Years in the planning, the nearly 6,000-square-foot, copper-clad, one-of-a-kind modern home had months to go before completion when architect and general contractor Travis Price learned that the clients planned to host their daughter's wedding reception there.
“News like that comes from outer space, and wouldn't it be great?” says Washington, D.C.-based Price, whose strikingly innovative homes have been featured in media from The New York Times to Metropolitan Home. “Well, it would be great, but you're asking for a potential disaster,” he says. Or, he notes, “a potential blessing,” if all parties cooperate, from clients to trade contractors to Mother Nature.
As it happens, the late-September wedding — of which Price was one of 268 guests — was “glorious,” he says. But he won't forget the mad rush leading to it: the other projects put on hold, the long days for himself and his staff, and the intricately choreographed dance of floor finishers, electricians, plumbers, driveway installers, hardscapers, landscapers, and inspectors. “It was like one of those extreme makeover shows — a nightmare two days before, and then you're walking into the Academy Awards,” he says.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS Denny Conner of Conner Remodeling & Design, in Seattle, agrees that “special-deadline projects,” as he calls them, can be both stressful and rewarding. Babies seem to be his specialty; three clients last year were expectant parents, including one family living on a houseboat. On their “whole-boat” remodel, tensions ran especially high the day some relocated furniture caused the boat to tilt. A scuba diver was summoned to re-secure the pontoons beneath, averting disaster, but the experience reinforced Conner's commitment to practices like these:
Discover early. “Ask about schedule during the sales process,” says remodeling consultant David Lupberger. “You need to know if the [clients] want it by Christmas” — especially if it's September now. Conner has a sixth sense for babies-to-be. If the clients are a young couple, he might say: “There are lots of reasons why people want to remodel, and one of them is because they're thinking about starting or expanding their family. Are you thinking about it?'”
Map it out. Conner uses a Gantt chart to build a schedule. He shows critical path items, builds in predicted man-hours for each phase, and assesses the likely available labor pool. If his projection goes past deadline, “we'll plug in additional manpower or ask two subs to work together,” he says.
Price plots his schedules using PERT (program evaluation and review technique) software that automatically updates dependent tasks when earlier tasks are changed.
Lupberger suggests reverse-engineering the schedule. “If the baby is due January 17, go backward,” not counting days off and unknowns, such as special orders that could take two weeks or six. The starting point you reach will help you evaluate whether the client's goal is realistic — and, if so, what everyone will have to do to meet it.
Prioritize. Think design/build — not build/design — warns consultant Shawn McCadden. Never fast-track design, unless you're willing to spend time undoing mistakes you overlooked in your haste to start building. Create a “phase two” if needed. If the impetus is a baby, postpone exterior details until the interior is completed. If the deadline is a garden party, interior details may have to wait.
Agree to the terms. Lupberger suggests a week-by-week chart showing the responsibilities of contractor and client. Selections are key, so make them a condition of your proposal: what the client will select by when, and what their delays will do to the schedule, McCadden says.
Prepare clients for the possibility that some products may be off the table. Consider hinging your agreement on “standard products” that you know will arrive on time. Pre-stage if possible. If the client insists on hardware with a six-week lead time, and their deadline is in eight weeks, are they prepared to take the risk? Would they rather host a party with an old kitchen — or with a kitchen that's under construction?
Update and notify. Support your agreement with regular meetings that establish joint accountability, Lupberger says. Review status, decisions to be made, and delays that could result. Document everything, and show how many business days a change order will extend the completion date, on top of any existing change orders.
Above all, own the project. Wealthy clients may be control freaks in some aspects of their lives, but not on intense-deadline remodels, McCadden says. “Talk about who's going to control the process: you. Tell them, ‘If you want it done by this date, I set the schedule and the priorities.” Clients should let you know their goals and concerns early, and resist making changes later.
This is particularly important in the final days, Price notes. He likes the hair-salon analogy. “Your hair is washed, you're two-thirds of the way through the cut. Just chill out and lie back until the dryer is done,” he tells clients, gently steering their attention elsewhere.
Leah Thayer is a senior editor for REMODELING.