Renovation burden requires knowledge
Thinking about being your own general contractor on that home renovation project? It can be done, says Liz Briggs, but be prepared for some sleepless nights and more than a few run-youragged days.
Case in point: The tasteful, 600-square-foot addition Briggs designed and helped build onto her Navan-area log home.
Calling on a small army of subcontractors, lining up friends for the occasional work bee, and often swinging a hammer herself, over the course of three summers, she completed the awe-inspiring project along with multiple renovations to the original home.
“You’re out there all day, helping by cutting wood or whatever you need to do,” she says.
“When everybody leaves, you clean everything up, have something to eat, then drive off to get the stuff you need for the next day’s work. Then you’re up again at 6, writing down what you’re doing that day and what you’ll need to get.”
Still, it was definitely worth the effort, she says, relaxing in an easy chair in her large, farmhouse kitchen as a wood stove rolls out waves of heat.
One glance at the addition’s slate floor, combination bathroom/ laundry room and new, upstairs’ bedroom with wide-plank pine floors and arched window proves her right.
Ditto the new windows and the handsome board-and-batten cladding on the rest of the house.
To top it off, she calculates she and her husband Robin spent less than half of what they would have had they simply contracted out the whole job.
Mind you, she did have some practice in the reno department.
Thirty-plus years ago, with Christmas just around the corner, she and her husband decided to gut the living and dining room of their century-old home.
They knew there were massive, squared logs under the plaster and lath, and they wanted to showcase them. “We’d never done anything like this before. Cold came in through the chinking. When you tried to get dressed for work (Briggs is a teacher), there was plaster dust everywhere. We thought we’d get it done in two weeks. It was more like 10 years.”
Since then, thanks in large part to her flair for design, love of wood and sheer determination — “I figured if I could sew, I could woodwork” — the old home has been transformed into a welcoming, antique-dotted gathering spot for family and friends.
She’s made built-in bookcases and cupboards for a guest room, laid pine floors and teamed up with her husband to hire subcontractors to upgrade electricity and install a new powder room.
For all renovation projects, the couple planned a budget together then cleverly divided up the labour —”We stay out of each other’s hair,” says Robin, whose role was usually to oversee excavation, do painting or sand floors.
About 20 years ago, Briggs got a taste of big-time construction when she designed and built a two-storey Christmas and gift shop on the family’s 40-hectare property.
She worked side-by-side with Navan carpenter, Gerald Grimes, whose sense of pride in what he does matches hers and who is happy to have a client work with him, provided she knows what she’s doing.
By the time Briggs was ready for the addition, she had tools, knowledge and excellent relationships with area subcontractors.
She sketched out a rough exterior image of what the finished renovation should look like, told her house insurance company what she was planning, and set off to do it.
Over the years she’d honed her research skills. There was probably nothing about windows, doors or bathroom fixtures that she didn’t know by the time she selected materials for the latest project.
In all, Briggs drew on two dozen subcontractors and suppliers for the project. That included Grimes who wound up doing the bulk of the addition and other renovations.
“It was a huge orchestration,” says Briggs. “Being your own general contractor, you have to be cognizant that the subcontractors are waiting for you. “
That orchestration, says Mike Martin, is a major reason most of us turn to a general contractor. Martin is the owner of Ottawa’s Michael J. Martin Luxury Renovations and chair of the Renovators’ Council for the Ontario Home Builders’ Association.
“It all has to go in phases. You do the electrical before the ductwork, otherwise you could end up ripping out all the ductwork to get the electrical in. That knowledge comes with practise.”
Liz Briggs’ century-old log home features new board-and-batten siding.