Omissions in Renovations

When you are budgeting for a renovation, it is just as important to know what is not included as much as what is included. It can be very difficult for a layperson to identify all of the details, especially in larger projects. The most important reason to know what’s in and what isn’t in the budget is that you want to avoid any surprises either financial or in the scope. Omissions in the scope of work can hide up to 20%-30% of the true total budget requirement.

Let me start with some low hanging fruit, landscaping. In our line item budget sheet, the first major category is “Site Work”. We list about 20 items such as: Excavation, concrete work, foundations, underground utilities and landscaping (walks, walls, planting, and driveways), etc. As part of projects like additions, landscaping can be a significant part of the budget, especially if you need a new driveway for that new garage. Since most building plans don’t address this, it is often overlooked and by the time the owner gets to that stage there are often budget restraints. My personal recommendation for folks is to hire a landscape architect and landscaper if there is more than remediating the disturbed area involved. The main reason we have those line items in our budget is for the client so they can understand the projected cost they will incur while deciding what resources to use. In the example of landscaping, I can also point to the scalability of deferring this component since it wouldn’t interfere with or cost more to do it later in order to get the initial construction underway, and to also use your favorite landscaping contractor when the construction crews leave. 

A few less obvious things that are important to understand in the initial planning include:
1. Design/engineering or survey work costs and timeframe.
2. Cost and time of permitting and/or zoning issues.
3. Who buys the fixtures and if provided, what quality are they?
4. Will any utilities require upgrading such as a larger electrical or water service?

While it can be challenging to feel like you have everything covered, there are ways to better understand some of the “unknowns”. In the case of hazardous materials like asbestos, we can often know that a particular neighborhood has duct work in the walls that are wrapped in it. In this case we typically carry an allowance if we have seen this before so it isn’t a huge surprise… and if it is not present, the client gets a refund! In the initial excavation, while you cannot be certain of what lies below the ground, the builder should be able to discuss what type of issues you may find and how they would be remediated if uncovered.

Remember the 5 p’s, Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance Happy renovating!

Decorator or Designer

It’s not always clear to a consumer who is really qualified to help with design projects, or what sort of design assistance they may need. In the interior design category, it is typically an interior designer (not a decorator) that will put together a comprehensive plan with interior architecture, color, contrast etc. to make the addition of the final touches (fabric and paint) have a big impact. The next level are those who also specialize in kitchen and bath design with the requirement of mechanical knowledge and the vast array of product specifications that make the difference between swapping out tile or changing the lay-out.

Recently, a woman came into our showroom and she was very frustrated that her kitchen renovation did not to have the high impact she hoped for (based on the fact the investment wasn’t small). She thought the solution was just different color cabinets, new counters and appliances because the contractor she has always used directed her to the lumber yard for new cabinets.  Now she was on to her next project; the master bath. The same carpenter that did the kitchen recommended that she return to the lumber yard cabinet designer with her bath plan and receive a new lay-out.  This resulted in a new vanity idea, but not a new bath idea.  In a lot of 90’s homes they are big on space, and short on creative thinking.  Unhappy with the new vanity idea, she had asked another local “design-build” company for advice and they sent a decorator out to talk about tile color and cabinet lay-out and maybe moving the shower where the tub went.  As she explained the 3-4 conversations with others to me, I too became frustrated.  I don’t know why someone thinks that knowing the color wheel and having a business card allows them to provide advice where they have little expertise.

So what’s the difference between a decorator and a professional interior designer? The difference is wide and usually unknown to people when presented a card with an ambiguous title.  Watch out for the design/build title, it has become cliché and almost never means there are certified designers on staff.  I may be more frustrated than most because on the rare occasion we are hiring for an interior designer I receive (not kidding) hundreds of e-mails from folks with the following comments in their resume’s;

  1. “I have had my own interior design business for years, and though I have no formal training, this has been a passion of mine and I am sure I could benefit your clients with my expertise”.

  2. “My many years at (fill in the blank of some furniture store) have proven that I know what people want and can put things together with exceptional results.”

When you want a designer, think about what it is you need. For instance, our firm would not be a fit if you wanted a cosmetic change in your living room that involves a new color pallet, and a whole new look with window treatments, rugs and furniture- perhaps a new mantle and access to custom furniture and drapery at the design center.  That would be best performed by a firm specializing in that type of work.  If you need help measuring to see if a sofa fits in a room, then of course help from a decorator at the furniture store will be well suited.  When you want to change the way a single room or your entire house works for you, then it is time to hire someone who understands architecture, ergonomics and plan details- otherwise you could end up with a plan that either misses a few marks, or is downright unpleasant.

My suggestion is to first interview. A design consultation should provide you with a designer’s philosophy on process.  Most professionals won’t come out and solve the design problem on a visit; they know that mindful solutions require thoughtful and vetted principals.  When you contact references, ask what type of design help set the designer apart, and if there were creative solutions that helped.  A good design firm in my opinion will have a team approach with all the staff collaborating on your project, a list of credentials for the design team and some proven experience with awards and or being published.

I can’t possibly point out every pitfall that can be encountered in a project that needs a professional eye; however, a great example that supports the story came via e-mail today in a project where the team noticed in advance that the slope of a new tub design would have the tub filler spilling water on the tub drain lever. After product review, the designer determined that; a. the tub filler would cause a splash that put water on the floor during fill, and b. the gasket would eventually fail and cause a leak below the tub and leak into the kitchen.  After the project designer pointed this out and made a new part suggestion, I received this:

Good Morning!

 

Thank you for finding the new tub spout. I think it looks like a great replacement.  

 

John and I are so impressed with how proactive you and the team are with issues like this.  It is such a difference from our last remodel experience.  We are so happy we found the Wiese Company!

 

Have a good weekend!

Laura

 

Happy renovation!

Remodeling Without Surprises

Newly remodeled spaces can be beautiful, and make an improvement in your lifestyle as well. Here are a few things you should get more information on in advance of starting your project to avoid cost overruns and other surprises.

The first thing that will help you steer the ship is to find out what similar projects cost (or at least a range of pricing). Ask a close friend if they don’t mind sharing what they spent if they have done something similar. Renovating, building a new home or adding on isn’t like car shopping because most folks do not have the same house and desire an identical kitchen.  The budget for any project can swing greatly depending on size and quality.  One of the most common pitfalls is spending money on design without understanding cost.  Having some general information on the budget you want to use will make the initial design work be more focused.

What changes do you really want to make that will pay dividends in your life for the next 5-10 years? What I mean is; installing a new toilet because the existing one is leaking wouldn’t stop you from a full renovation when the time is right. So if your home is “vintage” there may be some things behind the walls that should be addressed before you try to remove the tile for a cosmetic fix.  Also try to consider what your family will need in the future (Another good thing to consult a friend or professional designer on).  Try not to focus on the now-if the toddlers need a better Cheerio snacking space, think about how a renovation may help for future needs like when their team comes over for a Pizza Party post game.

What other items will be impacted by the renovation? One of my priorities when budgeting for our clients is to make real discovery of the project to prevent cost overruns.  It is so easy to omit things from the scope which will avoid having to understand the cost now.  One very common consideration when we prepare budgets for home additions is how much of the roof is affected.  It may be close in price to do the entire roof and save a lot of time and money in the near future.  If you have some projects that can be bundled and the budget allows, take advantage of those economies while you can.

Don’t breeze over the boring mechanical issues- they are the engine of your home. I have seen many additions where the old heat system was over taxed and failed because the Owner wasn’t consulted on this important part of their home.  Your heat and AC work should be looked at for anything larger than a kitchen or bath remodel.  We have our mechanical contractors look at every project during the budget phase so they can let us know critical information regarding the budget and if there are items that need to be taken care of.  Our mechanics will know if your electric service needs an upgrade before the inspector forces you to buy one.  They know if your boiler can handle the additional load, or if you should consider a few options for heat or air conditioning before it is too late to incorporate that.

In the military we had a cliché that went something like “Poor planning creates poor performance”. I am sure it had a few expletives in there somewhere, but investing in your home should be done with a complete understanding and plan to keep you from becoming the next construction horror story.

Our guys working on a window replacement in Sherborn.  We knew in advance of the window rot, so no surprises here :)

Outdoor Spaces That Enhance Winter Views

Here in our New England area we can experience 20 degrees in December, or close to 70 as the forecast states for tomorrow- Christmas Eve! What doesn’t change is the connection a deck can make (referred to as transitioning in Architecture) between the outside and the inside. Designing a deck is an important part of how it works with the home year round.  For this deck on a hillside home overlooking the Charles River in Dover, MA…. why would we want to spoil the view in December when the beauty of the river changes with every season?

The effect the glass rails have in this case is 3 pronged:

First, I like glass rails for the simplest reason. When sitting outside, that 36″ required rail height is the perfect spot to block the view (since in the sitting position your eyes are about 36″ off the ground)- and as long as there is no top rail, there is not any visual interruption.

Next, from inside this house, the glass rail allows the eye to descend all the way to the river, creating a bigger more impactful view that is like a living view, more than just seeing the river in the distance.

Last, because hillside homes should embrace the drama of the perch, these rails allow the residents to feel that perch- almost tree house like- without any worries about the safety.

 

Fantastic Finished Basements Begin with Building Science

We get many calls for finishing basements, especially as winter looms and families look to stretch the range of their home and entertain the children. The most important part of finishing these spaces is of course getting the space that gives you the most bang, tailored to your family.  The top contenders are: Play date spots for groups of toddlers, gaming space for tweens and teens, media and/or entertaining spaces and my personal favorite, the home gym.

Finished Steam Room and Home Gym in a Wayland Remodel

A common misconception about finishing the basement is one that I have heard from some of our clients. “What I want isn’t complicated, so I don’t think I need a higher level of expertise on a project like that”. Here are a few reasons this space needs to be treated with care and why the value priced quote you may get could be a poor investment.  There will be a wide range of value decisions along the way; however, what is underneath the walls in basements becomes more important than the rest of the home in terms of safety, health and comfort.  

Let’s start with the existing finished basement that many of you either have inherited or saw on your home search. In the 60’s or 70’s the homeowner put up some studs and paneling for a hip man cave or neighborhood bar.  These spaces are usually falling down, and don’t have any heat or insulation.  Then, as the energy crisis in the 70’s got folks geared up for insulation, some basements received a good dose of fiberglass between the sheetrock and the concrete walls… it was code after all! Now that we know what we know, here are the 3 MOST important things we believe are the foundation (no pun intended) for a healthy basement:

  1. We use metal framing studs on all perimeter walls. Metal won’t absorb water and the space between the finished walls and concrete can have much different dew points than the room itself.

  2. Spray foam insulation is used instead of fiberglass on these perimeter walls as well. We get a thermal break from the colder concrete and a much reduced condensation. You have probably seen copper pipes in the summer beading with water… once the foundation is insulated… we don’t see this. It is much more expensive, but the peace of mind on long term comfort and moisture reduction makes this a must for us.

  3. Proper air ventilation is something that is required for any space that is either new construction with foam, or for areas like basements that have less than 4% of the floor space in window openings that allow fresh air in. A good heat recovery ventilator keeps the air quality healthy at all times.

Metal studs and spray foam insulation in a Brookline basement remodel

There are a couple of code items that apply as well. The ceiling height for habitable space is a minimum of 7 feet 2 inches. Also required and extremely important is a means of egress.  Most basements have a door to a bulkhead- so if you are having slumber parties, make sure the kids know the way out in case of emergency, and clear any snow off the bulkhead in the winter.

Pros & Cons of both Gas and Wood Fireplaces

​The fireplace still remains a staple to our thoughts of “hearth and home”.  So much has changed with building codes and fireplaces that I thought it would be great to note a few of these if you are considering adding a fireplace to your next construction project.

Wood burning fireplace in Sherborn

I’ll start with the most popular fireplace we install…. A gas fireplace.  As a side note, if I had mentioned gas fireplaces in our greater NewtonWellesley area of operations 15 years ago, people would have thought I was uninformed or downright low-end :).  Today, the popularity has grown because we have less time to store, stack and start a wood fire.

This option does have a few things to consider.  Today’s gas fireplaces have to be efficient and deliver heat… that can be a bad thing if you put it somewhere that the heat zone is not separate which would either cause the rest of the home to become cold if the thermostat is nearby, or the room the fireplace is in could become uncomfortably warm… or not even start if you are using the temperature setting.  If you are selecting a gas fireplace, be sure to look at the screen options that will be part of the exterior façade.  These used to be recommended by our team to protect little ones from burns, but are now required in our state… this will change the aesthetic so it is an important choice.  One last item to think about is the ventilation of the off gasses.  If you are installing one of these in an existing fireplace, a new stainless steel flu will need to be installed. Another option is to ventilate directly outside, however depending on the location, this can look awkward if not resolved well architecturally.

Pros:

  1. Hit the remote control and “ta da!”

  2. Never run out of wood.

  3. Supplemental heat source in cooler rooms.

  4. Easier to get the popular TV over fireplace because of clearances.

Cons:

  1. May create hot and cold zones in the home.

  2. May be challenging to vent.

  3. Flames not as realistic as the real deal.

  4. Cannot roast marshmallows

Gas Fireplace in Dover

Wood fireplaces are still my personal favorite… but my wife would disagree because she doesn’t like the smoky smell- however; I’ll list that (in small doses) as a Pro.  There is nothing more real than a real fire and after all, this is part of our evolution as a human race.  Fire means warmth, hot meals and togetherness.  In one of my earlier homes I installed a metal hook that allowed a cast iron pot to boil water adding humidity in dry winter months.  I know that wood means a lot of effort in cutting, splitting or even bringing in fresh logs that may have been delivered… I just like the primitive fun of it and I find it easy once the fire has a nice set of coals, I can regulate the temperature and the kids can enjoy s’mores in January.

Pros:

  1. Real flames and crackle noise.

  2. Can roast marshmallows and hot dogs on camping night inJ

  3. Regulate the heat output while maintaining ambient flames.

  4. Supplemental heat source when the power goes off.

Cons:

  1. Inefficient source of fuel, and air leaks from the home.

  2. Can create odor that some folks don’t like.

  3. Requires work to keep wood coming and clean-up.

  4. More challenging to hang a TV over.

     

No matter what your pleasure… there is nothing like the dance of flames in a room to add ambiance, romance or conjure a holiday mood, so just make sure you are getting what you want from your fireplace.

 

 

 

 

Kitchen Organization

Want an Organized Kitchen?

Here are some tips and insight into kitchen organization that will hopefully be helpful. To go along with this handy set of tips are some photos to use as a guide to find your inner organizer. As a caveat to this blog, these photos belong to a kitchen we just remodeled in Newton for our bookkeeper, and as you may know, bookkeepers are supposed to be methodical and organized… or somewhat anal retentive, (sorry Lauri, but we share that trait)- so if you’re an artist, just wing it and throw some spices in the same drawer you put the Tupperware :)

1. Don’t fall for every cool thing you see. In our showroom, we actually have many of the “add on” items throughout our displays- however, unlike some showrooms, we display many of them to talk the pros… and cons of each item. The first photo is for the kitchen aid mixer. This kitchen belongs to a master cook- and she uses the mixer all the time, and OBVIOUSLY doesn’t want to see things like mixers on the counter top. This mixer lift keeps it out of the way and easy to access. Remember, I know most of you own a mixer- so be honest about how often that thing makes an appearance before you dedicate a space. If it’s less than twice a month- throw it in the pantry.


2. We all have spices, and some folks collect spices (remember to look at the expiration dates… they are on almost every one and they do expire). I am old school and love to cook, so the salt and pepper grinder never get put away. I find that almost anyone (even the best chefs) does not need more than one cabinet door near the cook and prep area for all the main spices. So before you think you have to have room for 300 bottles- take a mental inventory of everything you cooked in the last season and make room for it. If you have a friend that likes all the labels facing front- turn a couple of them around, shoot a photo and then write a blog post… Monday should be interesting!


3. Appliance garages are terrific and we have a lot of clients who are of the neat and tidy crowd, so before you just add one, find out how the doors open, if they can stay open without interfering with anything and if you really need one. I loved finding the food processor in this photo because I use mine about once a week and wish I had it in a more convenient location like this.


4. Drawer organizers are great. We recommend holding off on this item initially and using an inexpensive organizer until you are all moved in and satisfied you like where you have put the silverware and utensils… these can migrate a bit until you get in the groove of your new space. Once you have them though… I challenge you to open the drawer at random… as we did, and find everything looking so tidy… I mean really!!! Look at the knives, Lauri.

When you are designing your next kitchen… the most important thing is to work with a professional who thinks in advance about all the items you have and where it will work to have them.
Happy cooking!
RAY

Architectural Confusion

You know that feeling something is wrong… but you can’t put your finger on it? Unfortunately I see that a lot in my line of work. In the renovation and remodeling business, we get hired not just because people need more space, but often to correct what’s “not right”.

These exterior Architecture projects are some of my favorites. I love the challenge and reward that comes with helping a home find its true potential. In the case studies I have here, the beautiful Wellesley Dutch Colonial we re-designed in 2003, and the current design we are working on was a former “4 square” home that received a new garage designed by a different Architect in 1999. What they both had in common before the design work started was façade confusion. The Dutch looked as though the home was facing sideways on the lot, and the Four Square looks a bit like someone forgot about the front door… deep on the left side which creates a dilemma for first time visitors about where to arrive.

The solutions for many architectural projects come by seeking resolutions to why they feel the way they do. The Dutch home before pictures show the porch railing facing the street. That is the first que someone gets that this home may have a door there, but perhaps you’re not welcome. (I assure you the Owners are very nice… it was the house talking). The second issue was the slight “shed like” office that sits on the right… which looks like something someone might put on the back of their house. To resolve the issue, and create a true front façade, a second floor and porch were added, providing girth and strength to the right side and balancing the existing lonely gabled front. Then we moved the front stair and placed a new walkway. This allows newcomers to feel instantly invited, and removes any doubt about how to approach the home.    

Before:

                                      

 

After:    

     ​​

 

In the project we are in the early stages of designing, you can see all of the emphasis is placed on the garage… the least appealing part of the home is forced upon the street. In 1999 when this was added, if you installed a more formal looking entrance, it was expected that anyone arriving would gravitate to that entry…. Even if it meant walking all the way to the side yard. Today, most folks arrive at the old service entrance… A.K.A. the side door, so this really needs a shift. What we are proposing is to remove the existing front door and pull the right side forward with a welcoming porch and a semiformal foyer. By adding a small addition to the upper right, there will be balance with a stepped façade, and more weight on the side of the garage. A brow roof over the garage will also provide some relief to the large flat surface.


I’d like to note that the Dutch project started as a request for an additional bedroom and bath, and the current design work started as a discussion about how to reduce recurrent water infiltration that has been exacerbated by the last addition in 1999. But hey, if you can get 2 remedies while you are fixing one, why not.

Dust Control- Protecting Your Family During Construction

I know dust protection isn’t the eye candy most consumers are looking for in remodeling; however, it is one of the most important parts of your project. Today, remodelers are required to adhere to the Renovation and Repair Act that abolished ignorant practices such as fans in a window blowing hazardous material into the air- and possibly right back into the home.  What the act doesn’t prevent are the same poorly monitored or poorly managed practices that can effectively keep harmful and annoying dust out of your home.

Our first line of defense is to avoid drop clothes where possible. They contain dust- and if used improperly could bring harmful dust from an older home into your newer lead free home.  We use a protectant that can be vacuumed up regularly like a carpet protection on stair runners and Ram Board on hard surfaces.

In the photo below is my favorite form of protecting our clients from dust… the “alternate means of travel” also known as staging or temporary stairs. You will see we have installed a locking temporary door until the new window goes in near the end, and we were able to close off all access points to the home making this Newton remodel 100% dust proof.  Because the cost of protecting the finishes inside the home and dust proofing need to be part of any project, this option also was the least expensive to the client so it was a win all around.

Happy Renovating, and stay safe!

Planned Obsolescence

Obsolescence (or reduction of serviceability) is something, that in and of itself, is why I have a renovation and construction company. In addition to growing populations, we have structures that are aging as well as lifestyles and designs that are changing. Even the well built homes constructed in an era when craftsmanship was more a standard than an exception eventually need repair and updating. It is the new era, that I believe has become an era of “unplanned obsolescence”, that we need to pay more attention to.

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “Planned Obsolescence” was first popularized in 1954 by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer. By his definition, planned obsolescence was “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” By the late 1950s, planned obsolescence had become a commonly used term for products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style. 

I do believe that there is a place for planned obsolescence… just look at the new swing set and club house I made for our 6 year old little girl. She loves the windows that make a face and can’t wait for her first tea party! You’ll notice it is a bit crooked in places because 1/3 of the materials were salvaged from the old ranch house roof we removed to add a second story, and 1/3 are leftover lumber culled because it wasn’t straight enough for the home under construction. This crooked nature makes things not bind together as well, and I didn’t bother adding water proofing and flashing to prepare for decades of solid building… Why? Because Charlotte is the last little one until grand parenting begins years from now… and I will probably want to build a playset my older body can move around in better- so I planned the obsolescence of the structure and spent less than $1,000 in materials to build the best ever 15 year playhouse my nieces and nephews can enjoy when our daughter has out grown it.


It is easy to find new homes, and renovations that are put together either forsaking sound practices for short term financial gain or taking advantage of a consumer’s lack of information to pitch a lesser cost. Even the consumer is driving this with thoughts of moving more often (a reality according to census), and not wanting to spend money that benefits the next guy. I call these practices, unplanned obsolescence, because many of these defects are born from short term thinking that will have a longer term impact on our housing market. One obvious thing I see are homes that are less than 5 years old that look like they need a new paint job. It looked great with one coat the day they bought it, and because people think it should last about a decade, they are surprised when the trim starts rotting in place. I have been called to look at 3 kitchens this month that are less than a decade old because a developer put in something poorly made that checks a kitchen box. My last rant is the disregard for buying quality windows… many new homes have generic windows with a serviceable life of 10 years installed incorrectly adding to the pain because they leak and create more damage… and surely we can’t be planning on these homes to be tear downs in 10 years.

As proof in the pudding, and me showing I put my money where my mouth is, here is a Halloween treat (and a picture of my house in Sherborn). Simple-yes, smallish – yes. But behind that higher grade siding we recommend to our clients is a layer of exterior foam and cedar breathing material, then a high R-value foam insulation. About 30% more cost than an exterior on any new home in the neighborhoods we work in. However; I will benefit because I won’t be painting for at least another 10 years without rot, my home will be more comfortable in the winter and summer even if I don’t get back all the investment in the insulation that was added, and hopefully no one will tear it down in 20-30 years when I am done with it.