Mark Robert Halper Photography

I completed my last project as a contractor in the spring of 1991, just before I joined the staff of one of Remodeling’s sister publications, The Journal of Light Construction. We were in a recession (the third in 20 years) and money was tight, so the contract was to frame and dry-in a custom home for a retired Army chaplain and his wife who planned to install systems and finish the interior themselves. They had put a foundation in the ground 10 years earlier and capped it with joists and rigid foam, then had camped at the site for a couple of weeks every summer since, planning their dream home.

Two things about the project stand out in my memory. One is the inauspicious start. The first day on the job, we removed the temporary “roof” from the foundation. For a decade, it had kept the contents of their basement campsite warm, dry, and safe. The very next day, a late April storm dropped 18 inches of snow on the site. We spent day three shoveling and drying everything out.

Underlying Structure

The other detail I remember is how impressed the chaplain was with the level of craftsmanship — all of the framing cuts and joints were clean and tight. It was obvious he was happy to be working with a company that took pains with the fit and finish of structural building elements that would not be visible once the finished surfaces were applied.

In boom times, it’s easy for the dazzle of surface elements to obscure the importance of the underlying structure. Today, the spotlight is back on behind-the-wall fit and finish.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the contrast between the stimulus bill and the Retrofit for Energy and Environmental Performance (REEP) Program Act — part of the Waxman-Markey bill currently pending in the Senate.

The stimulus bill was designed as much to boost spending as to reduce energy consumption, so it is prescriptive: Buy a product that meets the standard and collect your rebate. But to get REEP credits, homeowners will have to demonstrate that the retrofits they’ve made have improved their home’s performance. The greater the improvement, the higher the credit. That will shift the focus to good craftsmanship and attention to detail in the basement, in the attic, and behind the drywall, where elements hidden from view — insulation, air sealing, and the like — make for the steepest reductions in energy use.

The Craft of Business

The resurgence of interest in energy efficiency has underscored what remodelers have known all along: Craft is important. That also applies to how remodelers run their businesses. The same fundamentals that underlie the craft of building — accuracy, efficiency, consistency, attention to detail — also underlie the craft of business.

But for some reason, many remodelers who won’t tolerate a “close enough for government work” attitude on the jobsite are sloppy in their office. What systems and procedures they have are wasteful and inefficient, what little planning they do is short-term, and what little attention they pay to detail is focused more on starting the next job instead of making sure that the current job is properly closed out.


Though some of you may already be tired of hearing me say this, I’m going to say it anyway: The remodeling business has changed and is still changing. For many, it is already almost unrecognizable. More than anything, what goes on behind the scenes will be the key to surviving the next eight months.

This recession is not the typical boom-bust-boom cycle. It has been transformative. Like the chaplain’s foundation campsite, the lid is off and we are shoveling out from under a snow storm that caught us all by surprise. Everything that kept us warm and dry and safe for the last 10 years no longer works.

Although the economy seems to be showing signs of life, I think it’s going to be a long hard winter, and when we come out the other side, the landscape is going to look a lot different. Remodeling businesses that tighten up their underlying structure will be the ones that are best prepared to meet the challenge.

How’s your business fit and finish?