Kacey Fitzpatrick, president, Avalon Enterprises, Mountain View, Calif.
The project: Fitzpatrick converted her ranch house into what she calls a "Craftsman Nouveau" house in six phases of work over two years. She incorporated green or sustainable building technologies, such as bamboo and cork flooring, photovoltaic panels, and a tankless water heater.
The design: Fitzpatrick is the lead designer for her company, so it was only natural for her to design her own house. But on this one, "I did not keep to strict timelines on decisions, and documentation was not always thorough," she says. "The project was not given the same level of professional attention that we give customer-paid jobs."
The construction: Fitzpatrick hired her company and assigned a new project manager to the job. "I wanted to train him and check on his management abilities," she says. "It was a good learning opportunity for him."
She set up weekly meetings, included her job in the company schedule, and placed it on the books.
"The company gave me a discount in exchange for the marketing opportunities the remodel would provide," she says. (She frequently takes prospective clients through the house.)
The experience: Fitzpatrick did not plan all the details in the beginning, so the scope of the project increased and it took longer and cost more than she anticipated -- something she has in common with many of her clients. "I was reminded of how important it is to do thorough planning up front, and to keep the project on a fast timeline," she says. "The longer you are in someone's home, the harder it is to create satisfaction, because of the emotional drain that occurs."
She lived in the house during the remodel and experienced many of the same disruptions as her clients. "I have designed my company to try to minimize homeowner irritations, but there are some that are just unavoidable during remodeling. This allowed me a fresh perspective. Having someone else in charge was a new experience, due to the sense of lack of control," she says. "This provided great opportunities for me to educate my staff very clearly on how their actions affect the homeowner, and thereby enhance their sensitivity to the concerns."
The changes: Fitzpatrick implemented some changes to improve customer service.
* "No matter how clean the jobsite is, it can always be cleaner," Fitzpatrick says. She now aims for "dust-free" remodeling with daily and weekly site cleanup, housekeeping services during the remodel, and a powerful fan that vacuums dust particles during the messy phases of demolition, drywall, and flooring installation. "We also work hard to create a temporary wall that is framed and drywalled between the remodeled space and the living space," she says.
* Fitzpatrick began using more rigorous job documentation to update clients on the progress of the job. In addition to standard weekly meetings, on some jobs they update the clients on a daily basis; on others they provide a weekly e-mailed job report. "Having information allows our clients to feel like they know what the plan is, even if they are not in control," Fitzpatrick says. "This is comforting." This communication is especially important for clients who keep expanding the scope of their job.
Craig Durosko, president, Sun Design Remodeling Specialists, Burke, Va.
The project: Durosko and his wife purchased a 100-year-old farmhouse in 1988 and spent the next five years fixing up the 1,800-square-foot house, room by room. They recently took on the last and largest phase, which included a 3,600-square-foot addition, a 1,400-square-foot unfinished basement, and a three-car garage.
The design: Durosko worked with one of the designers in his office to come up with a plan for the intense last phase. They built 3-D models to make sure the addition fit the existing house. "It was a struggle to come up with a design that balanced what we wanted and our budget," Durosko says. "We experienced all the same emotions as our clients." Durosko took this opportunity to experiment with new technologies including lighting control, a whole-house audio system, and smart wiring.
The construction: Because he was expecting 20% growth this year, Durosko did not want to take away from the company's resources. He paid a retired builder a monthly fee to act as his production manager, and he asked the builder to implement Sun Design's processes.
"I wanted to go through the same experience as my clients and see where things go wrong," Durosko says. The construction work was done using a combination of Sun Design subcontractors and some new subs the project manager had used. Toward the end of the project, they used some of Sun Design's trim carpenters. "I made sure I didn't cut into Sun Design resources," he says. "And all the accounting and billing was completely separate."
The experience: Because it was an addition, the crew was able to board up the connection to the existing house so the family was not inconvenienced through construction.
Durosko says trying the new products and technology will be good for his crew and his clients. "It allowed me to experiment during the design phase. I hope to be able to bring these experiences to clients and our designers," he says.
The changes: After finding the rough spots, Durosko hopes his company will go to the next level in customer service.
* The experience reinforced the value of the weekly meetings Durosko already holds with clients. "Because it was my own house, I figured I would talk to the production manager as needed," he says. "But I found that to be sporadic and overwhelming."
* Durosko has also become stricter about Sun's existing policy of having clients make selections prior to construction. "It's stressful to see the project moving ahead and then rush your selections," he says.
* He also spends more time talking to clients to prepare them for the emotional roller coaster.
* As the company increases its dependence on subs, Durosko wants to improve subcontractor relations. He says he now understands how much easier it is to deal with subs who "get it."
Scott Hanley, owner, Scott Hanley Custom Remodeling, Portland, Ore.
The project: In several phases, Hanley and his wife remodeled almost every room in their house. They also converted the attic into a master suite and transformed the garage into a state-of-the-art office wired with fiber optics.
The design: Hanley hired an architect to complete the layout and also hired an interior designer to help them choose colors and finishes. Because his wife was very involved in the design, Hanley considered her the "remodeling client."
The construction: The project took considerably longer than expected because Hanley decided it wasn't sensible to divert his crew to his house. Instead, Hanley did a good portion of the work. "I chose parts of my house construction that I was especially interested in or particularly good at," he says. "I participated directly in about 30% of the construction."
The experience: "Working with your wife teaches you a whole new way to work with clients," Hanley says. "You don't want to add tension to family relationships because of remodeling issues," he explains. Also, because his wife is not a remodeler, she had questions about why things could or could not be done. "I had to make more of an effort to provide comprehensive understanding so she would feel comfortable," he says. He learned how to better communicate with clients and the importance of full-disclosure of information.
The changes: Hanley chose to make two major changes to improve communication with clients and help them make more informed choices.
* Hanley completely overhauled his estimating system. He now includes a line item for every product or material. For example, in the past, the company included the cost of towel bars under "plumbing fixtures." Now, he lists them on a separate line. "I relearned how important it is to provide accurate and detailed information to the client," he says. On his biweekly invoices, Hanley lists the original estimate, how much has been spent, and in what areas the budget exceeds the allowance. "Many contractors don't like to do this because it exposes where they have underestimated," he says. "But I do it because it saves tension in the end."
* Hanley now takes customers shopping for products, which he says allows him to see what they really like and build the project around those items. "We contractors tend to direct our clients in ways that make it easier for us," he says. "That is not good service." It takes time to shop, but he says the investment is repaid with happier clients and a better project. If the clients are new to remodeling, he takes them shopping before the design process. For more experienced clients, he sends them to a few showrooms for ideas and then returns with them to discuss the pros and cons of their choices.