The Team Theory of Remodeling

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(Warning: if you are the type of person who believes that fighting is the only way to get what you want out of life, please do not read this article as it could disrupt your entire way of life).

If you are embarking on a remodeling project, it's hassle enough to have to pull out your credit card twenty eight times in one week, to find unfamiliar, sweaty men smashing up your home (your old cabinets anyway) one bright morning, or to discover that your new $6000 fridge, finally delivered four weeks late, is the wrong one. You don't also need a battle with a contractor. You need, instead, team spirit.

Let's imagine that you find a contractor who has the skills and willingness to execute the project you envision. Part of you would love to have the guy do everything, figure out everything, buy everything, while you could go to Bali for a month and come home to a fabulous new kitchen that is exactly what you want. Of course, most of us don't have the kind of dough this theoretical guy charges to do it all, and, more to the point, some of us like the idea of choosing and deciding and creating our own outcomes.

The key to a successful, efficient, happy and minimal-stress remodeling project is to be the captain of your remodeling team, the most vital player and he/she who calls the shots, sets the plays, and gets carried on the shoulders...well, probably not, even though you will win with this approach.

We are expert remodelers. Robert alone has over 30 years of hands-on home building and remodeling experience. We've installed over 600 IKEA kitchens. And you have to know quite a bit to pass the California State contractors' licensing exams. But we also know that you, the customer, know what you want, and are the key player in the "game" of getting a new kitchen (or any remodeling project). The way we see it is that our expertise is for you, the homeowner, to use, to acquire knowledge from, to consult, and to count on to skillfully execute the plays that you call.

One purpose of our kitchen planning service is to start to build the team. For the homeowner, getting questions answered, getting professional design help and getting a contractor in to inspect and provide a bid are vital and we do these things thoroughly for them. But when we send our contractor and designer to meet with the homeowner, our primary purpose, beyond providing the initial knowledge and assistance the homeowner needs, is to find out what the homeowner actually needs and wants. We've done hundreds of projects, many of them a lot like the one we did the week before. But we never know what any individual homeowner actually needs and wants and requires. We have to find out each time.

And thus, communication is the elixir in all remodeling. Good and abundant (and business-like and/or friendly) communication can keep your costs down significantly, can get your project completed weeks earlier than you thought possible, can result in a much more beautiful result and it can, surely and definitely and every time, minimize stress, upsets and confusion, which can bring about extra expense, delays and dissatisfaction.

What is a team, after all? It's a group of people who coordinate. And who communicate. And who then communicate more. And thus coordinate better. And then, just because it proves hugely successful, they communicate even more.

You might be thinking that you could simply call the fantasy contractor, the one who is "doing it all," from Bali. If you called every fifteen minutes, that would be a lot of communication. Since, intuitively, you know this is not going to work, there must be some other ingredient that, added to communication, ensures a win.

That ingredient is responsibility, that 100%, bottom line, buck-stops-here point of view that you take for your project. This is not to say the members of your remodeling team are not also responsible. To the contrary, each team member--contractor, designer, crew member, husband and wife, even IKEA or Pacific Sales or Home Depot, need to be 100% responsible also. But unlike you, the captain of the team, each of these players may not see the entire project, may not have the insight and oversight and resultant foresight, and commitment and vision that you have, in regard to your project.

If your wife, or husband, is only peripherally involved with the project, she/he still needs to know what’s going on, what it's going to cost and when and how long it's going to take. He/she must somehow align his/her own activities and intentions so as to help, and not hinder, your goal. In this way, that significant other is significantly responsible. If not, invite them onto the team officially.

And your contractor, is, always, 100% responsible for the quality of his work and communication, for the meeting of deadlines, for prompt and friendly customer service. He is responsible for ensuring you have the full benefit of his expertise and knowledge.

However, a contractor (none I know) cannot read minds. He cannot see through walls. And though he may be utterly expert and well-intentioned, he is human and fallible and has other projects and his own life, on his mind. He is, no matter how charming, muscular (and maybe know-it-all), merely and factually your EMPLOYEE, someone you have hired to help you. Tell him what to do, let him know your expectations, ask for his help and cooperation, and let him do his job without undue interruption or micro-management. But don't make the mistake of thinking that you are the employee, the junior party to this project, or that your contractor knows what you want before you tell him, and will do what you want without your instructions, your supervision, your explicit communication, and your feedback, day to day, hour to hour even. Ensure he has good intentions but don't assume he knows what you want, ever, in any detail, or, that he is omniscient in general. A good approach to working with your contractor could be this: if it hasn't been discussed and ALSO put in writing, it doesn't exist and won't happen.

Because our company offers customers an initial comprehensive planning service, and because we communicate a lot and quickly, there is the liability of inadvertently leaving the customer with the sense that "it's all taken care of."

Here is (made-up) customer Joe. We meet with him and his wife, Mary, and design a great new kitchen for them. It's a medium size project, including tearing down two walls to open the kitchen and dining room to the family room area. There is re-wiring, some venting work needed, flooring to install, some tilesetting. Our typical project, in other words.

Mary works full time plus, and Joe, who works at home (online investments), is going to be the primary person working on the project. Joe has a thick folder by the time we come for the planning meeting. He has appliance specs, pictures of kitchens from magazines, drawings he's done of his ideas, lists of stuff and competitive price lists for items he and Mary need to buy (tile, appliances, flooring, paint, handles, light fixtures, sink).

As Robert (contractor) walks through the downstairs with him, Joe is taking notes. He hasn't thought of how many outlets he'll need, whether he wants a water line run under the house for a pot filler for his new sink, or if his existing venting is going to have to be adapted for the chimney hood he has already bought. These are just examples of the issues that contractors bring to a homeowner's attention. They affect kitchen layout options, costs, and functionality and enjoyment of the kitchen-to-be. If they haven't been discussed however, don't assume your contractor is planning or handling them for you. Ask. Take all the time you need, ask all the questions you want, because the guy is your employee, after all.

After the meeting, Joe continues to look into each of the new aspects of the project Robert has brought to his attention. Joe is new to remodeling, but he's done other type of projects in his life and knows that attention to detail and control are key to getting the result. He knows he is the boss.

During the project, as the old kitchen is torn out and new stuff goes in, Joe is around the house most of the time. He works upstairs while the crew is downstairs, but he's there. He talks to Robert every morning and comes in each day as the guys are cleaning up and his excitement shows as things start to change. He asks questions, and makes decisions as new issues or options, arise. He knew he didn't know everything and is prepared for the commitment a team captain makes.

Joe's project was a big success. He quietly tells us his new kitchen looks better than his neighbor's $86,000 kitchen remodel. Joe spent $18,500 with all new, top of the line IKEA cabinets in kitchen and dining room, high quality appliances, Silestone counters, elegant floor tile and backsplash, and new and much better and safer electrical and lighting through all the downstairs of the house.

Customer Alice (also made-up) was different. She's a very busy mom and after a flood from the upstairs condo unit, had to replace her kitchen. We came to do her planning and she was sure the kitchen footprint should stay the same (possibly an instance in which deferring to the experts would have been smarter). She ordered her cabinets via fax from the first layout draft, and on the first morning of the installation, gave Robert a key and a check and drove off.

Now, usually, this type of project goes fine. If something comes up, Robert will call the customer and they figure it out together. In this (made-up) scenario, the only problem was that we started the installation on Thursday and Alice told herself, despite the timeframe noted on her contract, that it would take two days. She had 26 cabinets, cabinet lights, and tile to set so this was not a good prediction. On Friday afternoon, she walked in and got upset upon learning that tile cement has to sit for 24 hours before grouting. The kitchen would not be done that day! Robert had also told her that corroded plumbing lines behind the sink would have to be changed out. This is not something you can see until after the demo, but Alice got upset about this, too. We should have known, she said.

We got this job done on Monday afternoon after Alice got a plumber in to replace the rusted out pipes on Saturday morning. The kitchen was beautiful. But we didn't get a big thank you (or a hug...). Maybe it is simply that we failed to help and guide Alice to take responsibility for her project. We are the experts and maybe, just maybe, this is part of our job.

To you, the reader, it's pretty obvious that those rusted pipes are Alices's, not the contractor's. But in the middle of a project, under a time or money crunch, it sure can be easier to blame someone else. But that is usually only true for those who quickly resort to fighting (or, in the same category, antagonism) to get what they want.

As contractors, we are 100% responsible for the results we get, but when we walk out the door for the last time, leaving a beautiful new kitchen behind, the homeowner, from that point, and rightfully, takes all the credit. A responsible, communicative homeowner, who knows he/she is the captain of the team, and who uses and controls his/her team members effectively, cheerfully and knowledgeably, really deserves the win.

If you'd like to discuss your project with me, I can offer you a free, 30-minute phone consultation. Here's my calendar, just pick a time that works for you.