Thursday, March 17, 2011

Original reasons to hire a reputable contractor

I love watching people work.  I am not sure why, really, but I think it’s probably because a body at work betrays the mind’s intentions.  When a person is working, the whole person is engaged.  Intent seamlessly manifests itself in action, every muscle movement telegraphed by a furrowed brow, a slight nibbling of the lip or a vaporous sparkle that darts across the eye like an apparition.  A person intent on completing a task doesn’t hide his intentions.  Their movements and thoughts are without guile.  Who knows, maybe this is where the term ‘an honest days work’ comes from. 
Growing up, I’d watch the men who worked for my dad with awe.  The youngest workers, still clumsy with inexperience, tried their hardest not to draw the coarse ribbing of the oldest; who, bodies hunched in submission to the repetitive stresses of the labor, griped about the pace of work.  But, most of all I loved to watch the men who were in their prime.  These men, who experience had made strong, had not yet succumbed to the hardness of movement characterized by the older workers. Their effortless movements were punctuated by outbursts of laughter, the barking of instructions or a quick reprimand for a wayward movement.  They were the masters of the site, these men’s effort determined how quickly the work would go, how much money the boss was going to make.  In fact, watching those men work influenced me to enter the construction field. 
Unfortunately, the construction field has been weakened.  Unscrupulous contractors cheat all of us by hiring workers illegally, requiring them to present themselves as sub-contractors and to carry their own worker’s comp. and liability insurance.  Furthermore, the lower prices that they are able to work for, since they don’t have insurance or payroll tax costs, become the new pricing standards industry wide.  Firms that do not operate illegally are unable to meet the new standards and are forced out of business.  Over the years, I have watched many honest businesses fail because they were not willing to break the law.  They have been replaced by operators who are less honest in their dealings.  The entire industry and workers wages have degraded as a result.  So, before you hire someone to work on your home, make certain that they operate their business in an ethical manner and help ensure a new generation of competent craftsman.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

More demand for less material?

Two things that I hate to see are waste and inefficiency.  If you're like me, the sight of a garbage dump chock full of old tv's, vcr's, appliances and other consumer products is unsettling.  In recent years, many have begun to question the ramifications of our throwaway society.  Increasingly, smart consumers are opting for higher quality, longer lasting, better designed products that mitigate our abundant creation of waste.  I came across this article on the core77 blog.  It raises some relevant issues regarding the future of design in a world where emerging economies are competing for more and more scarce resources.  Braungart understands the need to recapture and reuse the material we use to make products.  What are some choices that we, as consumers, can make to facilitate a more pragmatic material cycle?  Would you be willing to pay more for products made of materials that were easily recaptured for reuse?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

DIY Tips From a Pro

The web is littered with articles that promise to make your do-it-yourself remodeling project easy.  Many of the remodeling tips you find can make even a complex do-it-yourself project simple.  But remodeling is hard because, you live on the jobsite.

This might come as a surprise, but, most people don’t relish the thought of living in a jobsite.  I think that’s why many people rush to get their remodeling project finished and are ultimately dissatisfied with the results.  When I first started building, I was always in a rush to get finished.  I figured my clients wanted to see overnight results, so, I exerted a lot of time and energy trying to deliver them. As a result, I set schedules that were too aggressive and, unfortunately, overwhelmed some customers with a barrage of workers, subcontractors, deliveries and deadlines.  Do-it-yourselfers often do the same.  You figure that you have a weekend to finish the bathroom, so, you board up the door, send the kids outside or, to grandma’s, call up all your friends and neighbors to solicit help and commence tearing up flooring, ripping open walls, removing toilets and making a terrific mess.  By Sunday evening, everyone is exhausted, the bathroom isn’t usable and grandma has to make room for your wife too.  When was the last time you went through a mall that was being remodeled, or a retail store?  Was the work done in a sequential, orderly fashion, or did it seem like a free for all?  Were you able to tell when a project was well managed?  How about when it wasn’t?  Good contractors are able to manage a large-scale remodeling project by breaking up the work into manageable pieces.  Think about how to phase your project in a similar manner.  Also, construction is physically strenuous, take breaks and set a time limit for each day’s work.  At the end of the work period, clean up; don’t leave tools, cords and material lying around the jobsite.  10-15% of the time on a project is spent cleaning and setting up, so, don’t forget to account for this in your time estimates.  Pretend that you are a contractor and your family is the client, do the work in a professional, orderly manner and you will be pleased with the result. 

Are there any project management tips that you think can make a remodeling project run smoother?  Do you have any do-it-yourself horror stories, what happened? How did it end?

Monday, March 7, 2011

5 Common Remodeling Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Being a third generation builder, within a large family full of builders, I virtually grew up on the jobsite.  Over the years I began to gain an interest in the design and ordering of projects and began to appreciate what attributes constituted a successful design.  Naturally, over my own 15 years as a contractor, I have been involved in projects that obtained varying degrees of success.  I would like to share some of the systemic mistakes that people make when getting involved in a building or remodeling project. 

1.      Not having a clear vision of what you are trying to accomplish.

It seems simple enough, but, most people begin working on their project without a clear vision of what they want.  And often, spouses have competing ideas about what would constitute a successful project.  Think about how a remodeling project starts.  Typically, the husband starts drawing a graph paper blueprint showing exactly how the new, supersize bedroom suite, bought on clearance, will fit into the expanded master bedroom, or maybe, he’s tech savvy and sure he’s going to impress with his eminently logical, detailed CAD layout of the kitchen remodel.  Meanwhile, his wife usually grabs a few armloads of the latest issues of Architectural Digest or Better Homes and Gardens as well as a few books from the big box home improvement store and begin to pick out the things she likes and doesn’t. And indeed, photographs and plans are tools that can help create a great design. But, ultimately, it is important to possess your own personal vision for the project.  Architecture is about eliciting tangible emotional response to the built environment; therefore, you must be able to frame the environment in your imagination before you can build it.  Think about what emotions you want people to feel as they interact with your construction.  Do you want them to be awed, sanguine, content, or, agitated?   Draw on memories of places you have been. Where were you when you felt certain emotions?  Often, probably because we are so much more aware of the nuances and textures or our surroundings as children, your memories will draw toward your childhood.  My impression of contentment, in an environmental context, is a memory of childhood and the feeling of the hot concrete pool apron beneath my wet feet as I oscillated between the ultra-bright midday sun and the cooling shade thrown by our roof eves.  As a designer, and don’t be deceived, even if you hire a design professional, this project was your idea; therefore, you are a designer, really explore these places and reflect on their structure.  Where were the light and dark areas of the space?  What portions of the area displaced space, which portions defined it?  Now, try to find the structural qualities that define these spaces and place them into the context of your new project.  This might be hard work, but, keep at it.  Practice exploring your imagination until you are able obtain a clear vision; then, continue with your project.

2.      Not finding someone who can articulate your vision.

Builders, designers, architects, even the salesman at your local big box improvement store are all trying to make money.  Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that.  When I work I do it to make money.  However, people follow the path of least resistance.  Many of the people you hire will try to find the easiest way to get their money and then leave.  It’s no fun to have your project compromised because a team member didn’t understand or care about the final result.  Make sure to interview as many people as you can to ensure you find someone whose project goals parallel your own.  Additionally, be up front with the people you are working with throughout the project, especially regarding your budget.  If you hire an architect and tell him you want to spend, say, $50,000 he will design according to that budget.  If you really plan on spending $60,000, then say so.  Nothing looks worse than high budget items piled onto a low budget design.  If you can’t trust your architect or builder to respect your budget, get different architects or builders.  Practice your communication skills; it is imperative that you and the people who are working on your project are all on the same page.  Divorces often happen during, or immediately after, a building project.  I believe it’s because a building project reveals a couple’s lack of communication; consequently, increasing marital stress.  So, build a team that has the same project goals you do and keep open communication with all the members of your team and you will improve the chances of a successful project.
3.      Adding on when you need to rearrange.

Ah, now we get to the nitty-gritty.  It’s so important to know why you want the change.  In literature, a house is often used to symbolize a person, or a family.  Why do you suppose that is?  Give up?  It’s because our homes reflect who we are.   The desire to change one’s surroundings is always the result of, either, a desire to change oneself, or, a desire to reflect a change that has already occurred. Naturally, there are practical reasons to remodel.  Maybe your mother-in-law just became a widow and can’t live on her own; maybe you’re getting ready to welcome a new baby.  These external factors may provide the initial impetus toward a change; however, it is imperative to realize how external factors will affect your personality and, consequently, your project.  A project can provide a cathartic means of processing change.  For example, not far from my house is a place called Cathedral of the Pines.  It is a garden and outdoor chapel created by a man who used its construction as a way of working through the grief of losing his son in World War 2.  But, too often, people use a building project as a way to avoid dealing with emotional matters.  Ask some tough questions.  Do I need to add-on because my home is full of things that I can’t seem to let go of?  A lot of times, I might argue most times, it is better to get rid of stuff than it is too add space.  Often, a big yard sale, some paint, and properly proportioned furniture will do more to improve our lives than a huge remodeling project. 
4.      Focusing on price not value. 

When doing a project, spend some time looking at the real life-cycle cost of items.  Upgrading to a more efficient heating system may pay for itself long before its life-cycle is complete.  A higher quality carpet will stay nicer for longer than one of lower quality.  Don’t just look at dollars and cents though.  Our surroundings have a huge effect on our overall quality of life.  Don’t cheap out on things you have to handle every day.  If you grab the handle to your kitchen faucet and it feels flimsy, it won’t be long until you’re buying a new one.  Likewise, with the people you hire to work on your project.  Building is not a retail business.  In retail there are many stores which sell the same product; therefore, getting the best value is as simple as finding who has the lowest price on the brand you like. In building, you don’t get the same product everywhere.  That is why it is important to specify exactly what you do and don’t want in your project.  This works for the contractors as well, as they are now bidding on equal ground.  And don’t always go with the lowest bidder.  If a price seems much lower than the others, make sure that your builder didn’t forget something.  And remember; the sourness of poor quality is remembered long after the sweetness of low price is gone. 

5.      Not finishing an area.

 This is a biggie.  One of the most common mistakes people make in a remodeling project is not finishing an area.  Sometimes they try to ‘spread the wealth around’ and do a little work on every problem in the house. Sometimes they run out of money, or, more often, motivation.  A lot of times, the disruption to a household is too much and people get the house to a livable condition and leave it there.  Don’t do this.  I recommend doing one area of a home at a time.  It is a lot better to have one awesome room than a bunch of awesome elements scattered around the house.  A good place to start renovations on a home is on the exterior.  Things like outdoor living areas and improved landscaping can really raise the perceived value of your home.  Additionally, exterior projects are generally less disruptive to family life and the possibility of drawing your neighbor’s ire can provide substantial motivation to finish.  If you started a project, finish it.  While there may be underlying emotional reasons that make it difficult for some people to finish projects, there is a lot to be said for just gritting your teeth and grinding until you’re done. 

            These are some of the most common mistakes that I have seen happen in a construction project.  What are some you think I've missed?  How can they be avoided?  RUE4CH5UPK3E