Alternatives to Demolition and Rebuilding

Preserving older neighbourhood homes.

I frequently hear people complaining about infill houses being ugly, too big, not fitting in, or just being an eyesore. Developers find them highly profitable and city planners like to increase population density so they keep getting built, usually on the site of derelict houses. As a builder, I have been looking for alternatives to demolition and rebuilding, with the idea of preserving older neighbourhoods in ways that allow people to live in their homes even if they can’t afford major renovations, and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned in more than 30 years in the construction business.

Mainstream commercial construction methods waste an incredible amount of material and labour. It is not uncommon for a project to not use a third of the material purchased, and the 40 hour work week is often a big waste of time. A lot of money can be saved by saving and using scrap material, and working flexible hours based on factors like weather, availability of space and tools, and personal stamina. A tired, cold, wet, and miserable tradesman is not a productive worker, and is often found trying to look busy even though he’s out of nails and the plumber is working right where he wants to frame in a
window.

I recently built a new basement for less than half the next lowest estimate, and my crew worked only when they wanted to. Most of the guys were retired tradespeople from the neighbourhood, and I also hired a few good men through the Bissell Centre, who act as a temporary employment agency, but don’t take a cut of the worker’s wages. For highly specialized work like gas-fitting and wiring, I have friends who are between jobs who love to come get a day’s work in.

So, my crew wasn’t pretty. If you could build a house out of grey hair and wrinkles we wouldn’t have to go to Home Depot ever, and sometimes they like beer for breakfast, sometimes they argue, and sometimes they just get fed up and go home. But they do a good job, usually the first time, and they don’t inflate the budget with waste. The house we are restoring had fire and flood damage. The basement was made of brick in the 1920s and the top floor had a bedroom that burned, with damage to the interior, roof and wiring.

After the house was shored up and the bricks removed, we cleaned and stacked the bricks on pallets to be sold, the revenue going back to the client to mitigate the construction costs. Old brick is nicer to work with, and the variety of colour and texture has architectural merit. They were priced at less than half the cost of new brick, and sold on social media networks. We also saved all the shoring and forming lumber and hardware for the next job, and used mostly salvaged material for these things. Selling used construction material is a lot smarter than paying to have it hauled to the landfill. When I do have to haul junk, I call a buddy with a truck, rent a trailer ,and save a lot over bin rentals or Bagster fees. I do buy Bagster bags, but for storage, and keep the empty bags for the next job.

In the many years I’ve spent as a construction foreman, I have found that a loyal, well-motivated crew is a builder’s best asset. You don’t get that by making and enforcing a lot of rules, or yelling or rushing. Giving a tradesperson time and space to excel usually fosters excellence, and appreciating that excellence fosters more of the same. So some days I’d go get the guys coffee in the morning or beer in the afternoon. Sometimes I buy lunch. And I have a great crew.

Of course, we met a few challenges, like a thick concrete sidewalk buried under a foot of dirt that had to be removed and the mysterious disappearance of two wheelbarrows just when I really needed them, but we find a good solution to these and move on. Extra costs are normal, but some contractors specialize in maximizing these costs and swelling their profit margin with them. I do extra work for cost. That’s a much fairer and more honest way to work, and if fairness and honesty keep me from getting rich in this business I don’t mind. There are plenty of good builders around who feel the same way. You can recognize them by the rust on their trucks.

My client paid in installments as we went along, and I kept her informed of progress and problems so she knew what she was paying for. At the end of the first phase of this job she is happy with the work, and has more for us in the near future. I also got a few projects in the future from new clients who watched the job as we worked. I have never had to advertise, word of mouth being more than enough to keep me busy.

By working like this we can save older houses from the bulldozer and keep the integrity of our mature neighbourhoods intact while providing good low cost housing to our community. After building lots of big box stores and refineries I find this kind of work fulfilling and am happy doing it.

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