The instant the Smiths bought their 1920 bungalow -- make that the instant they considered buying it -- they started remodeling it. The location, an old neighborhood in Atlanta, was good. The house appeared solid. Though small, it had a certain charm. John Smith, an architect, saw exciting possibilities for expanding the humble one-story, two-bedroom, Craftsman-style house into a distinctive, 2 1/2-story home for his family of four.
Before making a purchase offer, Smith asked remodeler Bob Connelly, CR, CGR, of R.L. Connelly & Sons to look at the house, listen to his remodeling ideas and determine if they were feasible. "It was a contractor’s version of an inspection, to give us an early, seat-of-the-pants idea of buildability," Smith says. Though Ann and John Smith had not worked with Connelly before, their relatives had, and they knew he did excellent construction.
Connelly discovered the foundation of the house was inadequate. The house rested directly on Georgia red clay, with a few deteriorated brick piers. He told Smith he would have to resupport the house before he could add 1 1/2 stories on top. A foundation engineer suggested pouring concrete piers at and between the load points. Connelly figured out how to do it by digging outside and inside the house, and they were in business. The Smiths bought the house in April 1994.
From that moment, the remodel moved on a fast track. Eight months later, when the Smiths moved into their transformed house, the remodel achieved virtually everything they had envisioned, but not without bumps and stops along the way.
Smith mapped out a rough plan that retained much of the original flavor of the house but reconfigured the main floor with the original living room plus a library, dining room and large stair hall. The tiny kitchen, a flimsy, 1950s appendage, would be torn off and a larger, eat-in kitchen integrated into the main first-floor area. Three bedrooms, three baths, a playroom and a laundry room would occupy the second floor. In the attic, Smith put a guest room, an office and a bath. The 1,800-square-foot house would almost double in size to 3,400 square feet.
Using the basic plans and snapshots he took of the house, Connelly worked up an initial estimate of $242,959. To pare costs, Smith cut back on pricey finish materials and removed an attic dormer from the plan. Because the architectural plans were not fully developed, Connelly offered time and materials billing as an option. "It was either T&M or excessive change orders," he says. On a fast-track deal such as this job, pricing and approving every change order before proceeding would slow things down. Smith agreed. He used Connelly’s revised, $202,356 estimate as a budget guideline and says, "I chose not to worry about change orders." T&M would be more efficient and would make it easier for Smith to buy certain materials direct to take advantage of materials price breaks available to him as an architect.
From start to finish, the design was a work in progress, says Connelly. Smith was still drawing after Connelly started construction. He stayed ahead of the remodeler, so it was not a work-flow problem. Connelly would give approximate costs of new design details and just keep going.
Remodeling for an architect-homeowner
At the outset, there was a surprise setback. The existing house encroached on the side-yard setback, resting 4 1/2 feet from the lot line rather than the required 7 feet. Because the remodeled house would encroach no farther -- in fact, Smith planned to recess the upper stories 3 feet -- the inherited encroachment did not seem to present a problem. Then he discovered that a new law required a variance when any work was done on an encroaching structure.
The variance process took a month. Meanwhile, Connelly started demolition and did the footing work, but the framing had to wait. By the time the variance was approved, Smith had redesigned the upper floors to be flush with the first floor. The company re-permitted and pushed on, says Connelly.
Early in June, Connelly pulled off the roof and tarped the opening. Then the rains came. “It rained pretty much every day in June and July,” says Smith. By midsummer the roofless house consisted of the front gable and south wall and some interior partitions. “It looked like a western movie set,” says Smith. Behind the false front were 1 1/2 feet of water. Connelly pumped out the water and ran huge commercial dehumidifiers to speed the drying process. Still, it was two or three weeks before the structure was dry enough for flooring to be put down.
As the project developed, Smith and Connelly worked as a team to refine the design. Smith says he would explain an idea, and Connelly would understand right away. That Connelly had studied architecture and had built many homes for architects in Atlanta helped, he says. "I know their language. I know what they’re looking for."
Connelly used his architectural training and construction knowledge to complement Smith’s design as well. He engineered the winding, cantilevered stairs to meet CABO code, for example, and devised the distinctive stair balustrade.
A clog in production flow developed when the framing subcontractor couldn’t build the staircase, says Connelly. He paid him and had another framing sub come in and do the challenging job, with a lot of hand holding.
Connelly’s pre-construction photos of the Smith house came in handy during the design process. To reproduce the 1920 eaves design, for instance, Connelly referred to his detail photos. He saved some of the old dentil blocks to use as a pattern for replicas built in the company’s small shop.
To save time and money, Connelly worked with stock materials to match other original components of the house. "Some casings were ripped down to match existing [window casings]," he says. Stock pieces were adapted for molding and trim. "We always try to use stock, even if we have to take it and modify it," Connelly says.
For authenticity, Smith opted to reuse some original items. Connelly re-brassed and replated hardware from the house, supplementing it with vintage hardware from a salvage company. He refinished all the old doors, meticulously filling cracks. "It would have been cheaper to replace them, but these were 1920s doors," says Connelly.
"We retrofitted some windows with sash packs," says Connelly, but the other windows came from a variety of sources. Connelly ordered stock units by one manufacturer from a local distributor. Smith designed other custom windows and discussed them directly with a supplier. After the custom windows were ordered, the design changed, but somehow, among Connelly, Smith and the supplier, that message was lost. "It was a comedy of errors," says Connelly. The units that arrived did not reflect the revised design and were sent back. Connelly plugged plywood in the window openings, put in temporary brick mold so they could continue with the stucco and pressed on. Five weeks later the new windows arrived.
Because the house sat so close to the side lot line, the stucco contractor had to place his scaffolding on the next-door neighbor’s property -- and take the scaffolding down every evening. This added a little time to the job, but it did not add unanticipated expense. "The contractor knew it would be a problem and included it in his proposal from the start," says Connelly.
As design-in-progress costs spiraled to $270,888 on the project, it became a stress point between customer and remodeler. Connelly provided monthly T&M billings, Smith says, but he was not always exactly sure where he stood. Connelly accepts the criticism, saying the software he then was using did not show percentage of job completion. "We didn’t keep him as aware as we could of where he stood on the project and budget," he says. "That’s the downside of doing T&M and doing it on a fast track." Connelly plans to make it first priority in the future to provide consistent, constant numbers.
Five years later, the stresses of the job are just a hazy memory. The Smiths are pleased with their remodeled house. It looks great, it’s well-built, and it was a cost-effective project, says Smith. He’s not alone in giving the project high marks; it won a Chrysalis Award for whole-house renovation at the Southern Building Show.
The Smiths have been bitten by the remodeling bug again. "They’ve bought a larger house around the corner," Connelly says. "I have an appointment with him next week to look at that house and [discuss] remodeling it."
R.L. Connelly & Sons
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