Thinking Outside the Framework

Addition

Ever tried to make an omelet without breaking an egg? If you were searching for an analogous challenge in residential remodeling, it would no doubt be adding a second story addition without pulling off an existing roof.

STRITE’s president, Bob Mundy, is hardly one to walk away from a challenge — particularly when it’s structural in nature. Among the pleasures of being in our industry, after all, are the problem solving opportunities inherent in working within existing constraints rather than building from scratch.

We recently finished up a project in which our clients wanted to add around 200 square feet to the second story of their home, in what had been dead attic space, in order to create a dedicated quilting room for the wife. The attic was located above the first floor dining room, with about half an inch separating the two, floor and ceiling. Seeing this, along with identifying a bearing point on the common wall with the kitchen, Bob decided to do something STRITE had never before attempted. When our clients realized that in taking the approach he recommended they could continue to live virtually undisturbed in the rest of their home during the course of the remodel, and without adding cost to the project, they were only too happy to consent.

bob

How could you not trust a face like Bob Mundy’s?

“Basically, what we did was to take the single story truss roof off one side of the house without affecting the entry, another side, or rear of the home,” Bob explained. “This is very unique.”

STRITE’s construction team began the process by cutting a hole out of the trusses, after removing all the insulation from the attic. “We then ‘sistered up’ 2x12s to the existing trusses to give them strength, and began to cut the trusses out,” said Bob.  We covered the hole so we wouldn’t go into the dining room,”  an accomplishment that our clients greatly appreciated.  “We could be sitting at the table having dinner and not know that anything was going on above us,” observed the husband.

“I came up with the idea of doing this from seeing what was structurally possible based on bearing points down below,” Bob said. “We found a bearing point on the common wall with the kitchen and then put a header on the back of the house to carry the weight of the floor system and the roof.  The trusses are attached to the new house wall in line with the existing roof. It’s a first!”

While it may be a “first,” it is hardly an “only.” Said Bob, “We’re doing something similar in Surprise Valley…overcoming single story trusses. Rather than take the whole truss off the back of the garage we’re just cutting it back so that as you look at the back of the house you’re seeing a wall that has now become the point of strength for the house. In the old days you would just have pulled the whole roof off. This approach maximizes the homeowners’ square footage, which adds additional value to the house as well as saving them thousands of dollars.”

We love thinking outside the frame — and having someone with Bob Mundy’s experience makes doing so second nature to us, and a source of professional satisfaction.

A Creative Use of Garage Space

Home Office Addition

When you think of an office addition over a garage, you would most likely think of a fairly mundane space, with an accent on utility rather than style.  Which is precisely why we present this case study.  We love to confound expectations…as well as exceed them.

Vision

When our clients wanted to add a professional looking office to their home, we decided to take advantage of what might not have seemed like an obvious asset: a deep garage.  The depth of the garage bays, however, allowed for an ideal traffic pattern by providing the space needed to install stairs directly off the main level kitchen.

Challenge

Since we weren’t starting out with a second story in this addition remodel, new stairs were required.  Fortunately, the garage bays were deeper than typical, which allowed space to place a stairwell without major interior remodeling.  That sure helps the budget.

Accomplishment

Tip Top Garage Doors – Nashville TN wanted to surround the office space with natural light, but also provide a sound barrier from the stairwell which is open to the kitchen below. The solution was a sheet of tempered glass, which blocked sound without obstructing the light and views of the mountains through two corner windows.  The completed office, while convenient to the rest of the home, was spacious enough to provide for an additional bathroom as well.

Highlights

In going vertical with an addition, we are always conscious of how our design effects an existing roofline.  In the case of this project, our approach was to keep the gable over the garage to break up the two story plane — an architectural element that actually enhanced the roof line of the home thanks to our addition.  Our clients were so delighted that they asked us to handle another remodel project for them.  We also received a very nice letter.  In our business, you can’t afford to rest on your laurels — but you can feature them.

Click on photos to enlarge. 

A Kitchen Boldly Comes Out

Kitchen Remodel

Why is it that kitchens are so often hidden away from the rest of the life of the family?  When you think of how central they are to nurturing us, it seems perversely ironic that they should be banished the way they so often are.  This kitchen just wasn’t going to take it anymore.  Here is its coming out story.

Vision

To look at the size and isolation of this kitchen, it seemed as though it sould have been in an apartment rather than a family home.  Our clients wanted to expand it out…but to do so meant that a wall was going to have to come down — literally as well as figuratively!

Challenge

The structural element separating the kitchen from the dining and family rooms was a partitioning wall that was fortunately not load bearing.  It did, however, house the refrigerator and some cabinets, so relocating these would be key to our remodel efforts.  We also had to move some electrical and plumbing vents, but we kept the main part of the kitchen in its same location.

Accomplishment

In place of the former wall, we built an island that housed a new stovetop and oven, and moved the refrigerator to a location convenient to the cooking area.  We attached a half bar to this workspace and planed out the ceiling to flow seamlessly into the family and dining rooms.  To create space for storage to replace what was lost with the wall we removed, we took out a window and added new counter space and cabinets.  Upgraded countertops, new lighting, and a bold color scheme completed the package with style.

Highlight

The before and after pictures in this case study are a powerful testimony to what it means to take a space from ordinary to extraordinary.  It takes vision to think “outside the boxy” and let a kitchen live into its mission as a focus of family life.  You’ll notice in the “after” picture of the adjoining family room that the remodel spilled over to the fireplace as well.  We like to think that good design is contagious.

Click on photos to enlarge:

Client Relations and the Cost of Doing Business

Client Relationships

Any credible company will blithely profess that taking care of customers is just “good business.”  Ingraining good customer service into an organizational culture, however, involves an investment of time (which equals money) that not all businesses are willing to make.

For STRITE, customer relations is as necessary a cost of doing business as meeting our payroll. One of the legacies of our company’s founder, Jim Strite, was to make customer care not simply a rigorous discipline, but the subject of on going study. Rather than handing out reading assignments on new construction techniques, which our project managers were already inclined to learn as a matter of perfecting their craft, the STRITE team was asked to study books like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” As a result, STRITE’s weekly production meetings typically focus as much on the emotional states of our remodel customers as they do on construction details.

To better appreciate how customer relations shape the STRITE culture and its business practices, I recently interviewed vice president Brad Milspaugh on the subject.

Q: Why are customer relations such an important component of a successful remodeling business?

A: We joke that our project managers need to major in construction and minor in psychology, but when you think about it, we’re spending every day in situations that are inherently stressful — we’re going into peoples’ homes, into some of their most intimate settings, and completely transforming them.  That in itself puts people in a pretty vulnerable mindset, and we have to be sensitive to that.

Q: How do we promote good customer relations among our project team?

A: The first thing we do is practice the techniques we’ve learned from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” These include always looking for the “win-win” in a situation and seeking first to understand. That last technique is especially important when you have a customer who is upset about something.  We’ve learned that the best initial response to a customer concern is to simply shut up and listen. Another important attribute of our project managers is the ability to stay calm. Bringing a sense of calm to a situation that is inherently stressful is vital to keeping our customers calm as well.

Q: How important are good communication skills?

A: Extremely important — but good communication goes beyond interpersonal dynamics. It starts with the systems we put in place to keep our customers in the loop on their remodel projects. Over the years, we’ve built layers into our tracking and reporting systems in order to accommodate different customer personality types. This means including levels of detail that satisfy a more “engineering” mentality, or keeping things more high level for customers who simply want to know if we’re on track with deadlines and budget, but don’t want to get into the weeds. Every week, our clients receive an email update of their project status tailored to their particular “need to know.”

Q: What else matters to customers?

A: Responsiveness. We don’t like to get a phone call in the middle of the night from a customer who says that the tarp protecting their construction site just blew off in a windstorm, but we have to not only take that call, but respond to it by going out and fixing the problem. In a case like that, just listening isn’t enough.

Q: What is most upsetting to customers?

A: Not being kept in the loop. When we fail to adequately communicate, and our customers have to contact us to find out what is going on with their project, that’s simply not acceptable. Which brings up another aspect of good customer relationships — the inevitability of error, and our willingness to take ownership for our mistakes and fix them without playing “the blame game.”

Q: What is it about practicing good customer relations that makes it a cost of doing business?

A: When we take on any remodel project, one of the things we tell our customers is that after we’ve created the budget, the description of work, and the project calendar, the only wildcard is them. We don’t mean this in a negative way, but simply to recognize that indecisiveness or tortured decision making can add delays and cost. We’re generally pretty good at recognizing these types of situations up front, and we build it into what we call our “dollars versus relationship transaction” rather than put the burden back on the client when issues arise. I think most of our clients recognize that the more they contribute to the efficiency of the process, the more it benefits them in the end…and that the reverse is equally true — but we’ll treat everyone with the same respect and professionalism regardless. As in any relationship, the true test is how well you hang in there through the not so good times as well as the good times.

 

From Ho-Hum to Holy Cow!

Living Room Remodel

Some before and after photos leave you wondering if you’re really looking at the same space, or a parallel universe version.  One of the most gratifying aspects about what we do is making that effect much easier than it seems.  

Vision

This family room makeover was part of a larger remodel that included a new kitchen.  It’s funny how one renovation can lead to another…and another…

Challenge

Our client’s family room was what you might call “plain vanilla” — in more ways than just the color scheme.  As part of a more comprehensive remodel project, our goal was to achieve maximum bang for the buck in terms of dramatic effect.  We targeted the fireplace as our design focal point and took it from there.

Accomplishment

A new fireplace facade, replacing the carpet with hardwood flooring, new windows, designer lighting, and bold color took this room from drab to dramatic in short order.

Highlights

The before photos reveal that for whatever reason, the original fireplace was not centered in the wall where it was located.  Physically moving the fireplace wasn’t an option, short of demolition, so we merely played a visual trick with the mantle piece.  Nothing up our sleeves…presto!

 Click on photos to enlarge. 

 

How Long is it Going to Take?

FAQ

A client once showed us an ad from a bathroom remodeling company that she had clipped from the daily paper.  In it, the remodeler claimed that they could complete a bathroom makeover in one day. “Why is it taking you three weeks?”, she asked.

The fact of the matter is that in our business the second most frequently asked question after “how much” is “how long.”

Discarding the possibility that the bathroom remodeler in the ad used a time projection more in keeping with Genesis than with a 24-hour day, the simplest explanation is that things take what they take — and not all remodel projects are created equal. In planning a remodel in which a number of trades are involved, one can’t simply assume that things will be done simultaneously. Scheduling a dry wall installer, a hardwood floor installer, and a painter in any order other than sequentially is a recipe for disaster, if not chaos and compromised quality. If each trade in the sequence takes a week to complete their tasks per the Description of Work (DOW), you’re looking at three weeks. That’s how the real world works, based on the Gregorian calendar.

That said, there are a couple of key factors to getting a project completed as quickly as possible. The first is organization…which in turn is a function of experience. Having done thousands of remodel projects over nearly 40 years, we know how the necessary sequence of tasks mesh, and how to condense them down to a schedule that lets us hit the ground running while avoiding the inefficiencies and errors that occur when people are trying to work on top of one another. There is, however, another factor that ultimately trumps experience when it comes to the timely completion of a remodel project: the willingness of your trade partners to make your priorities theirs. This is especially important when it comes to scheduling work by trades with typically long lead times — concrete and excavation being two such examples. (To better appreciate the relationships we cultivate with our trades partners, we encourage you to read our blog, Don’t Call Them “Subs”!).

Regardless of what a remodeling company may tell you about their project completion time — through an advertisement or in person — the litmus test for their ability to meet a project deadline is how they respond when you ask them for a calendar. What you will likely discover is that most remodeling companies are hesitant to provide project calendars because they don’t believe they can adhere to them — and the most likely reason they can’t is that they don’t have control of their tradespeople. Because of the relationships we have established over the years with our trades, we are in the enviable position of having them build their schedules around ours, rather than vice versa. That makes all the difference in the world when it comes to answering the second most common question in the remodeling business.