Double Vision

A consultant and a custom remodeler pair up on a demanding whole-house remodel that changes a fishing cottage into a year-round home.

July 31, 2001


The remodeling more than doubled the size of the original, 1,700-square-foot cottage, which now packs a lot of creative design into 4,714 square feet. On the street side, the house keeps a fairly low profile. The old cottage and garage were a dull jumble of buildings. Now integrated by a walkway, opened up with large windows and enhanced with bump-outs, they form a bright, contemporary complex.

Why would a $2 million-plus, full-service remodeling company, used to running the show, sign on as framing subcontractor for a fishing cottage redo? For that matter, why would an elite construction management company oversee the conversion of this cottage, which the management company owner says was "a piece of junk" before the remodel?

As unlikely as it sounds, this Madison, Wis., area job was a plum ù and a win-win opportunity for both TDS Custom Construction and Freiburger Construction Consulting.

Consider the homeowners. Researcher Marilyn Essex and her husband, attorney Michael Skindrud, planned to make the lakefront cottage their year-round home and wanted the best. Budget was a factor, but they were willing and able to pay for top-quality work and materials. As such, they fit right into the select niche in which John Freiburger of Freiburger Construction Consulting, Fitchburg, Wis., specializes. "We work with people who want artful [homes]," he says, not ostentatious "McMansions." The customer fit was equally good for Sam Breidenbach of TDS Custom Construction in Madison. Like Freiburger, he looks for more artistic projects in which "the finer subtleties make a house shine."


Immediately inside the front door, visitors enter a dramatic domed foyer and have views in all directions to the living spaces, the deck and the lake beyond.

Although the original, pre-World War II cottage was structurally sound, Skindrud describes it as "tacky" and small. "We almost didnÆt buy it," he says. And though the house sat on a spectacular lot that expanded from 40 feet at roadside to some 210 feet of sunbathed Lake Kegonsa frontage, the lot sloped significantly, requiring tricky cantilevering of the proposed lakeside addition. And the crumbling shoreline called for emergency stabilization.

From this daunting starting point, the owners wanted to create a larger house that was creative yet comfortable, intimate yet open to its surroundings. Such a project was just the ticket for Freiburger. "We do very difficult stuff," he says. BreidenbachÆs company thrives on challenges, too.

For Freiburger, the project was a chance to orchestrate the production of a beautiful home infused with elements of the Arts and Crafts style, his favorite. And even though Breidenbach would not be the general contractor, the ambitious, artistic project was certain to showcase TDSÆ fine custom carpentry and cabinets. For Freiburger, who does no marketing, and Breidenbach, who does little, such a gem could generate referrals in their target markets.


John Freiburger
Freiburger Construction Consulting

Location: Fitchburg, Wis.

Type of company: Multifaceted company providing light commercial and residential construction management (home construction, remodeling and restoration), property inspection, litigation support and mediation

Staff model: Five office

Sales history: $5 million in 1997, $9 million in 2001

Annual construction management jobs: 30

Work week: 60 hours construction management

Software: MS Office, Adobe Photoshop


Customer comments: "JohnÆs skill is that he matches you with people he thinks youÆll work well with," Marilyn Essex says. "He was virtually always right with us."

Virtually all of FreiburgerÆs work comes via referral, so it was a fluke that Essex and Skindrud picked his name out of the phone book when they were looking for a home inspector before buying the property in 1991. As soon as they met Freiburger, they were impressed. "He spoke so knowledgeably," Skindrud says. The couple liked that Freiburger showed not only construction expertise but also a strong design sense. During a conversation about remodeling possibilities, Freiburger mentioned that he acts as an adviser and consultant to homeowners. The construction management concept was new to Essex and Skindrud, but it sounded like a good way to delegate production control to a construction pro without sacrificing project leadership or the intense involvement in design research and planning they wanted.

They tested the arrangement on early phases of the remodel. Freiburger had the property shored up with concrete stabilizers to clear the way for permit approvals. Then he managed the construction of a guest suite over the garage and guest quarters in the the main house.

Essex and Skindrud sampled BreidenbachÆs work early, too, hiring TDS to design and install the fireplace and stair railing for the guest suite. Selecting TDS was easy: Freiburger recommended the company, and the homeowners had already admired TDSÆ work on a friendÆs home. By the time Essex and Skindrud were ready to tackle the main house remodel in 1998, they were sold on both Freiburger and TDS.


As construction manager, Freiburger acted as guide and agent for the homeowners, plus supervisor of the schedule and trades. His role was described in his contract, the standard American Institute of Architects contract for construction management. First, Freiburger walked the homeowners through preliminary design and budget planning. Once they developed a feel for what they wanted, he matched them up with a Madison architect he often recommends, Russ Kowalski at GMK Architecture. Freiburger prepared four complete versions of the budget as the design took shape. At one point, a few windows and a master bedroom wing were lopped off the plans, yielding a $50,000 saving. Essex and Skindrud approved the design and budget, and Freiburger began soliciting bids from the contractors he thought were good fits for the project and clients.

Although he works with a select group of top-quality contractors ù all have "deep love of craft," and many have advanced degrees ù Freiburger says he bids everything competitively. He reviews all bids in detail for omissions as well as methods, and lays them out on a spreadsheet for comparison. If necessary, heÆll reject bids as too low and go back to contractors for revised bids. His goals: "Nobody gets gouged, and we donÆt end up with a lot of add orders."


TDS Custom Construction

Location: Madison, Wis.

Type of company: Full-service remodeling company doing mostly kitchens, additions, restoration and whole-house renovation

Staff model: Three office, five cabinet shop, 12 field

Sales history: $1.02 million in 1997, $2.47 million in 2001

Annual construction management jobs: 62

Work week: 50 hours

Software: MS Office, Canvass, Master Builder 7

Contact: 608/251-1814,

Customer comments: TDS was "very flexible as we worked out the details of the interior finishes, and provided many ideas and suggestions," Marilyn Essex says.

The homeowners received FreiburgerÆs bid analysis before they met the bidders. They chose the contractors, often making the decision based more on chemistry than price. Freiburger prepared AIA contracts for the subcontractors but was never a signer. Each of the 35 contracts was directly between the homeowners and the architect or trade contractors. That way, the homeownersÆ authority remained clear, and Freiburger reduced his liability risk. Breidenbach says the terms of AIA contracts are "not friendly to contractors," so he wrote amendments to his contracts that protected TDSÆ interests, including clauses spelling out what was not covered in the scope of work.

Essex and Skindrud deliberately saved some design choices until the remodeled house began taking shape. Decisions on trim placement, paint colors and flooring, for instance, came when the new rooms were in place and choices could be visualized. That meant Freiburger collected some bids on a rolling basis, including TDSÆ time and materials bid on the custom cabinetry. Freiburger reviewed all invoices, updated the jobÆs bud-get status at least monthly and reviewed the reports with the homeowners to keep them informed.

Speaking up

During the job, Freiburger alerted Essex and Skindrud when decisions on design and contractor issues were needed, and helped them sort through the options. "IÆd throw my two cents in, and then step back," says Freiburger. Often they followed his lead, as in his suggestion on which tile specialist to hire. Sometimes they waffled. Early on, for example, he recommended Douglas fir flooring, but the homeowners didnÆt think it would do. "I probably put in 50 hours working with them on flooring," Freiburger says. After all that research, the homeowners picked ... Douglas fir. But on trim treatment, Essex and Skindrud opted for light paint instead of the natural-wood, Arts and Crafts look Freiburger favored.

He did, however, flex muscle to keep the job flowing, especially when contractors had pressure to go to bigger jobs. "He badgered people to get them there at the right time," Skindrud recalls. "HeÆd meet people at the job site to tell them what to do." Freiburger notes: "IÆm on site every day, or twice a day."

When problems arose, Freiburger talked with contractors to straighten things out. At one point he was concerned about the work of the framing carpenter, a former TDS employee whom Breidenbach hired as a sub. When Freiburger pointed out the difference in level between the existing and new floors, the framer corrected the problem by belt-sanding the area. Freiburger focused on stained siding, too. "John felt the staining was from water because the siding was too close to the cap flashing," says Breidenbach, who thought the siding had been stained when it was stacked partially uncovered on site. "We had a little disagreement, but we left it alone," avoiding an argument, Breidenbach says. Resolution: The painter touched up the two or three stained pieces.


The biggest irritation of the job involved the flooring in the round foyer. TDS designed a circular insert crafted from Douglas fir inlaid with birdÆs-eye maple. When the flooring contractor obscured the insert with stain, Essex and Skindrud were frustrated. Freiburger was their spokesman in resolving the problem. The flooring sub redid the staining while "TDS stood by to protect the birdÆs-eye," Skindrud says.

None of these bumps in the road tarnished relations with Freiburger, says Breidenbach. The two share a longstanding, mutual respect, having worked together since 1987. Some 20% of TDSÆ work is Freiburger jobs, and the company works with no other construction managers.

Pros and cons

Being a sub on a Freiburger job actually is "a little easier for us in some ways," Breidenbach says. "We still have all the good things ù daily communication with the clients and quite a bit of latitude" in helping them make design decisions ù but none of the headaches of overseeing the job schedule, budget and subcontractors. Besides, he adds, "We get creative, high-profile jobs through John, and they often have large budgets, which allows us to do our best work."


Breidenbach does acknowledge, though, that having a construction manager tell him what to do can be uncomfortable. "Sometimes itÆs hard to remember our position as a sub," he says. To avoid crossing the line into a managerial role, he declines to discuss costs with clients and bites his tongue when other subs leave a mess. Occasionally clients will ask Breidenbach where the plumber or electrician is, and he doesnÆt know. "It leaves me feeling like I am in less control when IÆm working for John," he says. "ThatÆs both bad and good."

In the end, the Essex-Skindrud project won a 2001 Chrysalis Award for whole-house remodel, $250,000-$500,000. And the homeowners love the place. Skindrud says, "We look around and smile and say, 'It works!'"

Also See:

Kitchen Focus

The Financials

Time Line and Payment Schedule

Before and After Floorplans

About the Author

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