Taming That Multi-Tentacled Monster


Getting going on a home remodeling project can feel deceivingly simple in the beginning.  Clients usually know they want certain things, like to renovate a kitchen and to add a family room for instance.  That’s easy enough to envision, right?

But there’s more.  How about that furnace?  Is it up to the task of heating this extra square footage?  And how will you marry the new concrete foundation with your old field stone one that is, whoops, failing in some areas?  How will those new double-paned windows look next to your existing ones with the aluminum storms screwed to their frame?  If we’re adding a new roof to the addition, should we also do the rest of the roof since it’s over 25 years old?  You can see how this simple project is starting to turn into a monster.

But there’s still more.  Even setting aside those non-negotiable structural and utility issues, there will be plenty of other areas that will be calling for your aesthetic attention.  

New paint can make old paint feel very drab.  

The nice new trim you like may not match the rest of the house and you want the downstairs to look cohesive.  

Or how about that newel post that’s chronically loose?  

Or that painted 1970’s paneling in the laundry room—is it time to finally get rid of that?

I sometimes refer to this process as “project sprawl”, but the term doesn’t sit well with me.  It sounds too negative and infectious.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this process, and in fact there are many things right about it.  When managed properly and efficiently you are fully prepared for the project as it gets underway, and you should be getting more bang for your buck, not less.  So, let’s add a mudroom to that family room for instance.  Maybe you can’t afford a fancy built-in, but you can get the framework built and add some closets for a relatively small increase in cost.  A simple bench with hooks will be good for now.  You can do the fancy version when you get your next promotion.

I know it can feel counter-intuitive to be adding additional items to your renovation list, after you’ve maybe just learned you need a new furnace.  But when your project begins, there you will be, with all kinds of skilled workers traipsing through your house and disrupting your routines.  There is honestly no better time to think big picture and add a few more things to your list.  Assuming, of course, you can afford it.

At the beginning of any project, one of my first client goals is to create a Scope of Work document.  It’s where I take that wooly-booger of a project with all its tentacles and sub-projects, and break it down into groups with clear, outlined steps.  It is sort of a master plan.  And if you have been overwhelmed by this project—this is when you will start feeling better.

The Scope of Work ensures that we are all (me, my client, the contractor and his subs) on the exact same page.  It’s the document I use to get estimates with.  And it is clear enough to ensure that, with multiple estimates, everyone is pricing the same thing.

If you work with someone like me, the Scope of Work document will include “before” and “after” floor plans with dimensions marked.  It will have notes for the electrician, plumber, woodworker or wallpaper installer.  It will be detailed enough to obtain comprehensive estimates, even though I haven’t yet started designing the space in a significant aesthetic way.  I’ve got to do just enough work to know the big stuff.  Like how big that family room is, and that I want a wall of tile here, or two sconces there.  But I don’t want to start billing my design hours until we can look at some prices and see if that impacts our Scope.  So, it’s a little bit of a push-me-pull-you phase until the scope and budget get finalized.

This is my business.  I have a methodology, design software, and trade professionals I can call on for advice.  Those of you doing it on your own may bring other things to the table.  But I know you’ve got ingenuity, resourcefulness and (hopefully) some time -- so pull together your own Scope of Work.  It may not look like mine, but as a DIYer, any steps you take towards creating a similar type of document will benefit you.  Even if it’s just a list.  It’s like every other important project you take on in life—don’t skimp on the planning phase.

So go buy some graph paper and colored pencils.  Draw your existing space and map out your addition.  Think like a contractor who needs to estimate this project -- what will they need to know?  And same goes for your electrician, or plumber.  Lean on good friends who have been through a renovation and can share what they’ve learned.  Stuck on HVAC questions?  Get a professional out to pick their brain.  Google stuff.  Take notes.  Gather pictures.  Stay organized. And most importantly, stick with it.

 Your wooly booger multi tentacled monster can indeed be tamed, but you have to roll up your sleeves to wrestle it to the ground.

Will a good Scope of Work eliminate all surprises?  No, that unicorn doesn’t exist in the world of renovation.  But with the proper planning and research, the surprises can be significantly reduced.  And you will have a system in place as to how you will address them when they do arrive.

Last weekend I proudly attended my third child’s graduation from art school.  She started school somewhere else, thinking she wanted something else.  My ex and I cohabitated the graduation events with politeness and good cheer, but I was still struck by the change in how we all now define family.  

The graduation itself was scheduled as a two-hour event and went for four hours instead.  Yeesh, there is just so much in life we can’t plan for.  

But a renovation project?  Now that’s something I can plan the crap out of.  And I think you can too.

Jen Coles is a professional home designer and mother of four who lives in Manchester.  Colescoloranddesign.com

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