About this time last year, Leanne and I were stressed out and I was trying to
After three weeks of trying to get our contractor to give us a reasonable answer as to why our invoice was higher than their quote with the project nowhere near finished, they had up and left.
I wrote a rambling post which saying that we were going through a rough patch, but stopped short of pointing fingers.
Buried at the end of the post was this video with little context. Let me give you a little context now.
For three weeks in rainy January our contractor pressured us to pay their invoice while their crew continued to work. They had us over a barrel. The house had no roof so if they stopped working, what would we do? Over three meetings with their management (but not the owner) we paid them a further $35,000 in the hopes that we could work something out.
This photo might be upside down on mobile devices–sorry!
On January 26th, they packed up and left.
On that day, we took the first part of the video in which you can see how badly the make-shift plastic cover was working. Leaks were coming through the plywood “roof” and making their way into the heritage interior.
Our contractor warned us that hiring another roofer was a breach of our contract, which, it turns out, was BS. Was it a scam pure and simple? Did the contractor deliberately send the invoice through the roof right when we didn’t have one?
Living next door in the Little Yellow House, we were sometimes woken by the sound of the great plastic sheets blowing in the wind. Our nightmare was that the cover would be blown clean off one night.
And it almost did. Two nights after being left in the lurch, on January 28th, while the kids slept blissfully on, Leanne and I woke up to wind, rain and plastic blowing free.
We ran over to Hammond Forever House and wrestled to get protection back on the house for over an hour. I was clambering all over the slick plywood surface in the dark while wind blew plastic in my face. Leanne worked below to fasten the ends that I handed down to her. We would secure one corner and move to another and then discover that the first one had come undone again.
Listen to my voice in the video. Listen to how difficult it is for me not to curse our contractor’s name. How reserved I was. How deep was my anger. We must take comfort that it was only wind and rain and not the 25 cm of snow and freezing rain that we are getting now, one year later!
Is this normal for the home renovation industry? You can share your experience in the comments if you like. I would love to know.
I wish I could show you a photo of the house today. It is buried in snow. Unfortunately, Leanne’s computer is still too full and I can’t download the photos from the camera yet.
This photo from New Year’s 2017 will have to suffice.
January 1st, 2017 at 12:43 am.
We thought this was a lot of snow. (Ha!) Besides less snow, the other thing that is different in this photo is all the lights are on.
Over the past weekend, due to heavy snow breaking branches, we have had 6 separate power outages.
They are not the most relaxing events, but the kids love a good black-out. We light candles and revel in the adventure. “I love Earth-hour!” says my daughter.
Beneath the fun of it lies my worry that the decisions we have made on the house leave us vulnerable to power outages. Specifically, back-up power.
I have this insecurity that there is a silent mass of onlookers waiting for us to fail. “Let’s see how this ‘Forever House’ handles a power outage” they say in my head. “Bet they wish they had a gas generator!”
Well, I must admit it was a bit shaky, but we did okay and I remind myself that we’re not done yet.
Surprising to many, my master plan calls for no fossil fuels and no wood-burning. I want to keep the brick fireplace but insert an electric fire that looks good and gives a little heat. When the power went out, however, it was very comforting to be able to light a fire. It reminded us of the winter of 2014 when we challenged ourselves to live without buying more fuel oil and so we relied on wood and a little electric heat.
Leanne wants to keep the fire, but we don’t have to decide now, because we have a lot of other things to do before we come to that.
The fact is, we moved in before the house was done. I am not finished insulating and sealing the basement and top floor. The root cellar door is not sealed and insulated as well as we plan to. I’d also like to re-apply the weather-stripping to the windows, seal up the stained-glass transom lights in the front rooms, and improve the front door.
All this insulation and sealing is key, because we are counting on it to keep our heating bills down.
At the moment, our heat is supplied by the same water heater that used to heat our tap water before the renovation. Hot water is pumped through pipes stapled to the underside of the main floor and it warms the floor above.
Heating water with electricity is 100% efficient, but it is expensive, so I have been steadily trying to finish insulating wherever I haven’t reached yet.
The first time the power went out for more than an hour, I was anxious that putting our eggs in the electricity basket had been unwise. However, we noticed that the house did not cool very quickly. The insulation we had done so far was having an effect. It was the front rooms with their thinner walls and heritage windows that cooled the fastest and that’s where the fireplace was.
I also noticed that the bathroom floor, where the water heating pipes are embedded in concrete just below the tile, stayed warm for two hours or so. I realized that one great advantage to heating with underfloor hydronic pipes is that once the water is warm, it continues giving off heat for some time.
Once the house is finished, we will be able to last a long time without feeling the chill, but maybe you still think we need a back-up source of heat for longer emergencies. They tell you to be prepared for 72 hours without assistance.
My answer to that is my father-in-law Dave’s idea which he has helped us implement: the Toyota Prius as back-up generator. Read more about how we’re doing that here. When the wiring to the garage is complete, we can use the Prius or any other hybrid or electric car to power important stuff in the house like the fridge.
A more obvious solution is a large storage battery like Tesla’s Wall. Charge it in the daytime with solar panels and charge your car from the battery at night. If there is not enough to completely charge the car, BC Hydro will tip it up.
Incidentally, this is the same principal we hope to implement with the solar hot water panels someone handed down to us: heat a large tank of water in the heat of the day and use it (or simply let it warm the basement) in the evening.
It seems I have to get used to the idea that the house will be completed bit by bit. There will probably not be a ribbon-cutting ceremony. That fantasy of moving back in with all systems working perfectly is just that, a fantasy.
Meanwhile, it looks like it will be sunny tomorrow so the kids will go back to school. Then, later in the day, another winter storm is expected. At least now we know we can handle it.
Leanne, our two kids and I snuggle together in the living room of Hammond Forever House. The wood-burning insert is blowing heat over us as we cherish our togetherness in our incomplete home.
Outside and to the south, America continues on its troubled path.
Protests and confusion at airports, state, city and foreign national governments condemning his #Muslimban, and Donald Trump says, “it’s working out very nicely.”
It’s a technique straight out of 1984.
As surreal and frightening as Trump’s double-speak is, I can’t say it is unfamiliar. There are definite comparisons to be made with our former contractor.
I mean, I spent a lot of time itemizing problems with our project and questions about the invoice and earnestly presenting them. Then came the professional opinions of other trades, city inspectors and, most importantly, our structural engineer.
I think our contractor’s response can be summarized, aside from “just pay the damn invoice already”, in this paragraph from one of his emails:
[My company] is a well respected contractor and because you didn’t like [the Site Supervisor who was fired for incompetence] and blamed me doesn’t change how we build. You have a very well built house.
This from the owner of the company who was hardly ever on site.
In other news, Trump just confirmed that he will never release his tax returns. That sounds familiar, too.
On June 9th, 2016, I sent another email:
We haven’t heard from you in a while regarding our request for copies of all invoices for materials and wage records (pay slips) for labour which [your company] has listed on their invoices as well as a list of all employees who have worked on our project, their titles and their professional credentials. You promised to provide these on April 1st, 2016.
As part of that list, I would really like your clarification on the $11,141.62 that you have invoiced under “[Company Name]”. We learned last week that you are this company and we would like to know what service [Company Name] provided on our project.
It’s not like I expected a real answer, but this was the response:
You can contact GVHBA, Bbb all these places to try to pull down our reputation and if you can live with your lies and sleep at night great.
Yes, my facts are lies and asking for information is not even worth a response.
Finally, just as you would expect to be sued by Trump if you stood up to him, so we are being sued.
We are being sued for “breach of contract” because, apparently, the contractor did a fantastic job, the contract is clear as a bell, the invoices are 100% legit and all our questions and concerns are unreasonable.
Are you starting to see one of the biggest barriers facing people who want to preserve and retrofit their homes instead of bull-dozing them?
That’s right, the barrier I’m talking about is an unregulated and unaccountable home renovation industry. The many good companies are too busy, and the bad ones are, well, bad. More on that another time.
PS: I’m trying to ease back into blogging after our big push to get back into the house for Christmas dinner, but my most recent photos are trapped on the camera until I free up space on the one computer in the house that really works: Leanne’s laptop.
June 4, 2016 James putting up rim joists under the ridge beam
Lately I have been framing in interior walls, digging trenches and helping to install a BC Hydro service box on the boulevard, putting up sheathing membrane and all kinds of stuff that I’ve never done before. Leanne has been running electrical wires and installing lights & outlets under the tutelage of her father who is a retired electrician. Their work is supervised and supplemented by our electrician, Golden Ears Electric.
In among all this there have been mistakes (although Leanne points out that the electrical work is going smoothly) and we’re learning a lot.
We expect the professionals we hire to make fewer mistakes than we would, but we also recognize that they are not perfect and even they are going to make mistakes. The question is what do they do when they make a mistake?
Do they cover it up? Do they own it? Do they charge the client for it? Do they charge the client for correcting it?
Someone put their foot through the ceiling. Oh well, accidents happen and that ceiling will be rebuilt anyway.
People complain about contractors smoking on their job site, leaving a mess, playing loud music, using bad language. Is it things like this I’m complaining about?
In fact, when our contractor left the job on January 26th, 2016, I assumed that the work that had been done was basically okay. Heck, how was I supposed to know? I’m not a home builder. It was annoying when the owner of the company asked me, “With all due respect James, how many houses have you built?” but I had to admit, he had a point.
Ironically, it was one of the contractor’s employees who gave me the advice which led me to uncovering the most serious issues.
Here’s the house under its makeshift plastic tent in January.
He told me that, if he were me, he would ask our engineer to do a field review and then follow him around with a pen and paper taking notes. Find out what needs to be done and then do it. Simple.
There was a delay in putting this plan into action while we frantically installed a roof as quick as we could because the temporary plastic sheeting suspended over the house was leaking and being ripped off in the stormy weather (I describe the former here and the latter here) but on February 16th, Carlos of Chiu Hippmann Engineering, visited.
Here begins a series of posts which will each describe an issue and how we solved it. The first was the most serious.
Taken February 9, 2016
Flush from the success of finding a good roofer and feeling like maybe we could do this–maybe we could be our own contractors if we just listen to the experts and do what they tell us to do–I greeted Carlos and we looked around. The house seemed okay to me and maybe we could take it from here.
Carlos the engineer is a pretty calm, soft-spoken guy. So when he stepped onto the top floor of our newly roofed house and said, “Hm, there are a few issues here” my stomach dropped and I felt that homeowner vertigo.
No no no. I don’t want to go backwards. I don’t want to fix “issues”. I want to move forwards!
I told you that we broke up with our previous contractor. That post (this one) was my most popular post ever. (Even more popular than this one about how we found the old septic tank in the yard.)
I suppose we’re all drawn to bad news which is why, to mix my metaphors, the media can make us feel like the world is going to heck in a hand basket if we don’t take the bad news with a grain of salt.
I didn’t even go into detail in my post. I just said we are in a contract dispute.
Do I want to give you the details? Absolutely. The whole point of this blog is to tell the story completely so that you get a clear idea of what it’s like to retrofit an older home in the real world. The good as well as the bad. The myths and the truths. How the system works and where the system breaks down.
I think you can guess why I hesitated to share more about our dispute.
That’s right, we don’t want to get sued!
Trying to catch the leaks.
In Canada you can sue anyone for anything, can’t you? Even if you have no case? We don’t want to pay a lawyer to defend us in court because we have very little financial resources left and we want to finish renovating our house.
We don’t even want to pay a lawyer to find out if we could sue the contractor.
Luckily, however, we have performed in a lot of plays with community theatre companies. When you do that you meet people from all walks of life who are scratching that artistic itch. Theatre creates a special bond between people and so, when we asked an old theatre buddy for a legal opinion, he obliged.
Thank you singing dancing acting lawyer friend!
As a result, when we started to question the contract and the invoices, we had a general idea of our legal footing. (If you are in a similar position to ours, I recommend you get that legal opinion, even if you have to pay for it!)
The laws of Canada exist to protect us. However, it seems that the fear of somebody suing us stops us from seeking justice. Or maybe it’s just the fear of legal fees.
In the renovation industry especially, this seems to be a real problem. Most people renovate a home once, but never again. If they are unhappy with their contractor, they most likely will pay them off or put up with them until the project is finished because they are already exhausted and don’t have energy and/or money to fight.
I remember when my parents renovated our house. I was maybe 6 years old. My Dad describes the final few weeks as just wanting to get them off the property. Something about how they didn’t want to do things the way he wanted them done.
So we renovate once and only once.
Then, for the rest of our lives, we tell everyone the horror story and how we will never do it again. This is a huge, unspoken reason why people are much more likely to bulldoze a perfectly good house than renovate it. In a warming planet where every wasteful action contributes to climate change, we have to address this problem. We have to make renovating a positive experience.
Well, Leanne and I don’t like to live in fear and I have learned that words like “slander” and “defamation” don’t apply if I simply tell you what happened and what the experience was like for us.
I’m not going to attack anyone personally. Disappointed?
I do feel a civic duty to warn others about this company, but there are other avenues to do that so I don’t have to clutter up the blog with complaints.
First of all, it’s important to know the rules. By email, our contractor told us some things about our legal position which are simply not true. I think if we didn’t know any better it could have made us panic and do what he asked on Pinterest: “just pay the damn invoice already.” This is how paying a lawyer for a legal opinion can be a real bargain.
So, do these ideas sound correct to you?
A contractor can put a “stop work order” on a project, which makes it illegal for any work to proceed until they are paid.
No matter who does the work listed on our contract–you, you father-in-law or another contractor after the first one has left, the Contractor must be paid for it.
It is our responsibility to know the cost of any extras that were added that were not part of the original estimate.
The Contractor’s management fee is applied to the whole project, including work which was not listed in the contract.
Just in case anyone has ever told you any of these things, let’s take these one by one:
1. Only the municipality can impose a stop work order.
2. What? You have to pay twice?
3. How are you supposed to know how much something is going to cost if your contractor doesn’t tell you? That’s why in your contract you want something requiring signed change orders so you can agree to an added cost before the work is done.
4. So if I go to a spa to get my hair done and then I go to a different spa to do my nails, I have to pay the first spa 15% of the bill from the second spa? Nope.
On March 24th, 2016, in a letter to the contractor’s lawyer, I wrote, “We ask for copies of all invoices for materials and wage records (pay slips) for labour which [the contractor] has listed on their invoices. This information was requested in January and has not been provided. Since the hourly rates charged for [the contractor]’s employees are at issue, we further ask for a list of all employees who have worked on our project, their titles and their professional credentials.”
The contractor promised to provide this information on April 1st, 2016. To date, he has not done so.
That’s where we stand now, scraping together the remainder of our resources to finish Hammond Forever House, waiting for more information with which to resolve this dispute and waiting to learn whether or not we are being sued.
If any of this sounds familiar, I encourage you to get some professional advice. It doesn’t have to be a lawyer, it could be one of the following organizations:
If you are unhappy with your contractor, you can post a review on the following sites. I get the impression clients who are unhappy tend not to bother doing this–maybe it’s because they are just exhausted with the whole business and don’t want to deal with it anymore. Maybe if more people wrote reviews that were not simply puff-pieces, these sites would be more useful.
It has been a year since we signed our contract with Ridgewater Homes on March 27th 2015. It has not been an entirely good year.
I described how we arrived at our decision to hire this company here.
Unfortunately, I have to tell you that Leanne and I are in a contract dispute with Ridgewater. As you can imagine, I can no longer recommend them as a company to you.
Reading past posts you may get the impression everything is fine. However, with every post I have struggled to present the truth without criticizing the people and companies we are working with. Unfortunately, this may have created an inaccurate picture of our journey so far. It has been challenging and we are currently going through a difficult time.
I don’t want to give the impression what we’re doing is impossible, but it’s certainly not easy, either! Going forward, I will strive to share more of the challenges as well as the excitement.
The purpose of this blog is to share the story of our renovation and start a conversation about saving homes and improving them instead of destroying them and building new ones. What are the pros and cons of retrofitting? What are the challenges? How can we affordably reduce the carbon footprint of our homes?
How can we make it easier for people like us, who are already squeezed, to do right by our homes and our planet?
I’m sharing a story. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life.
I’m not an expert. I’m not trying to give you expert advice.
Since this is a continuing story, I’m not going to delete previous posts in light of this change in relationship with our contractor. However, except where it is unavoidable, I will not mention their name on the blog from this day forward.
Thanks for all your support. Stay tuned for more of the adventures of Hammond Forever House!
PS: I can’t leave you without a preliminary piece of advice about finding a good contractor. It sounds obvious, but remember that if a company has excellent promotional material, it may mean that they need to advertise because they cannot get enough business from reputation alone. Contractors that receive a lot of business through positive word of mouth may not have to advertise.
If I could start over in my contractor search, I would ask people in the business who they recommend. That’s my advice to you. Ask other trades (like your plumber), your local building store (like Haney Builders in Maple Ridge), or the Building Dept. of your municipality. Municipal staff will almost certainly be unable to recommend a company, but they will often be able to point you to companies who do not have problems passing building inspections. Does that help? I hope so.
We’re entering a new phase in the renovation and retrofit of Hammond Forever House.
If you would like to visit and learn more, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to arrange a time for me to show you around. There is lots of work still to be done and if you are willing to pitch in, we will not say no!
This past week was a difficult one. To make it possible to build the addition and upstairs dormer in the middle of winter, our contractor erected a huge plastic tent over the house. Smart, right?
Unfortunately, it leaks. Leanne and I have been mopping up the floor and setting containers under drips so that not too much water gets through. It’s not too much of a problem if water gets through to the new construction which will all dry out, but we have been noticing signs of water damage on the ceiling of the living and dining rooms which makes it hard to sleep on these rainy nights.
This photo might be upside down on mobile devices–sorry!
On Thursday evening, January 27th, Leanne and I contributed to a panel discussion after the screening of a film about environmental activism. The film was called Continue reading »
The excavator digs a trench to connect our new perimeter drain to the storm sewer
Yesterday, 195 countries signed an agreement to tackle the costs of climate change. I’m looking forward to seeing what our new Canadian government, in conversation with the Provinces and everybody, comes up with.
I hope it has something to do with helping people like us to do things like we’re doing with our house. As it stands, few people looking at their household budget would conclude that doing what we’re doing makes any sense. That’s because we’re looking farther into the future than most people, but also because we’re looking beyond our own budget to the costs of climate change.
That’s probably the part that stops most people. We’re spending more money on our house so that maybe some island nations won’t disappear under water. What? You may have a couple of questions about that.
Question 1: There is no way that the greenhouse gases our house produces, even with its old oil furnace, would be enough to make much of a difference to global warming no matter what we do so what’s the point?
Answer: That’s why I’m not interested in minor reductions–I want that 70% or greater reduction that our first Energy Audit in 2008 said was possible. That’s also why I’m sharing this story–because one house can inspire other houses and going to all this trouble just for one house doesn’t seem worth it.
Question 2: Families like ours have enough trouble keeping food on the table without going into debt to combat climate change, so why don’t we let the governments take the lead?
Answer: If our governments had been taking the lead, families like ours wouldn’t have to be sticking our necks out. Everyone seems to be waiting for the price of gas to go up or government incentives to arrive or some other change to happen which will make reducing energy use and switching to renewable energies cost effective for the general public.
Meanwhile, the planet warms, the ice melts and the weather gets crazier.
We can’t wait anymore. Sometimes you have to wag the dog and sometimes that means biting off more than you can chew. Any more dog metaphors I can use?
Here’s a video of what it looked like, through the window of the Little Yellow House next door where we are living, when the concrete arrived right in the middle of that cold snap two weeks ago. I had to go to work, but Leanne had a day off and filmed a bit as the work progressed.
I will always remember the statistic that Lorraine Gauthier of Now House shared with us. In 2011 the home renovation market in Canada was worth $33.8 billion. That’s a lot of people renovating. How much of that was spent on energy efficiency upgrades? Just 7%. Here in the warm Lower Mainland of British Columbia, I expect it was even less and I expect that percentage hasn’t really changed.
People are renovating their homes, but the value they expect to get from their renos is counted in comfort (they will enjoy their new kitchen) or resale value (they expect to sell their home in a few years and their new kitchen will fetch a higher price).
What about the comfort of clean air circulated through a Heat Recovery Ventilator which maintains a nice, even temperature?
What about the comfort of knowing that your new insulation and heat pump mean that your carbon footprint is so much lower?
What about the value of a reduced energy bill that will save you thousands of dollars in the long term as you embrace your house as a forever home and put down roots in your community?
Do I sound like I’m blaming homeowners? I’m not. The barriers to doing what Leanne and I are doing are real. Cost is just one, but let’s look at it first.
On Saturday Leanne asked herself how much we have spent so far on preserving, renovating and retrofitting the two houses which sit on this now protected Heritage Site. My wife is amazing. This is what she came up with.
Structural Engineering, structural analysis & design review (Building code change, drawings issued, letters of assurance, 12 blueprints issued for “Revised Building Permit” 6/2
Plumbing – Permits/Start up
Copies of plans for sketching services, etc.
Landfill tipping fee
Bags for storing/moving vermiculite
Landfill tipping fee
Husky Gas Station
Gas for garbage/gypsum dump run
New grinder for reno work
Husky Gas Station
Gas for garbage dump run
Are you ready for the total? Here it is
Would you spend as much? Maybe, maybe not.
As renovations and retrofits of older homes become more common, costs should come down.
If you merely want to dramatically increase energy efficiency without making additions or other changes, you may not need an architect.
If you’re not interested in protecting your property with a Heritage Revitalization Agreement, you won’t need a Statement of Significance etc.
If your property already conforms to most of the engineering requirements of your municipality, you won’t have to pay for new sewer lines or bury electrical services, etc.
Digging a little deeper, there was another series of costs because there are two houses on this non-conforming double lot. The Little Yellow House, which we normally rent out but which we are now living in, had its own expenses as part of the Heritage Revitalization Agreement including a new sanitary sewer line and electrical service.
Even with us doing a lot of the work, the Little Yellow House upgrades cost $78,056.37 between 2010 and 2015.
Between the two houses, we have spent $226,460.45 on, as Leanne put it, “Maintenance, Upgrades, Heritage and Construction between 2010 and 2015”.
Putting aside the Little Yellow House, Leanne further broke down the Forever House costs by itemizing just the big ticket items like this:
Total paid to Contractor
Total paid to City of MR
Total paid to Underhill (surveyors)
Total paid to Architect
Statement of Significance
Total paid to Engineer
And that’s not the end of the story. Those are costs to date. Before the work is done we will still have another $60,000 to pay to Ridgewater Homes, our contractor. Then there is the plumbing estimate of $18,000 and the heat pump and HVAC system for which we don’t even have an estimate yet.
Unfortunately, the limits of our financing are fast approaching. After proudly paying down the mortgage on the first townhouse we bought (and still own) in Burnaby to a mere $45K, we are borrowing against that property up to about $160K.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that we’re headed for lean times, and some have pointed out that we didn’t have to be so ambitious with our plans.
I defend our decisions with the title of this blog. Would we be happy here forever had we simply fixed the bathroom without enlarging it or adding a bathroom for the kids upstairs or deepening the basement or shooting for carbon neutral? All of these things will guarantee a long, comfortable and low-carbon life in Hammond Forever House and I think it’s worth stretching for.
Last year our Hammond Neighbours stepped up to help a couple of Hammond families who were struggling have a little less stress and a little more cheer over Christmas. Do I think Leanne and I need a Home Reno Hamper to get us through this challenge? No, we’ll always come out okay, but I will accept any incentives, grants or publicity from any government, organization or neighbour which would like to see more people reduce their home’s carbon footprint because, unless you’re a millionaire (who can afford a higher energy bill anyway), retrofitting, revitalizing and renovating are just way too difficult.
And with house prices the way they are right now, no wonder it seems like the favourite thing to do with older homes in Vancouver is bulldoze them!
I’m very excited that Justin Trudeau has committed us to deep cuts in our carbon emissions; housing is a big source of greenhouse gases. What I want for Christmas, even if it’s too late for us, is a brand new national strategy to help homeowners turn their houses into low energy forever homes!