Lee Kimball Kitchens of Boston was converting to the lead carpenter system in early 2000 when the company started working with John and Georgia Saylor on a kitchen remodel. Before that, Gregg Johnson, the companyÆs co-owner and vice president, was one of two project managers who divided their time among the companyÆs jobs. With the new system, Johnson assumed the role of production manager. A production coordinator would work in the office full time, and each project would have its own lead carpenter, who would be known as a project manager.
At least that was the plan. The lead carpenter on the Saylor project, Victor Melanson, is a fine carpenter and had been a regular subcontractor for the company. Johnson had trained him in project management, and Melanson had agreed to run the Saylor job on site. But after working as a carpenter for years, he found it hard to change his habits and assume a leadership role. In addition, he had commitments to other jobs that prevented him from devoting as much attention to the Saylor kitchen as the Saylors and Johnson expected.
When it became apparent that Melanson would not be able to fulfill the role of lead carpenter, Johnson took on the job. Melanson stayed on the job as a carpentry subcontractor.
The confusion about responsibility for the Saylor job affected almost every aspect of it, according to Johnson. He estimates that the profit was less because of it, and he knows the job took a week longer than originally scheduled. And it wreaked havoc with his schedule, which was already full. Now he had to make time for several trips a week to the Saylor site and at least one meeting with the clients every week.
Historic beauty in front, claustrophobic access in back: Materials from demolition were carted by wheelbarrow through this narrow alley.
Seeking project management
The Saylors had been chipping away at a long list of improvements since moving into their 19th-century, five-story row house in 1993. They had had the roof fixed, the windows restored, the brick pointed, the house painted, and the first-floor entry and living spaces remodeled. Each time they managed the project themselves. By 2000 they were ready to modernize the second-floor kitchen, which had been built in the 1970s. (The houseÆs original kitchen was in the basement, which is now a rental apartment.) But with two small children, demanding schedules and memories of the headaches of past jobs, the Saylors wanted someone else to take charge this time.
First they hired an architect to design the kitchen, thinking the architect would manage the project and the carpenter who had handled the earlier work would do the construction. That plan collapsed when clients and architect reached an impasse on placement of appliances. "We werenÆt pleased with the design, and we couldnÆt get him to change it," says Georgia Saylor.
Recalling Lee Kimball KitchensÆ newspaper ads trumpeting project-management services, Saylor decided to try the companyÆs design/build approach. She checked out the companyÆs 1,500-square-foot showroom, which includes a working kitchen. In her conversation with designer Steve Surette, Saylor made it clear that she and her husband wanted someone on site to oversee the trades. No problem, said Surette, who then scheduled a site visit. During the next several months, Saylor selected products from the showroom and worked with Surette to shape the ultimate design.
The SaylorsÆ 200-square-foot kitchen occupied part of a two-story ell added to the back of the house three decades ago to accommodate a third-floor master bedroom and a bathroom and kitchen downstairs. Lee Kimball incorporated the bathroom space into the kitchen, enlarging the area by 65 square feet. Surette placed cabinets and appliances around the perimeter so Georgia and John, both avid cooks, could prepare meals together. A custom pocket door at the original brick wall replaced the swinging door separating the kitchen and the adjacent dining room, which in turn connected to the living room on the front of the house.
Preparing for urban production
Historic houses, brick sidewalks and cobblestone alleys lend charm and buyer appeal to the Beacon Hill neighborhood, but make remodeling difficult.
"We do a lot on Beacon Hill, and itÆs by far the most difficult because of the limited space," says Johnson. "There is literally no parking available." JohnsonÆs production prices include a $25 daily parking fee for every trade contractor. "That pays for a ticket or time to find a legitimate parking spot and walk maybe half an hour to and from that spot," he says.
The time factor is an important part of any Beacon Hill project estimate, says Johnson. "It took us 10 or 11 weeks to produce this job, and it would probably have taken nine weeks if the house were in the suburbs. To rough the electrical in a kitchen on Beacon Hill takes three days versus one or 11/2 days in the suburbs. Besides the parking problem and having to haul in materials, we were dealing with a house with three stories. Going up and down the stairs takes a lot of time, too."
Deliveries to Beacon Hill houses are a challenge, not only because the streets are narrow but also because many large items do not fit through old doorways and narrow stairwells. On the Saylor job, the crew removed a living room window so the crane company Johnson regularly hires could hoist up cabinets and appliances and pull them through. Johnson made sure all the large products were delivered on the same day and that the crane company took out the old appliances, too.
Adding to the challenge on this project, the Saylors didnÆt want debris coming down their carpeted spiral stairway. So Johnson had the demolition company rig up a chute that routed trash out the window into a courtyard. From there it was transported by wheelbarrow down a long, narrow alley to a dump truck. Demolition took three days.
Dealing with the historical commission in a historic district can add time, cost and headaches if the building exterior is altered. Johnson was ready on this score, too. Although he replaced a window, he smoothed the approval process by ordering the unit from a company that specializes in making clones of old sashes. From experience, "we knew it would fly," he says. The approval process took three or four weeks, but it overlapped with other work and did not delay project completion.
Even inspections can take longer in the city. "ItÆs a logistical nightmare trying to reach the inspectors," Johnson says. "I budgeted three days for inspections."
At demo, Johnson discovered that the kitchen ceiling needed to be reframed, not just repaired, because of a fire years before. The clients resisted the change, believing the contract price should cover it. Johnson made clear that some structural problems cannot be anticipated, and the Saylors paid most of the extra cost, but the client-contractor relationship was shaken.
Soon the much more serious problem of the lead carpenter emerged. When the baseboard heating didnÆt work, the Saylors went to Melanson. But instead of taking charge, he told them to call the plumber. When the Saylors had other questions outside the carpentry arena, he told them to call Johnson.
By mid-September, the project was well under way, but the Saylors were not happy with the service they had received. They met with Johnson, and, he admits, "I was a little defensive." Then he thought about the situation some more. "I put myself in their shoes, and it was clear to me that we sold them on our project management, and they werenÆt getting it," Johnson says.
So Johnson stepped in. He managed the trades, ran weekly progress meetings with the Saylors, and dealt quickly with questions or problems that arose. When a bit too much flooring was pulled up to make room for cabinets, he patched in new panels and refinished the dining room and kitchen floors. When the schedule slipped, he had the subs work late and on Saturday. He had the house cleaned professionally when dust escaped the barriers. After the job he repainted the battle-scarred dining room, which had been used as a staging area, using the SaylorsÆ favorite painter instead of his regular painting sub.
"Gregg æownedÆ the job," says Georgia Saylor. "HeÆs a pleasure to work with. He stands behind his work and keeps his word."
Since the Saylor project, Lee Kimball Kitchens has changed its approach to pricing: Once it is ready to enter the second phase of design and has a sizable retainer from the client, the firm now requires a more thorough inspection of the area to be remodeled before quoting a final price. If necessary, Johnson or another Kimball employee or trade contractor will knock small holes in the walls or ceilings to check for hidden damage such as the charred kitchen ceiling joists in the Saylor kitchen. Johnson hopes to avoid future misunderstandings like the one that caused the only serious disagreement he had with the Saylors during their project.
Johnson has rethought the lead carpenter concept, too. Now only those who are comfortable being managers are given lead carpenter responsibility at Lee Kimball, and those carpenters receive thorough training.
"We learned a good lesson," says Johnson.