A Wellesley Hills couple is suing their now former architect for what they say are more than $15.5 million in overruns and years of delays on extensions and upgrades to their current home, a mess they say left them fuming and their tony street with a rather unseemly large hole with incorrectly placed concrete supports and structural walls.
The suit in US District Court in Boston pits John and Amy Berylson – he’s a financier who also owns a second-tier English soccer team – against a man they once considered a friend: New York architect David Piscuskas and his firm, 1100 Architect.
In 2016, the Berylsons say, they signed a contract with Piscuskas to design and oversee what they claim he told him would be a three-year project costing between $10.6 million and $12.5 million to update their existing Highgate Road home and add a large, modern-style addition featuring a “dining pavilion,” lots more rooms and underground parking, servants’ quarters and a custom dome.
Instead, they say, by the time they stopped paying Piscauskas last year, the project was nowhere near done, but the cost had ballooned to $28 million, only in part due to their need to find a new architect and general contractor. Town records show that as of March of this year, when the Berylsons sued, the work was still unfinished.
Piscuskas has not filed a detailed defense in court, but says the Berylsons simply stopped payment on a project still very much under way and that he wants the $1.3 million he says he’s owed for work he and his firm have already done.
After the couple stopped paying his monthly bills, the architect filed for arbitration, a quasi judicial process in which a factfinder would listen to both sides and then render a decision.
The Berylsons won a round when a judge in US District Court agreed to halt arbitration and to instead have the two sides sit down for mediation. But that failed as well and the two sides instead agreed recently to a trial track under which they would finish up discovery and other pre-trial proceedings sometime in mid-2023, with the actual trial date to then be set by a judge.
In a ruling yesterday, US District Court Judge Richard Stearns found that pace far too leisurely:
While the court understands the parties’ desire to avoid costly litigation, a scheduling order that extends for years is no aid to dispute resolution.
Instead, he entered a schedule that requires both sides to finish up all their pre-trial work by October, 2022, assuming they haven’t come to a settlement before then.
In their complaint, the Berylsons said they hired Piscuskas and his 1100 Architect in part because of its expertise in the sort of high-quality project you’d expect in Wellesley, in part because John Berylson and Piscuskas had a relationship that went far deeper than a simple business one:
John Berylson and Piscuskas were members of the Brown Football Association, they played golf in the same tournaments, and both are members of the Board of the Brown Football Association. Piscuskas also had worked on the Berylsons’ daughter’s project in Wellesley.
Piscuskas also benefited from his relationship with John Berylson. Mr. Berylson recommended and ensured that Piscuskas and 1100 were selected to design the Brown University Football Center.
And so Piscuskas began work designing an extension so large the Berylsons had bought a neighboring house to knock it down to make room for their new grand manse, one that would increase the number of rooms from 12 to 37, all resulting in a house with 12,047 sq. ft. of living space.
But the project ran into major problems almost from the start, the couple alleges. The exacting Berylsons wanted only the best local general contractor to oversee the work, but there are very few contractors in Massachusetts up to the sort of snuff a high-caliber Wellesley project demands, and it turned out the contractor they hired on Piscuska’s recommendation when most of the others didn’t even offer bids was not to be one of those.
The couple says they should have listened to their instincts and expanded their search for a general contractor to the rest of New England after they learned that the best local plasterer, “whose skills were essential to complete intricate plaster work inside the dome structure designed for the Project,” said he was so distrusted with the selected general contractor he wouldn’t work with them.
The Berylsons somehow persuaded the plasterer to come onto the job, but that wouldn’t help much when the contractor made fundamental measurement mistakes after beginning to pour a foundation and install supports and structural walls for the rest of the addition.
And still the costs mounted.
At one point, after the general contractor said in a meeting the project would cost at least 35% more, the suit alleges, Berylson turned to a Piscuskas staffer and “made clear” that “if any of his managers in business presented unanticipated cost-overruns of more than 35%, they would be terminated.” The Berylsons, the complaint says, left that meeting “in disgust.”
Then there was the whole historic-house issue: When work began in 2016, the neighboring house they bought to tear down should have been torn down quickly, but wasn’t, and in the interim, Wellesley Town Meeting passed an ordinance requiring review of the proposed demolition of any house built before 1949, which the town determined covered the forlorn house.
Work on the overall project ground to a halt, leading to months of delays while the couple waited for the town Historical Commission to determine whether the house was historic enough to be preserved (it ultimately decided it was not, overruling a recommendation by its staff), even after the project passed a Wellesley “large house review.”
Neighbors were not amused; one wrote to the Historical Commission:
Mr. and Mrs. Berylson have owned that lot for roughly two years. Delaying the demolition of that structure at this point seems senseless. As Mr. Zehner [the town planning director] is keenly aware, there has been much turmoil on Highgate for more than two years now. Delaying this project will only add to the angst on the street and continue these rebuilding processes much longer.
That was in 2017. The hole remained for quite some time, the suit continues, and:
Now their existing home was sitting beside a fenced-in hole in the ground, which their neighbors had stated was an eye-sore. Half of their existing home interior was walled off for construction, they were living in the other half and their daily lives were totally disrupted.
The couple’s contract with the architect was set to expire 39 months after it was signed, with a clause stating that after that time, Piscuskas could charge them by the hour for his and his firm’s work, in an attempt to cover the losses he would otherwise have to bear. The Berylsons allege Piscuskas got to the point of deliberately trying to slow things down and to hid looming overruns to get to that point, so he could effectively start charging them more. They said they learned this in part through conversations with the general contractor, with whom they were also disgusted, before they fired that firm.
The couple is now seeking to recoup their extra costs plus treble damages.