a private park, and they rarely, if ever, have to build the same thing twice. Caring about the “whys” of the color rules just makes them better at their jobs.


Mid-construction, Jaime’s Coffee Shoppe at the New York Renaissance Faire. The bottom floor finished out with the same warm beige stucco you see on the dormer.

There is some discussion in the industry about whether or not it is beneficial to have building inspectors involved when trying to mimic a 400 year old village. We are designing retail spaces that look like they belong in an English village in the 1600s. Levels and plumb-lines can make a structure look a bit “too crisp”.

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