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.
Flexibility with the design/build process garners prized projects and customer favor.
Michael Menn and Andrew Poticha want business success as much as any other remodelers; they just define it differently. Most design/build remodelers want the whole job—design plus construction—or nothing. Not architects Menn and Poticha. Their Northbrook, Ill., company, Design Construction Concepts, Ltd. (D+CC), will do just the design, or just the construction management, or both. It’s the clients’ choice.
Most design/build remodelers avoid competitive bid situations, rating their sales prowess largely by the number of no-bid contracts they land. Menn and Poticha rarely bid on jobs, but have no problem doing so for the “right” job. They presented not one, not two, but several estimates at different phases of the Marks home remodel. To Menn and Poticha, every bid was a stepping stone to the next level of a desirable project.
It all started in March 1998, when Bob and Diane Marks called D+CC to talk about remodeling the house they had just purchased. After scouring their suburban Chicago neighborhood for a trade-up house for their family of five, the Markses had found just what they wanted—a center hall colonial like their current home but with larger rooms and an additional bedroom. Problem was the 35-year-old house looked its age. It needed a fresh look on the interior, plus smarter use of available space.
Bob Marks asked six companies for estimates on designing the remodel. D+CC made the bid list because the company had remodeled several houses in the area and was recommended by neighbors. When he met with the homeowners, Menn made a good impression. “He was personable and friendly,” says Bob Marks. But Menn’s proposal, $9,000 to design the makeover and prepare working drawings, seemed too high to Marks. Unwilling to reduce the design fee, which included D+CC’s standard profit and overhead, Menn walked away.
Four months passed.
|To create a more contemporary, open plan in the kitchen/family room area, D+CC removed a wet bar and wall at the junction of eating area and family space. The den became a multipurpose area: When the doors are closed it is a quiet study; when they are open the room forms an “L” off the family room and provides backyard views from the living room.
Then in August, Marks called D+CC back. He told Menn that an interior designer had drafted a space plan for the house and had asked a kitchen company to develop a cabinet layout. Marks invited D+CC, as well as several other companies, to submit a construction estimate based on the design, which updated the finishes, created an open-plan first floor, reconfigured the second-floor bedrooms and baths, and fitted out the basement for high-capacity storage.
Even though the design contract had gone to someone else, Menn was pleased to be in the running again for the rest of the Marks project. The job was a prime one for D+CC, he says, for two reasons. One: The house is in one of D+CC’s prime markets. Two: Menn and Poticha clicked with the Markses. The owners believed that the family would end up solidly in the happy-client column, yielding D+CC’s ultimate goal: “unqualified recommendations.”
SALES SMARTS: D+CC’s construction estimate came in at $200,000. Menn had told Marks his bid would not be the lowest, and he was right. Still, Marks was impressed. Unlike other contractors, D+CC took the time to understand the details of the project, Marks says, asking a lot of questions, visiting the house again and raising design and production issues that needed resolution. D+CC solved problems at this early stage too, devising a way, for instance, to support the load without obtrusive soffits where a wall between kitchen and family room was to be removed. (Another bidder simply insisted soffits were necessary, though the Markses specifically asked for ways to avoid them.) The bid process became an opportunity for Menn and Poticha to demonstrate they had the skill and know-how to do good, reliable work. They showed that they really wanted the job, says Marks.
Menn also informed Marks that more precise construction drawings would be required to obtain a building permit. This time, Menn offered to develop those plans and roll the design fee into a construction contract if D+CC got the nod to produce the remodel. “We took a calculated risk,” says Menn.
The risk paid off. Despite competition from less-expensive contractors, once D+CC completed the working drawings Marks hired Menn and Poticha in January 1999 to proceed with construction. There would be no surprises with the job under D+CC’s watch.
Throughout the sales process Menn said D+CC “would be worth every cent” in terms of service. That promise was put to the test as production proceeded. Operating within the constraints of a $200,000 budget and a must-meet completion date of mid-July, which would enable the Markses to move in and get settled before school started, D+CC had to perform some “structural gymnastics,” says Menn.
|A horseshoe of skimpy cabinets cramped the work area in the old kitchen and cut it off from the rest of the living space. Extensive cabinetry lines the wall and island in the new kitchen, which opens to the eating area and the family room beyond. Out went laminate counters, ho-hum cabinets, fluorescent lighting and carpeting. The classy new kitchen features tile flooring, custom cabinets,granite countertops, and a custom-designed lighting system.
The first challenge involved the floors, says Poticha, who ran the job as project manager. The design called for mud-set tile across much of the first floor, but the floor was uneven and the joists already were overloaded. Working from the basement, Poticha’s trade contractors beefed up the floor with new and reinforced joists to make the floors level and able to carry the added weight.
Exterior walls presented a second challenge. “[They were] incredibly out of plumb,” says Poticha. Most of D+CC’s work was within those exterior walls, but they had to level things out in the bathrooms. Installing a skin of straight walls against the old walls enabled the crew to put marble shower walls in place.
In a downstairs corner facing the backyard, D+CC replaced a sliding glass door with a solid wall. This presented a new challenge: how to find siding for that door-size wall that would perfectly match the yellow siding used on adjacent walls. D+CC, the company’s carpentry subcontractor, and Marks all searched for remnants of the discontinued yellow siding. Marks located some in Baton Rouge, La., and Poticha arranged to ship the 12-foot panels to Illinois.
During construction, Marks decided to replace all the windows in the house. Though Menn had included custom replacement windows as an option in his production estimate, Marks said the price was too high and asked another contractor for an estimate. D+CC also explored other window choices, and came back with the recommendation that Marks use Pella replacement units that would cost less to install because they fit inside the existing frames. D+CC prevailed once again in a bid situation, picking up the windows as a change order.
BONUS BUSINESS: Work on the kitchen revealed that part of the roof needed replacement. To ensure a match and guarantee the long-term integrity of the entire roof, Marks decided to re-roof the whole house. “He asked if he could go out and get a bid [on the roof work],” says Menn. “We said we would not charge for supervision [of the roof job since] we would be there anyway.” The offer was too good to refuse. The roofing became another large change order that D+CC was able to accommodate without affecting the job schedule, since all the other work continued indoors while the roofing subcontractor was on site.
|Even though a bathtub was removed and surplus floor space was claimed to make room for a big closet, the master bath remains airy and luxurious. D+CC installed marble across the floor and up the shower wall—after correcting the wall to make it plumb.
SCHEDULE SNAG: For Menn and Poticha, the only real headache of the job involved one of the few things that D+CC did not have direct control over: the kitchen cabinets. The homeowners contracted directly with the kitchen company against D+CC’s recommendation, says Menn. The kitchen company measured the space and ordered cabinets before any demolition or remodeling work had been done in the kitchen. When the cabinets arrived, several did not fit. Some had to be re-ordered, which caused a potentially schedule-busting, three-week delay.
Marks has fond memories of the prickly situation, because it highlighted D+CC’s service orientation. “They were not responsible,” he says, “but they stepped in and helped out.” Poticha figured out a way to salvage some of the cabinets using trim and drywall, says Marks. He also propped up the countertops on temporary legs so work on the counters could proceed even without cabinets underneath. Menn adds that D+CC moved the job forward during the three-week wait by doing things out of sequence and handling the windows and roofing change orders. “We were very lucky [that the job could proceed],” says Menn. (D+CC no longer will work this way. If a client wants to contract a kitchen company directly, “We’ll stop the job and come back after they are finished,” he says.)
By July 6, the Marks job was ready for final inspection. Right on schedule, the family moved in a week or so later. Bob Marks was so pleased with D+CC that he asked point blank what he could do to bring the company more business. That sounds like unqualified recommendations in the making.