Expect the Unexpected

Major residential renovations are far from cut and dry
Photo courtesy of Kimberly Gavin

While design is a destination, construction is an experience. To endure one on route to the other is often part of the process in a large-scale residential renovation. Like every home, every renovation is a little different. Christy Wynne, of Greenwood Village, CO, and her family recently lived the experience of adding a second level to their Mid-century modern ranch on 2.5 acres just south of Denver. Among the myriad of choices to be made along the way, the decision to go Design-Build in the delivery method was the first of many significant conclusions.

“We were looking for a firm that had everything under one umbrella,” says Wynne whose family relocated to Denver from the Washington D.C. area in pursuit of the fresh-air and clean-living lifestyle that is Colorado. Having previously built one house from the ground up and renovated their current home before they moved in, Wynne had some experience with the process “This time, we were popping the top, which is complicated. There were a lot of moving parts and we wanted one central point of communication from start to finish.”

As Wynne rightly points out, when a homeowner hires an architect and a builder independently, it leaves a lot of room for finger pointing and possibly adversarial relationships when unexpected conditions arise. Along with having one back to pat or one throat to choke, the Design-Build delivery method also afforded Wynne confidence that her design expectations would translate to construction reality.

“It was important to hire a firm that understood my vision for the home,” says Wynne whose design sensibilities float between Mid-century modern and contemporary chic sprinkled with a dash of eclectic whimsy. “I loved that Factor Design Build got so excited about our project right from the start. We had no idea how to add a second story to this house. They were very excited to help visualize a solution.”

Factor Design-Build architect, Dain Carlson, enjoys that every day is a little different at his desk. He’s been in the profession for 18 years, stretching his time at Factor between hand-sketching a client’s ideas on the spot to meeting with building departments on permitting and inspectors on approvals.

“Factor is a young company, kind of a fresh situation where the ownership is flexible and open to innovative thinking,” says Carlson who has been with Factor for three years. In residential reconstruction projects like the Wynne home, the challenge is in putting together a puzzle where not all the pieces are known until it’s too late to turn back.

“The Wynne house started as a 1960s ranch that had been renovated previously,” says Carlson. “The design brief was to add a second-floor master suite with offices on either end.” While the scope may sound simple, it involves taking off half of the roof and inserting a new stair core to the first floor. For Carlson, a client with a genuine interest in design is always a positive. “It was easy to tell Christy has a very strong design sensibility, blending colors and patterns with classic, cool furnishings, and art. Her style and taste made this project a lot of fun on the drawing board.”

While what is on paper and what can be built are generally the same thing, in residential renovations on the build side of the equation, things rarely go exactly as planned. Both Wynne and Carlson advise homeowners considering a major renovation to be prepared for the unexpected. Tristan Pexton, a Sr. Project Manager at Factor, oversaw the Wynne house renovation. Like his counterpart on the design side, Pexton enjoys a challenge. The Wynne house had a doozy hidden away in the rafters.

“Whenever you are adding on vertically, there is a chance for things to get very complicated,” says Pexton. “Though we do a thorough investigation of existing conditions, some things remain unknown until demolition is underway. At the Wynne house, we discovered a huge steel beam in the roof. So large that it required a crane to remove.”

Pexton stresses the importance of strong relationships with trade partners in situations that require solutions. Getting a crane on site took several days, which were spent untangling the mass of electrical wiring running through the attic to make the home function. While the beam was unusual, the electrical was not. Wiring and cabling often accumulate in a home over time, as new technologies become available, leaving a poorly coordinated abundance of wiring in many of the homes Factor reconstructs.

Of all the potential challenges designers and builders face, expected or not, for many homeowners the biggest decision is whether to move out of the house completely during the renovation or to try to live in the house while it’s going on. Wynne choose a hybrid approach, moving her family out for the first few months but returning to live in the home once the new roof had been reconstructed.

“In a renovation where the roof is removed, people generally have to move out for a few months at least,” says Pexton. “Construction is a roller coaster though, and very few days go exactly as planned. Even after the house is dried-in, numerous trades are coming in and out all day. It’s a lot of noise, dust, vibrations, and commotion that is disruptive no matter what you do.”

Though she and her family are thrilled with the way their new home lives since the addition, Wynne agrees that trying to live through construction wasn’t nearly as easy as she imagined beforehand.

“We wanted to keep the disruption to our home life to a minimum. We decided to move out for three months thinking once the roof was on, we’d be able to live downstairs while the work went on above, shares Wynne. “In retrospect, I’d advise people undertaking this kind of thing to move out for the whole project if they can. Being in the home while so much was happening around us was difficult and a lot more disruption than living comfortably at a rental.”

Though a live-in renovation is difficult for homeowners, the team at Factor Design Build worked hard to make the experience as pleasant as possible.

“One day near the end of the build, I called our site manager to see how things were going on the Wynne house,” says Pexton. “He answers from his car and tells me he is driving the client to pick his son up from school. The repair shop extended Mr. Wynne’s car, and he needed a ride. That’s the kind of above and beyond that makes a difference in people’s day. In this industry, you have to expect the unexpected and be able to roll with whatever comes along.”

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Photos courtesy of Kimberly Gavin

Sean O'Keefe

Sean O'Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen. You can reach him at www.sokpr.com.

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