Reality checks

Reality checks

We finally installed a temporary site fence to enclose our side yard until we are ready to build a permanent fence. Our strategic goal was to increase security around our storage areas and to provide a secure place for me to play with our reactive dog.

In the past we had rented fencing for a monthly fee. However, these fences are unsightly, and when we factored in the cost of installation and rental over a number of years, we decided we could do better by building our own fence. This was our return on investment calculation for a 5 year time frame:

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Soft benefits from this decision process included:

  • Re-using scaffolding material that was destined for the green waste stream, doubling the use-value of lumber and reducing environmental impact
  • A fence that is aesthetically satisfying compared to rental fence visual impact
  • All the materials for the temporary fence are recyclable, there will be no waste going into the landfill when it is finally replaced
  • We were able to custom fit the fence to the shape of the yard instead of having to adapt to pre-determined shape of the rental fence and making do with an inferior layout
  • It was fun to build the fence, we were able to hire my carpenter brother, who helped us with the layout and cost-effective structure
  • Rental fences are not easy to lock and unlock everyday, they involve daily expenditures of energy to manipulate fence panels and ensure closure at the end of the day

Based on these numbers and analysis, it was well worth the effort to build our own temporary fence.

More interesting to me was that even with all our savings, the project cost was $1600, which I would not have guessed if I had not done the calculations.

I would definitely not have guessed the cost of renting the fence for that period of time would be so high, because the amount per month is low and it seems convenient when the fence company comes to do the installation. I would not have factored in the unsightly view of the rental fence over an extended period of time, nor the extra energy every day of having to shift fence panels around to access the yard.

This was a good lesson to me, about how we guess the value of renovations and how often our guesses are well out of range of actual costs. When I imagined how much time it would take for us to install the fence once we had all the materials, I guessed it would take the three of us 1/2 a day. I was out by an order of magnitude of 100%. It took us a full day, twice as much as I thought.

Given the fact that I am an experienced home renovator, carpenter, estimator and project manager, this exercise shows the difference our optimistic imagination can envision and the reality of actually getting the work done. It is no surprise that an inexperienced homeowner who does not understand how long it takes to get tasks done, how many errands have to be run to collect materials, supplies and equipment, and how many people it takes to complete the work, would have unrealistic expectations of scope, schedule, cost, and risk.

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Planning for residential renovation tasks

Planning for residential renovation tasks

Think of your residential renovation in terms of four basic concerns: scope, schedule, cost, and quality. The smallest measurable item of a residential renovation is a task. A task is defined in terms of the project deliverable it accomplishes. A project deliverable is defined prior to implementation in terms of scope, schedule, cost and quality. In residential renovations it is far more likely that these concerns will exceed estimates when the task is actually completed.

Each of these concerns can be considered in terms of the resources that will be required to complete a task. Scope refers to the boundaries that define the edge of the task. What is part of the task deliverable and what is not included as task deliverable?

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The difference between what has been planned, or estimated, and what is actually required to complete the task deliverable, is considered the risk factor for the task – the percentage variance between what was estimated and what was predicted that could affect the estimate.

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Schedule refers to the timeline for the task. What is the earliest start date for the task? What is the latest start date? What is the earliest date the task can be completed by? What is the latest date the task can be completed by? How much time has been estimated to complete the task? How much time has been allocated to account for risk?

Screen Shot 2017-01-08 at 10.03.18 AM.pngCost refers to the amount of money that needs to be budgeted for the task and the actual amount of money that has to be paid to complete the task. Cost is a consolidation of resource expenditures required to complete the task. In residential renovations, these resources can be organized in terms of project process and knowledge area. There are costs associated with initiating, planning, implementing, monitoring and controlling and closing a task. Every task involves project integration, scope definition, scheduling, resource management, quality management, human resources, communication, risk management, procurement and stakeholder involvement.

Costs are predicted using an estimate. The estimate can be structured for worst-case, best-case and moderate scenarios. In residential renovations, one particular area that can greatly affect task concerns is degree of technical difficulty. Technical difficulty in residential renovations is of particular concern because every task in a residential renovation is building new onto old, and, in many cases, matching new to old on more than one point of attachment.

Technical difficulty should be factored into every task and accounted as a risk factor.

In residential renovations, the cost of a task is normally calculated on a $1 labor + .30 materials = $1.30 ratio. ie. if a task is estimated to cost $100 for labor, the materials charge will be $30. In addition to these hard resource costs, there are additional costs that have to be factored in for every task. These are project management, site supervision, contingency, and contractor mark up. Taxes have to be collected on every invoice. These rates vary but can be calculated at 10% project management, 10% site supervision, 15% contingency, and 20% contractor mark up.

If the price of labor is calculated at $45 per hour (skilled carpenter) the cost breakdown for a typical task follows:



The featured image for this post shows the underside of our second floor toilet. As you can see the subfloor has been destroyed and we now know why the tiles are cracking around the toilet.

At present we are planning the layout and installation for beam structure to repair floor sag around the stairs. We need to do this before installing our laundry upstairs or else the working of the machine would eventually cause a cave-in.

Planning for scope, schedule, cost and quality on this deliverable is complicated by the technical difficulty of installing new beams between existing structure of the second floor and the main floor. We did plan for this rebuild and the structure in the basement was installed to support the new beam structure. However, the technical difficulty is a key factor in designing for this task.

In addition to installing new beam structure under an existing second floor, we also have to contend with the original heritage staircase. We must keep this staircase intact or we will be forced to build a new one to code, which would change the entire layout of the main floor and upstairs.

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To add to the difficulty, the wall that is at the centre of this new beam install is the mechanical wall for the household.

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This wall has to be preserved, and then the backing plywood has to be replaced as part of the entire installation.

In the instance of this task, investing in planning is our highest priority. Installation will be difficult but not impossible. However, if we do things out of order, it could seriously run up the cost of the task. We are forgiving schedule constraints in the interest of accomplishing all the scope we want to address and control and monitor costs while getting a high quality finish.

Managing a residential renovation

Managing a residential renovation

We are still working slowly to carefully carry out demolition tasks for our project. At present these tasks are focused around the stairs to the second floor. Our heritage house is typical in that the second floor has sagged perceptibly around the stairs and old chimney chase. As we clear away the lathe and plaster and examine the structure, we can see why.

Our engineer looked at these stairs and commented, “There isn’t any logical reason these stairs should be standing, but there is evidence of their structural integrity because they are still standing after 100 years. Don’t touch those stairs.” We are heeding his advice.

In the meantime, we are preparing to install new beam structure in the framing around the stairs and chimney chase. This beam structure will replace framing that was getting so bad we had plaster falling off the walls during a recent windstorm.

I have been actively applying professional project management practice standards and frameworks to this renovation. We have already accomplished far more for less money than we did during Phase 1 or the aborted Front Porch Repair. However, I am noticing how questions and decisions play a key role in controlling project progress.

I would say managing for questions, answers and decisions is probably the single biggest challenge for managing residential renovations, particularly on heritage homes. Further, I would say renovating heritage homes should be a specific sub-set of residential renovations, at least in the City of Vancouver, where there is a civic interest in saving heritage buildings at almost any cost.

With regards to questions, answers and decisions, there are several challenges to acquiring clear, actionable information:

  1. Developing questions – clear, concise, explanatory
  2. Getting answers – ensure they actually answer the questions
  3. Making decisions – confirming decision content prior to taking action

One of the issues I have identified is terminology. When we are discussing a particular wall or structural component, having clear identifiers to ensure everyone is talking about the same thing. For example, we are installing 8 beams to provide support for our second floor. In the engineering drawings, the beams are identified by their dimensions but not by location. To discuss individual beam specifics I had to assign a unique identifier to each beam and then convince the project team to use this as identifying terminology.

Another issue that has come up is parsing questions into specific topics. One email, one topic (which might have several related questions). Each question email has its own subject line (no recycling emails with old subject lines).

Residential renovations often have an extended timeline and it can be very difficult to track communications. In particular, something that seemed insignificant at the time it was being discussed can become essential information later. Was it properly archived for retrieval? Where are those notes?

Tracking communications is also difficult because they do not take place as a constant stream but rather occur in short bursts with long periods of quiet. Without a system for managing the communications it is very easy to have the information dispersed and difficult to consolidate (field notes, project notebooks, emails, hard copy documents). Making these communications searchable by tags and categories will greatly ease management tasks later when it is time to consolidate project information.

Applying Project Management Methods

Applying Project Management Methods

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I am studying Project Management at BCIT toward applying to take the Project Management Professional certification examination. My goal is to apply project management best practices to residential renovations, including my own.

Our Phase 2 renovation is serving as my case study prototype for implementing this goal in practice. To that end, I have been developing my project management database system to manage project management-related and project-related data.

Project management-related data is information arising from implementing project management planning methods to manage conceptualizing, initializing, planning, implementing, and finally, successfully closing this Phase 2 renovation.

Our Phase 1 renovation experience was apparently a typical homeowner nightmare. We came within one week of having to sell our house unfinished because we had lost control of the project. It was only through sheer will and determination that we were able to find people who could help us keep our house, find new financing, and get onto a new solid footing. It is this experience that informs my approach to residential renovation and project management.

At present I have been building the database I will use to manage all project data. I am building it in Filemaker and making satellite apps that can be used to collect real-time renovation data on our iPhones and iPads. I have mapped out the initial table relationships to reflect project management processes:

  1. Portfolio development
  2. Strategic Planning
  3. Business Case
  4. Project Charter
  5. Project Management Plan
  6. Scope Development, including Requirements, Constraints and Resource Identification
  7. Schedule Development
  8. Cost Estimates
  9. Quality Parameters
  10. Human Resources – Project Team and Ancillary Contributors
  11. Communication – Means and Methods including Document Protocols
  12. Risk – Identification, Assessment, Mitigation
  13. Procurement – Terms, Agreements, Contracts
  14. Stakeholder – Organizational Layout, Authority, Decision-making

It wasn’t that anyone was out to take advantage of us homeowners during Phase 1. We had a good team of people to help us get the project done. However, there wasn’t one person on that team – Architect, Engineer, General Contractor, Electrician, Plumber, etc. that was actually good at project management. It was the absence of adequate project management that proved our weakness.

Since that first project I have embarked on working professionally as a carpenter, and now, as a Project Manager. My experience in carpentry has revealed to me a significant gap in the industry of residential renovations – the absence of project management protocols based on known project management best practices.

I can now tell the story of our first renovation in light of this new understanding and commitment to contribute to changing the way this industry manages residential renovations.

renovation phase 2 getting underway

We are embarking on Renovation Phase 2. Renovation Phase 1 put a new basement under the house. This included new plumbing below the midband, and new electrical panels for the basement and the house above the midband.

Renovation Phase 2 tackles issues on the main and second floor of the house. These include completing repairs to the front porch, moving the laundry upstairs and renovating the bathroom on the second floor, and removing the old kitchen and numerous additions at the back of the house to build a new kitchen, bathroom, mudroom, and deck.

Husband and I are going to act as our own General Contractors on this project as we now have five years experience working in renovations and are pursuing our red seal qualification as carpenters. We will use our original general contractor as a consultant and hire him at mission critical moments when our technical expertise needs a boost. The architect and engineer have submitted drawings to the City for approval. When the permit is issued we will use these drawings to guide our installation. We will consult with the architect and engineer as needed to clarify terminology and resolve any discrepancies between their drawings.

We have electrical and plumbing/gas contractors that are familiar with the house. They will pull the permits for the project and oversee the work. We will work them to map routes for electrical, plumbing and gas lines. We will provide them with semi-skilled labor to complete bulk tasks for electrical and plumbing/gas installation, they will complete mission critical installations of circuits, fittings, and panels. All our work in these areas will be under the oversight of these ticketed professionals.

The fact of the matter is that this house needs a lot of renovation and repair. We do not have the funds to simply hire a General Contractor to complete the work on our behalf. Our mission is complete the work using our own labor as much as possible. We will accomplish this by working evenings and weekends while we continue to work full time as carpenters. In this way we hope to draw down the renovation funds as slowly as possible, while maximizing the amount we can accomplish toward fixing this old house.

I am going to serve as the Project Manager. I have taken the introductory course to project management at BCIT, and I have both of the industry standard references for structuring project management methods and practices. In addition, after taking the course, I realized I have decades of project management experience, going all the way back to my days as a tree planter, when I worked my way up to Contractor Assistant. In those days I worked as Quality Checker and Trainer, as well as organizing deployment of workers and trees across numerous sites.

We are excited to begin this phase of the renovations. At the outset of Phase 1 we did not have the experience or knowledge to know when or where our renovation funds were being squandered due to contractor inefficiencies. Since then, after working on fourteen different properties, and observing several styles of management, we are confident we can do a good job with both the project-related aspects of the various construction tasks, and also the project-management related tasks of stewardship over the renovation funds.

At present we are wrapping up pre-permit tasks in preparation of beginning Renovation Phase 2. A key task for this phase has been de-commissioning and removing the storage shed that was built for Phase 1. This shed had become a clutter catch-all of both useful and useless equipment, tools and materials. The process of de-commissioning has forced us to examine our inventory and make some hard decisions about what is worth keeping and what needs to be removed from the property. The process of removal has resulted in harvesting lumber that will be used to build 300 lineal feet of tree barrier fences required by the City. It feels good to re-use these materials and move the project along rather than leave the shed standing and deal with the irritation and inefficiency of not having our resources properly organized.

For project management software I am using the Omni Suite of applications: OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner, OmniPlanner, and OmniFocus. I am also using Filemaker to develop my own management apps for tracking planned vs actual costs.

I admit I have fallen behind in the tracking app development because I have done so much of that and I am very interested in learning the planning software. However, it is simply a matter of devoting time to what is needed.

Post-#renovation Recovery

For the first time since we started the renovation project in October 2011, and before that, we have a fully functioning filing system set up. All the papers that have drifted around the house in amorphous piles have been sorted, sifted, and put into labeled hanging folders. All the documents pertaining to the renovation have been collected and organized in their own two file drawers, including finalized permits, architectural drawings, product information and renovation notes.

In the process of setting up the filing system I also took down every book from the bookshelves and removed the renovation dust from each one.

Knowing what we know today, there are many, many things we would have done differently if we were to start over from scratch. This is knowledge that can only be accumulated through experience. What surprises me is that there is no way that homeowners can actually share their hard-won experience with other homeowners preparing for their first renovation journey. Yes, there are plenty of how-to sites, books, and videos available to get some idea of how to do certain tasks or procedures. There are also plenty of renovation nightmare television shows that purport to prepare the homeowner for renovating their home, but actually do not prepare them for the realities of planning, destruction, construction and recovery.

There is a dearth of writing or information about the psychological experience of undergoing a renovation: individually, in a marriage partnership, on families, pets, etc.

And another part of the renovation experience is planning for the aftermath: what were you able to afford to accomplish at this time? What are you planning to do in the next phase? What can you do now, while walls, floors or ceilings are opened up, that will prepare for that next phase, that will add very little to costs today but would be very expensive to re-open later on?

This is why I have conceived of a course for homeowners, called, “Homeowner 101”. To provide a social learning experience for homeowners contemplating renovating their houses.

Passing Final Inspection #Renovations

Yesterday morning Wallace, our awesome contractor, called to make sure I was going to be home today. He wasn’t sure, but it was possible the building inspector was going to arrive for final inspection. Knowing how anxious I feel about inspections, he gave me instructions to call him the minute the inspector arrived and he would come over to be available to answer questions.

In the middle of the afternoon the inspector arrived and I unlocked the suite to let him in. With shaking fingers I texted Wallace, “He’s here.”

Throughout the duration of the renovation there has been a package of drawings, maps, and permits we kept in a large plastic bag. In the depths of winter, with rain pouring and mud filling the excavation, the contractor and foreman would pull out the plans and survey information to make sure the foundation walls were built the correct distance from the property lines. When the house was lowered onto its new foundation walls the elevation of the midband matched the architect’s drawings of the slope and height of the grounds. When it was time to build the steps into the entryways the plans came out and discrepancies between the architectural drawings and the reality on the ground were identified and had to be resolved. When we realized the mechanical room was not going to fit where the architect had planned, and we moved it upstairs, the drawings had to travel back to the City building permits department for revisions and notations. When we moved the electrical panel from the basement to the main floor, and disconnected all the old knob and tube wiring, we had to actually open a new electrical permit for the main floor and upstairs of the house, so we could get final acceptance of the wiring in the basement.

The copies of the architectural drawings that guided our renovation also served as the official record of successive inspections and approvals. On the back of the drawings are periodic notations from the building inspector, signalling approval to move to the next level of renovation: from forms to foundation pour, from foundation pour to slab pour, from slab pour to framing, from framing to insulation, from insulation to drywall, and to finish. From unfinished windowless exterior walls to lock up, from lock up to finish.

Over the life of the renovation, this plastic bag of drawings and permits grows, with engineering reports and confirmations and successful rounds of electrical, plumbing and gas inspections.

At the beginning of the renovation, I knew these documents were important because I was told to keep them organized and handy on the jobsite. Yesterday, I finally realized how much those documents were worth. When the building inspector arrived for final inspection yesterday, he walked through the suite and admired our handiwork. He checked to make sure the overhead fan for the gas range was connected properly. He checked to make sure the french doors were installed properly. And then he asked for the collection of documents.

I pulled them out the package of papers just as Wallace arrived. As the inspector perused the history of notations Wallace confirmed the changes and the status of permits on the property. The inspector reviewed the drawings, page by page, with their highlights of changes approved by the City. He checked the collection of inspection sheets from the gas, plumbing, and electrical inspections. And he signed off on our renovation.

At that moment I realized that collection of papers not only documented the history of our renovation, they were worth more than every penny we had spent so far to accomplish this job. These documents were priceless, with their traces of the struggle marked in mud, multiple foldings, and crumpled corners.

We have our final inspection. We are cleared to apply for a permit to rent the basement suite as a secondary suite. I know there are people who can undertake property improvements under the radar and avoid getting permits because the risk of doing unpermitted work causes them less anxiety than having to go through the rigours of following City protocols. I am not one of those people. However, I am also not one of those people who feel comfortable with the random authority of City inspectors to cause undue difficulties, simply because they have the power to use their judgement for good or ill. This is where having a trustworthy contractor on your side makes all the difference in the world. I can safely say this job would not have been possible without Wallace. He shepherded us through discrepancies between architectural drawings and on the ground realities. He stick handled the entire environmental situation when the house was held hostage up in the air on cribs with a stop work order. He supported us when our financing feel apart and it seemed the entire project would be lost. He stood by us as we finished the suite, two neophyte finishers completing our first renovation. He answered his phone to answer our endless stream of questions. In essence, he trained Matt to the point where Matt is now working full time on his new job as a carpenter’s apprentice, working toward his red seal.

It is no small feat to accomplish a project of this scale, complexity, and difficulty. Especially when we did not have a well-endowed renovation money chest to begin with. But we have arrived, and we have passed final. It truly feels like a miracle of spirit, community, and the values of helping each other get things done that we could not do alone.

It took us months to figure out how to finish the kitchen around these posts.

It took us months to figure out how to finish the kitchen around these posts.