California Reconstruction

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In typical earthquake-country fashion, a run-down old farmhouse sparked a big shakeup in Mountain View. Alward Construction had the task of putting everything back in order. A Stanford University professor bought the property in May 2001, intending to replace the 1904 house with an accessible new one for his 30-something son, who uses a wheelchair.

December 01, 2006

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In typical earthquake-country fashion, a run-down old farmhouse sparked a big shakeup in Mountain View. Alward Construction had the task of putting everything back in order.

The repositioned house now sits a foot above ground making it easier to run ramps to the entrances.  
After photography by Russell Abraham

A Stanford University professor bought the property in May 2001, intending to replace the 1904 house with an accessible new one for his 30-something son, who uses a wheelchair. The professor planned to add a second house at the other end of the double lot for him and his wife.

He specifically selected architect Bill Bocook, of B.H. Bocook Architects in Palo Alto, Calif., he says. "Bill redesigned the baseball stadium at Stanford, and it is one of the most beautiful and most handicap accessible" stadiums around. But when the professor submitted Bocook's plans to replace the old house for city approval, the planning office threw a curve ball, turning it down because it suspected the house was historical and thus could not be razed.

An 18-month debate ensued, concluding with the city's decision that the house was not historic. By then the professor had had to solve the problem of providing a house for his son. The plan would give the son a spacious house incorporating accessible, universal design features and satisfy the city by preserving the building exterior. Bocook's solution would jack up the project cost but enable the work to go forward. The professor decided to do it.

The existing two-story building straddled the line between the property's two lots and, at 2,400 square feet, was too small to comfortably house the son and a live-in caretaker. Bocook's solution: reconstruct the basement, redesign the interior and construct a 1,000-square-foot first floor master suite addition at the rear. The plan would move the house 10 feet closer to the street, which would clear the second lot to make it buildable.

Moving ahead

Bocook recommended three contractors, and the professor gathered estimates from two. "They were within $100,000 of each other," he says, around $1.7 million. One offered a fixed-price contract, which Bocook prefers. However, "he didn't have the financial resources to take on a project of this scale," says the professor. The other contractor, Keith Alward, works on a time and materials basis but had earned Bocook's trust from working with him on another project. Bocook also respected Alward project manager Steve Johnson, who worked on many Bocook projects over two decades when he ran his own contracting business before joining Alward's company in 2003. After several months of design and budget planning the professor signed a contract with

Before

Alward Construction in September 2004.

That fall Alward hired a house mover to raise the building on steel beams, roll it away on a track and secure it on cribbing. Alward's crew dug the hole for the basement, only to encounter heavy rains. "We didn't want the soil to get wet," Johnson says, so several times "we had to cover the hole and stop work for two or three weeks at a time."

New siding on the addition blends seamlessly with the original.

In spring 2005, a subcontractor began building the basement. Engineered for earthquake resistance, the structure has 10-inch-thick walls, a thick concrete floor and double mats of ¾-inch steel. "A soil test showed that the basement would be surrounded by water, so great steps were taken to waterproof it," Johnson says.

While the basement was under construction, Johnson's crew built the detached garage to use for materials storage. They also gutted the house. Bocook's universal design radically changed the floor plan. There was little inside the old house worth saving anyway; after a fire in the 1930s, the house had been "rebuilt in a very sloppy way," explains the professor, and at some point it had been chopped into separate living quarters.

Working with the "cranky" old house presented surprises even during demo, says Johnson. For example, the crew removed the plaster ceiling in one room, only to discover another badly cracked one 5 inches above it. They even found a chimney hidden in the walls. And moving the house into position over the new basement was tricky. "You really have to get everything pretty right," when matching the footprint of an old house says Alward.

The elevator allows access to all floors. Wide toekicks under the lower counters make it easy to navigate.

Classic exterior, accessible interior

Originally the house perched 3 feet above ground; on its new foundation it is just a foot above ground, making it much easier to run shallow grade ramps to the entrances, says Bocook. Other than that, the exterior looks unchanged. Alward patched and painted much of the thick old lap siding, lining up the thinner new pieces for a seamless surface. Tucked unobtrusively behind the house, the addition ties into the existing structure with matching siding and roofing.

Modern clones take the place of the dilapidated old columns on the wraparound porch. Energy-efficient look-alikes replace all the existing windows. The windows in the master suite match the style and those in the three-story elevator shaft that Alward built into the existing house. To complete the period look, the original wrought-iron fencing will be reinstalled around the house.

The bright, contemporary interior incorporates universal design elements that enable the son to enjoy an independent lifestyle. All doorways in the house are at least 3 feet wide and the halls 40–44 inches so the wheelchair can move freely. There's space in the kitchen, baths and other rooms for a wheelchair to get through and turn around. Countertops have rounded corners to avoid scrapes, and cabinets incorporate wide toekicks to accommodate a wheelchair user's feet. Light switches are lower than usual — about 3 feet above the floor — and outlets are higher than usual — about 24 inches above the floor — for easy access.

Appliance drawers in the kitchen are handy and accessible. The laundry area has a front loading, side-door washer and dryer. The sunny, high-ceiling master bedroom and bath suite are located on the main floor. The master bathroom features a curbless, roll-in shower with bench seat and handheld shower spray; a sink with legroom underneath; a chair-height toilet; and grab bars. In the bedroom, slide-out trays store clothing. The desk in the master suite houses the command center for the whole-house music system. The new basement offers entertainment space and a fitness center.

Likewise, Alward built stairs on the other side of the house so the caretaker living in the second floor apartment can come and go without passing through the son's living space. The physical therapist can enter from the side without going through the house.

The project involved scores of change orders, some to upgrade selections, others to address old-house surprises, and still others that addressed problems such as the kitchenette refrigerator the professor selected without realizing it would be deeper than the counters. Alward modified the cabinets during final cleanup at the job.

As the professor says, building a complete house like this is a learning process. But in the final test, when the son moves in, the team hopes this house will earn an A.

 

The master bath has a chair-height toilet, room for the wheelchair to maneuver and an extended grab bar.

The Financials

Alward Construction works exclusively on a time and materials basis, partly out of tradition. "I started working as a youngster being paid by the hour," says Keith Alward, and he still likes this straightforward compensation method. What about the risk of financial disputes, especially on an expensive project like this one? Time and materials "requires the owners to be very trusting, and if they trust you I find that you can trust them," he says. "Our crews are so good that I don't get problems" with clients saying they aren't working efficiently, he adds. On this project, the architect stayed actively involved, advising the client during construction and approving all invoices. As with all Alward projects, the company had no trouble collecting payment.

Besides, Alward issues change orders. That makes the company's T and M system "a little of an oddball," he admits, but "if a change is going to be made and it has quantifiable effects on the budget we write it up" to keep the clients informed and formalize the decision. Project manager Steve Johnson says many small items on this project were "changed on the fly," but "close to 50 change orders" for more substantial changes were written up.

Job cost reports also help manage expectations. Every two weeks Alward Construction gives the clients a bill accompanied by a report that lists the original budget, all budget modifications that have been made, an itemized list of the money spent to date and of the money remaining in each budget category.

The other reason Alward sticks to T and M is that he sees an inherent unfairness in fixed rate contracts. "Either you're going to lose money or the owners are at a disadvantage" because the budget is padded to protect the contractor, he says. "I charge them for what it actually cost," adding a gross profit percentage. Alward says his markup, 20 percent, "gives us a lower margin of profit than a lot of companies, but it's sufficient to keep us as a healthy company."

Budget History

Initial estimate: $1,734,000
Change orders 500,000
Choices by the client included bamboo flooring; radiant floor heating; ground floor powder room; elevator, stair, cabinet, drywall and landscaping upgrades. Changes the old house needed included new roof framing and extra ceiling demolition.
Final price of job: 2,234,000
Cost to produce: 1,861,666
Budgeted gross profit 20%
Actual gross profit 20%


Snapshot

Keith Alward

Alward Construction Co. Inc.
Location: Berkeley, Calif.
Type of company: Full service remodeling
Staff model: 7 office, 25 field
Years in business: 27

Sales history:

2002 $3,349,000
2003 3,839,000
2004 5,465,000
2005 6,373,000
2006 (projected) 6,500,000


Annual jobs: 125
Work week: 42.5 hours
Software: Microsoft Office (Excel, Project, Word), ACT, American Contractor
Contact: 510/527-6498; www.alwardconstruction.com


Products List

Bamboo flooring: Smith & Fong Plyboo. Ceiling fans: Casablanca. Drywall: Quiet Solution. Elevator: Custom elevator. Faucets: Hansgrohe. Light fixtures: Hubbardton Forge. Radiant heat system: Warm Floors. Ranges: General Electric and Kitchen Aid. Refrigerators and microwaves: General Electric. Roofing: Elk. Toilets: Toto. Windows: Pozzi.

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