Last month in this space, I reviewed a series of market projections for 2014 from Harvard University as well as the industry’s leading associations.
Project Spotlight: In Control
When Skeeter Coleman manages to maintain order on a chaotic job site.
|In place of a small, congested kitchen, Coleman created a spacious, handsome room that flows into a generous pantry and food prep area at one end and the step-down breakfast room at the other. Oak flooring and ceramic wall tile are installed on a diagonal to lend interest and relieve the linear plan.
"I get paid three ways" for remodeling people’s houses, says Skeeter Coleman, a design/build contractor in suburban Nashville, Tenn. "I get to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, I get to be a people pleaser, and I need to make a profit." Sometimes earning that triple return is smooth sailing. Even with dazzling make-overs such as the Levis project, though, the seas can get a little rough.
When Coleman walked into a frame shop early last year to have project photos mounted for display in his new Franklin, Tenn., office, he had no idea he was embarking on a remodeling voyage.
But one of the framers, Sarah Levis, honed in on those Coleman Construction Inc. project photos. She wanted to fix the ills of her 1930s bungalow and didn’t know how to find a remodeler. The photos showed that Coleman "does great work," she says, so she asked Skeeter Coleman to look at her house.
Since buying the house in 1997, Levis had become frustrated with its puny galley kitchen. "I love to cook," she explains, and the shortage of floor space, counters and cabinets was exasperating. The house also needed work in the master bedroom and bath, the second-floor bath, as well as an indoor connection to a bedroom — a former studio with outside entrance.
One look at the kitchen and Coleman agreed that remodeling was essential. "It was awful," he says.
For numerous reasons, Coleman saw the job as a good one for his company. The house is in one of his target markets. Also, Levis belongs to a demographic group Coleman Construction serves well. "We have a fair amount of clients who are women, divorced or single," says Coleman. "They feel comfortable that we will look after them and not take advantage of them." Another plus: Levis had an idea of what she wanted but was open to Coleman’s design ideas. Add that Levis is a "very decisive" person who, Coleman guessed, would not waver over design and product choices.
|Since buying the house in 1997, the homeowner had become frustrated with its puny galley kitchen. A house with a tiny kitchen just didn’t work for a family of four. Coleman transformed a shortage of counter and cabinet space, and a breakfast table in the family room into a spacious eat-in kitchen with breakfast room.
Though Levis assumed she would have to give up the neighboring powder room to expand the kitchen, Coleman proposed a better solution during their first meeting. He suggested slipping the new breakfast room into the adjacent covered deck area, expanding the kitchen into an adjacent hall and opening it to the family room, and turning the old kitchen into a pantry. Levis loved the idea. "It gave me even more room than my original plan, and we still didn’t have to extend past the setback."
A few weeks later, Coleman came back with three preliminary design approaches, ranging from basic to luxury. Rough estimate: $225,000-$235,000. Guided by Levis’ comments, Coleman devised a final, "hybridized" design that drew elements from all three options and, at $216,395, came closer to Levis’ original $200,000 budget. Coleman trimmed costs mainly by cutting out a wet bar and deck and reducing the size of the breakfast room and adjacent new entry. Pleased, Levis gave Coleman the go-ahead to start construction.
In his first visit, though, Coleman had sensed that pleasing the rest of the Levis family would be more challenging. Levis’ three daughters were unhappy about having remodeling crews invade their house. Levis originally hoped the project could be completed in August, when the three girls were away at camp as counselors. She quickly realized that was not possible, as production could not begin until late summer. Project manager Brian Dozier says, "We knew it would be a pretty intrusive project. We’d be taking up a lot of space and creating a mess." The goal became "trying to keep everyone happy" during the four-month project.
"Everyone" included not only kids but pets — a cat, a guinea pig, a frog and the two monsters, er, dogs. Dozier vividly recalls his first encounter with the hulking, 200-plus-pound bull mastiffs. He and Coleman were in the yard examining the roof. "Sarah had introduced us to the dogs, and we had petted them," Dozier says. Levis went inside briefly. "We sat at a table with the dogs standing between us. Skeeter said something to the dogs, and it set them off" in a tempest of aggressive barking. "I thought I was going to have a heart attack," recounts Dozier.
Dozier later learned that the mastiffs, though intimidating, were friendly. After seeing him daily they accepted him as "part of the family." But with that first experience, "I realized we were going to have trouble with the dogs" as subcontractors came and went, Dozier says. "We bought and built a 6x9, covered dog pen" with chain-link fences attached to poles mounted in concrete. Like other required materials, the pen was added in the estimate.
Coleman and Dozier arranged the production sequence to keep the family as comfortable as possible. "We remodeled the bathroom upstairs first," Coleman says. Levis then moved upstairs with two daughters for the duration of the job. (The eldest daughter was away at college for most of the project.) Next the company set up a temporary kitchen in the studio-turned-bedroom, moving the refrigerator there and hooking up a temporary sink and a combination hot plate-microwave-convection oven unit. Dozier also created a makeshift television area and computer center in part of the family room, which he says the kids used daily. Plastic zip walls and passageways formed dust barriers for these first-floor rooms. ("In hindsight," Dozier says, "it would have been even better to move the TV room upstairs.")
Despite these measures, "the girls wanted to get rid of us," Coleman says. Though Levis told the kids it was "the price we have to pay" to improve the house, Coleman regretted the inconvenience the family suffered. To show concern, Coleman Construction picked up the tab for the family to eat at a nice restaurant and worked hard to keep the site clean. Dozier set — and met — a deadline to complete the kitchen in time for a dinner in late November for one of Levis’ daughters.
The pets? The guinea pig stayed in a cage upstairs. The cat stayed upstairs mostly. It "got into the basement crawlspace a couple of times," Dozier says. He’d leave the door open and watch for the cat to come out. The frog somehow escaped from its aquarium, never to return. "We didn’t get blamed," Dozier reports, because the escape happened when the family was away and someone else was caring for the animals.
The dogs were "escape artists," says Dozier. Repeatedly they "tore the chain link off the poles" and got into the yard. Once they "ran the framers up on the roof." When they escaped another time, a worker bolted for his truck. "We finally put boards up around the pen and wires around the bottom," Dozier says.
|Because expansion space was limited, Coleman built a breakfast room in a deck area, opened the kitchen to the family room and expanded it into a hall. He also transformed the old “catwalk kitchen” into a pantry rich with counter and cabinet space.
By then, however, Dozier had established a protocol. "If workers were going to be there for a while, I took the time to introduce the dogs to them," he says. With every worker, "I’d go through the drill": Do not park in the path of the yard’s electric gate, keep the remote-control gate operator close to the work area, and if the dogs get out, ignore them and walk slowly to your vehicle.
To minimize Levis’ frustration as the job proceeded, Coleman and Dozier frequently asked how she was doing and what they could do to help her family endure the remodel. As Dozier puts it, "I would try to take her [emotional] ‘temperature.’" They found that job-site cleanliness became a bigger irritant for Levis as the job progressed. "In the beginning, in the demolition phase, everything went into the dumpster and was hauled away. It was great," Levis recalls. During construction, the "carpenters were good about keeping their area clean" daily, she says, and Dozier required a "very thorough cleaning" every Friday. But "some subs were not as conscientious."
Dozier took triple action to conquer the cleanliness problem and stem Levis’ displeasure. After Levis complained at a weekly progress meeting about messy subs, he spoke to the workers. Dozier also hired laborers for a major cleanup. The extra labor chewed $200-$300 out of profits, but it was worth it to restore the client’s healthy "emotional bank account."
Other unforeseen problems gnawed further into profits. Coleman admits he "had a terrible time" with the roof design. "I redrew it several times to get it to look right from below," Coleman says. Levis "was less concerned" about the issue. So when Coleman’s final roof design used more copper than budgeted for a mansard that would block views of the rubber roof and drainage lines, he chose to absorb the extra $2,000 cost. In the redesign, the entry overhang disappeared, so Coleman kicked in $500 to purchase an awning. "It’s not her fault that I changed the design," says Coleman.
|The sunny breakfast room and entry absorb former deck space without extending beyond the setback line. Coleman, project manager Brian Dozier and the framer worked on site to design the complex roof structure, tying together four pitches and numerous drainage lines at the breakfast room area. EPDM rubber tops most of the breakfast room; it’s hidden by a handsome copper mansard. Coleman bought an entry awning when the previously planned entry overhang was designed out of the roof plan.|
Coleman’s self-described "swashbuckling" estimating overlooked Levis’ request for a wraparound mirror in the master bath, underestimated the amount of ceramic tile for the bath and missed brick removal on an exterior wall that became an interior wall in the breakfast area. When some new red oak flooring needed to be replaced with white oak near the juncture of a previous addition, Coleman split the cost with Levis. All told, he spent an unbudgeted $7,090 on the job.
Toward job’s end, the production schedule compressed, requiring crews to work a few weekends and evenings. Two problems arose on the day the job was to be finished:
Despite these last-minute squalls and earlier additions to the project scope — such as re-roofing the whole house — Coleman sailed the job into harbor before Christmas, as promised. Levis and her family have been enjoying their bigger, better, more beautiful house ever since.
Photos by Bob Schatz