Finley Perry had worked for this Massachusetts couple often over the past 15 years, designing such straightforward projects as a basement, a kitchen, an office addition, and bathrooms. This time, though, when they asked Perry to consult on replacement windows for their vacation home in New London, N.H., he made a few suggestions that inspired the couple to take on a full gut and renovation.
"They had a real opportunity to do something interesting in design and significant in terms of a building project," says Perry, the owner of F.H. Perry Builders in Hopkinton, Mass. (Big50 1998).
To create the new design, Perry brought in architect Richard Brousseau, who came up with a fitting whole-house renovation for the rugged New Hampshire landscape. The architect added a spectacular wing perpendicular to the home's original rectangular box. This reoriented the living space to take advantage of the woodsy view and created a roof line that adds drama to both the exterior and the interior (see "New Directions").
The homeowners embraced the design and were ready to start on the project. Perry, however, wasn't ready. He didn't want his crew to make the two-hour trip from Hopkinton to New London and back every day.
Enter Tom Avallone of Cobb Hill Construction in Concord, N.H. (Big50 1999). He and Perry became friends after they met in a networking group in 1993. They were no longer part of the group but had kept in touch and had even come close to working on a project together. The remodelers decided to form a partnership to complete the New London house, with Avallone acting as the general contractor and Perry as the "clerk of the works" -- a commercial term for the owner's representative.
The project turned out beautifully, and both remodelers were proud of their involvement. The two say they would work together again but that they have learned lessons from this partnership that they would apply to future projects.
Though Avallone and Perry are successful businessmen with common ethics, their company structures reflect distinct individual styles.
Avallone works on commercial, residential, and handyman projects in the small New Hampshire market. All Cobb Hill project managers use laptops and have strong ties to the office. To run a $10-million company in a small market, Avallone and his staff travel outside the city and accept a wide range of projects, including custom homes and $160- to $200-per-square-foot remodeling projects, as well as $1- and $2-million commercial renovations.
Perry's clients, conversely, are all homeowners, and they demand high-end design and products. The company's projects average $400 to $500 per square foot. Perry's firm focuses on the "service" aspect and holds the customer's hand through the entire process, concentrating on cultivating a lifetime client. He defines his company's focus as project management. Rather than field crews, his managers rely on a strong group of subcontractors. "We are highly schedule- and budget-driven, but we allow both to evolve," Perry says.
Cost of doing business
The New London clients wanted Perry to personally oversee their project. He charged them a flat consulting fee, about 5% of the contract, which he calculated based on the number of times he would have to visit the site and the time it would take the project manager and staff to develop the project. Avallone priced and prepared it as if it were a Cobb Hill project and signed a contract with F.H. Perry. Avallone added his standard markup to the total contract price. He did so, however, without realizing that the materials and details would be more customized than those in his usual projects.
"Nothing was hard, but everything was fussy. This type of customer is new to us -- someone who wants every item the way they want it and is willing to pay," Avallone says. He estimates the project cost $400 per square foot.
Over the years, Perry has urged Avallone to increase his markup. Perry did so on this project, too -- especially since he had previously worked with both the client and the architect and knew the type of products they would use. But Avallone plans meticulously and works on a tight schedule to earn his 5% to 10% profit margins. "I may only make 7.5%, but I want 7.5, not 7.25," he says.
Perry stresses that margins are just as important to his company. "We don't write off small changes. We do, however, try very hard to be fair and to take responsibility for things we could have done better," Perry says. "We'll eat these sorts of things, or negotiate a split of costs, but we're as aggressive as anyone on extras. Our 20% margin is considered meager by industry standards, but it does allow us a reasonable net of about 8% at our volume and overhead."
Perry, Avallone, and Brousseau agree this project had an average number of change orders for a major whole-house remodel, but their total dollar amount is what surprised Avallone. He estimates the change order total came to 15% to 20% of the budget, an astronomical figure to his company.
Perry was surprised to see some of the smaller change orders -- especially with items he thought would have been included in an allowance in the original estimate. Avallone recalls a $480 change order for adding a Shaker-style rack with mahogany pegs to the mudroom. Since it wasn't in the plans, Avallone wrote up the change, but Perry found it hard to approach the clients with something he thought would be included in the allowance. Further complicating matters, Avallone, Perry, and Brousseau put off many minor decisions at the beginning of the project, which meant the homeowners had to sign several change orders at once. Avallone thinks this approach may have overwhelmed the couple.
Decision time line
As the project unfolded, Avallone feared Brousseau's plans weren't fully developed, as several details took many a phone call to resolve. True, Perry had told Avallone this was an unusual project, but the New Hampshire remodeler hadn't anticipated quite this level of detail from his evaluation of the floor plan. Perry says certain details just don't translate to paper. "My experience with architects is that 99% is on the drawing, and the other 1% is in their head and it's impossible to get it out," he explains.
Though Brousseau visited the site once a week in the first months, Cobb Hill's project managers often called him to ask about project details. "It was a major transformation and required a lot of interaction," Brousseau says. He admits he should have more consistently followed up phone calls with e-mails to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Because of their narrow margins, Avallone and his managers are aggressive about getting answers. He says where Perry might have a three-month question-and-answer period during a 14-month remodel, Cobb Hill expects to have all the answers and complete the job in nine months.
Another problem arose because two project managers worked on the house. The first, Avallone says, had a personality that was ill-suited to a back-and-forth decision-making process. So Avallone replaced the manager with someone who was better able to "go with the flow" and had good organizational and communication skills. Brousseau, however, says the switch in project managers hindered the project: "When you change PMs, you lose continuity."
One costly mistake stood out to everyone. Perry chose custom window maker Architectural Openings (AO) in Somerville, Mass., to make mahogany tilt/turn windows. The clients liked the hardware and high R-value of the high-end units and agreed to their $200,000 price tag.
Unfortunately, the windows AO made didn't fit the rough openings of the two V-shaped projections on the front and back -- windows that were to anchor the house's redirected axis. Also, the midrails between the upper and lower sash weren't aligned as shown on the plans. Perry says AO's shop drawings broke up the individual components (intended to be installed on the same elevation) onto separate sheets. "To have found the discrepancy, one would have had to really focus on all dimensional aspects of the units, not just the opening sizes," Perry says.
Perry wanted to move forward, so he asked Brousseau, Cobb Hill, and AO to split with him the cost of the $8,000 error. "You can take it to court and lose time or split the bill in the beginning," Perry says.
"I acquiesced," Brousseau says, "because it made the project flow smoothly and got us off the issue right away." But he says if it weren't for Perry, he would have fought for the manufacturer to own up to the mistake. Avallone, in turn, agreed because he wanted to enclose the house so his crew could work on the interior during fall and winter.
In dealing with these issues, Avallone and Perry now know what they'd change on future joint projects. Avallone says he'd clearly communicate the cost, contracts, and finances of the project, including establishing a mutual understanding of the margins, the change order process, costs for general conditions, and the timetable on decisions. Unlike with this project, he'd make sure he was directly involved with the homeowner.
Avallone says he presented issues and changes to Perry, who in turn would present them to the clients. He thought the additional layer affected communication. "We worried -- were the change orders being presented to them fairly and accurately?" Avallone recalls. Had the project been set up from the beginning as a "handoff," he adds, perhaps the customers would have bonded with Cobb Hill as their contractor. For his part, Brousseau thought having Perry make decisions would benefit Avallone, because Perry could avoid the learning curve regarding the clients' financial and quality tolerance.
On his next shared project, Perry says he'll have the homeowner sign directly with the other remodeler to benefit cash flow. In this case, he had a contract with Cobb Hill and paid them directly. "At the end of the project, we paid Avallone the last 40K, but the client didn't pay us for two months. In essence, it was on our books and we were floating Cobb Hill a 40K loan," Perry says.
Perry would also make sure both remodelers make enough money on the project. His finance department had admonished him that the New London setup wasn't profitable and wasn't a good business decision. Perry looked at it more as a quality-of-life issue. "I was involved with a client I liked and a contractor I respected," Perry says.
Perry appreciated the fact that Cobb Hill could move quickly and put more subs on the job to stay on schedule. "It was faster than we would have been able to do it," Perry says. Avallone, too, was pleased. "Finley has a great mind and his company has a great reputation. It was a pleasure to learn from another guy who has a lot to offer," Avallone says.
In the end, Avallone says, the house is stunning and the clients are satisfied. "There was pride in not only working together but in doing a house this beautiful together."
Wedged into a steep, wooded slope, this vacation home provided a rustic escape for its out-of-state owners. But despite the picturesque environs, the original floor plan was a functional disaster, according to the architect who took on its renovation. Rather than embracing the home's surroundings, the drab, rectilinear design limited visual access to the landscape. "The house sort of turned back in on itself," architect Richard Brousseau says. "When you were inside, you really felt like you were totally enclosed."
By adjusting the structure's geometry, Brousseau radically revised what was a flawed, uninspired design. To free the house from its confining boxiness, he drew plans to demolish the core of the original building. He then reoriented the newly open central interior, setting the flooring on a diagonal that reaches to the back of the home. This created longer sight lines that both open and direct the interior space toward the landscape.
To accentuate the new orientation, Brousseau replaced the original block configuration with a series of 45-degree angles that direct the eye outside. With its columns of windows and a surging, angular roof line outlined by a V-shaped deck, the rear addition carries the concept through to the frame. "Introducing windows and creating a really elaborate deck captures the exterior and brings it into the house," says Brousseau.
Stretching outward to the east and west, the cantilevered roof also improves what were uninviting north and south elevations. Approaching the home from the garage (on the north side), Brousseau says, "the original elevation was quite bland, and there was no pedestrian access to the front door."
"Now," Brousseau says, "when you drive up to the house, you know where to go."
Maze of Steel
Guided by a laser transit, the crew set steel base plates into wet concrete footings, then fit the 4x4x1/4-inch tube steel columns onto 1/2-inch anchor bolts shop-welded to the base plates.
To fit custom corner windows between the columns, Cobb Hill had to set the steel within a 3/4-inch tolerance. After setting the horizontal beams with a crane, the crew framed the walls and roof around the steel. Cobb Hill framed the cantilevered gable roofs around a system of steel beams and columns. Two parallel beams form the gable ridges (a W10x22 for the west ridge and a W10x35 for the longer east ridge). The ridge beams are supported by a W10x35 beam running perpendicular to the gables through the house's center and at their cantilever ends by W8x40 "jack beams" bolted to tube steel columns.
W8x40 jack beams were delivered in three pieces and site-welded at the angle of the rafters so they wouldn't penetrate the roof plane or cathedral ceiling. Cantilevered W6x25 outriggers were overlapped 3 feet and welded to the ridge.
Perry knew that the homeowners had an opportunity to create spectacular results by working with Hopkinton, Mass., architect Richard Brousseau. Brousseau reoriented the house by adding a perpendicular wing with front and back expanses of glass to take advantage of the scenic views. Avallone and his crew worked closely with Perry and Brousseau to bring this finely detailed plan to life. Though the two were friends, Perry and Avallone had never before worked together on a project.
Forty-five-degree angles lead the eye through a corner window to views of the front yard. Diagonal flooring extends toward the rear, where the angular roof line and V-shaped deck thrust the house into the surrounding landscape. Brousseau says the striking roof line and frame design grew naturally out of his initial effort to improve views of the front and rear yards. "Form followed function in this case," he says. "The solution to the interior drove the configuration of the exterior." Inside and out, Brousseau's intricate design demanded a high level of technical precision from remodeling firm Cobb Hill Construction.