Transformation, Houston-style

Ben Crawford, CGR, GMB, owner of Crawford Renovation in Houston, has found a way to be profitable in the remodeling industry on his terms. Those terms involve a very evolved design/build process where nothing is done a la carte. The process requires a full commitment from the client — from planning and design to production and completion. The benefit is a better end product that ensures the client is getting a realistic price and realistic completion date.

Indeed, it was this philosophy and overall approach to remodeling that ultimately attracted the client who gave Crawford the mammoth $875,000 whole-house remodeling project that won it a Gold Master Design Award from Qualified Remodeler in the Whole House Over $500,000 category last year.

The Monica Project, as it came to be known, came to Crawford through a referral from a realtor. The client had just bought the house and wanted to do a large-scale renovation of the home. The clients sought to transform their home into a French Country-inspired facade. And though they brought in detailed pictures of what they had in mind, they were uncertain how to fit the whole project together.

Ambitious Elements

The clients felt sure about many of the details they sought. For example, they liked a particular kind of soffit, one with a little bit of bend toward the tail- end near the rafter tail. They liked how it flared out. Other details near and dear to their hearts included photos of stone finishes and arch doorways. They hoped that Crawford could not only complete their vision, but also help their ideas make sense.

“They just had various pictures of the interior and exterior to show and help us understand what they were looking for. But we didn’t know exactly how to put it all together,” says Ben Crawford, who traveled a lot working for corporate America, and only entered remodeling in 2002. “But when we showed our design to them, it all started to come to life.”

After a designer at the company drew an exterior rendering of what the home would look like completed, the homeowners bought into the vision and were quickly able to go ahead and preselect all the exterior colors of the stone, stained-glass doors and windows, stucco and soffits. From there the clients were able to drill down further on the exact look and feel of their home. All of it was enabled by the design/build nature of Crawford’s process. The clients were very specific regarding everything from the thickness of the custom made exterior doors to the custom-made pattern in the floor in the front foyer, to the type of stairs and banisters to the level of finish on the sheetrock.

“Every nook and cranny was thought through,” says Crawford, “all the way down to the mechanicals in the attic.”

But even with knowing much of what they wanted, the homeowners weren’t completely sure on everything. The family had concepts of what they were looking for but Crawford Renovation had to help them rule out certain components, like countertop materials for the kitchen island.

“They knew they didn’t want granite there, but didn’t know what they wanted so we had to come up with choices for them to make,” says Crawford. One of the ideas was to use a wood countertop. After the homeowners decided they liked that idea, the choices had to be narrowed down to which type of wood and exactly what sort of fabrication would need to take place for such a project.

The Monica Project team decided to go with a dark walnut center island top that was glued up on the jobsite, milled and planed with an edge to give it the appearance of being a solid hardwood walnut top. The homeowners were quite pleased with the end result and had no idea that it had actually been custom fabricated just for them.

“So we had to come up with a lot of these design ideas and design choices to present to them,” explains Crawford. “Even though they had an idea in their mind, we had to pin down and present every one of their design choices. And sometimes after they made a choice, they would change it mid-stream, and we’d have to go back and change it for them in the design.”

Building a Dream

Only a few exterior walls were left on this home when this project began. The crew poured concrete off the front and back of the slab and put in new interior piers to support the new loads that were being shifted around from the old house plan. Always a challenging issue to deal with, Crawford Renovation also replaced all of the old plumbing lines beneath the existing slab.

In the front of the home, the entryway was enlarged from a single story to two stories. The old dining room became the new location of the staircase. This was a challenge for the team because it meant tearing out the space for the new staircase and building in a new free-floating staircase all the way up to the second story.

“All the interior walls got ripped out and we basically started over and went straight up from there,” says Crawford. “Everyday you deal with challenges. Everyday you’ve got to solve issues to keep the project moving forward.”

To deal with a new home sprinkler system required by the municipality, two edge water lines had to be brought into the home off the meter.

Inside, every 10 ft. there are residential flush-mounted fire suppression sprinkler heads throughout the entire home. “It adds an extra $2 a sq. ft., which might not seem like a whole lot, but when you’re building a 7,000-sq.-ft. house, it really starts to add up,” says Crawford. “That’s an extra $14,000 and that’s our cost.”

Another challenge for the team was the tall vaulted ceilings. In order to float the ceilings, paint them and do the electrical trim, equipment had to be brought into the home. Because there was no ladder out there to do the job, scaffolding had to be erected in the home, but this wouldn’t be Crawford’s biggest challenge.

With warm, high-humidity summers in Houston, maintaining a drier, cooler envelope on the inside of the home during this period is a necessity. Crawford Renovation prides itself on its high-work quality, and wants to ensure good tight joints on all the millwork and hardwood floors. To minimize the expanding and contracting the millwork goes through, portable HVAC units are brought in and cold air is pumped into the home to reduce the amount of humidity inside the house.

“That’s at our cost,” explains Crawford. “We don’t want to run the installed HVAC units in the house because we don’t want dust particles to get into the newly installed HVAC units.”

Problem Solving

Changes during the framing process also caused Crawford and his team to do some re-engineering before the zero hour. The original plans called for an elevator to be installed in the home, but as time progressed the family decided against it.

“Their needs had changed and they now decided they wanted big lockers downstairs for the kids,” says Crawford, “so on-the-fly during the framing stage we had to look for an opportunity to solve the issue with the web trusses that were already ordered. The web trusses were going to weigh in on the elevator framing that was already built.”

Crawford was now faced with designing around this problem, take out the frame of the shaft and keep in mind that everything is engineered to specifications for the remodel. To solve the issue, the framers and engineer were sent out to the field to fix the problem. Their solutions allowed for the NFL type lockers for the kiddos on the first floor and still have a roof hanging over their head. This wouldn’t be the only area of the house to be revamped though.

“They came to us at the last hour and said the quarters over the garage that were going to be a bedroom were not going to be loaded with a sofa and TV, but it was to be a weight room,” says Crawford. “The new space had to support 2,000 to 3,000 lbs. in the center of the room of just dead load, plus the light load that goes along with it from dropping weights on the floor.”

Now that the room was going to host bikes, weight-lifting equipment, a rubberized floor system and free weights, this team had to figure out how they were going to deal with the new load. Their solution was to substitute out some of the original web trusses and put in a significant steel beam up there to cut the load in half. With this fix, the room now handles 1,500 to 2,000 lbs. of weights with no problem and no sag whatsoever.

“Everyday you deal with challenges; everyday you’ve got to solve issues to keep the project moving forward,” advises Crawford. “There weren’t a whole lot of opportunities to change and improve things in the process since the project was so well defined. That is unless the homeowner comes back and changes something.”

The homeowners weren’t the only ones forcing some quick thinking for the crew. Crawford did indicate some slippage during the project. Ten days of work were lost at a cost to Crawford Renovation when the team had to button up the house and get it ready for Hurricane Rita heading for Houston. There were also rising fuel and cement prices that the company hadn’t calculated when it signed the contract for the project.

Happy Homeowners

Needless to say the family of the Monica project loves their new home. They still allow Crawford Renovation to come in and show potential clients the work. Ben Crawford indicated that they have received about a half dozen referrals off the project so far as well.

One reason Crawford Renovation took on the Monica project was because the budget was in line and realistic with what the family wanted to do. Had the clients come to the company and said they wanted it all for $500,000, Crawford indicated they would have told them no and sent them away. But money isn’t the only contributing factor in why Crawford Renovation takes on jobs.

“We wanted to build that style of house for that family,” says Crawford. “That family had concepts and ideas, plus it was a good chemistry fit between the company and family.”