24 August 2010

There's Always Something

One of the lessons I have learned most thoroughly throughout the renovation process so far is this: there is always "something".  Something difficult, something unexpected, something impossible or something more expensive.  Even in a small project like ours (small on a real estate/floor space scale, not a financial one), we discovered new "somethings" on what felt like a daily basis.  Examples?  Sure, I have a few:

  • Carpenter ants: In hindsight we probably should have known we had them, but who knew that those medium-sized black ants that we would find occasionally sauntering around our kitchen like they owned the place were just the smaller, scrappy carpenter ant scouts?  The exterminator, that's who.  To us they just looked like regular ants, and all the time we thought they were harmless they were eating through our ceiling joists making cosy little nests for themselves.  As a result of their squatting in our walls and attic, we had to replace nearly an entire joist and construction was delayed for slightly less than a week.
  • Asbestos insulation: Yes, asbestos.  From the 1920's through the 1970's, a mineral substance called vermiculite was commonly installed in newly built residential properties as insulation.  Vermiculite was produced in two varieties: one in large, chunky pieces and the other in small granules.  Both were used in conjunction with yellow (or what is now generally pink) fiberglass insulation, and was designed to fill any pockets between the joists and/or framing that the less flexible fiberglass couldn't get into.  Sounds great, right?  Yes, except the smaller of the two varieties - the granular insulation - "decomposes" (for lack of a better term) over time to create dust.  Asbestos dust.  This dust is not an issue or a danger to anyone so long as it's left alone and remains undisturbed, however pulling down the ceiling and yanking out the old insulation does not count as "leaving it alone".  The second our contractor discovered it, work halted for more than a week.  If we wanted our project to move forward AT ALL, EVER, we were now on the hook for an environmental team to tent our property, remove the hazardous materials and completely re-insulate the entire 1100 square foot house to the tune of $10K+.  For a 9x6 foot bathroom.
  • Suppliers: Don't be lulled into thinking that because you're working with a general contractor, you won't have issues with sub-contracted trades or suppliers.  This is not true and knowing/expecting as much may help you maintain perspective and remain calm while putting out similar fires.  It is not a given that your contractor will always see eye-to-eye with his or her tradespeople, and it is not impossible for challenges that develop on other jobs to impact your own.  Our own contractor is currently in the midst of a dispute with his stone supplier.  While it has nothing whatever to do with our job - our slab is still sitting in the stone yard with a sticker on it with our name, waiting for instructions - the dispute has ramifications on our job by preventing us from moving forward.  Until the core dispute is resolved, the stone supplier won't move forward on our work, and this element (and any other elements dependent on this element) of our job is at a complete and utter standstill.

What is especially frustrating about a "something" is that you have very little, if any, control over it.  Had we known about our "somethings", would we have approached the project differently?  Certainly.  More money in the bank, for one, and improved communication with our contractor (who I am sure to this day suspects we deliberately withheld the asbestos information).  That we didn't have a thorough understanding of our house and its potential challenges handicapped us in the long run, but was instrumental in teaching us to take the hits as they come.

I have heard it frequently said that the secret to avoiding disappointment is to keep your expectations low.  The strength of my belief in this sentiment fluctuates on a day-to-day basis but the basic premise is sound advice: hope for the best but prepare for the worst.  Some suggestions to help improve your renovation experience:

  • If you did not have a home inspection done on your property at the time of purchase, do one before starting a major renovation.  This will help identify any major structural issues which may impact your reno.  If you did have an inspection, provide a copy to your contractor in advance
  • Create a photo diary of every area of your house:
    • Climb up into your attic and take digital photos of your insulation and joist-work.  Identify support walls, and where the joists change direction
    • Create a detailed sketch of your floor plan, and mark all support walls, joist directions, venting and/or pipes
    • Shimmy around any crawl spaces or cold cellars you may have.  Take photos of everything, but pay particular attention to water damage or mold
    • Photograph mold in any area(s) of your house and note the color and range (how far it has spread) of each spot
  • If you have insect issues, spend 90 days prior to the start of your reno documenting when you see them, and where.  Try to identify any access points in your home, so that if you do need to call an exterminator throughout the process, you can direct him accordingly.  Small children are especially good at this (not kidding - only a three-year-old has the patience to follow an ant for two hours) so enlist the help of your younger children to source out any insect interlopers
  • Share your photo file with your contractor before the start of your renovation.  Had we been able to provide photos of our insulation before they tore down the ceiling, the removal process could have been managed in a planned, organized fashion versus the frantic evacuation we did experience

Forewarned is forearmed: knowing what to expect before the first hammer flies may not prevent issues from occurring, but will certainly help you manage your response to them.