The job was rocky from the start, literally. Excavators unearthed boulders and hit bedrock. Then it started raining, which meant pumping. The $5,874 excavation budget ballooned to $15,025.
If remodeler Jim Sasko of Teakwood Builders believed in signs, this first one wasn't good. Fortunately, he knows to look deeper. About 80% of Sasko's work is in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.'s historic homes, so he always expects the unexpected. For this $363,676 cost-plus, architect-managed job, he received a wicked share of surprises. Homeowners Bernie and Linda Kastory and architect Tom Frost say their surprises were equally distressing.
Couple drafting-on-the-go with broken-down communications, site unknowns, and product-related delays, and everyone had anxiety. But despite the rocky road, homeowners, architect, and remodeler are all delighted with the outcome, envisioned by Frost and executed down to hand-planed detail by Sasko's meticulous lead carpenter Josh Rockwood.
The seven-month journey entailed knocking out an exterior kitchen wall to add a five-sided, eat-in sunroom and a mudroom that connects the 138-year old brick Victorian to its garage with a covered walkway. Now, the garage, with its color-matched brick, parapets, and stately columned artery to the main house, fits neatly in Saratoga's oldest neighborhood. Dressing the place with a $30,000 exterior trim package helps blend it right in with the neighborhood's other stately homes.
Saratoga Springs' mineral waters gave it its name, but the oldest thoroughbred flat track in America, built in 1863, made it the August retreat of New York City's gentry.
However, Skidmore College, on the city's north side, brought the homeowners to the town. Bernie Kastory, downsized in a corporate acquisition, was offered an endowed professorship for business executives. His son attended Skidmore, so he and his wife knew the beauty of the upstate New York village. Linda Kastory loved the broad street the house was on, and with its 10 rooms, three and a half baths, and 12-foot ceilings, the house had the character of a grand home, especially when sun streamed through its 9-foot-tall windows.
"It was pretty much love at first sight," Linda says. "But we hated the kitchen. And we couldn't imagine living in this climate without a garage."
The husband of the seller's real estate agent was architect Tom Frost, who has worked in the area for 26 years. Frost knew the requirements of the city's Design Review Commission and had done work for the previous owners.
"The challenge is, you have a very strong building -- simple, but it's a very strong building architecturally," says Frost of the almost Federal-style home. "It would be an easy thing to attach a garage to it and screw up that simplicity." Frost also faced the challenges of a small, 75-foot-wide lot, a stone-paved driveway, and a patio behind the house defined by low retaining walls.
Cost, plus trouble
Based on the recommendation of friends, and Frost, who had never worked with Sasko but knew him by reputation, the Kastorys picked Teakwood Builders. The cost-plus job was estimated at $260,000 and expected to take four months.
Sasko says in hindsight, setting even a target budget was a mistake. The cost-plus arrangement allowed the clients and architect freedom to add or change anything -- such as lead-coated copper gutters and a brushed stucco-like finish after drywall finishers sanded interior walls smooth -- but ended up making Teakwood look silly with a constantly changing budget and schedule.
Frost, however, likes cost-plus arrangements. "It eliminates the need to formally be doing change orders, which are bound to come up," says the architect. "If people keep track of what the goal is, and how you're doing relative to that goal, financially, I think it works fine."
Bernie Kastory says he felt comfortable with a cost-plus contract because Frost was managing construction.
But then came the bedrock, boulders, and downpour. Clay soils required new backfill so the clay wouldn't freeze and push in the new foundation walls. Sasko discovered only an 18-inch-deep stone foundation under the house where the 190-square-foot addition was planned, so a new foundation was poured under the house and pinned to the bedrock with #5 rebar. Footing and foundation costs jumped by $5,000 to $12,706. It was the start of changes that inflated the budget by $103,676 and pushed the schedule out three months.
Sasko's crew found the "design-as-you-go" plans frustrating. The Kastorys were equally frustrated with the constantly changing schedule, which seemed to stem from incomplete plans, client/architect add-ons to the plans, and unforeseen conditions.
Devil in the details
Frost takes some credit for complications: "We were doing details of stuff just before they were building it. Not ideal, but we were very busy, and the owners wanted the project to get going. So it causes some frustration for the contactor, I'm sure."
As an example, just a day before the garage slab was poured, Frost shared particulars of a wonderful detail, one that allowed the driveway's stone pavers to run to the edge of the slab at the garage doors. A lip was created by a 1 1/2-inch-square angle iron, held in place with 12-inch-long pins spaced 12 inches apart and spot welded to the iron on the inside corner. Sasko found a fabricator who stayed late that night to do the welding.
Another detail not drafted until shortly before installation was a 12-foot-long steel lintel spanning the opening of the sunroom bump out, meant to support the brick home's second-story west wall. Rockwood cut grooves in opposing mortar joints, inserted angle iron, then bolted C channel to the angle iron through the brick, sandwiching the brick in a flitch beam. He welded the angle iron to the C channel. When the brick wall below was demolished, the second floor was supported by the steel, resting on 5-inch diameter steel columns bolted to the foundation at the bottom, welded at the top, and closed within the wall. The whole maneuver was accomplished without any cracks above.
Markup vs. margin
Sasko unintentionally caused frustrations of his own. Marking the garage slab 4 inches below its proper depth when he surveyed required a second pour and another visit to the fabricator (at an out of-pocket cost of $1,200). Although the second pour had the same lip detail (pins were anchored at a shallower angle), the second slab didn't include the expansion joints of the first, so the slab cracked along the joints beneath. The cracks necessitated epoxy paint and a two-year commitment that if conditions worsened, Teakwood would be liable for repair.
Sasko also was hit by a boomerang after submitting his first invoice to Frost, noting his 1.34 markup on labor and materials. Despite Sasko's explanation to the architect and the clients early on that he would be dividing total cost of goods by .75, and a contract clause noting his 25% margin, Frost was floored when he received the first invoice, marked up at 34%, not 25%. "The term 'margin' wasn't in my vocabulary," says Frost. "It's never been in any AIA vocabulary I've ever seen."
"Don't ever try to explain what a margin is compared to a markup," says Sasko, who has changed his contract language to say he now marks up 34% on cost-plus jobs. "We all sat down. They remembered me explaining what I was doing, but they never really understood," he says.
Trim heaven -- and hell
The final phase, requiring Teakwood's signature trim work, put Rockwood's talents to use. At $70,000, interior and exterior trim was 26% of construction costs (see "Site-Made Trim" ).
The lead carpenter says building and erecting the walkway structure was easier than executing trim details of the coffered ceiling underneath. Structurally, the walkway roof is a series of trusses laid atop headers. The crew framed it on the ground then used a forklift to lower the roof into place in two pieces to rest on nine structurally rated fiberglass columns.
The curved panels in the walkway's coffered ceiling are 52 inches at their widest -- too wide for 4x8 plywood, so 5x10 "Bahama plywood" had to be ordered. That was just the first trim snag.
Then Rockwood discovered the flexible synthetic molding specified for cove or quarter round didn't compress enough on the walkway's inside radius. The molding snapped when it was installed in the cold weather, so the remainder was returned and another product ordered.
Inside, Rockwood and carpenter Ford Clark detailed a heart pine fireplace, designed by Sasko. The fireplace doors were icing on the project's cake. After four tries to get the right product delivered, the remodeler finally connected with a wholesaler who found old stock in a Wisconsin warehouse. Twelve weeks after they were supposed to, the doors arrived -- a fitting end to a fiendish project.
One for the books
Despite the gorgeous outcome and raves from neighborhood old-timers, Sasko says it's unlikely he'll do another architect-managed, cost-plus job with a target budget any time soon.
"That's where we got into trouble, by saying we could be at $260,000, based on assumptions," he says. Although the cost-plus arrangement protected his margin, he recognizes that complications may have conspired to jeopardize a long-term relationship with a client. He learned assumptions change, even beyond reasonable expectations. He'll no longer build without complete plans. But this project, with all its wicked curves, broadened his experience and that of his crew. "All in all, the end result, I love what we did," he says.
When you often install what amounts to a mile or two of trim to match moldings on late 19th century and early 20th century homes, with a dozen profiles, none stock, it pays to mill your own. On this job, to match existing moldings, Teakwood Builders put its Williams amp; Hussey planer-molder to work. Three new knives were needed to turn out the molding on the custom fireplace alone. The garage mixed a dozen custom and stock profiles, says Jim Sasko of Teakwood Builders.
The $1,700 machine has a $300 dust collection system and runs off 220-volt power. Sasko's electrician made up a 100-foot extension cord with a disconnect switch so crews can plug the machine into a 220-volt dryer or range outlet or tie directly into an electrical panel. The planer-molder can be used outside or in a trailer whose doors open front and back to allow board runs of 20 feet.
Breaking the Age Barrier
Jim Sasko, 31, worked on a framing crew in high school and studied construction engineering in college. This year, he celebrates his seventh year in business and expects to do $2 million of work.
Convincing clients he can do the job despite his age or the ages of his five leads (average is 28) is an issue. Josh Rockwood, lead on this job, is 24. "I encounter it all the time," says Sasko of age bias. "I was where Josh is when I started the business."
Rockwood started working with his carpenter father at 14. By 22, prior to joining Teakwood, he was superintendent on a $4 million school project. "I always thought it was a challenge to get respect on a job," Rockwood says. He says neither architect Tom Frost nor the Kastorys, "excellent customers," voiced problems with his age.
So how do you convince clients that your 24-year-old lead has 10 years in and can run a $360,000 project? Sasko says he earns trust by stressing the company's combined years experience working with clients in their homes. His clean-cut crews have become known for impeccable manners, courtesy, immaculate work, and attention to detail. In a town as insular as Saratoga Springs, that reputation travels.
Youth, Sasko says, helps his men bring "dedication and loyalty to the job and the energy to strive for excellence." In the end, Teakwood's craftsmanship vaults it over the age barrier.