The “Spend Once” Approach: Quality Condo Solutions That Last

Over the years, we’ve worked on many Philadelphia condos in older historic buildings — and we find that many of our clients are drawn to them because they offer nice city views and simple spaces to live in. There isn’t any yard work, and the overall building is taken care of by a building manager.

However, over the years, we’ve seen many developers that have created these units as cheaply as possible to maximize their profits. The buildings often once served as apartments or offices that were then renovated into living spaces, and they typically have some great architectural elements that were original to the building, including molding, big windows, patios, views, steel beams, concrete, beautiful wood floors, and more. But when the buildings were converted, many builder-grade solutions were used, like pre-finished cheap flooring, inexpensive tile, common low-end counters, cabinets and doors, the cheapest lighting possible. None of these things has much character, and they don’t convey the owner’s personality or sense of style or taste. Each unit looks just like the other, and they end up feeling like mid-range hotel rooms. After a short time, the products and finishes look out of date, worn, or worse.

When we approach these renovations, our motto is “spend once.” In other words, when clients are willing to invest in a well planned and executed space, they will enjoy great style that lasts a long time, wears well, and can be used for decades to come with an occasional simple refresh to the paint, perhaps a new article of furniture, pillows, or artwork.

Quality solutions like these come from listening to clients during our meetings, from designing great spaces, and from selecting great quality products and finishes. While projects like these aren’t for everyone, we love them and look forward to meeting new clients who feel the same.

Water Damage Woes & A Pro Tip On How to Avoid Them

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I got a call this week from a man whose home was flooded by a pipe that burst while he was away on a family trip. The water totally destroyed the first-floor finished flooring, as well as the walls in the kitchen, paneling in the halls, and all of the partition walls and ceilings in the basement. I have a feeling we may also have to add HVAC and electrical damage to the list. Once water gets into electrical fixtures, they need to be replaced.

The culprit in this case was the water line to a first-floor powder room toilet. That’s only a 3/8-inch pipe, but it caused hundreds of gallons of water to pump through the first floor into the basement and probably out the basement walls as the system continually kept flowing to refill itself.

This is the second call like this I have taken recently. In the other case, the homeowner was out of town at her winter home in Florida, and the cat sitter came in to a flooded house. The culprit there was a fairly new 1/2-inch line from the sink to the faucet in a second-floor bathroom. While the upper floor suffered some minor damage, the water completely gutted the lower levels, including the basement, the mechanicals, and the personal belongings they had stored there.

In both cases, the homeowners had to go through the misery of dealing with their insurance company to get the damages paid for.

As we head into prime vacation season, here is a simple tip from my plumber: shut off the water main before you leave the house if you’ll be away for an extended period of time. Even if a pipe bursts, you will minimize the impact and only suffer damage from the water that is in the line until it drains out. I do this now every time I leave home for a trip.

While I’ll get fewer calls for restoration projects sharing this advice, I’ll feel good knowing I was able to help prevent the problem in the first place.

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Image: prana@neoprana.net

A New Year, A Changing Home-Improvement Paradigm

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I recently kicked off the new year with a meeting with our stone suppliers. An important topic came up during this meeting that we often ponder: What is new in this business, and how are we adapting?

The answer, we all agreed, was good service, project management, and quality control. Buyers always claim to want these attributes, and service providers always claim to supply them — but the opposite often proves to be true. Since the 2008 recession, many suppliers have cut inventory levels and expensive experienced staff in favor of cheaper, less skilled, or temporary workers. But better service providers have remained committed to their quality offerings, and they set their prices accordingly. This is true even on a small project like a modest-sized bathroom or kitchen facelift project.

Thanks to a slew of “reality” home-improvement shows, the buying public has been conditioned to think of home remodeling as a simple series of tasks that anyone can tackle in a weekend. They overlook the fact that the cast of their favorite show has decades of experience and back office staff to make sure the right experts and products are coming through the project pipeline at the right time and in the right condition. If something is missing or broken, which happens a lot, they make sure the fixes are made quickly so the project keeps rolling — all of which happens “behind the scenes,” with the beautiful room revealed at the end of a 30-minute episode. The reality is that even a seemingly simple process, like ordering a single faucet, has a multitude of places where things can go wrong. Can you save a few bucks ordering it online yourself? Maybe. But the risk is there is no one there to fix the order if it comes in wrong or incomplete. You may not understand how this item fits into the complex puzzle of your home, and often there is no one on the order-taking end to ask you the right questions.

In our industry, there is a stratification between providers who really do — and those who do not — provide great service, project management, and quality control. GCs, subcontractors, and vendors in our industry have had to decide where they want to be in that pecking order. If they want to sell higher end products, services, and projects, they have to stick to their values and business models. In 2015, it is more true than ever that you really do get what you pay for.

Diane Menke
VP/Operations Manager


Image: Vero Villa

Experience: The Best Solution for Unexpected Renovation Issues

Before & After

We recently began a full-scale renovation of this Flourtown kitchen. At the outset of the project, the homeowner explained to us that the existing space had been renovated about 10 years earlier, but it didn’t retain its value and hadn’t worn well during that time. What began as a relatively straightforward kitchen replacement project, however, soon became complicated by some unforeseen issues that we found once we opened up the walls. Luckily, our experience has equipped us with a few solutions to most problems we come across, so we were able to identify and correct the issues to bring them into compliance while keeping costs under control. What’s more, this customer is very knowledgeable about the systems in her home, so she understood that these were important fixes, and she could visualize how the multiple steps would come together.

What we found:

Problem #1 – The second-story bathroom drain pipe was too high within the framing of the kitchen floor below. The framing didn’t allow room for that drain pipe, which requires a certain amount of height to maintain the pitch of the drain. This was caused by poor pre-planning when the structures were originally built. A higher floor framing member would have provided enough room.

Solution #1 – Working around that pipe, we packed up the subfloor, installed a new hardwood floor, and instructed the cabinet installer to cut out some space in the back of the cabinet toe kick to accommodate the pipe.

Problem #2 – The walls and ceiling contained some unsafe wiring. In addition, because there were a number of circuits in the kitchen, a sub-panel was required, but the existing one in the kitchen was an eyesore.

Solution #2 – We worked with our electrician to relocate the sub-panel to the utility area of the basement and to clean up unsafe wiring and junction boxes with new wiring to code.

Stay tuned for updates on this project as it unfolds…

How Long Will My Renovation Take?

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While it is difficult to discuss how long a remodeling project will take without being specific about the type and scope of room being done, generally speaking, most of our projects take between two and five months from start to finish, with the average being three and a half months. We manage a number of complicated, inter-related phases of work during a project. Here’s how it breaks down:

Design — Whether you are considering a kitchen, bathroom, outside space, addition, or redesigned interior space, you can expect the design phase to last 2-8 weeks, depending on the complexity of the project. Our design team will conduct a complete site survey and meet frequently with you to learn what you want from the project, your aesthetic sensibility, and your budget. With this input, the design team will prepare and revise schematic drawings and elevations, accompany you on supplier visits, and otherwise define and refine what the project will involve. The faster you make decisions, the faster this section of the work progresses.

Contract Signing — The time it takes for this is dependent upon you as a homeowner. Once a Project Construction Agreement (PCA) is signed, we schedule the work as soon as possible. FYI: You can speed this process along by signing during traditionally slow production seasons, such as late summer or the winter holidays.

Project Setup — It takes a couple of days to a couple of weeks to complete permit applications, final selections, final drawings, and project site set up.

Demolition — It will take a couple of days or more for our crew to work on-site within RRP/EPA lead safety guidelines to remove pre-existing items from the space, including old tile, appliances, flooring, drywall, and cabinetry using a large truck or dumpster.

Rough Framing — Installing new walls, floors, and roof structure can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, depending on the size of the project.

Rough-Ins — During this stage, all new mechanicals, wiring, plumbing, and HVAC are installed. On most projects, only one subcontractor can work at a time on these tasks, so this can take a few days to a couple of weeks.

Inspections — Once all of the subs are done, the building inspector can come through and approve the project to be closed in. We allow a couple of days for this step, keeping in mind that some townships are faster than others.

Close In — We then spend anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks installing the drywall, plaster, cement board, subflooring, and hardwood flooring.

Finishes — On our projects, this is typically a large project section with many moving parts. Tile, paint, and other types of flooring all have to be installed in the proper sequence in order to protect them from damage, and this process can take several weeks.

Trim-Outs & Trim Carpentry — Next, cabinetry and trim are installed, followed by electrical switch plate covers, HVAC covers, and specialty items that will be mounted to the newly finished walls. This can take anywhere from a day to several weeks.

Substantial Functionality — Once the room is able to be used for its intended purpose, it is termed “substantially functional.” This marks the start of your one-year warranty period.

Punch Out — The lead carpenter has a final meeting with you to sign off on any remaining issues that need to be resolved. After they are, your project is complete.

Have additional remodeling questions you need answered? Please don’t hesitate to ask. We’d love to hear from you.

Image: Mark Gisi/Tabula Creative

Lighting: It’s All About the Plan

Lighting: It’s All About the Plan
As is the case with many aspects of our work, if we do our job well when planning the lighting scheme for a project, the solutions become almost transparent to the homeowners and their guests. That’s because they simply blend naturally into the overall landscape of the room, completing the circle of design. For kitchens and dining areas, in particular, we always aim to bring in multiple types of light to allow opportunities to change its effect, depending on the time of day, the task at hand, the number of folks in the kitchen, and, of course, the preferences of the different people in the household.

Behind the scenes, we work with one of the most basic of design principles: the layering of light. There are three layers of light needed for a successful project, and this is one of the things that can really make a professional project stand out.

A quick overview of the three basic layers:

General — Overall, ambient light is very important to set the overall tone and create a safe environment in any home. This can be achieved in lots of ways by using recessed light, chandeliers, and so on, with light that can be soft or strong. We find that creating a room’s character through the use of lighting is a really cool part of our job.

Task — This is critical to make sure homeowners can do their best work in any given space. Whether they are cooking a meal, paying their bills or doing homework with their children, we bring in enough options so that all of these tasks can be achieved without stress.

Accent — Sometimes we call this the “jewelry” in a room. These pieces can sometimes be fabulous objects in and of themselves. We had one project where we used some wonderful handblown glass ceiling lights that appeared to be grouped randomly, but we planned very carefully to achieve the random look. They became a focus for the room, tying the whole design concept together. Accents can have hidden sources, so there are lots of fun ways to approach this.

Need help with your home’s overall lighting scheme? Contact us to set up a consultation. And visit our Facebook page for your chance to enter our George Nelson Bubble Lamp Giveaway!

Sneak Peek: East Falls Kitchen Photo Shoot

Take a gander at this lovely image from a photo shoot conducted last week by Mark Gisi of Tabula Creative at one of our kitchen projects in East Falls:

We couldn’t be more pleased with the results of the shoot and of the project itself. When we began work on this kitchen, it was suffering from dated 1970s styling and poor cabinet layout and storage design that made the room feel cramped. Contributing to the problem was the fact that the kitchen was sharing space with the laundry facilities, and the room was also uncomfortably cold due to an inefficient heating design. The customers called us in to fix the temperature issues and make the style/design more harmonious with the handsome1920s house. They wanted a true cook’s kitchen with logical storage areas and a relocation of the laundry area. The reconfigured room now features high-end Thermador appliances, white Medallion semi-custom cabinetry designed by Myers Constructs, beautiful soapstone countertops, a classic subway tile backsplash and 13″ Marmoleum tile flooring in a checkerboard pattern. The result is a crisp, clean, classic room with understated modern touches.

Recently, we’ve seen a substantial uptick in customers calling for kitchens like this one. Many of them have years of equity invested into their homes, which they’re leveraging to obtain low-cost home equity loans to finance the renovations. Some are “empty nesters” who finally want to have the kitchen they’ve always wanted. We love these buyers because they really enjoy the process of working with us to select just the right appointments for their long-awaited new spaces.

Beware the “Singular Specialty Expert”

My business partner and I attend a lot of events with other professionals in our industry. Recently, I was at a meeting where a very high-end HVAC contractor was boasting to our group about the $150K geothermal heating and cooling system his company recently installed in a NJ home. The system was top shelf, top price, and his client had no problems paying for it.

Shortly after the new HVAC system was installed, however, his client called to say that one room in his house was still feeling very cold and uncomfortable. The HVAC contractor explained to his client how the system was properly sized and was delivering as designed. The problem, said the HVAC contractor, was that the house was old and not properly weathersealed. So the HVAC contractor then sold his client another $50K in weathersealing to make sure each and every room was finally comfortable.

This story made me wonder why the HVAC contractor didn’t start with an energy audit. This might have cost the client a couple of thousand dollars for a larger home — which I assume it was — but that audit would have suggested weathersealing first, and then HVAC system upgrades, as needed. The new HVAC systems would have then been smaller and less expensive for the newly efficient weathersealed home.

The obvious answer is that this HVAC pro wanted to make the largest sale possible. In fact, he made two large sales: the oversized HVAC system, plus the energy efficiency upgrades to the house.

Make no mistake we are in business to make money, but, at our company, we pride ourselves on helping our clients spend wisely.

A really good residential general contractor is a lot like your family doctor. Just like your family’s GP, it is our job to know the personality of your home, its special flaws and its unique features. We work with you to correct problems in a holistic fashion you can live with. Sure, sometimes, you do have to spend a lot of money on your home. But at other times, the simple, less-expensive solution is the right one. A great GC will pride himself or herself on helping you make the best choice.

Different Customers, Different Outcomes: The Value of a Streamlined Process

We recently received a phone call from a returning prospective client who had contacted us several months ago about doing a large kitchen/home remodel for her. At that time, we met with this homeowner and explained our process, presenting her with an example of our project book. This is a crucial tool we create for every home renovation project we undertake. It’s kind of the “bible” of the project, as it contains every drawing, specification, permits, and all of the product information necessary to complete the job. During the time since we last spoke to her, the homeowner had explored doing the same project with a home builder who had turned to remodeling after new construction dried up. She found that the builder didn’t use anything like our project book, and the spaces he created were unstylish, builder-grade solutions. So, seeing the value in our approach and appreciating the results we achieve, our prospect came back to us. The project book stuck with her as a symbol of “something different” she would get with us.

On the flip side, we’ve also worked with a handful of clients over the years who do not understand the value of the process and systems we’ve created. At critical periods in our construction schedule, such clients have requested major, project-altering changes in the plans that they had previously approved. When we are beyond the design phase and deep in the throes of construction, it is important for clients to know that products have been purchased, plumbing and electricity have been run, and appliances and cabinetry are ready to be installed – and changes such as these are a very big deal indeed. Of course, we do our best to accommodate such requests, but the results are problematic all around: added expense, delayed completion dates, compromised warranties and so on.

These two very different scenarios highlight the importance of project planning and management systems and finding a contractor with whom you share trust and respect. The process requires a high level of mutual commitment, and that’s why it’s so very important to hire a reputable firm. To read more about this topic, see the Myers Constructs Buyer’s Guide.

Enjoy the holiday weekend,

The Myers Constructs Team

P.S. Spring is just around the corner. The time for planning those warm weather projects is now.

Video Clip: Tamara Myers Interview

Tamara, who serves as Chair of the Membership Committee for the DelChester chapter of NARI, recently sat down with NARI’s Morgan Zenner at the National NARI 2012 CotY judging to discuss Myers Constructs, and the role NARI membership and certification plays within the company.

Watch it here.