10 Questions for . . . Bruce Irving, Renovation Consultant

Consumer Reports News: June 12, 2008 12:09 AM

In this installment of 10 Questions for . . . , Senior Editor Daniel DiClerico speaks with Bruce Irving, a former TV producer who's now a renovation consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Irving (shown below) shares his thoughts on the remodeling process and talks about ways to save on a major renovation.

How did you become a renovation consultant?
After I left the PBS show This Old House, where I was the producer for 17 years, most people assumed I’d stay in television. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the TV was secondary. It was the projects themselves that turned me on, the process of transforming people’s houses into places they could really love. I saw how well that could go, and I wanted to offer my clients the same kind of experience.

Why is remodeling such a charged experience for so many homeowners?
From a strictly hard-nosed, economic point of view, your home is the most valuable thing you’ll ever own. And when you think about it, to be able to spend money on fixing it up is a great privilege. So it’s doubly tragic when something you should enjoy and take pride in goes horribly awry. On a psychological level, our homes are a reflection of who we are. They’re very near and dear to our hearts, so operating on them is like operating on one of your kids. You want it to turn out really, really well.

How do you differ from a general contractor on projects?
I’m not a builder, nor am I an architect. But for years and years I stood in the midst of builders and architects, as well as materials suppliers, building inspectors, town officials, and of course, homeowners. I got a very good education in the multiple dynamics at work on a renovation project. When I come to a job, like the renovation of the Georgian Revival home outside of Boston (shown above), I’m not carrying the perspective of a builder or an architect. I’m coming at it almost as a reporter, seeing it happen in many different ways. So what people buy when they hire me is a no-agenda opinion. I just call it like I see it, and I think people appreciate the objectivity. That third-person-in-the-room factor becomes very important during the project, as I make sure that everyone—homeowner, architect, builder—gets heard and heard fairly . . . kind of like a marriage counselor!

What’s the most important lesson your objectivity has taught you?
I’ve come to realize that there’s something unpleasantly contentious about many jobs. People are pitted against one another early on, and echoes of that persist throughout the project. It starts with the bidding process, when you have finished drawings that builders compete from, and it so often boils down to “the number.” It sends a sort of dehumanizing message. I’d rather get the drawings 50 percent there and then bring in a few potential builders. You can get to know them better, and they don’t have to spend hours and hours drawing up a bid for a project they may never get. Once you settle on the builder, you can finish drawings with the benefit of their input. Basically, I’m a big fan of team play on a project.

At what stage of a project are you typically called in?
In the best possible world, I’m in there when the homeowners are scratching their heads wondering what to do. A lot of the work is psychological, listening to what’s bothering the client about their home and what they want to—or think they want to—change. There’s also the financing. People tend to get a fixed idea about what they want to happen, and they minimize in their mind what it would take to realize that idea. Why do they minimize? You could blame the media, which has a tendency to make remodeling look easy. Or it could just be human nature. On almost every job, people underestimate how much time and money will be involved. I tell people to get their best-guess cost estimate and add 25 percent. Then take their best-guess time estimate and add 20 percent.

What’s the biggest mistake homeowners make when remodeling?
Minimizing the importance of good design. Even if you’re just redoing a bathroom, I really think you should hire someone to give you sound design advice. I have my sense of design, you’ve got yours, but we don’t live and breathe it the way people who practice design every day do. A smart design that provides layout advice as well as insights into the world of materials is totally worth it. When it comes to large additions or whole-house renovations, I insist that people use an architect when they work with me. You're going to spend a boatload of money whatever you build, so you’d best build the right thing.

What advice do you have for choosing appliances in a kitchen design?
It’s a pretty personal thing. If someone’s gotta have a Sub-Zero, they gotta have a Sub-Zero. But before they pull the trigger on something that’s beautiful to look at it, I actually do say, “Let’s see what Consumer Reports has to say.” Because it ain’t gonna be beautiful if the person who gets to know it the most is a repair guy. In general though, I think you should spend good money on appliances. The kitchen is on display like never before, and I adhere to the principle that you should spend extra on the stuff you’re touching every day. That goes for door hardware, cabinetry, and appliances for sure. Even if you’re more likely to do take-out than cook, these things are still going to get looked at and fondled every day.

Any advice for keeping projects on budget?
On the design front, be very careful if you hear the word “just.” People seem to think that the volume is what counts. “I’m just bumping out the kitchen four feet,” they say. Well you might as well make it 40 feet, because it’s the corners that cost money. Put yourself in the builder’s position. You’ve been told to build a bump-out. You cut your whole in the wall and, boom, you’re off. But as soon as you hit a corner everything stops. Careful cuts get made, fasteners get put in, trim added. So much of the labor is when you change direction. So on the design front, remember it’s the corners that count.

Are there any cost-cutters that you think are overhyped?
Do not fall for the replacement-window routine. If your house has any age to it and the windows are original, chances are very high that their wood is much better than what’s being used today. Plus, the efficiency of a well-working single-glazed window with a low-emissivity storm window on it is virtually the same as a double-pane window. So, you’re never, ever going to see that money in terms of energy savings. Now if I were building an addition, I wouldn’t shy away from thermal-pane windows. But I wouldn’t take old ones out in an effort to save money.

How far will you travel to consult on a project?
I don’t want to say, “Don’t call Bruce if you have a million-dollar renovation in Hawaii,” because I’ll go to Hawaii. But I’m based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the bulk of my business is in this area. My Rolodex is my best friend, because so much of the service I provide is match-making. That said, I can opine strongly about a project no matter where it is. Alternatively, owner's reps can act as the homeowner’s proxy in all matters of the job. They tend to be for wealthy people who don’t have the time to be fully engaged on the project. I also hear that some architects will moonlight as owner's reps. So you could call up an architect and say you don’t want to hire them to design the project but you do want to hire them for a second opinion.

Essential information:
For use our advice for your kitchen or bathroom remodel.

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