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Making Slow Progress on My Renovation

Lessons learned about construction speed, construction quality, and house size

Posted on Nov 12 2013 by Carl Seville, GBA Advisor

After a couple of months of construction, I finally have more to report on my renovation project. It is moving more slowly and is costing more than I had expected, but it is moving along, the quality of work is excellent, and the end is in sight.

I am reminded almost every day why I decided to exit the renovation business – as exciting as it is to see construction progress, the time and energy it takes to make sure everything gets done right and on time exhausts me. This process has also been teaching me some important lessons about patience and right sized homes.

Patience, patience

Framing is just about complete, and I will forever be thankful that I hired the right person for the job. I subcontracted out the demolition, foundations, framing, roofing, and exterior trim and siding to a single contractor, someone I have known for about 30 years. He runs a small company, just himself and a helper – and while progress is slower than I would have preferred, his attention to detail is exceptional.

It is a pleasure to find someone who cares about the quality of the work who doesn’t just throw things up fast to meet production schedules. As an added bonus, his estimate was very competitive. The old adage “good, fast and cheap – pick any two” turned out to be true. I didn’t get fast, but I am certainly getting excellent quality at a very fair price.

This speed/price/quality issue makes me wonder about the state of the construction industry. With the exception of modular and some panelized projects, construction is still among the least industrialized industries around. Unlike most modern manufacturing, quality is very inconsistent and tends to be inversely proportional to the pace of production.

It seems that most contractors who are interested in true high-quality construction are the least rewarded financially. Time is money: those borrowing it want to pay as little interest as possible, and those investing want a fast return. Speed of production is rewarded, while time taken to attend to details and quality are not. It has taken me several weeks to settle down and accept that although my project is not moving as fast as I would like, I am getting very high quality work from someone who really cares.

Bigger is definitely not better

Until recently I had forgotten just how small my home is. After eight years living in only 750 (soon to be 800) square feet, I am temporarily staying in a friend’s vacant house that is over 4,000 square feet, and I feel lost. It is so spacious that I don’t know what to do with myself. The rooms are too big, there are too many, and I can’t figure out the light switches. The walk to the bathroom feels like a short hike, to the kitchen a long one.

I’ve built and renovated many homes even much larger than this one, including one for myself, and until recently rarely paid that much attention to how much space people said they needed. Although American home sizes continue to increase, I have come to realize that, personally, I don’t ever want to live in a large home again. I would much rather have a small house and the freedom that comes with it.

Onward and upward

I will be reporting soon on the installation of my plumbing system, reinstallation of one minisplit, and tuning up and adding spray foam insulation. Stay tuned. It is already an interesting ride.


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  1. Carl Seville

1.
Tue, 11/12/2013 - 14:29

Edited Tue, 11/12/2013 - 14:30.

the problem with the building industry
by Brent Eubanks

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It seems that most contractors who are interested in true high-quality construction are the least rewarded financially.

That's half of it, in a nutshell.

The other half is the fact that most of the work contractors do is not visible or attributable, so there's no feedback or pushback by the owner. Poor details get hidden behind walls, no one every looks at their mechanical system, etc. This is true in the commercial space as well - controls contractors in particular are prone to it, because they have to do their work after everyone else is basically finished (so maximum schedule pressure) and the work they do is invisible. A poor implementation of an EMCS can still keep people comfortable, so it slides under the radar. The fact that it is causing the mechanical system to use 5x the energy it should is not typically evident.


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