Last year my sister Sylvia invited me to spend the winter with her in Ojai, but circumstances made it inconvenient for me. My RV roof was leaking. My car needed its timing belt replaced. My truck needed more work on its steering mechanism. The college hadn't asked me to teach another class, so my income was nil. It seemed easier to just stay in Story and bundle up for the cold weather, ride my bicycle to the library and to Shirley's house, and save money.

Sylvia took my decision with stoic calm, but she was disappointed. She wanted to go painting together and get me out of the snow. My reports of the low 40's interior temperature of my RV horrified her, even though her house could dip to the low 50's at night without the heater. She also wanted to hire me to work on her studio building, a converted garage behind her house, so that she could offer workshops to visiting artists.

As a result of my staying home, Sylvia made an agreement with her neighbor Greg to finish the studio. It seemed convenient, since he was an experienced contractor and seemed to be helpful and generous with odds and ends he had accumulated that might help the project. It was a relief to me that Sylvia was going ahead with her plans.

What perhaps nobody realized was just how all of this would end. On my part, it was pretty predictable: stay in Story, live off of savings, read books, work on plans and models for my own studio and underground house, and wait for spring to arrive. That's pretty much what happened. Oh, and the roof got fixed during a warm spell in March, which was great since every time it warmed up outside before then the ice on the roof would melt, since the roof was flat and the water didn't run off, and start dripping into my living space. At least that didn't happen anymore. My vehicles got fixed, too. Sort of.

It wasn't quite that way for Sylvia, though. Greg made a little progress on the project, installing some plumbing for the bathroom, but then the Thomas Fire happened and everyone had to evacuate Ojai. Afterwards, there was a lot of rebuilding after the fire and Greg had customers with pressing needs. Then he had to visit his mother in Ohio and was gone for a while. Then he and his wife divorced and his life was chaotic.

Finally Sylvia offered to let him stay in the unfinished studio so he could work on the bathroom and finish the project. This seemed like a logical thing to do, since he couldn't pay rent on the house next door and he needed a place to live. Maybe if Sylvia was aware of his daily activities she could prod him along on the project more effectively. That was the plan, anyway. Greg must have had different plans, because he kept dragging his feet, suggesting alternate projects like installing the windows in the back porch, giving Sylvia used appliances from his brother's kitchen remodel, and of course attending to paying customers' needs.

That is, other paying customers. Sylvia had given him $4500 to cover wages and materials for the project, so she was definitely a paying customer. She was also providing him a place to live in Ojai, which was probably worth at least another $1000 per month, even camping out in the unfinished studio and having to find some other place to use the bathroom. He did not have access to the house facilities.

Finally, in the fall Sylvia asked him to leave. It looked like my plans to come to California would finally work this year, and she wanted the space to be available for me. Greg could find another place and finish the bathroom before my arrival. As you can probably guess, the latter didn't happen. Greg did move out, upon Sylvia's insistence, but didn't touch the bathroom project ever again. He stopped answering Sylvia's text messages and phone calls and simply vanished from her life.

Call it a classic case of “take the money and run”, but actually it was “take the money, distract the owner with superfluous projects and presents, and disappear when the whole situation sours.” What only Greg knew was that the project had built-in problems that he didn't want to tackle, and that only became obvious when Sylvia had me take over the project upon my arrival. Suddenly Greg's tactics seemed to make sense, because he never intended to finish the project.

Discovering that the toilet drain cast into the concrete floor was in the wrong place was the first blow. Then we discovered that the vent pipe for the sewer was right in the corner where the studs connected to the wall of the existing structure, preventing the stack from exiting to the roof. Finally, the whole room was in violation of county setback rules. It was an inexplicable combination of blunders that made proceeding impossible. Rather than own up to his mistakes, Greg hid the toilet drain by placing the new fixture on top of it, stuffed insulation around the vent pipe, and carefully avoided any conversation about building codes.

All of this of course devastated Sylvia. Here she was, a year after starting the project, many $1000's poorer, with a basically worthless start that would have to be torn out and redone. We discussed several plans to salvage what Greg had done, but violating the law was the deal-breaker. Neither of us wanted to be part and party to that kind of activity.

A trip to the county planner offered hope, though. California passed a law stating that people could convert a garage into an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, regardless of lot size or setbacks. It required a permit and drawings for the planning and building departments to review. There were restrictions on additions after the ADU was built, which might require an addition to the garage first, and then converting it into an ADU. You could say this was more red tape and administrative hoops to jump through, but that was the law.

Sobered and humbled by these revelations, we were both grateful to be handed the facts, rather than the smokescreen that Greg generated. It would mean starting over, but at least we could be assured that the project would be in compliance with the regulations. Even if it wasn't convenient, we realized that sometimes the law isn't convenient, but necessary to protect civilization from anarchy and chaos. We must do our part.

Oddly, it may have been a blessing in disguise. Rather than a cobbled up mess, we had the chance to rethink the project from the ground up. My advice to Sylvia was to imagine everything in the garage stripped away, with a completely blank slate, so to speak. She responded beautifully, finding some floor plans for “granny flats” that other people had created in their converted garages. We both became engrossed in the possibilities of placing the bedroom, kitchen, and bath in their optimum locations, unencumbered by any existing utility sinks or entrance doors. We even included a second floor studio over the dwelling in the design.

While there is still an immense amount of planning, permitting, construction, and inspecting to do, we feel hopeful that the final product will be worth the expense and effort. The result will fit Sylvia's needs more completely and give her more options for adding to her income later on when she offers artists' retreats in her newly constructed dwelling unit and studio. She will have the assurance that it is done according to building codes and county regulations, and it will add to the value of her property.

We both felt so good that evening that Sylvia decided to fix a nice salmon dinner to celebrate. Who could have guessed that such a disappointing year would turn out with such a bright outlook for the next? If you think about it, though, you will see that it depends upon how you react to circumstances, not luck or some supernatural intervention. We chose to confront the facts and accept the responsibility to act within the law. We used the need to start over to create a better overall design. We took advantage of the situation, in a constructive way.

That should be a lesson for people who try to take advantage of other people. Instead of thinking of just yourself, you must think about others, the future, and society's needs. You can reverse the harmful effects of other peoples' fears and shortsighted viewpoint. You change yourself by adopting a more expansive model of the world. That's what makes humanity so special, and so successful.