Monday, January 2, 2012

Home Renovation Update and Tips

Did you ever see a Taper?  They are the most curious of creatures… They look like something out of the movie, “Avatar!”

They walk on stilts in order to tape the sheetrock. 

I love the way they work: so agile and confident on those metal stilts.  There should be some kind of Olympics or Reality Show for construction trades.  I would cheer for this team.

Every trade team has their own unique work style and character. Not unlike major sports teams.

Our Garden State home renovation continues and I have more than a few observations and updates.  Crazy that all this effort marches right through the holidays. 

We are in the midst of the ongoing scenario that reminds me of the Peanuts’ “Pig-Pen” – meaning balls of dust everywhere we step, no matter what one does to ameliorate the “dust.” 

Before - and with some cleanup!
I couldn’t take the disorganization or dust a minute more, so right before Christmas – and before the sheetrock team even did their work, er, dust contribution -- I had to make some sense of it all and put what is now the home office: soon to be the water view side of the master suite back to some kind of order.  
That meant vacuuming multiple times, followed by an equal number of the companion effort of washing the wood floors. Then vacuum then wash, then…
I put some of the books and garden design tools back out from under the tarps.

After cleanup reorg
Then like some inspired, reverse-order Scarlett O’Hara, I staple-gunned sheets to the newly installed windows to create window treatments.  

We felt almost human…

Guest room temporary reorg with Scarlett drapes!

Then two days later, just like Scarlett, I had to rip them down. 

The sheetrock team was here.

And they move the rooms full of sheetrock like a shopping contestant on a timed clock.
They move muy rapido:  Sheet rock hauled into every room from where it was piled like books in the library.

I couldn’t believe this truck wasn’t going to smash into the house when the sheetrock was delivered! 
A big Wii game-like control panel, allows the delivery man, slash tech editor and manager, to expertly and adroitly take on Power Ranger arms to swing these babies inside and stack ‘em up.  


The sheetrockers cut the boards, a nail gun drives in the nails to secure the boards and then onto the next spot.  Almost a staccato musical with the swish, swish, zoom, zip, zoom…
Amazing time and motion study.


Then the aforementioned Avatar Tapers come in and tape the sheetrock’s seams.
Paste, smooth. Paste, smooth.  Repeated with skill and patience.
Avatar Tapers

At the same time, the siding continued and the front and back covered porch pillars went in and up. 
Trying to keep the workmen’s sharp objects off the newly crafted front porch was a challenge.
Here, UPS delivered the highly anticipated spray foam insulation onto the newly laid bluestone porch. 

Wouldn’t  you think the universal, yellow caution tape oh-so-obviously communicating that it was not OK to go onto the front porch would’ve prevented this drop off on this spot? 

Later, after Christmas, my husband donned a hazmet suit to spray the foam insulation into the roof of the new back covered porch.  Yikes!  This stuff is very scary.  And try “gently” peeling specs off the face – even though hats, goggles and face guard were worn.
It’s times like this one wonders if it’s all worth it.

Then you see the new front door complete xx and you get downright giddy. Especially after you receive wowsy texts from the neighbors applauding the look. 
Me trying out the key on the new front door!

Or you see the sun streaming in and making what look like illuminated floral patterns on the wall.  A magical miracle of sunshine and glass! 

We’ve had the masons complete the reassembly of the back terrace and a new step, allowing egress out of the dining room.   
The electrician has installed some lights (hello 20th Century. We’re getting there) and the plumber visited too.

We are managing the GC work now ourselves.  We needed to part ways with the one we had due to terms that were laid out to us that we couldn’t meet.
And the relationship had turned ever so swiftly to one that was filled with ill will and recriminations and name calling, of all things, on top of some serious arithmetic errors and budget sleight of hand…. 

We have saved for about ten years to renovate our home. We knew it would be a big deal, a lot of inconvenience and loss of privacy – and money J   but we are patient, modest people.  We never expected the biggest issue to be one of lack of good, decent communication from someone who is supposed to be an advocate for us – one who is paid to work for us.  After the term demands couldn’t have been met, we agreed it was best for us to operate in a more peaceful, respectful way.
I will get a shaman to come in and remove the bad spirits and energies. Just have to find one that is local.

By the way, I do a lot of garden design for my clients utilizing the principles of feng shui and, of course, will do so for us too. I am also applying many of the good energy practices to the house/home design.  I love what is recommended for the front door alone. More on that later.

In an effort to help others pondering or embarking on a home renovation, we offer a few suggestions.

Our Tips for Choosing a GC:
  • Do not just check references, but also check other work contacts. Ask the other trades. And/or the competition. Reputations are made and lost on the ability to sustain client relationships and often one or two good jobs, just completed, do not give the full picture.  Look online for reports of abuse.
  • Determine the work style of the GC.  If you are the type of person who requires back up and transparency, do not just look at a finished home project to choose your GC. It may have been hell to get there.  Too often homeowners look at the finished pictures in a portfolio and do not gauge how the GC manages the process of the work.  Those of us accustomed to teamwork and corporate work structures cannot abide sloppy, poorly managed and error prone work documents and processes.  Interview the entire work style – not just the finished home work project.
  • Ask if the GC has a line of credit. I do. I pay my teams most often way before my client pays me and could use this if needed. Our GC always complained loudly that she did not have any money to pay her teams if we didn’t submit a check immediately.  An established, credible GC should have enough working capital to pay the team(s) until you write the check.  Plus the GC gets their 10-15% from you straight away – and that could help cover the team cost if it is so necessary, right?
  • Establish a work process that suits you – the client  - and ask if the proposed GC can work within these guidelines. Say I will prefer meeting notes, emails and/or text and phone updates.  Document it as part of the working contract.   Meeting notes, especially, help clarify what was decided and who is responsible. Keep up the reports even after construction starts.  So many of ours fell to me to do early on and then afterwards meetings turned into an ATM – merely an opportunity to tell us, “I need these checks and now… “ 
  • Make certain the GC understands they are responsible for the Spreadsheets and managing of the budget. They are your advocate and need to manage to your stated budget even if that is a working aspirational budget.  They need to update accordingly and be held accountable to meeting the approved working budget.  And share this with you.  You are working the home renovation project together.
  • Establish weekly or bi weekly meeting updates that are more about the design and the workflow than about writing checks.  Walk the construction site. See what manifests itself – the space and rooms look different once the work commences than when it was on the blueprint. We only made a few design changes from the start – adding two windows.  But if we had focused on the design work rather than check writing at the meetings, we could all have discovered the need for the windows sooner.  My cousin pointed out to us it might be nice to add the one, and the window in the loft was my idea once I saw the room framed out… I’ve heard of many home renovations going spectacularly over budget due to design changes requiring massive change orders. We didn’t have that.  But do walk the site and see if the work in progress suggests something else you might do at that time and save money later.  Or add something you just can’t live without now that you See it.
  • Establish payment schedules. While it is true that most construction trades require a deposit and one can plan for that, there is simply no need for immediate payments and the high drama that goes with demanding checks as soon as the request is sent.  Most every business operates on net-30 or 60 days and there is no reason for home construction to be any different.  Our GC was always in a high drama mode waving pieces of paper with a number on it or emailing demands.  We had to manage our monies and move from various accounts so the immediate turn around didn’t work nor was it necessary.  I found a huge error when I took the time to review the spreadsheet and proposals from the trades.  Further, permits and weather often modify even the best work schedule so payments based on work are not always established as set in stone. 
  • But it is always preferred to provide an invoice with the original budget proposal, the back up and the invoice. This standard operating procedure and should be provided with courtesy and clarity.  With proper notice and back up, payment can readily be made with confidence  -- within a week, 30 days, (or a day) whatever is agreed to.  We have continued to pay our excellent trades and craftspeople on this weekly and monthly schedule. No problems. No drama.
  • Review the proposals and spreadsheet before signing the contract. Review repeatedly.  Overbudget occurred to us due to sloppy, mis-management errors and no detailed itemized list of necessary items on the proposed and final budget proposal and spreadsheet.
  • Establish a realistic timeline for the work.  This way you know you will be moving things for not just “a few weeks” but for a year  -- or whatever.  Demand that you get more than a few weeks’ (or in our case, days – notice – especially if you travel for work) about moving the household items so that you can pack and store with respect and assurance and will know where items are for the duration of the work project.
  • Update the workflow and timeline as the work progresses.
  • Courtesy and preferred client relations should be a given, but it’s not.  So establish what you need up front.  Everything. Not just the construction work.  Interview many points of contact.  Make it a joyful, blissful project. After all, it’s your dream house.


  1. Whew!
    I am going to bookmark this great, thorough post in case we ever renovate.

    Sounds like you are under control now. Thanks for sharing with all of us out here!

  2. whew Indeed! My pleasure. Please do use and share with friends. Nothing like experience as the best teacher, in spite of the best laid plans. We are coming out in good shape, given the situation and do want to help others. Those of us in the design business know there is a good way and best practices to work with clients :) Thanks, Ann. Let's keep the conversation going.