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Executive Editor

Sal Alfano is executive editor for Professional Remodelersal.alfano@gmail.com, 202.365.9070

Paint by Numbers

To price a painting by the square foot reduces an act of imagination and skill to paint-by-numbers. Take-it-or-leave-it pricing does the same for remodeling.

August 19, 2019

In the 20 years I spent as a carpenter and contractor in central Vermont, I twice had occasion to remodel houses with a solid plank frame. Often called “plank-wall” or “stacked-wall” construction, this building method was not uncommon in New England and Canada’s eastern provinces in the 19th century, and can be found in a number of variations, all of which use thick wood planks laid either horizontally or vertically, flat or on edge, to form the load-bearing exterior walls. 

The first house of this type I ever remodeled had been constructed by laying 4- to 5-inch-wide, rough-sawn 1-by boards flat on a foundation one course at a time until the wall was stacked to the desired height. Both sides were then plastered, with the interior papered and the exterior covered with lap siding. The walls were simple to build, and probably economical, too, when lumber was cheap and plentiful. They were surprisingly airtight, but I speak from experience when I tell you that it was a bear to retrofit them for drywall, electricity, and indoor plumbing.

The only other time I encountered this type of construction was while building a small addition to a house with exterior walls formed by standing rough-sawn planks one against the other vertically. (I remember being amazed that many of the 2- to 3-inch-thick planks were as much as 24 inches wide!) The planks were fastened to a wood sill at the bottom, and to an on-edge plank at the top, which also seated the rafters. In the small section I worked on, the seams on the interior side were chinked with paper or oakum-like rope, and the exterior was clad with clapboards.

The Price of Paint

My client for the addition was an artist, and several rooms of the house held a couple dozen of his paintings, some still on easels, others leaned against walls and doors jambs. They were all for sale, and what I remember most is that they were all unit-priced at something like $7 per square foot.

Unit-prices may work when buying bananas or breakfast cereal, but not for art, and certainly not for real estate or remodeling.

I don’t know much about art, and I knew even less then, but that pricing scheme seemed odd to me. Even considering that a few of the canvasses were fairly large—as much as 5 or 6 feet on a side—didn’t selling them by the square foot reduce art to a commodity, ignoring the subjective value that the paintings held for an observer?

When I asked about it, the artist explained that it wasn’t easy to sell art anywhere, let alone in rural Vermont, that no one had yet told him that his work rivaled da Vinci’s, and that, insofar as the time that went into each painting was proportionately the same regardless of size, pricing by the square foot was both fair and easy for people to understand. The dollar figure amounted to an hourly rate calculated by averaging the time spent painting.

Value and Price

Unit-prices may work when buying bananas or breakfast cereal, but not for art, and certainly not for real estate or remodeling. Time and material inputs can be averaged, but no two projects are alike—not even those two plank walls. Both are vastly simpler than a modern building envelope, but they use different types and quantities of material, and they require differing degrees of skill to build. All of that taken together is what establishes value. A painter’s ideas, colors, and brush strokes make each work distinctive, as do a craftsman’s techniques, a designer’s vision, and a business owner’s management skills. To price a painting or a remodeling project by the square foot reduces an act of skill and imagination to paint-by-numbers. 

Common sales wisdom is to sell value and not price, but that strategy only makes sense if the buyer understands the distinction. Most remodeling buyers know as much about remodeling as I do about art, so square-foot pricing is certainly not the answer. 

But neither is a take-it-or-leave-it, bottom-line proposal. Value has a price, and the more buyers understand about how the value a company brings to a project affects the price for that project, the more willing they are to pay that price.

I probably should have bought a couple of square yards of that client’s paintings. The price was right.

But it didn’t tell me enough about the value. 



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