Time To Pull The Plug

When working with a client on a renovation, we always tell them to be prepared for the unexpected.

Sometimes it’s just about letting go.

When working with a client on a renovation, we always tell them to be prepared for the unexpected. No matter how well they feel they know their house, once the drywall starts to come off, you’re going to find a surprise or two. I even wrote about this in 2014 as James and I were dealing with our own renovation.

And most renovation issues stop there. In 21 years, I have only had one conversation where we told the client the time had come to pull the plug and start over. When you pull up to a house thinking you’ll be discussing foundation issues, only to see that the front porch slab has broken free and is pulling the brick off as the porch slides off the foundation, you have very little to discuss. Building new is the only option.

However, we’ve never started a project only to put work on hold while we discuss with the owner why rebuilding is the smart choice. There’s never been that many surprises.

Until now. And it’s not even my project.

A friend and I were sharing stories about current projects (as architects tend to do when we run into one another), and she started telling me about a renovation that had started a couple of weeks prior.

Initial inspection of the house didn’t turn up anything out of the ordinary. Brick home. Slab foundation. Wood-framed. Nothing the contractor hadn’t seen before or that would likely impact the project.

Except from the first day, the job super started running into issues. Live abandoned electrical wires in the wall. Rotted wood at the bottom of the rear wall where water from the patio had seeped in. No steel reinforcing in the slab. And most recently, exterior brick sitting not on concrete but on dirt.

Each day at the project seemed to bring new challenges – to the point the designer dreaded answering phone calls from the job super. She didn’t want to hear that something else was wrong.

I joked with here that maybe it was time to put the house out to pasture and bring in something new. Little Timmy is stuck in a well and will just have to stay there.

Fortunately, the owner has taken each new challenge in stride and is determined to complete the project as planned – plus a few extra changes to make sure the house is safe. Which means my friend doesn’t have to worry about having what could be a very difficult conversation.

Because we all love grandpa. But no one ever wants to be the one to pull the plug.

Headline image courtesy of Nolan Issac.

The Road to Renovation Redux

Surprise!

You’ve bought an older home and now you’re ready to renovate. You know who your architect is. You know who your contractor is. You even know what you want to do.

What you don’t know is that underneath the linoleum in the laundry room is 3/4” plywood.

Sitting on top of 2X6 floor joists.

Resting on Astroturf.

Laid over brick pavers.

Sitting on top of the original concrete garage slab.

Surprise!

We always tell a client prior to starting a renovation to expect at least one surprise. No matter how new the house or how many prior renovations, there is always a hidden condition about which no one would have guessed. Sometimes it is good (mahogany paneling behind drywall) and sometimes not so good (“Why yes! Those are active termites in your master closet!”)

James and I didn’t get too far into our renovation before we had our first surprise – the framer looking at the vaulted living room ceiling and telling the contractor, “This will never pass inspection.” Fifty years of wear and tear had left the framing of the ceiling sagging and in some cases broken. While we had thought the framer might be able to patch up what was there, the reality was that the entire ceiling, including the ridge beam, needed to be reframed.

Surprise!

Beam Surprise
Our pretty new ridge beam and roof framing

The second came after the new roof had been put on and we couldn’t help but notice a slight sag over the garage we’d never seen before. Some examination found that during the roof replacement, a knot had popped out of the ridge beam, allowing the beam to flex. Again, a little extra framing and problem solved.

Still, surprise! Or as the contractor would call that – a “change order.”

We’ve actually been very lucky that our home, although 50 years old, was built well. Someone even commented to me that we should have been happy the house had insulation all of those years.

However, we don’t always get to share that experience with clients. Sometimes once the renovation process starts, you find out just how much really needs to be fixed, even when you’ve tried your hardest to discover issues before the first hammer swings.

As for the laundry room example above? Yes, that did happen on a project.

And no, we didn’t leave that as a surprise for the next owner to find.

The Road To Renovation Redux

An Open Concept Home

If you spend a little time watching HGTV or reading real estate listings, you’ll hear and see it again. Open concept. Open Concept. OPEN CONCEPT!

So much so that someone told me about a HGTV drinking game where you took a drink every time they mentioned hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops or open concept. While I cannot personally vouch for the effectiveness of this, I would think that’s a pretty easy way to get hammered on a Saturday or Sunday morning. And perhaps not the best way to start the day!

After two weeks of demolition work, James and I had what would have to be the ultimate in open concept (everyone take a drink!).

IMG_1619
What you might call very open concept.

Walking in the front door, we were treated to a view from one side of the house to the other and front to back with only studs in the way. While we were expecting that, in some ways we were unnerved. Until that moment, we weren’t 100% certain what the house was made of (really old 2X4s and some nasty rock wool insulation), or just how well the house was built.

Standing there staring at what would become the “new” space made me think about what architects, interior designers, clients and realtors really mean when we say “open concept,” if for no other reason we’re hearing that more and more. Clients are asking for open concept living, even if that may not suit how they use the house on a daily basis.

How much of this open concept trend is being driven by sources like HGTV? I’m not sure. However, I was having a discussion with a realtor in a networking group and posed the question to him: How much is this being driven by the realtors? Are they perpetuating the trend? Or is this just a reaction to seller/buyer requests? All I got was a sheepish grin, like a little kid caught telling stories.

I wish I had answers to all of this (or that the realtor did). Or to when the trend might come to an end. Maybe I just need to watch a little HGTV.

In the meantime, James and I are eagerly awaiting the day (soon from what I hear) that we’re not looking at just studs and insulation. And the day we may enjoy our “open concept” space.

The Road to Renovation Redux – Part 2

I Said I Wouldn’t

One of the biggest challenges architects and contractors face during the construction process is a daily visit by the client. Such a visit is often distracting for the contractor. There is also the likelihood that the client will give opposing directions to a subcontractor.

Simultaneously, architects may find themselves fielding more questions and/or complaints than originally planned. Clients living in the house during construction can sometimes make that worse, and on more than one occasion I have told the client they wouldn’t be living there. Easier for them. Easier for me. And easier for the contractor.

I vowed when we were getting ready to start construction that I would not become the client that swings by their house every day. After all, I had spent way too much time on the drawings, so nothing should come as a surprise. Not to mention having been through the process with numerous clients. Plus we were not going to be living next door or even down the street, so going by would not be convenient.

THEN, I looked at the dates on the construction photos I’ve been taking. June 1st. June 3rd. 6th. 10th. 11th. 19th.

Oops!

I would like to chalk my visits up to professional curiosity. Or a need to answer questions for the job superintendent. Or the opportunity to take some photos and share them with family and friends. However, James just rolled his eyes at any of those comments so I must now confess.

LP & SS.3
Larry with his very patient contractor.

I am that client. I said I wouldn’t, but I just can’t seem to help myself. I want to see how work is progressing. I want to see if what is on paper is what is happening at the job site. Are the spaces working? Is the shower big enough? Should we re-think any of the layout? Are they keeping the house secure?

You can laugh at me all you want. I’ve been doing the same. (Not to mention Holly and Laura.) Luckily I have a contractor who is understanding and takes everything with a grain of salt. And he knows full well that I’m going to continue dropping by.

Even though I said I wouldn’t.

The Road to Renovation Redux – Part 1

An Architect’s Home

With several clients heading down the road to their own renovation, I thought I’d reach back into my past and re-share my personal experience with renovating a house. My house. Well – mine and James’ house. It’s hard to believe that we finished the work almost four years ago, and that we managed to not bury either of us in the process. HGTV makes the work look pretty easy, but the reality is that every project has its own challenges – from the extent of work being done to normal day to day life that add its own special stress.

Join me as I step back over the next few months and delve back into The Road to Renovation, beginning with this post: An Architect’s Home.

Most professionals will tell you not to do business with friends or family. Things never work out well. So what do you do when it’s both?

After ten years in our home, and a remodel to the front half in 2004, my husband, James, and I decided the time had come to finally change the rest and create a Master Suite we both could enjoy. Our old Master Bath was barely big enough for one with just a shower, toilet, and pedestal sink. And the Master Closet was so small the closet rod supporting James’ clothes collapsed one day under the weight.

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One galley Kitchen. Two people. Two dogs. Christmas cookies everywhere. Not sure how we ever did it.

If we had only stopped there.We started the initial project in January of 2012, and here we are at the end of May 2014 and we’re finally to the point of starting construction. What started as a simple addition to the Master Bedroom to create a true Master Suite morphed into a second floor to house the Master Suite and Office and a reconfiguration to turn the existing Guest Bedroom into a Laundry with Garage access.

News came in early 2013 that James would be working from home full time, so we ditched that idea, went back to our original addition plan, and added an office, guest room, and bath on a second floor.

Dealing with bids, lenders, and appraisers ultimately resulted in a much simpler project, still giving us what we need, but not overdoing it. As an architect, watching clients dream bigger than their budget is not unusual.

Amazing how much you ignore that with your own project when you’re the one telling your spouse “No.”

GUEST BATH 02
We didn’t even get the cool 1950s pink tile with an accent trim. Just blue and brown fish scattered around the tub.

At one point we were even having “the-cobbler’s-children-have-no-shoes” moment, and my “client” was getting fussy about getting drawings done and construction started. In that moment, I thought of just hiring a friend to finish the drawings. However, I knew I’d find the time somewhere between dealing with my own clients and running a practice to “pop out” some drawings.

And it only took two years.

Check back in as we start down the road on our renovation. Please try not to laugh as I get to experience this as both the client and the architect. And learn firsthand if I can do business with friends and family – even when it’s me.

Hotel Room or Harem?

I remember reading in a Stephen King novel a quote about how the phrase – the more things change, the more they stay the same – was crap. Because the more things change, the more things change. But how do you know when change is needed?

Our first (and only trip to Chicago) was around 12 years ago, and we found ourselves sleeping at the W City Center for the duration of the trip. W Hotels were just starting to open around the country, and the place was young, hip, urban, and even better, paid for by James’ office.

He had come for work and wanted to know if I was interested in tagging along. Interested? It’s Chicago. One of the most iconic cities in America. Home to the Hancock Tower, Sears Tower, and The Art Institute. Not to mention structures by Frank Lloyd Wright, Burnham & Root, and Mies van der Rohe. How could I pass that up?

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to go a couple of times on my own, most recently this month for an American Institute of Architects two-day conference. Once again, I found myself at a W – this time facing Lake Michigan and the Navy Pier. And the hotel felt the way I remembered my first time. Not as dimly lit but arranged again so the social spaces were all out front, and you had to guess where the reception desk was.

However, from there on up, nothing had really changed from what we experienced 12 years before. Dimly lit hall. Dark carpet. Purple LEDs in the ceiling. Perhaps the only real update was to card readers on the hotel room doors. Then I went into my room.

I suppose for most hotel brands, staying current means increasing the likelihood that you’ll book more rooms throughout the year. And I’ve stayed at hotels that have undergone massive renovations from one year to the next. I even found myself on the unfinished side of a hotel renovation, complete with the original laminate bathroom counter from some time in the 1980s, while I could hear contractors working a few floors below.

By no means was my room unpleasant or uncomfortable. Don’t get that impression. Super-comfortable bed. Tons of space. A really cool rainhead in the shower. I just think someone needs to slip the W a note and let them know change is sometimes a good thing.

Had I opened my door and found someone passed out across the bed, sheets and pillows in disarray, and a couple of empty vodka bottles knocked over on the dresser, I would not have been surprised. My room felt designed more for a party, and perhaps not so much for sleeping.

The headboard for the king-sized bed continued along the wall to become a banquette that stretched onto the adjacent wall. Oddly there was a mirrored “coffee table” at the end of the banquette. Now what could I use that for? And a lamp attached to a pole that was mounted on the top of the bedside table and extended to the ceiling. I’m just going to assume it was always a lamp.

W Chicago Lakeside 

And while I appreciated the décor, most of my party days have long gone by, and I look at a hotel room for what it is – a place to sleep.

I was reminded of a past client who would come to Dallas and check on their project, staying in one of the more upscale hotels. Except the one time their usual room wasn’t available, and their son put them in one of the trendier boutique hotels that had recently appeared on the scene.

At our meeting the next morning, I asked them how their room was.

“Like a Turkish harem.”

That afternoon they switched hotels. I guess they just wanted to sleep too.

It Gets Better?

Isn’t that why it’s called a renovation?

Like most commuters, my drive to work takes me through the same neighborhoods over and over. And you become so accustomed to seeing the same buildings, that you can’t help but notice when one changes – for better or worse.

My current path takes me past an older house in Dallas that’s currently undergoing an exterior renovation. Not uncommon in Dallas. Not the least uncommon for this neighborhood.

Except that every time I go by, the house doesn’t look like it’s getting better. And for me, that’s not the direction you want to see a renovation heading.

RENOVATE

One of the first steps was to remove the windows on the west side that face the side yard with the busy street and cover the openings with more of the two-inch wood siding already on the house. Which means someone thought less light on that side of the house would be a good solution. True, you’ll cut down on the noise coming from the street. However, the 8-foot fence they erected in the side yard is probably taking care of most of that.

Next step? Paint it a bright, bright, BRIGHT color. Like lemon yellow. And not just lemon yellow, but neon lemon yellow. I’ve never driven by at night, but I just picture it glowing even in the dark. So much so you can probably see it from space.

Now there’s nothing wrong with a bright color. Bright colors can make a house pop. But the entire structure? Almost makes my face pucker every time I go by!

Finally – let’s put a concrete porch and steps with the requisite iron rail on the front of the house. The front of the house without any overhang that would indicate a porch goes there. And the front of the house with the gray door you hope is only primer.

I’m thinking there isn’t much left to do to the outside, but I could be wrong. Perhaps some landscaping? And I know I’ll never see the inside.

Maybe the house belongs to a developer who is just flipping and selling. Or maybe it belongs to someone with very specific tastes the contractor must meet.

Except it’s called a renovation. And it’s not getting better.