The remodeling industry has a growing problem on its hands that must be addressed immediately.
When the Smoke Clears
Restoration of a fire- and smoke-damaged house.
Maureen Turcotte knew something was very wrong last December when she and her husband, Philip, arrived at their daughter’s house for a birthday celebration. After driving for two hours, they arrived to find their family waiting on the front lawn.
They had bad news: There had been a fire, and the Turcottes’ Durham, Conn., house was destroyed. One of the Turcottes’ six children, David, had been home, but he was unharmed. "All I could think of was they’re not telling me the truth about David," says Maureen. Once she spoke with David and determined for herself that he was all right, everything else seemed unimportant. "A house you can always replace," she says.
The 40-year-old ranch house did have to be replaced. A forgotten candle in David’s room had ignited a pile of laundry. The baby sitter extinguished the flames but not the fire. After going outside for a while, she and David returned to find the house ablaze. Only David’s room and the roof above it burned. But only one room in the single-story house escaped severe smoke damage.
The Durham volunteer fire department doused the fire and sealed off the burned room. The next day, the Turcottes’ insurance adjuster asked the West Hartford, Conn., office of Woods Restoration Services to secure the house. The Woods team came out right away to board up the windows and doors, tarp the roof, back-drain the plumbing system and add antifreeze. Project foreman Mike Roche says, "We followed up a week later to make sure the boiler was completely drained."
That first experience with Woods made a good impression on the Turcottes. So did the great reference from family friends whose house Woods happened to be restoring. The adjuster included Woods in a list of several restoration contractors to consider for the rebuilding project, and Woods was not the only candidate with strong references. But the Turcottes chose Woods because the staff was prompt and professional and because the company had good ideas, says Maureen.
"They went through the house with us." Maureen says, "[They] told us what had to be done and told us to think about possible alterations." Woods salesman Tom McCarthy says, "We always give [insurance restoration customers] the option of putting the house together in another way. Even if they pay on their own, this is the time to make changes."
On McCarthy’s recommendation, the Turcottes replaced the old plaster walls with drywall. That plus elimination of unneeded cabinetry in one room netted enough savings to cover a long list of upgrades, including vinyl siding, an updated master bath and a completely redesigned kitchen. "As long as the money is spent on the home, the insurance company doesn’t have a problem [substituting one thing for another]," McCarthy says. During construction, Woods made other no-cost improvements as well.
The Turcottes moved to a rental house, and Woods promised they’d be back in their house by June. To expedite the job, the insurance adjuster went through the burned-out house with Woods. Both prepared itemized estimates based on standard industry pricing, and then they negotiated. They agreed on a cost of $159,100 to replace every room but the one that escaped major smoke damage.
Woods started demolition Feb. 22. "We stripped back to the original studs," says Roche. Woods crews deodorized and sealed the structure, and Roche ordered all the replacement windows. Just when reconstruction was set to begin, "we found out that the electrical system didn’t meet today’s standards," Roche says. "It was not grounded." Production was hobbled for three weeks while Woods went back to the building department for an assessment, received word that an upgrade would be required to meet code and requested funds from the insurance company. "[Then] we ripped out the entire system and rewired," says Roche.
One stroke of luck: The Turcottes’ insurance policy covered code upgrades, which added $7,500 to the project. In addition to the electrical upgrade, stacks needed to be redone to modernize the plumbing, says McCarthy. Window openings also had to be altered to meet the BOCA egress code.
The window situation was a close call. Woods had assumed that a house as old as the Turcottes’ would not be affected by certain upgrades such as the windows, says Roche. "But the building department stuck to their guns." Roche learned that the code actually is more about entry than egress because it specifies window openings low and large enough for firefighters to enter wearing air packs. He also discovered the little-known fact that, in a one-story home, window openings can be 7 or 8 square inches less than the standard code specs.
Thanks to that discovery, they could use the windows that were ordered. Lowering the sills a couple of inches for five or 10 windows added two days to the work schedule.
After the rough waters surrounding code upgrades, the Turcotte job was smooth sailing. The homeowners had complaints about only one contractor, the contents cleaning company, and Woods was not a party to that contract. Woods does a lot of contents cleaning in-house, but it rarely deals with contents cleaning if there’s an outside contractor, says Roche, because it can be problematic.
Roche concentrated on putting the house back together the way it was before the fire, only better. For the same price as the flat, hollow-core doors he installed six-panel fiberglass units. For the price of replacing the old lights he put in fan-light fixtures. He insulated the closets for better soundproofing between rooms, built a larger inset wall cabinet than the one that had been in the living room, added a chair rail and shelving in the den, and replaced the old clamshell baseboard with colonial-style to give the room a nice touch.
Roche added a large bow window in the living room, redid the front porch, and built out a stone wall with stucco-look finish and cast-iron rail to produce a graceful new facade. He reconfigured the floor plan to provide a closet in David’s formerly closetless bedroom, and more counter and closet space in the spiffed-up master bath.
The kitchen changed completely. Instead of the old chopped-up space, Roche designed an open expanse with steps down to the family room in an old addition. The job required closing one wall, opening a supporting wall, crafting a small stair system and rebuilding the kitchen/family room structure to support the floor joists. The rebuilding process added a week to the production schedule, but the remodeled kitchen added pizzazz to the project.
Jeff Scalora, who runs the Woods millwork shop, built and helped design all the cabinets and counters in the kitchen and elsewhere in the house. Roche recommended the finish products and colors. "Mrs. Turcotte left certain things up to us," Roche says. "We gained her confidence. Once you get the customers’ confidence, they are more receptive to ideas you have. It makes relating to the whole job and the customers more fun."
Roche and a crew of staff carpenters did all the structural rebuilding, including roofing, window installation and interior trim. Roche himself laid the tile, some of it in a decorative pattern. "[It’s] one of the services we can offer the client," he says.
Woods works with a variety of painters, so Roche chose one that he knew could do hand-swirled ceilings to replicate what had been there before. "We use only two electricians," he says. "[Both] know how to deal with the local utility companies and respond to our emergency needs." Woods guarantees prompt payment to subcontractors as a way of earning their cooperation and willingness to do what it takes to complete the job. With the Turcotte project, that meant having workers crawling all over each other the last week of the job to meet the June deadline.
And meet it they did. "If you can make one trade follow another trade with no downtime between, you can make up the time [lost on delays]," explains Roche.
The Turcottes, once again, were impressed with Woods’ performance. They are delighted with their restored house, too. "It seems like it’s been a year," says Maureen. Remodeling fatigue? Not at all, she says. "We moved in, and within two days I was comfortable here."
Woods Restoration Services Inc.
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