March 22, 2023

Rebuilding From the Inside Out

I recently made an instagram post about the benefits of doing full-gut remodels. This is a term that is often thrown around loosely, but as always it is not always apples to apples. For years I worked my tail off to be able to find a customer base that would support these full-gut remodels rather than partial demolition. For example, early on in my career I would have to consider partial demolition projects to remain on budget or suit the financial needs of my customers. For example, if I am doing a kitchen, I find it best practice to fully gut the space rather than selectively demo areas that are required to be removed for the project. This model would save time, cut costs, and be more appealing to the cost-conscious customer. Truth be told, I am probably the latter, but that is not who I want to work for with my business model.

Why is it important for me to serve my customers with full-gut remodels? I want to be providing a top tier service with a product that not only looks great, but is also durable. I want to be able to control every detail of a renovation from wall framing, flatness, insulation, utilities, and finishes. Without peeling back every layer, I am bound by existing constraints, and our design must fit into this mold. I am required to legally warranty a project as well, so it behooves me to control every aspect of a project without relying on existing conditions. 

So what does this mean for a typical remodel? Let’s look at a master suite renovation that I did a few years ago. The scope of work was to expand an existing bathroom, add an additional bathroom, and renovate an existing bedroom. Obviously we had to gut the bathroom areas to relocate utilities, but we also wanted to ensure we had plumb, flat, level, and square walls/floors for tile. Gutting these spaces to the studs is a no-brainer and non-negotiable for me regardless of the age of the home. Now the bedroom area was to remain fairly intact and any new lighting or utilities could be added without disturbing too much of the existing walls and ceilings, but was that the best choice?

When we provided the customer budgeting to completely gut the bedroom area to the studs, they initially wanted to remove that from the scope. They did not see the value in peeling it all back, just to redo it. They said they were okay with cosmetically updating the space in order to save money. Some of my concerns to that approach were that the walls were in rough shape, the ceiling framing was far from flat or level, the plaster was cracking in many areas, we had no idea as to what the insulation looked like on the exterior walls, and it seemed we were wasting money by patching the issues rather than fixing them. The argument on my end was that we were going to renovate half of the space completely, and this  would make the bedroom area look ratty when juxtaposed to the bathroom areas. We would still have to spend money addressing insulation, fixing plaster, painting, etc in the bedroom area, so why not just start over? It would be worth the cost upgrades in the end.

I want to ensure that everyone understands that I am a huge proponent of preserving old details, but at what cost? At what liability to myself or my company? Do we leave the walls intact and then deal with an unhappy customer because cracks reappear six months down the road? Do we assume the exterior walls are insulated well enough and just deal with leaky windows? Do we spend days repairing old trim or sealing lead-based paint or do we recreate what was there with something new? Do we install brand new cabinetry in a space that is not flat, plumb, level, or square with irregular scribes or mouldings? It comes down to what you want for your business and what services you want to offer.

For myself I want to start over from scratch. I want to peel it all back (even the bedroom) and replace everything that can be replicated or duplicated without a loss of character or charm. Here is my delineation for this project. The plaster can be removed and replaced with drywall without compromise. The framing can be sistered or flattened to provide a more uniform substrate for finishes. The moulding was not completely intact or in great shape as well as being covered in lead based paint, so replicating this was the best choice and fairly easy given the original profile. All of the accessible plumbing and electrical was updated or replaced. Who knows the next time we would have an opportunity to do this, and the last thing I need is to finish a project and then have plumbing or electrical fail. The doors would be salvaged due to age, character, and charm. We sanded and scuffed the finish, sealed the old paint, and then repainted the doors. The hardware was cleaned, polished, serviced, and reused. The 4’ cast iron tub was wet-sanded, polished, and then buffed rather than reglazing. The one-hundred year old straight-grain heart pine floors were protected and then refinished to retain the character of the original home. Finally the windows on this home were serviced, prepped, repaired, and repainted. 

On this project we salvaged details that would be impossible to recreate, were cost-prohibitive to recreate, or contributed to the heritage of the home. We chose to be stewards of the home and preserve details that needed to be preserved while managing the budget. We elected to replace everything else. New framing, new insulation, new drywall, new tile, new plumbing, new hvac, new electrical, new cabinetry, etc. At the end of the day the charm of the old home was retained through the salvation of hardware, doors, flooring, and the cast iron tub, but the space was otherwise completely updated. When walking into the space it has all of the charm of an old home through details, design elements, finishes, and stylings, but brought up to today’s standards throughout the renovation. The new space was clean, vibrant, healthy, and safe while maintaining the old home charm. I felt confident offering a two year warranty and standing behind all that we did. 

Finding the customer base who is willing to upgrade and go the extra mile can be a difficult feat depending on your market. It took me many years to develop the systems, processes, and confidence to dig my heels in and push back when customers wanted to cut scope in order to preserve or maintain budget. I am not opposed to value-engineering a job or certain details, but not at the expense of my reputation, liability, or warranty. You must understand what is important, and what is not and be a steward for the old home and your customer’s best long-term interest. At the end of the project my customers were so pleased to have completely gutted the space to the studs. They thanked me numerous times for convincing them to spend the extra money, and they admittedly now understood why I chose to do it. 

- Tyler Grace