Project Spotlight: Structural Distress

Uneven ceilings, an outdated electrical system. And that’s where the problems began.

September 30, 2001
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Darius Baker, CR, and John Scofield, CR, usually know what to expect when they cut into a house in the Curtis Park neighborhood of Sacramento, Calif.: trouble. The question is not if structural problems will emerge in one of these 1920s-1950s houses, most of which were built before solid construction standards were in place. ItÆs which problems.

Baker and Scofield, co-owners of 10-year-old D&J Kitchens & Baths in Sacramento, assumed that the walls would be a little out of plumb, the ceilings a bit uneven and the electrical system dated in the kitchen they remodeled for Jamie Jacobs and Wendy Roof. Even so, Baker and Scofield were in for surprises with this job, some relating to the condition of the 1927 house, some to the clientsÆ plans and expectations, and some to the building inspection process.

With ample cabinet and counter space, a full complement of appliances, plenty of light, and an open, uncluttered plan, the new kitchen looks nothing like the old one. The honey-tone, vertical-grain fir cabinets are in the finest tradition of the Mission style. So are the matching columns, beam, doors and trim.

When Jacobs and Roof bought the run-down, one-story house in 1994, they inherited a tiny kitchen with scant storage, minimal counter space, few appliances and pathetic electrical capacity. "I cooked on an electric skillet," Jacobs says, "and it would short-circuit if we turned on a second appliance." After D&J redid the kitchen, it won a regional 2000 Contractor of the Year award.

Careful, deliberate decision-makers, Roof and Jacobs pondered remodeling for five years, collecting ideas, evaluating costs and looking at other remodeled houses in the neighborhood. During that time D&J redid two kitchens for the homeownersÆ friends, earning enthusiastic ratings for design, construction, reliability and the constant attention thatÆs possible when a company does only one or two jobs at a time.

By May 1999, when Roof and Jacobs contacted Baker and a few other remodelers for estimates, D&J was already the top contender. "We were going quite a bit on friendsÆ experiences with D&J," Roof says. When the other remodelers failed to call back promptly or show up on time, D&J stood out as the clear choice.

Roof and Jacobs already had basic kitchen facelift plans, prepared by a designer whose services they had bought at a silent auction. Walking into the old kitchen, Baker immediately saw bigger, more exciting possibilities. He suggested that they pull out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room - something they had not realized was structurally feasible - and create a bright, spacious great room. To mark the division between the kitchen and the dining area without confining either space, Baker recommended installing a false beam. Roof and Jacobs loved the idea.

Cost shaving

The old kitchen was tiny, with few appliances, dated storage and almost no counter space. The dining room was a basic box.

BakerÆs initial estimate for the job, which included not only the kitchen remodel but also a half bath and the conversion of an enclosed porch into a bedroom, totaled $101,000. "After they saw how much all of this work would cost," Baker says, Roof and Jacobs "spent some time thinking about it and decided that a $70,000 budget would be more in line with their position in the house." In numerous meetings during the next eight months, Baker worked closely with them to refine the design and trim costs. A few times they came to his home office to look at design options on his computer. Three-dimensional designs printed out from the computer "helped solidify the design more than anything else," Baker says. The final plan involved reconfiguring the back of the house to create a great room, half bath, laundry room and rear entry.

During the design process, Roof says, "Darius was very open in suggesting ways we could save money." First to go was the porch conversion. That knocked some $30,000 out of the budget right off the bat. Then Baker suggested a few lower-cost products to ensure that the homeowners would be able to use other high-end products they really wanted. For instance, Roof and Jacobs agreed to use laminate rather than stone flooring in the kitchen in order to afford slab granite counters.

Baker also arranged for Roof and Jacobs to purchase appliances directly from the sup-plier rather than through D&J, and proposed they use a credit card, reserving more of their remodeling loan for use on construction. On their own, the homeowners worked out a package discount with the supplier.

Unlike many remodelers, Baker had no problem suggesting that the clients do the demolition and painting to save money. Roof and Jacobs jumped at the chance. ItÆs not that Baker encourages do-it-yourself work, he says. D&J allows clients to do the demo or painting or both, but makes the terms clear in the contract. "IÆll put in a date for completion if they handle the work," Baker says, "and if they do not meet the date, IÆll step in and do the work." The contract notes that this will be done to preserve the production schedule and that it will cost normal D&J rates.

When Roof and Jacobs proposed doing some of the electrical work with help from an electrician friend, Baker agreed to that, too, because he had worked with the electrician on other projects and trusted her work. They moved the electrical panel to the other side of the house, and D&J pulled all the new home runs to the new panel. "I helped in the planning and kept a close eye on the work," says Baker. "It just really wasnÆt a problem."

After all the cost saving, the estimate came to $66,949. Roof and Jacobs were ready to get started. In April 2000, they took a 10-day "vacation" to strip the construction area down to the studs, dig trenches for the new wiring and install a new 200-amp service panel. "We were knee-deep in lathe and plaster," Roof recalls. "It was nasty." Jacobs adds: "Never again."

Structural surprises

A 20-foot false beam over the kitchen island marks the division between kitchen and dining areas. D&J made the beam on site, using 1212 clear vertical-grain fir to match the cabinets. Baker shimmed and tapered the beam to compensate for the ceilingÆs unevenness. Trim pieces hide these adjustments.

On May 2, when Baker arrived to launch the construction, he encountered the projectÆs first big surprise. The homeowners said they had decided to turn a small closet by the powder room into a shower area. That decision set off a chain reaction. "When the shower was added, it made the drainage system undersized for all the new fixtures," Baker says. "We had to retie into the sewer main with a larger main. The drain location also caused extra work due to the existing footing supports." All the new plumbing work had to be done in a small crawl space, adding time and complexity to the job.

The water heater would have been in the middle of the reconfigured space, so it had to be relocated from the main floor to the attic. Baker was aware that the rafters were too small to carry the load: The cracked kitchen ceiling already sagged 2 inches. "We knew we needed to bury a 4212 to re-support the existing ceiling joists," he explains.

But on closer inspection he realized that the situation was even worse: The supports were smaller than expected. "We ended up re-supporting the entire roof," he says. To complicate the procedure, the attic was filled with items that had to be moved out before work could proceed on the supports and on the plumbing and venting conduits for the water heater.

Another surprise was that the homeowners decided to add a skylight in the kitchen after Baker had begun framing the room. The skylight installer could not squeeze the job into his schedule until the next week, causing a weeklong stall in production.

Also during production, Roof and Jacobs decided to replace the dining room windows with dual-pane retrofit units. Well and good, until Baker discovered that the 8-foot window span had no header and little support elsewhere. "The whole wall was supported by the window itself," he says. "We had to repair that also."

When D&J removed interior walls to reconfigure the space and prepared to re-support the ceiling, "we noticed how out of plumb the remaining walls were," Baker says. The team spent time trying to plumb and level the walls. Perfection was not realistic, but Baker did what he could, including squaring up the doorway areas and inserting shims to prepare for drywall and cabinetry.

Fabricating and installing the false beam required an unusual degree of finesse because there was a full inch difference in ceiling height from one side of the kitchen to the other. "The settling of the 70-year-old house could not be completely eliminated," explains Baker. "We tapered the depth and shimmed the beam to get it to look just right."

Finally, the custom kitchen cabinetry was loaded with surprises. Roof and Jacobs selected vertical-grain fir doors to maintain the Mission style look of the house. When the cabinets came, a few doors were warped, cracked or scratched. Baker ordered replacements. When they arrived, they were stained the wrong shade. Again, replacements were ordered. Roof says the cabinetmakerÆs "attention to detail was not what we or Darius would have liked,:" but the homeownersÆ confidence in D&J never faltered.

A too-soft touch

Indeed, Baker went far - perhaps too far - to keep his clients happy when it came to the cabinets and trim. Fir is, of course, a soft wood that is easily dented. Shaken by the cabinet door problems, Jacobs and Roof began scrutinizing the kitchen woodwork looking for nicks and dings. Every Monday, it seemed, they had marked newly discovered dings with blue tape, Baker recalls. "There was blue tape all over the cabinets," he says. "I spent hours and hours mixing patching material a particular shade and making hundreds of patches."

Roof and Jacobs appreciated BakerÆs willing attitude and extra work, but Baker, whoÆs developing a kitchen and bath remodeling course for NARI, says, "I was not firm enough in this case." While his philosophy is to do whatever it takes to achieve customer satisfaction unless itÆs absolutely unreasonable, Baker concedes, "In this case, I stumbled a little bit on drawing the line and saying, "This is an industry-acceptable standard."- And in retrospect, Jacobs and Roof say they should have used cherry instead of fir because itÆs not as soft.

As a last surprise, the project failed the final inspection, for electrical work another Sacramento building department inspector had approved at the rough-in stage. "You are supposed to have outlets balanced between two circuits in a kitchen," Baker says. This kitchen had three circuits, including the one added for the island, but the two wall circuits were not balanced: One had two plugs, and one had four. Baker requested that a different inspector come to the site. "The inspector came and said, æRealistically, you couldnÆt have done [the circuits] any other way,Æ and approved the electrical work."

As Baker points out, thereÆs room for interpretation in building codes. The key to code compliance and, for that matter, most areas of remodeling, he says, is to use common sense.

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