This is a site to educate and inform, share productive news and pass warnings of changes on the sites. Plenty of magazines show pictures of the finished job and smiling clients who spent fortunes most of us will never have. I’m interested in sharing with the common folks, the guys on the job and the hard-working owners who stretch themselves to have the renovation they really can’t afford. This blog is about the truth. I hope you’ll join me on the scaffold.
The start of a new year always invites an evaluation of the past and future. How well did I do? How far do I want to go? Is anything working? Should I be proud or do I want to shrink away from the challenges that face me?
I fill my time with charts and spreadsheets to get a sense of what happened, and draw a plan to predict what lies ahead. Much depends on my mood, the weather, the contracts in place, and mostly on the rate of rings of the phone. If Projects are in full swing, it’s easy to be confident. If, however, each morning of early January has the leisurely taste of coffee and ability to roam on the internet, panic creeps in to eat away any satisfaction of profits. Then is the time to make work.
For thirty years, I have looked forward to a year of building projects. Through recessions and booms, I have managed to always have a plan on the table, a load of lumber on the way, a roofing crew poised, a craftsman measuring the final piece of trim. At an early
age, I recognized the danger of tired knees and stooped shoulders, and vowed I would not be carrying plywood at fifty. For many years, I was able to contract jobs large enough to require crews and organization enough that my tools became clipboards, cell phones and laptops. Let others do the labor and use my brain, charm and conscience to lead the way. If I just worked hard enough, I could bring the Dream to life.
But the job description can grow from a “guy in a pick-up” to a multi-million dollar business, sometimes as quickly as it takes to stumble upon a client in dirty jeans with
deep deep pockets. In my lifetime, the contract has transformed from a handshake to hand-scribbled notes to 14 pages of exclusions witnessed by a lawyer.
Sadly, I am one of the many who has been overwhelmed by the fluctuation, the ebb and flow of an occupation that has more pitfalls than all the types of nails and screws combined. No amount of well-intended and skillful hands can always meet the deadline, stay under-budget and not leave any dust at the end of the day. In fact, it is the carpenter who works slowly, carefully, over measures, keeps his eye on the blade, and sweeps up regularly who manages best to have a client call him back.
There is no magic, no set rule. The truth is that we come into your house, bang and thump for days or months at a time. No matter how thorough the planning, beams are not where they are supposed to be, and electrical wires show up instead. We tear out your kitchen and spend lots and lots of your hard-earned money as if it were our very own Christmas. We see you in your underwear at dawn and let your traumatized dog in
and out, in and out, in and out.
We become part of your family, and you’ve never hated anyone so much at two in
the morning when the tarp that is supposed to cover your roof is flapping in the wind.
When the dust settles, almost always things look much much better. Although it was more difficult than expected (easy to blame your builder), the client lives happily ever onward. The builder should be able to pay his bills, and hopefully adds another picture
to his portfolio.
But everyone also knows the tales of horror which abound around renovations. Some contracts are better left half-done, and someone always tells of the contractor who took the money and ran. It’s a business as unpredictable as the homes being remodeled, and as varied as the carpenters and clients who meet one fine evening and part months
later in anger and frustration.
My father was an architect, designing schools, labs and offices. A part of every vacation was looking at buildings along the way. As an adult, I’m still learning that many of those were not actually his, but destinations for us which he viewed like an artist in a museum. Early memory for me is of a bewildered weary group of kids on the sidewalk looking up, looking around, going in, coming out, and back in the car again.
My earliest memory is awakening from my nap to see a giant steam shovel (“Mike Muligan!” my Mom called) approach the house to make mountains of dirt for me to run over.
We had five additions put on this architect’s home. It was not unusual to see it featured in Sunday supplements or a part of house tours. On a little lane, cars often slowed down and circled back past the house of glass. At night, they could see right in and,
mischeivously, we’d be five little kids dancing wildly.
My father built the original house on evenings and weekends after the War, moving into a small unfinished space with his wife, her grandmother, and their baby. He built the
master bedroom after the second child, just before me.
The living room came next with memories not only of the excavator as mentioned, but also of our dog falling into the cellar hole, my first time on a ladder (2 rungs), men with sledge hammers knocking holes in our wall. The “Girls’ Wing” was built in 1961 when I was old enough to hold boards for my Dad and learned a mouthful of curses, a carpenter’s tool when things still don’t fit right after the third cut.
In 1967, after several years successfully
designing buildings for a new company with the strange name of “IBM”, and a house full of teenagers, he designed a 2 story redwood work of art. Completely separate from the main house with a pool table and fireplace, the Octagon is counted by many at high school reunions to be one of the best memories of the day.
Finally, the pool was added in the back after the kids had mostly moved into their own lives–my first job as a contractor. Painted black to reflect the impression of a pond, rhoddendrons and sculptures dangle over the water, and natural stones of all shapes come right to the edge.
A home divided by plastic walls and still coated with dust is normal to me. Plans on the table, sketches of addtions never built, talk of the next project is completely familiar, invigorates my brain like food in the belly.
I am born and bred a remodeler.
The first morning of summer vacation after 2nd grade began as sunny and bright, and as all vacations should, full of promise and excitement. Then a dump truck lumbered down our little lane, pulling a backhoe, and it got all the better. A truck I recognized followed. Overcome with curiosity, I raced after them and discovered an addition to my school was about to begin.
Every working day of that summer, I was there. Designed (as it turns out) by my father and contracted by the man who had already framed 2 additions to our own home in my short life, this was an adventure. The ease with which that machine broke ground and gobbled dirt into huge piles was marvelous, still a satisfying sight for me on a project today. I signed my name in the fresh concrete and made “mudballs” out of the
spillage, piling up an arsenal that my friends dared me to use against other
Ed Krutsky was a Pennsylvania traditional Quaker living in a traditional community. A craftsman by trade, he knew his way around many subjects as revealed in countless cffe-break conversations with my mother over many years. He employed carpenters
of similar diversities, likely setting the all-time record for a construction company with college degrees. His three teen sons were there, growing into the business, including Ned who was featured in the book House by Tracy Kidder, a great read for anyone involved in a building project.
Also on the crew was an old black man, Harold, who chewed and spat and smelled of liquor, though I didn’t really understand. At minimum wage (then probably $1.25), he defined the expression “grunt labor”, but he was as sweet, gentle and encouraging to me as any man could be. He gave me a shovel and let me fill the trenches beside him, showing me that you stood behind and shoveled forward effortlessly into the hole instead of twisting, turning and dumping, so it could be done in a zenlike way all day long, day after day.
The rest of the crew began to trust me to fetch their tools from their trucks. Soon, I was carrying the 2x4s ad nailing off sheathing. The first fiberglass itch in my throat came that summer as they let me staple, then cut the insulation. By the end, I was painting, measuring and nailing baseboards in the rush to get finished before school reopened in
September. Perhaps it wasn’t the most efficient man per hour, but I didn’t slow anyone else down, and no one could be cheaper (they used to joke about my paycheck on Friday afternoons, but Ed never wrote me one).
Sometimes my friends came with me, but not joining in, they were soon bored and wanting to move on. They didn’t feel the sweet soul-satisfying whack of driving a nail home. They couldn’t see the progression as concrete led to wood, led to sheetrock, led to finish.
And they certainly could never know the silent fierce pride I felt years after looking
from the baseball field at the building I’d helped create out of sticks and sweat.
Spanking fresh out of college with a writer’s degree and no idea how to use it, the invitation to help my sister build a house on the Oregon Coast was a perfect distraction. “On the edge of the Earth”, Lane and Tom had purchased a chunk of cliffside 400 feet traight up out of the ocean, on the side of a mountain sacred to the Northwest Indians for its spiritual energy.
The Nehalem Valley had three little communities of a few hundred people each, and was otherwise home to eagles, elk, sea lions, and a cove for whales. You can enter on Highway 101 from the north or south, or one bumpy curvy road over the mountains, but regularly after a storm, there is no way in or out.
The lot was cleared and leveled enough to fit a small house, a pile of lumber and a few cars. I set up my tent in the bushes just a little below and off the path that circled the property. We cooked on an open fire in the rocky pit left from an ancient tree. My wages were $25 a week and all the beans I could eat. The view strethed 45 miles down the coastline and forever out to sea.
This was paradise.
An architect building his dream, Tom had designed this sweet little cottage–very green 30 years before the concept became popular. The toilet was considered a composting toilet, but was really a well-vented 50 gallon drum and a hole in the floor, which was later abandoned once kids were around. The “refrigerator” is still working fine: just
a cupboard with holes to let the warm air out and the cool air in. The countertop came from a tree on the property. The walls were oiled wood salvaged from other buildings.
Tom was working largely in theory and the carpentry experience of a few summers. I had last worked for Krutsky several years earlier and was very clouded by my studies and dreams in between. But together, and with the passing help of a few friends, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Determination was our most valuable tool.
Being our first poured foundation, the forms broke and spilled 2 yards of concrete down the slope. With electricity unavailable until the utility trench–hand dug 300 feet down the
mountainside–was fiinished, every board, every piece of plywood was sawn by hand. Utilizing rickety step-ladders and crafty supports, just the two of us were able to raise the massive 18′ header that was the keystone, the arch that framed the ocean view.
Each night, tired, we ate our beans, and in the darkness, huddled by the fire, I played guitar in tune with the Ocean’s murmurous roar. We formed deep friendships with neighbors who invited us to shelter when it rained too long, hard and miserably. Weekly, we drove the two hours inland to their home in Portland where Tom and Lane had business, and I walked the city streets. And we could shower.
Each step of the way, like a significant moment in a lifetime, was ackowledged and ccelebrated. Reaching the highest point, an evergreen was nailed to the ridge honoring all of the trees that go into the building of a home. The first and last shingles on the
walls were important events in completing the shell, especially to us living in tents. Insulation installed meant at last we could move inside, out of the deepening cold of November, to a mat on the floor. Gradually, Tom and Lane moved in their most recious possessions: the persian carpet, Great Granny’s jewelry, their 6 favorite records.
When the floors were sanded–a long exhausting week of noise, grit and strain–they finished all the wood surfaces with Linseed oil, threw the rags in the back corner, and went to Portland for the rest of their belongings. Readying to move on to explore opportunities for a writer in San Francisco, I remained behind, staying at one of the neighbor’s who needed help on an addition of their own.
The flames could be seen from anywhere in the Valley, giant rolling, towering columns dancing in the dawn light. Racing around the side of the mountain to get there by truck, I could see them almost all the way, all the time trying to make them arise from another spot, an empty place.
But there was nothing else it could be.
On February 4, 1978, Tom and Lane’s house burned and life became marked as “before the fire” or “after”. The linseed rags smoldered in the dark empty entry all through the wet night, only taking hold and turning to flame to waken us to the horror at dawn. Leaping from the truck, I could hear the sirens so far away beginning the long climb up the mountain. At the window I’d just built so carefully, I strained to see inside, but all was black and amazingly still and silent compared to the roar around me (little did I know how close my escape from death just then, how stupid to be so close to the inferno hidden by soot on the hot, ready-to-explode glass).
Desperate to make a difference, I grabbed the hose and tried to spray the back wall, but it only was a drip, drip of useless drops (of course, the lines were broken inside). I threw
the hose on the fire and with a shovel beat out sparks falling in the grass all around me.
In truth, it was all useless, way beyond my control and ability. What had been so lovingly brought to life was dying before me. Nothing to do but stand out of the way and weep, four of us huddled, comforting each other where no hope could be found. When the windows finally did blow, great balls of fire as big as Volkswagens lept out, and 25 years later talking to me on the phone as she weeds the garden, Lane still found glass.
Finally, the trucks (hundreds of them it seemed–fire trucks followed pick-ups) arrived onto that tiny lot, men pouring out and running everywhere. I saw three from the lumber company, one who had delivered the concrete and helped us so patiently when our forms blew out. Two more had hooked the pipes in our trench to the water system below. They all came to help and soon it was out.
The house (too young to be a home yet) was still standing, but freshly oiled, it was scorched all the way through. We would have to tear it down, and the worst call–telling Tom and Lane the sad news–was still ahead of me.