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May 16, 2013

My history as a Contractor (and personal observations on my journey)

My personal journey to becoming a contractor is unique in that I have been on many sides of construction and design, and feel that such a diverse immersion has given me a usefully enriched persecutive through which I can direct and produce a personalized custom home "creation."  Perhaps my brother saw this quality in me when he helped me choose a name for my company.

Early years - My parents moved quite a bit while I was growing up - averaging one house a year from 4th to 11th grade.  What could have been a social nightmare to some kids I feel was actually beneficial to my current housebuilding career. We worked on and off as a family to fix up and decorate homes to increase their value.  If I had few friends in the new area, I  spent my time looking at design magazines and dreamed of what could be. We were not intentional flippers, but the process was similar.  We always intended to build for ourselves, so we weren't tempted with "the quick flip" and the poor craftsmanship it could bear.  But we did uncover some crazy "handyman/homeowner" work!

I really liked the new project feel - and energy - of a house that needed work.  I will never forget looking through countless home magazines during those early years, making my own mental notes as to the merit of the decoration and layout features presented.   There was of course my mom's favorite, and, to a young boy with an interest in custom homes, the holy grail  - Architectural Digest.  A window into the lives and playgrounds of the rich and famous - decorated by the talented gays (and a few straights) of their field.  

With the metrosexual era defining itself (basically an excuse for straights to adopt some of the superior practices of gays), I am no longer concerned about seeming "gay".  You either are or aren't!  I never should have worried about it, but as a young man I was unfortunately a bit homophobic - something today that I actually am ashamed for feeling - I guess it may have been an overreaction for displaying what some people considered to be gay tendencies with my enormous interest in decor and design.  Fortunately I have grown and matured to become a GLBT supporter 100%, as it should to be.  We learn to be greater people by daring to accept the differences that make us all so diversely unique and simultaneously alike.

So yes, I started young as a design aspirant and critic.  And never stopped.  At restaurants and hotels, to this day I will be found undoubtedly craning my neck up and around, absorbing the decor and flow of the structure, hoping to get a few good ideas and note a few things to avoid.  It's not going to stop, so I have to accept it.  I just hope my close circle understands. 

My twenties - Not able to decide on a major at the University, I decided to go west and "easily" find fame and fortune in Los Angeles, right? Like many midwest transplants, I thought of being a musician, or acting in movies, but in retrospect I never considered the actual lifestyle of pursuing that adventure until I got here, and I wasn't really a fan of nightclubs, slumming on pocket change and live performing, so I would say it was a fun idea and great excuse to come out west.  I did enjoy doing little music projects, but that type of success has many strings attached.  To those who do try it seriously, it think with any outcome it is a great experience - which is a success in itself - and LA is an exciting and diverse place to be young and discover yourself, with all the hustle and glitz to keep you on your toes.  I lived in a weekly apartment on Hollywood Blvd. for six months or so at 21 years old to achieve the full effect.

 Upon arrival, I did various odd jobs like messengering (great way to learn the city) until beginning on a framing crew.  From there, I took up finish carpentry, since I had practice from performing small and varied detail-oriented finish jobs for my slightly critical yet loving German mother.

Finish work came easily to me with my trained eye for detail, and I was promoted to crew lead at a young age.

When one company I worked for had some administrative difficulty and disbanded, I had abandoned jobs on my hands and people that needed my help to finish.  They turned to me so I took on the role of finishing those jobs as an unlicensed contractor ( I think the statute of limitations has passed).

I continued to work for other contractors to finish up my licensing requirements and applied for a B license - general contractor - in 1992.

My thirties - I worked quite a bit on custom home projects, remodeled some recording spaces, and did some commercial electrical work for various electrical contractors.

When I turned 40, I was living in Seattle, working as a GC/EC on custom homes, and building various commercial projects.

Many jobs (and years) later I find myself back in Southern California.  I have learned so much from my journey about jobs and design and quality of work, and I hope to share it with great customers - like you.

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Homeowner and Contractor - the beginning

In today's still-recovering economy, I imagine many people think I am a bit crazy to insist that I am just as much an interviewer during our meeting process for a custom home project as are my customers.

I have to admit that it has cost me a few jobs.  I simply know that the contractor has to fit the customer or the job will not go smoothly. There are many types of builders out there - one for every nascent project.  They all have their strengths and weaknesses.  Here are a few types, not all, for the curious…

Some are "paper contractors" who oversee the job with little or no actual physical participation.  They are focused on keeping a team flowing smoothly, and can work on the overview aspect from an office.  They will never know who scratched the floor...

Some are hard-working naturalized citizens who are the spirit of what has made America great, capitalizing on the open-armed and free policy this country offers - adventurous and outgoing.   They bring a bit of their country with them for better or for worse….

Others are men (and rarely, women) who climbed up through the ranks of our industry, starting as members of a crew and eventually finding their way to running jobs.  They can be rough around the edges, which makes the finer aspects of design a bit tricky for them at times.

There are also the SOB's.  Son of the boss who is born into the field and takes up the reins.  I have met great ones and not so great ones.  One factor could be whether or not the fit was truly a first choice for them I would imagine.  

All good paths by which to come to be a contractor, all with benefits and burdens.

I have come to the conclusion that a custom home can be done well in many ways, by any type of contractor, but few will be as successful as they could be, due to many of the same basic shortfalls. 

Its not a secret or anything like that, but it comes down to a bit more than "quick, cheap or fast - pick 2".  (Although that is a great way to explain how a typical construction subcontractor thinks) And while there is no real magic formula for beating the remodeling/new home gremlins at their own game, knowing where the wheels can fall off the cart gives one an edge in keeping them on the cart.

Of course, I can offer a few pointers as a guideline to help your job work out successfully.  This next pointer will help explain why I think it's just as important for me to interview the homeowner as well as vice versa.  And this important point to remember is…

Homeowners have a lot of responsibility.  Now they can avoid it if they like by assigning it to trusted professionals - that is, if they want to and can afford to do so.  A successful project needs a homeowner who defines - and maintains - their own role, even if it is just to approve a plan and leave it to the experts.  If the team is able to work well together and there are clearly defined roles, the homeowner can approve a 3D model and go off to do their own thing and come back in 6-12 months to a turn-key success.

Rarely, though, does a homeowner not want to visit the site and walk the job during the rough stages.  I think it can be fun and I encourage it, even though they will most likely second-guess their decisions (it is common) once seen in brick and mortar.   As a kid I always liked visiting our projects or those in the neighborhood to see the process of building materials forming to become a new family dwelling.

But to return to homeowner responsibility.  It'a fine line to be the boss of a project about which you really only know a limited amount.  This is why most successful executives will tell you that they learn to listen to their team experts and give lots of weight to their opinions.  Homeowners hold the pursestrings, so they have final say, of course.  No one wants it any other way - It's their home.  But from an exaggerated point of view, what if the homeowner had to design, build and decorate their own home?  Or even direct the subcontractors?  If you talk to people who have tried it, you will hear many tales of woe, or see a result that usually doesn't hold up to standards.  This allows us to conclude that their choices will not always be the best ones for their job.  That is why it's important to have someone trustworthy you can listen to and learn from before making large decisions.  Sometimes just moving forward with a choice will be less costly even if you tear it out later, rather than holding up work and slowing the entire process.  

So while the homeowner has ultimate authority, its important to keep it from backfiring on them in some form.  So, what is "appropriate" authority in a complex home project?  Not easy to define in a short article.

For this reason, I try to assess how reasonable a homeowner will be.  Drama will only result in a failure on some level, it's just a matter of degree.  Anger and yelling is one sure way to create friction and setbacks.  Insisting on micromanaging parts of a job is yet another path to a project derailment or train wreck.

My preferred position as a liaison to the homeowner is to help them coordinate all aspects of the job.  Often it seems that a bit of a tug of war develops between design side and build side, and the biggest loser is the homeowner.  This is where ego has to be set aside, and that will at least start with me, to set a humble example.  I don't want to be "right" for the sake of ego.  Often there is no right or wrong.  It becomes a matter of taste, and this is another criteria to see if your contractor is right for you - do you share similar enough taste?  Some design people would say the contractor's job isn't to judge design, and in many cases I would agree with them, but as a design-focused contractor I can say that it absolutely IS a part of my job.  There is another type of contractor, the "doozer" type who executes anything on the plan and doesn't give it a second thought on the way home.  I am not that guy.

I will admit though, that design is really the job of an architect. Can I design? Yes, I can definitely design if I want to, just as many architects can offer general contracting services.  In my case it isn't something I expect to do, except in special circumstances, but if a design is not flowing for me, I can't just ignore it, which is why being a part of the design process early is so important for my "type" of contractor.  For clients that come to me early in the process, I will help with design if I feel the situation is right.

Other pitfalls of being the boss - People who think they can throw money at a person and get them to do what they want are actually correct.  There are many people out there who will do that.  What they fail to realize is that they build no real reward for talent with that attitude.  Talent responds to being a part of the decision process and being acknowledged for their professional and artistic ability.   

Not to say that a great worker won't try to save that person occasionally from a huge blunder, no matter how unfavorably they feel they are being treated.  It is an act of graciousness (for the job at the very least) that typically can't be turned off.  But there will be no extra miles in those shoes.

To wrap up, it is not an easy task, the task of initiating a large home project.  Finding your contractor is a big part of making the job easier to manage, and they will be your go-to person throughout a challenging process.  Choose wisely!

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Dec 8, 2012

If you are not sure about using an architect...

Architects and painters have at least one thing in common; some people try to remove them from the job's list of costs in order to do it themselves.  The success rate is - not surprisingly - based on the talent of their replacements.  With regard to painting, often "Uncle/cousin Joe" can paint, and will do it for a "few bucks and pizza".  Or the homeowners want to do it themselves since they saw a commercial on TV from Home Depot and decided it looked fun and easy.  

Some people think that "architectin" is the same - we just need a room (or two or three)- how hard can that be?  There is a saying about knowing just enough to be dangerous...

In a perfect world, a job without an architect could possibly turn out, but a much more likely outcome will be messy and lacking in panache.  Sort of like bad painting.  

As a general rule I wil say that I advise strongly against not using an architect on any size job larger than a one room makeover.

Good architects, like good painters, will be able to add things to the job that novices will not even think of while guaranteeing cohesiveness in style.  They also excel at many tangential parts of the project that help make it a more fluid process from a scheduling and oversight perspective.

For people who may strongly think they do not want to use an architect, there are "architectural draftpersons" available.  These people are usually connected to an architect's typical resource pool, such as structural engineers, plan checking expediters, interior decorators, and even contractors.  They work on an hourly fee as opposed to a job fee.  But remember that they will almost certainly not give you anywhere near the level of service or facility.

They will typically not have the repertoire of a well-respected architect, which is important to certain clients.  Also they may not be able to keep the style of the project on theme as well as an accredited architect, simply due to their lack of study of architectural styles, so buyer beware.  I have met very few homeowners and contractors that are capable of replacing the role of the architect.  And fewer that will venture forth to do so - even if they have a good chance at moderate success.

My experience is that if you are unsure of how to go, talk to an architect first.  If you feel that you and your contractor can "take on the world", then start with an architectural draftsperson.  You can always go back to the architect later if the project gets too complex, and with the draftsperson you have only committed on an hourly level.

The drawings will not be a bad thing to have either, but be open to a complete revamp if that is where the architect is going.  After all, they are mainly there to help you from an aesthetic and lifestyle perspective, and it's one that they went to school for a long time to get right!

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Design/build contractor challenges

Design/build contractors are a great potential find.  The trick is figuring out if they are actually great at wearing both hats.  My experience is that they are good at one and better at the other.  If they run an office, they spend less time in the field.  If they are mainly contractors, they can't effectively run a job and design the next one, unless they have a staff, which makes them a larger firm, with more payroll and overhead.

In fairness, a large firm with specialized departments (lots of payroll) can actually be an advantage for some people who want a straightforward plan without a lot of special personalization.  These firms can make a house appear quite quickly.  Often these firms specialize in tract housing.  We have seen wonderfully built and designed tract homes that on their own would be gorgeous custom homes.  They just happen to be in a group of somewhat identical wonderful homes.

A large design/build firm can deliver increases in efficiency in exchange for a bit less in the finish department to cover their overhead.  In exchange for speed, they will typically limit choices such as which subcontractors can be used, what styles of cabinetry or stonework can be selected, and so forth. If they offer "carte blanche" selection to the homeowner it will probably be at a price premium.

Another type of design/builder is the "one man show" designer/builder.  this individual has no designer to builder miscommunications, but can be overwhelmed if they are not a good delegator.  Further, if there is a middle of the run design change, they will be pulling double duty under pressure unless they delegate the city hall paperwork while running the project.

I have tried to do this for smaller jobs and if the plan is simple it is fine.  For a large project, an architectural firm is invaluable.  

Large projects require lots of plan checking, structural engineering, detailed elevations for builders to properly bid the finishes, and by the time you are done you have a big roll of complex drawings.  Not really the job for a "hammer-swinger" contractor or even a "shiny shoe" contractor.  It is a specialized role that needs the efficiency of schooled experts.

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The wonderful design assistance tool - houzz.com

I posted about using a decorator, and I do think that they are extremely helpful for many reasons as I mentioned - but the best tool to get to a place where you are ready to talk to a design professional in my opinion is the website houzz.com.

Houzz.com can be your friend when its time to focus on the style of your project.  Taking ideas from the million or so photos is a fairly simple process thanks to their organization scheme. This will prove indispensible in channeling your style concepts into a group of concrete photos that can be referred to when planning finishes as well as structural designs of your new home.

So again while it is a great place to view finishes and inspirational room touches, don't overlook it's potential to help give you innovative solutions to planning and layout, with unique room shapes and ceiling heights/soffit details, unusual bath arrangements, clever built-in storage/bookshelving, and so many other inspired "little touches" that make a home uniquely yours!

Its a great place to just browse when you have a minute to slip into your design planner mode.

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Preparing for your remodel or new home project - can a decorator help?

I think one of the biggest advantages experienced remodelers have is the hard lessons they undoubtedly learned from previous remodeling ventures.  Trying to explain to someone that they have to do their homework ahead of time can be difficult when they think there is "plenty of time" to do those things later.

Also making decisions - like what type of floors and stone will go in the house  - seems like such a big decision that it is easy to want to postpone it to the last minute in the hope of finding the perfect fit or wanting to be in the partially finished room to "get the feel" of the space.

These are all valid arguments, especially for people who do not want to use a decorator.  

If you do choose a decorator, a good bit of advice is to pick one with enough experience to guide your choices, preferably one who has a track record of taking organized notes and coordinating with the contractors to stay on top of material tracking, project progress, etc.

If you try to do this yourself, be prepared to encounter delays due to the number of factors that simply cannot be anticipated by new remodelers.

A good decorator will not just help with the decorating.  They have gone to school to understand scheduling, room finish details, plumbing, cabinetry and tile work construction procedures as well as customer guidance and support.

The tricky part may be finding one that is the right fit for your taste and project criteria, but by arming yourself with lots of photo ideas you can compare your taste to their showbook and see if you are on the same design page.

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Nov 13, 2012

Thoroughness of a subcontractor's bid

Subcontractor bids are at the heart of a project's baseline cost. the more complete the plans are - the more finishing details that can be determined early by the client and their team - the more accurate the subcontractor's bid will become.

Sometimes it is difficult to see the future of how a project will look to a client.  By having the architect prepare renderings of each area, even at a cost of several hundered dollars each, a clearer picture of the project can be developed, potentially saving much more money in helping finalize details that can be bid from the onset.

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Choosing a contractor based on price...

Choosing a contractor is never black and white - and seldom easy.  People often want to simplify it to a question of cost.  Cost cannot be overlooked of course, but paper plans and city inspections can never fully guarantee that the project will be completed to the expected level of quality a client expects.  Projects are born from heavy materials and depend on the skilled technique of those applying them.

It seems simple enough to assume that quality is on the mind of your contractor, and at some level I am sure it is.  All projects start out with a lot of smiles and hopes and handshakes. But life's pressures and unexpected delays often force a contractor to seek the fastest means of getting to the next stage of completion even if thoroughness has to be overlooked and code minimums are made the only hurdle.  With several projects going on at once, many contractors doing a bunch of jobs can get caught in "back and forth" type reduced productivity.

Further, contract budget constraints, designed to protect the client from cost overruns, can force a low bidding contractor who feels pressure to look for ways to "cut time or costs".  There are always new ways to try, and often they lead to project failure down the road.

From my experience this type of situation is all too common for an underbidder.  Unfortunately, most areas only hold a contractor liable for one year without an extended written warranty.  

Price is not a good way to select a contractor, but if the price is good (often it is -ulp- double what you may have initially expected) then recommendations are the next step.  All good contractors have someone who can recommend them based on past experience.

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A contractor's role at the onset of a project...

Contractors typically come with various strengths and weaknesses.  These attributes typically reveal themselves during a project.  From my point of view, a contractor with some design skill can help spot ways to achieve cost savings during the planning stage, if he or she is allowed to participate at that time.  Of course the architect is the "head honcho" in this department, but an experienced contractor may have a bit of insight.

Often homeowners consult with an architect exclusively, go over their wishes and budget, debate about their various design possibilites and finally begin to form their vision of the project.  The architect then has to hire a structural engineer if custom features require it (steel beams or large concrete foundations), and have that engineer create a structure that will pass city planning.   Finally the project seeks contractors to bid on the plans as presented.  This is not a bad way to do business and many projects have been completed quite successfully in this manner.

Involving a contractor a bit earlier in the process may seem like a dubious idea (at least to architects and engineers, perhaps), and it may very well involve extra time and hassle.  But it may also lend itself to a solution that is a bit less costly from an engineering or fabrication point of view.  The danger is that it could result in a less encapsulated design process, which some homeowners might find distracting.

It often comes down to a question of whether "more ideas" is better for the client or not.  If so, then passing a plan along to a contractor during the middle of the planning stage is a helpful possibility.

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