July 13, 2015

Renovation Update

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 7:27 am


We’ve just finished week 12 in our home renovation project.

People always ask how long it’s going to take. It’s a way to make conversation but it’s not what I want to talk about. It’s like kids asking “are we there yet?” on a car ride instead of think about the fun things you’re going to do on the vacation. We’ve been planning this since we bought the house nine years ago and hope to live here for at least as long again, so I’m not focused on the temporary disruption.

Maybe what people really want to ask is how much it costs. Let’s get that out of the way: We crossed the six-figure mark a few weeks ago, about halfway through the project. I’ll leave it at that.

The Process

We hired an architect, Peter Sachs, to design the project, and a builder who he recommended. You can renovate a single-family home without an architect, but it was a good investment. Thanks to his advice, we’ve avoided some mistakes and done things that will add to the home (and it’s value if we sell it) more than raw square feet. Some people hire design-build firms–one company that handles the architectural design and construction–so they won’t design something you can’t afford. I wanted to design what we needed first and then figure out how to afford it.

We’re paying our contractor on a time-and-materials basis. This goes against the conventional wisdom, Theory X, win-lose viewpoint I’ve encountered, where you’re supposed to have a contract and then get argumentative about sticking to it. Maybe I’m idealistic, but that doesn’t seem fair and or even realistic. Maybe some people just like the intellectual challenge of contract law more than the craftsmanship of their house. I’d rather trust the people working for me. Time-and-materials carries risk, but only in the economic sense that greater risk leads to greater reward. Since I’m not buying “insurance” against a change in plan, I save money if the contractor does. If things cost more, it is what it is, nobody “loses.”

And one of things we’ve gotten from our contractor is a lot of value engineering, saving us money by following the architect’s plan on the whole while finding more cost-effective solutions in specific areas. For example, using an in-wall toilet that takes up less space to avoid moving the entire wall, or buying a different name-brand window that he was able to get at a better price.

Our architect has been less involved in the construction phase of the project. From what I’ve heard, some architects choose paint colors and lighting fixtures and every detail, and while I’m sure ours would have us good advice in these areas if we needed it, he’s let us work these things out with the builder and other vendors, which is fine because I like picking out these details.

The Decisions

The first parts of the project were major but not needing a lot of decisions. I mean, having a giant excavator and cement mixer visit your house is pretty impressive. But, it’s a hole in ground filled with concrete, I’m not ruminating on the details. Now we’re into things where getting the details right now really matter: exactly where a door or outlet is going to is something that we need to get right now or we’ll be living with the repercussions for years to come. I’m telling myself, “you can do it this way, or that way”–sometimes, I need to let go of the idea that there is one right answer and I’m going to get it wrong.

I tend to obsess about the electrical stuff. I like a lot of light, but I’ve never liked the heat incandescent light generates, and I like bluish fluorescent light when I have to stay alert after dark and traditional warm yellows when I need to relax. Fortunately LED’s have made amazing progress in the past 10 years; they were too unusual and expensive when building the kitchen just 8 years ago but it’s easier to find LED’s now than the halogen bulbs we used then. Maybe I should have obsessed about windows more instead, but in all these years of thinking about lighting I’ve never given much thought to windows other than whether they’re double-pane or drafty. I’ve been researching online about home automation. It’s seems to in the same expensive-novelty-but-might-have-potential phase LED lights were 8 years ago. I want to try and experiment with it, but not until after the “real” construction.

On the other hand, a big part of this project is being able to delegate these decisions to your architect and builder. I think that comes naturally to some people–they have “a guy” they trust and don’t even want to think about the details. But not to me; professionally, I’m a “leaf node” about the details: business people and UX designers give me a concept and I’m the one who actually puts every bit and pixel in place and chooses the specific code. And on smaller home project, I’m a DIYer and enjoy working out the details myself, too. But on this project I’m the owner at a high level, and not the one who places every stud and screw, so it’s just the opposite of the role I play at work.


The Big Build

I’ve called this project the Big Build, because it’s for our family what the Big Dig was to Boston: it changes everything. (We were in Boston last night and events were going on on the Greenway and in the Seaport area–it really has changed things!) When we first moved into the house, we talked to a couple architects, both of whom gave us advice to do a larger project that we couldn’t then afford rather than improving the house piecemeal. We renovated the kitchen, but deferred almost all other major improvement and maintenance. People seem surprised how big the project is. It’s not that big in an absolute, McMansion sense; we’ll end up with around 2,000 square feet, maybe a little under. But our project is changing every room in and side of the house to some degree; even the rooms that aren’t changing much physically will be used differently.

While there are mornings I don’t relish contractors showing up at 7:00 a.m. I’m thankful that the dream I’ve had since childhood of a custom house is coming true!