The Springhouse Renovation #2: Working with an Architect and Choosing A General Contractor

After carefully considering the pros and cons of purchasing The Springhouse, we uncharacteristically ignored logic and bought the property! Frankly, we were uncertain about our plans for it, but now it was ours so onward we go!

The Challenge of Uncertainty

Not having a clear destination has made choosing a path challenging. Would one of our children take interest in buying it once it was completed? Would we opt to sell it or perhaps rent it for a time? We would have to be okay with these unanswered questions. Adding to our stress was the questionable condition of the property (it was listed with the condition “as is”), our resolve to make a beauty out of this mess was on shaky ground more times than I care to remember. I woke up many nights thinking we had made a huge mistake. My worst fear was that we now owned a complete disaster that would either be unsellable or would end up putting us in the hole financially.

Nevertheless, it was ours so there was no option but to move forward. We knew the renovations would be extensive and working with an architect was an absolute necessity. We also needed to find the right general contractor who would be the right fit for this kind of project.

Starting From Scratch

For all of our previous renovation projects, we lived in a different area of the state where we had lots of connections and experiences that made it easy to know where to turn when a need arose. We relied on one contractor that we trusted and had worked with on several big renovation projects. In those days, Steve and I would have an idea for a renovation, draw up plans on graph paper, and hand it to our contractor. He would take it from there to produce drawings for permits with construction details. But now we were starting from scratch.

Here are some pictures of one of our previous home renovations years ago when an architect was not required. Of course, you can tell by the van in the driveway that these are from awhile ago!

A previous renovation project…back when we did the demo ourselves.
The same house being rebuilt.

Meeting with an Architect

Working with an architect was an absolute necessity on a project of this complexity. Because we had never worked with an architect before, I was intimidated by the prospect. We found a reputable architect near us and set up our initial consultation. Of course, his first question was, “How do you plan to use the property?” Ugh! Although it was a completely valid question, it made me feel a little sick to know we had taken on this huge project without a clear roadmap.

I had to get past this wishy washy, directionless approach to finalizing a design and to be able to move forward.

Finding Direction and Peace

In order to move forward, knew I had to find a direction I could land on. I figured that even though this house wasn’t meant to be our future home, the new owners would likely be cut from a similar cloth as us. Given the cost of the project, the eventual owners would probably be a dual-income household and not first time homeowners. They would value historic charm and the preservation that will go into this property. They will be looking for a bit of privacy and space that can’t be found in most housing developments. That sounded like us!

So, I opted to make design choices for the home as if I were the buyer—focusing on the essentials most people appreciate: a smartly designed kitchen, a lovely primary bedroom suite, a convenient downstairs powder room, and so on. This approach put my mind at ease and boosted our confidence in moving forward. I didn’t have to know with certainty the final destination, I just needed to know in what direction to travel. This realization gave me the peace and confidence to move forward.

The Architectural Plans

Our architect, Josh Dourte of Roost Architecture, Inc produced a house plan that looked beautiful. It included an efficient use of space, maximized the view of the backyard, and made sense of how to best join the old part of the structure with the new construction that would be built. The only problem was his beautiful design included some features that added significant expense to the project. We ended up going back to him to make some compromises like streamlining the exterior lines, eliminate some windows, and simplify the staircase to make it more affordable. Honestly, as apprehensive as I was about working with an architect, it was a positive experience and revealed creative solutions we could never have come up with on our own. Nor would permits have been approved without the detailed construction documents that were produced.

Downstairs floorplan
Upstairs floorplan

Lessons Learned And Seeing The Blessing In The Uncertainty

Because there were several revisions along the way, the cost of course was higher. But honestly, I think that’s just how it goes. We possibly could have cut down on the number of revisions if we had had more clarity from the beginning, but I can only say that now looking at it in hindsight. I think being willing to explore options and giving some freedom to the architect’s expertise and creativity resulted in a better outcome in the end.

Choosing a General Contractor

Finding a contractor turned out to be harder than I anticipated. We began by asking our neighbors and friends for recommendations of reputable contractors and ended up with 5 or 6 potential prospects. We knew it would have to be someone with the right level of experience, someone with the right equipment and crew and someone who was interested in a project like this one.

At the beginning, I naively thought that cost would be the biggest factor to determine our choice. After all, the cost of this project was a scary unknown and something that we would have to manage carefully as much as possible. It ended up that there were two factors whose significance I had underestimated.

2 Important Factors in Choosing A General Contractor That Surprised Me

1. Finding a contractor who would even touch a project like this one.

Turns out, many won’t! Not all general contractors are interested in renovating old homes, especially one as old and as quirky as this one.

2. Finding a contractor whose personality and communication style was a good fit for us.

This was a bigger issue that I had anticipated. Two of the contractors just walked through the house laughing quietly and shaking their heads as they threw out exorbitantly high estimates. Another kept reminding me that this was a “flip” and I shouldn’t be making design decisions based on what I would want in a house.

We eventually landed on a contractor who has been in business for decades, has done extensive renovations and additions, and had a calm and confident demeanor that was just what I needed.

We met with him several times. We also met with three of his clients and found they all gave him glowing recommendations. As a final step, we walked through four of his projects. We finally felt we had found the right fit for us and for this monstrosity of a project!

Looking Back and Moving Forward

I hesitate to admit this, but 3 years has passed since we made the decision to purchase The Springhouse ! Three years and we have plans and a contractor chosen, but no work has begun on the house.

At different points along the way, Steve and I would just hit an emotional wall and completely shelve this project until we were ready to face it again. In spite of our previous experience with house renovations, this one has really thrown us for a loop. In our defense, we have been working hard on our own home projects since we purchased our 1850 farmhouse only a few months before buying The Springhouse. Renovating our home has essentially been my full-time job this whole time.

Now we have everything in place to begin demolition and finally see exactly what we have gotten ourselves into!


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