Monday, March 28, 2016

Remodeling a 1930 guesthouse

As a green construction company, we love opportunities to give new life to existing structures and materials. Recently we had a great pleasure to save a 1930 home from demolition. This small example shows that there are ways to save money, time, and effort with some creativity and thinking outside of the box.

Although it was charming, after consulting other professionals (architects, engineers, and other contractors) the owner of this small 1930 guesthouse had been convinced that the home was a tear down. My plea was that she already had a foundation footprint that was grandfathered in with the building and safety department—a legal structure that she was already paying property taxes on. Because my client had faith in my experience, we pushed forward, even in the face of others’ contradicting opinions.

Once we began our construction project, we discovered that the building’s walls were not constructed of 2x4s like a typical modern home. It was so old that instead it had redwood planks, 1 inch x 8 inch x 8 feet high, all around the exterior of the house. These planks were holding up the roof and provided the main structural support of the home. 

We knew we would need to tackle the project in a creative way, and did so by shoring up the home’s roof and building the exterior walls from the inside out. We gutted the interior and assembled exterior perimeter walls to follow the old foundation footprint. Not only were we able to save the home from demolition, but we also saved every single piece of the 80-year-old redwood planks to be re-purposed. As an added bonus, the owner/designer was delighted that this plan gave her the opportunity to redesign the interior.

In looking into the materials left over from her last job, the owner found she had enough tile and Brazilian wood (teak, iron wood) to do the finishes on the small 1930 house. She also went to a recycling center where she found an old freestanding bathtub. 

I don’t tell this story to put down the hardworking architects and engineers who had the owner convinced to tear it down. In their defense, it was a risky job, which required experience in the front lines of physical structural construction. It required shoring, assembling, and disassembling within the interior of the structure. If we hadn’t known what we were doing, the whole house could have easily crumbled, and, even worse, injured someone.

The lesson here is to take your time. Listen, slow down. Don’t let your emotions drive your decisions. Stay open-minded until all ideas have been explored. Because the owner of this project trusted my experience and creativity, she gained a 900-square-foot guest home that she now rents out.

We had a blast working on this project. To see more pictures from this remodel, and other green building projects, go to 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Power of Listening

In any relationship communication is key. When it comes to communicating with your contractor, it is very important to convey all your priorities, concerns, and preferences in the first stages of the relationship. Make sure you ask questions. Ask again if you don’t understand. And—this is the most important part—make sure your contractor is listening.

A good contractor is like a good clergyman. If he knows your specific concerns and hopes, he will spend more time and effort to make sure he doesn’t drop the ball on things that are most important to you. When I talk to my clients I try to understand the underlying reasons for their priorities. This can only come with true listening.

When you talk with your contractors, notice whether they take the time to explain everything. Did they explain it a second or third time around if needed? In a follow-up conversation, did they address your concerns or did you have to constantly remind them? Are they making sure your project is truly on budget, even if it costs them the job? Are they explaining all the variables, as well as the benefits, or just telling you what you want to hear?

Better communication brings knowledge for both sides. It is then easier to plan a strategy (even a backup plan) that will lead to a satisfactory execution.

Good contractors understand all the variables within the bigger picture, including ever-changing regulations, underlying politics of engineers, architects, or building & safety issues. I have had clients get upset because I did not agree to what they assumed was a reasonable budget or schedule. Many times this has led to me turning away projects that were based on unreasonable expectations.

When I truly listen to my clients I can see the bigger picture. For example, one client asked me to build a guesthouse in her back yard. She had a beautiful garden and, from our talks, I realized that the garden was very important to her. I knew that no matter how nice of a guesthouse I built, if it ruined her plants she would be left with a bad memory of whole experience. Protecting her garden required some careful planning and extra attention during construction. Some plants we could not save, but I was careful to communicate everything to her to make sure her expectations were realistic. Eventually we managed to save most of the garden and she was very happy.

By listening to my clients from the beginning, I make sure they are delighted with all aspects the final product. To see more, visit my project gallery .