Friday, November 21, 2014

Feeling Confused? Frustrated?

If you're feeling confused or frustrated about how to proceed with a renovation or any building project, you're in good company.

Without taking the time to prepare for the project you also include everyone who would like to help you too.

Forget Free Estimates, because they have an accuracy of plus or minus 120 percent.

Before contacting anyone to do anything, you need to:
  • Identify your requirements
  • Know your budget
  • Be realistic with your expectations. 
Let's face it, building a house is expensive, and renovating an older home even more so. In order to properly move your project successfully from napkin scribbles to where nails are being driven, you need to spend time preparing an accurate scope of work.
Your scope of work identifies:
  • The type of material used
  • How the material is stored, handled, and installed
  • Crew size required to do the work 
  • How you will evaluate the work performed.
Your scope of work also forms the foundation of the agreement between you and your contractors. It provides everyone with a clear and concise set of expectations enabling you to get a price for work and materials you want rather than what people think you need.

Here is a high level outline you might find helpful as a framework to use to help you prepare for a renovation or construction project:

1. Do a feasibility study to see if: your zoning allows you to do what you want, your existing services are up to snuff, and the expectations for your project are realistic.

If all is good, then:

2. Identify your budget
3. Develop a design/plan to suit

Use the budget and plan to:

5. Determine costs for upgrades to your existing systems
6. Create a scope of work and set of specifications based on the design and/or plan
7. Solicit and pay for a detailed cost analysis based on the scope of work, specifications, and plan
8. Assess and adjust the budget and/or design and/or project scope of work to give you what you need
9. Go back to step 1 and repeat as often as required.

Only when your budget, pricing and plans all align do you go to the next step:

10. Tender your project for bids

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Building A Deck - The Wrong Way

My deck sucks.

Yep, whoever built the deck for the previous owner of my home was a complete dolt.  After reading this you're probably going to feel a great deal better about your deck.  Although my deck situation definitely makes me feel "Not OK", you'll probably end up feeling quite a bit of "I'm OK" after reading this. 

Glad to help out and make your day, by the way.

Deck Builder Dude: Who Are You?

After buying my home and placing the existing deck on life support for the last few years, it's time this deck is taken down and forgotten. Mind you, it has served its purpose to remind me that out there, somewhere in deck-building contractor land, there is some guy out there building decks stupidly.

So where do we begin our voyage of discovery?

I guess from the ground up would be the best thing to do.

As we all know the thing that hold up our houses, skyscrapers, and decks is the soil or dirt on the building lot.  The best and only type of soil to build upon is undisturbed soil.

Take a look at the creative approach deck builder dude took to solve the issue about putting a post on disturbed soil close to the foundation.  The solution - there is no contact with any undisturbed soil, or any bearing surface for that matter - period.

The post is suspended with an air gap close to 3 inches separating the underside of the post from anything that would offer it support.  Disturbed or undisturbed soil.

Well, you may think this is a bad thing.  Actually, it's a good thing, especially when you look at the beam to post connection up above.

Two Posts Are Better Than One

Typically, the beam to post connection is just pure compression.  The beam collects the live and dead loads from the deck joists above.  The post accepts these loads and transfers them down into the soil below. Undisturbed soil that is.

 Well, deck builder dude must have had one too many during this summer holiday project.  To be on the safe side, two posts were installed.  The beam is connected to the shorter post with three nails and to the longer post, one screw and one nail were used.

Since neither post bears on anything, deck builder dude could have used chewing gum and binder twine for this connection.

I mean, come on.

My quick calculations tell me the live load this one post is supposed to carry is about 2,880 pounds, plus or minus 10%.

When you consider the amount of weight the post and beam connections need to transfer between one another, you want more than one screw and one nail to be doing the job.  To be fair, on the other side of the "beam" deck builder dude used two screws for long post and four nails for the shorter post.

Oh, and never, ever, ever use nails or screws to hold up a beam like this. This type of beam connection needs to have a cleat nailed to the face of the post below the beam.

I bet right about now you're feeling pretty "I'm OK" about your deck, aren't you. 

It gets better.

Joist Hangers and Hand Grenades

Floor joists, whether used for an exterior deck or for your home need 1-1/2 inches of bearing surface to rest upon.  When you have a flush connection, say between a ledger board and a floor joist, you use a joist hanger to provide the bearing surface required.

The tricky part about joist hangers, at least for deck builder dude, was knowing you needed to insert the joist into the joist hanger for the system to be effective.

So for all you wanna-be deck builder dudes out there: placing the joist hanger near the joist just doesn't cut it.  The joist must rest inside the joist hanger.

So what happens when you run out of joist hangers?

Well, you can go buy more, or, hey wait a minute, why not make your own?

And that's exactly what deck builder dude did.

Yep, believe it or not, the ends of this beam are supported using home-made joist hangers fashioned out of sheet metal.  Deck builder dude did a pretty good job of making these hangers look real, but to be real, a joist hanger is engineered to provide you with the stiffness, strength, and nailing pattern required.

Mind you, this connection may not have seemed critical because, after all, just four feet away to the right, deck builder dude installed those two posts I talked about earlier.

Accuracy or Precision? Take Your Pick.

Speaking of nailing patterns, as was mentioned, every joist hanger is engineered to carry the load a floor joist may be carrying. A 2 by 10 joist hanger will have more holes in it for you to drive a fastener into than a joist hanger for a 2 by 6 joist for example.  That only makes sense since bigger joists are capable of bigger loads before they fail.

Once again, deck builder dude shows us what their opinion on the matter is.  To this particular individual, properly nailing a joist hanger is optional.

You have to give deck builder dude credit though. They managed to get the joist to sit in the hanger on this one.

Back to the joist hangers. The joist hanger manufacturers make it dead-simple to use their product.  Place the joist inside the hanger, and where there is a hole, drive a fastener into it.

Over 60% of the required fasteners for this connection in the photo are missing.


Oh, and can you see the difference between the "real" and "home-made" joist hanger? The home made joist hanger is dented where deck builder dude used those wee thin rusty nails.

Is There More?

Oh, there is just so much more to this project deck building dude messed up.  This is just a small sample of the type of idiocy that exists in the deck they built for the previous owner of my home, and the type of service that's out there.

If you're a homeowner, be aware, because this deck builder dude may be the guy building your deck.

To stop deck building dude dead in his tracks, hire a professional to design your deck for you. Create a scope of work and get a building permit.

Get a permit.

Did I say that already?

The only person you're helping by not getting a permit is deck building dude who is tired of all those inspectors telling him how to do things and messing up his zen.

If you're buying a house, have it inspected by a qualified professional, like me, who can spot deck building dude's handiwork right off the bat.

Together, we can stop deck building dude cold in his tracks.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Exterior Insulation and Strapping

Here's the reason why dumb contractors are a mouse's best friend.

First, a little background.  The exterior of the house was insulated with foam insulation.  When you hear that the walls of the house have been upgraded to exceed code by having exterior insulation applied to the walls, your first thought is "Wow!  That's fantastic!!"

Exterior insulation installed the wrong wayWith a little bit of investigation your initial "Wow!" factor quickly turns into an overwhelming sense of WTF!? 

Check this out.  Exterior foam insulation was installed and then strapped with 1x3 spruce strapping.  Umm, to me it's pretty obvious something is amiss.  

Need a clue?

It's the writing on the wall - it's sideways.

The manufacturer's installation instructions simply state:
  • Tongue and groove (T&G)edge panels install horizontally.
  • Fit joints tightly.
Well, the manufacturer is pretty clear on how things need to be done.  Install the panels horizontally and fit the joints tightly. Never mind the nailing pattern which is completely botched as well, or the fact the joints remain open and untaped.

Like, how dumb is the contractor? How blind or ignorant was the homeowner who hired the dumb contractor?

All of this indicates this energy retrofit is a major fail because the dumb contractor did everything they could to screw it up. The ignorant homeowner didn't read the writing on the wall, nor did they take the time to educate themselves about how the product they purchased should be installed either.

Then we have the strapping installed by the dumb contractor and how this dopey dude became the best friend a mouse could ever hope for.

Here's a corner detail.  Strapping is installed so it creates a raceway from the bottom to the top, with a convenient means to gain access to all parts of the wall, behind the siding and parts beyond.

See that wee hole? That's a hole chewed by a mouse.

Oh, and don't get me started on the golf towel used to "fill a gap" in the insulation. Of course it made a great home for the mice.

I hate mice, but I hate dopey dumb contractors even more.

I Hate Mice

I hate mice.  

I mean, I really, really, really hate mice.  Rodents of any kind that want to live in my house, uninvited, are near the top of my list of things to hate.

What tops off my list of things to hate are dumb contractors, or people who are dumb enough to think they are contractors.  Dumb contractors are a mouse's best friend.

Why? Because the lack of attention and the sheer idiocy exhibited by dumb contractors is taken advantage of by mice.

Have a dumb contractor build your home and mice will surely follow.  They are the piped piper of furry scuttling feet running around in your attic or walls.

That's all I have to say for today.

I may hate mice, but dumb contractors top my list.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cost Versus Value - A Delicate Balance

As a homeowner you're probably curious what projects provide you with the best return on your investment (ROI). Or maybe you want to spruce up your home to help with its resale.

As an architectural professional, questions I'm often asked are: What are my options? Is this project worth the time? Is it worth the money?

Fortunately, there's information out there to help you understand what the costs and ROI will be for typical renovation projects.  It's often surprising to learn bigger is not often better.

Let's take a look at a kitchen renovation as an example.

A major kitchen remodel may cost you anywhere between $40K to $60K. A minor kitchen remodel will be in the price range of $10K to $20K, maximum. If you, the homeowner, are thinking the major kitchen remodel is going to give you a 100% ROI you're sorely mistaken. Same goes for the smaller kitchen remodel.

The ROI for the major kitchen remodel tops out at 74.2% and the ROI for the smaller kitchen makeover is 82.7%.  So if you're looking to add value to your home for resale, fixing up the kitchen may not be the best project to undertake.

Here's what I mean.

Let's say you're thinking of selling your home in the next year or two and your home renovation budget is $15K. Your goal is to make your home sell faster, since the time it spends on the market just eats into your profit margin.  Your second criteria is you want as high a ROI as possible.

What projects should you consider? 

For a budget of $15K, here are a couple of scenarios you may want to consider to help improve your home's curb appeal, saleability, and the ROI you will experience.

Scenario 1
  • Entry Door Replacement (steel) 
    • Your cost: $1,162 
    • Your return: $1,122 
    • Your ROI: 96.6% 
  • Wooden Deck Addition
    • Your cost: $9,539
    • Your return: $8,334
    • Your ROI: 87.4%
  • Garage Door Replacement
    • Your cost: $1,534
    • Your return: $1,283
    • Your ROI: 83.7%
This first scenario will cost you $12,235 and your ROI will be $10,739.  The difference is a loss of $1,496.

Scenario 2

If you want to switch things up a bit, consider what this scenario offers:

  • Entry Door Replacement (steel) 
    • Your cost: $1,162 
    • Your return: $1,122 
    • Your ROI: 96.6% 
  • Window Replacement (vinyl)
    • Your cost: $9,978
    • Your return: $7,857
    • Your ROI: 78.7%
  • Garage Door Replacement
    • Your cost: $1,534
    • Your return: $1,283
    • Your ROI: 83.7%
This second scenario will cost you $12,674 and your ROI will be $10,262.  The difference is a loss of $2,412.

Both home improvement scenarios are below the $15K margin, which is a good thing, because you give yourself some wiggle room for any unforeseen complications with the work.

Scenario 3

Let's compare these two scenarios to a bathroom remodel:
  •  Bathroom Remodel
    • Your cost: $16,128
    • Your return: $11,688
    • Your ROI: 72.5%
The bathroom remodel will cost you $16,128 and your ROI will be $11,688.  The difference is a loss of $4,440.

When we compare the bathroom remodel to Scenario 1 and Scenario 2, the bathroom remodel is over budget and provides you with much less return.  Not to mention the disruption and inconvenience you will encounter while the project is underway.

The conclusion is: pick your projects wisely. If you have a limited budget for your home improvements and want to maximize your return on your investment, going big is not always better.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Building Permits And Your Property

You're either interested in purchasing a home that has had previous structural work done to it or you are interested in selling your home that has work done by you or a previous owner, the big question is: Was a building permit issued for the work?

The answer to this question is important for two reasons.

First, if you are looking to purchase a property and it's clear previous work was done, you need to be sure the work performed was done in accordance with the building code.

Second, you, the homeowner, will have to pay to have the work brought up to code and prove the work meets the building code requirements, even if it was the previous owner who did the work.

Let's take a look at what the implications of previous structural work done to the foundation of your home would mean.


Previous Structural Work

Underpinning or bench footings often indicate a problem area that had previously existed with the property. For most older homes this is either a result of inadequate footings below the foundation wall, poor soils, or some other equally important and significant structural issue.  The importance of discovering previous structural work like this, whether done by you or a previous homeowner decades ago, is the work needs to be backed up by a building permit and engineering reports too.

If it's found the structural work is non-compliant, you're looking at a significant cost to have the work brought up to the standards necessary. So if you are serious about making an offer on a property and are thinking the lack of a building permit is something you can ignore, better think again.

What Are Your Options?

If you own a property and are unsure if prior work on the home was done with a building permit, you have two options to exercise; both help you to discover if there was a building permit issued.  The first method is to conduct an anonymous search to determine what permits the municipality has issued for your property in the past. The other method is to contact the municipality directly to determine what work was done and under what building permit.

If you discover your home has unpermitted work and have no intention of having the work inspected by the municipality to determine if it meets the building code requirements, you must disclose the unpermitted work to the next buyer so they are aware of the risk they are assuming when purchasing your property. 

If you are looking to purchase a home and it has been disclosed there was unpermitted work done, the larger risk is you, as the buyer, may not be able to get financing for the house. That means even if you were interested and ready to buy the property because it has a great finished basement apartment perfect for your family's needs, you may not get financing.

If you want to bring the work up to code, then you will need to work with an architectural professional to help document the existing condition and open up portions of the covered work to show the municipal inspector how the structure was put together.  You will be responsible for all costs associated with bringing the work up to code.

So if you hear your contractor suggest you can do the work without a permit, contact your municipality to double check.  It's in your best interests to do so.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Finishing Your Basement

Back in April I wrote about the dangers of finishing your basement - the wrong way. Moisture, or water, was the culprit I said, and you needed to ensure you had bulk water management systems in place before doing anything.  Evaluate before you renovate, was and still is my message.

I also mentioned there were solutions out there and all you had to do was find the right person to ask. Well, since I've written that article I've been asked what the right way to do things is.  That means I'm the go-to guy for this type of information, so here is what you need to do to create a healthy basement.

Insulated Wood Frame Walls Need Two Sides to Dry Out


A typical method used to insulate basement walls is to build a wood frame wall, leave a 1 inch air space between the wood studs and the concrete wall, fill the stud bays with fiberglass batt type insulation, and then cover the interior side of the assembly with a sheet of 6 mil polyethylene vapour barrier. With the plastic sheet installed on the warm side of the wall, this limits the wall to only being able to dry out towards the exterior. 
Since basement walls are unable to dry out towards the exterior because the ground is damp, and with the tight film of plastic preventing walls from drying out towards the interior, the result is the small amount of water that does make its way into the foundation walls moves into the framed wall and stays there, trapped.

The Better Way to Finish

The better way to finish your basement is to create a wall and/or floor assembly that enables the walls and floor to breath. Using permeable materials allows moisture to travel through them and this helps both the foundation walls and/or floor slab to dry out. The excess water vapour is managed by using a dehumidifier. To construct wall and floor assemblies that help damp concrete to dry out will require you to use vapour-permeable materials like EPS for insulation, latex for paint, and cork for flooring, for example.

All of these finishes allow water to move through them. Although it’s impossible to keep your foundation and floor slab from getting wet because they are in contact with the ground, using a wall and floor assembly that allows the walls and/or floor to dry out is the better solution.

A Final Word Of Warning

A more common water issue impacting homeowners in developed areas in both the US and Canada is urban flooding. Paul Kovacs, executive director at the insurance industry's Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, points out that, according to his research, basement flooding has emerged as one of the fastest growing causes of losses and extreme damage in Canada, costing $2 billion just in direct insurance payments annually. You can read the full study here in Urban Flooding in Canada.
The Center For Neighbourhood Technology in the United States has published a case study on the Prevalence and Cost of Urban Flooding in Cook County, IL, and say “the economic and social consequences can be considerable: experts estimate that wet basements decrease property values by 10 - 25 percent.” For a home with an appraised value of $300,000 that’s a monetary loss of $30K to $75K.
So before you decide to finish your basement make sure your bulk water management systems in place work, understand the risks associated with flooding, and when making your finish material selections, chose permeable finishes that breath so things dry out when they get moist.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Kitchen Planning and Primary Work Centers

Kitchen Planning - Primary Work Centers

You may find your kitchen is cluttered, there never seems to be enough room to cook or prepare meals, and someone always seems to be in someone's way.  There may be more than one reason your kitchen design may not work for you. Since the kitchen is the "heart" of the home, it's important to get it right.

As a lay person, how do you know if the kitchen you're looking at works or not?  Are there rules good kitchen design needs to follow? Templates even?  I mean, where do you even start?

To help you better understand how your kitchen works, you need to learn about some fundamentals about kitchen design and layout. It all starts with what are called the Primary Work Centers. The importance of Primary Work Centers are they impact the kitchen’s layout, restrict what can or cannot be done in the kitchen, and set the design criteria needed to create an efficient, comfortable, and well planned workspace.

Understanding what the Primary Work Centers are, what they're composed of, and the types of activities that occur enables you to evaluate your current kitchen layout with a more practiced and pragmatic eye. Not only will a good design appeal to you aesthetically, you will know why it makes the heart of your home a very comfortable place to be.

Primary Work Centers

The idea behind Primary Work Centers is based on a rather simple premise.  Group activities in the kitchen into distinct areas and then identify the tools and space needed for these activities. 

That's it in a nutshell really.

Whatever the activities are for each area it only makes sense to ensure there is ample storage, enough counter space, and sufficient lighting for you to be able to carry out the tasks you need to perform.

OK, so what are these "activities"? How granular do you get anyway?  

Let's keep the count down to four activities and they are: cleanup, mixing, cooking, and serving. It also becomes evident that grouping these items might make more sense if you placed the cleanup area next to the mixing, the mixing area near the cooking, and the serving area, well, it can be left to float around a bit or put close to the clean-up area.

Needless to say, identifying these four areas allows you to see there are some relationships between the work centers that are stronger than others.

So, How Does This Help Me?

Circles Keep It Simple
If you look at the diagram provided the arrangement of the work centers fits within the layout of the room and they either create new circulation paths or accommodate existing ones.  

As shown in this example the clean up area is located between the mixing and serving work centers.  The cooking work center is floating up there at the top.  Maybe it's an island, or perhaps it's located on exterior wall? Who knows?  This layout looks like it can accommodate two entrances into the space too.

What we do understand is the work center layout needs to fit the space available, provide the work centers with context to one another, and moving any one center to a new location impacts what is done where and the flow through the space.

The simplicity of designing or evaluating your kitchen using the four work centers allows you to:

  • Learn how activities relate to one another on a macro rather than micro level 
  • Understand how moving one work center to a different location affects the entire layout
  • Quickly create numerous layouts by something as simple as circles
  • Choose a layout that works for you
  • Determine if the layout works for the space available.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why You Should Not Buy That House

Would I Buy That House?

Ok, I wrote a post to let you know if you were asking yourself the question  "Should you buy that house?" there was help available.

Here I am going to describe some common scenarios some of my investigations uncovered. My advice, you don't buy that house, or if you do want to make an offer, you need to factor in the risk of owning a non-compliant, damaged, or failing home because of the following reasons.

Location, location, location and your emotions aside, your decision to ignore the "tells" of a property may be very costly.


Take a look at this property.  The setbacks for the rear yard are indicated in red, the exterior side yard in tan, the front yard is yellow, and the interior side yard is blue.  The outline of the house is in dark brown.

The only setback not impacted by the location of the existing structure is the front yard.  Adding to the complication of this scenario is the detached garage owned by the neighbour towards the rear of the property. Their garage encroaches onto the property.

If you wanted to add to or modify the house, there would be a great deal of non-conforming issues impacting your ability to develop a plan or design easily. The cost to address the existing issues would probably be equivalent to building a new home.

The only reason to buy this property would be to demolish the existing house and start new, and build within the available allowable area defined by the setbacks.

Would I buy this house to live in?

I would, but the offer would just be for the value of the lot.


The foundation of this home has been so neglected and plagued by water issues over the years, it's starting to fail.  You can trace how the water flows along the outside of the foundation wall with the wettest area located at the window for some strange reason.

The damp conditions in the basement would make it unsafe to store anything down there since it would just become smelly and rot - perfect mold food. The moisture problems plaguing this home's foundation make it a serious risk to both the occupant's and home's health.

To fix this problem properly would require the demolition and replacement of the foundation at a cost of nearly $120K CAD.

Don't get me started on the rusty cast iron downspout or the wooden floor joists embedded in the concrete foundation wall either.

Would I buy this house to live in? No, but I would buy for the value of the lot only.

Structural Issues

There are some really weird structural issues out there.  Check this interesting scenario out.  What attracted my attention to the "beam" were a few things.  The first was it was bare, meaning unprimed, then there was the missing lateral support, and finally the rather odd shape to it too.

Upon closer inspection I was surprised to discover the "beam" was not your typical web and flange style configuration, instead the thing I was looking at was a salvaged train rail.

Then there is the questionable floor framing in the background for the stair opening.

This house had a great deal going for it, until you took the time to look at it just a little closer.

If I were to go ahead and renovate the basement later and have an inspection performed, as the owner I would be liable for the costs involved in making the floor structure compliant, and you can bet the pads for the posts are not adequately sized either.

This would be too risky a proposition for me unless, of course, the offer made discounted the risk I would be assuming as the owner.

Would I buy this house? Maybe, but there would be a big write-down in price because of the non-compliant framing and use of a non-approved building material.

Buyer Beware

These are just three examples of different houses with very big yet different issues.  If you are looking to purchase a property, be aware that the charm and uniqueness of the building also may also have its fair share of challenges and encumbrances too.

Before making an offer, determine the risk associated with the non-compliant work or failing infrastructure. 

If you are unsure what the risks are, then ask someone, like me, to help you find them.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Should You Buy That House?

Location, Location, Location

"Location, location, location..." is the mantra realtors often cite when talking about a desirable

The prospective buyer needs to be thinking "What if, what if, what if..." when looking at a home they are serious about purchasing.

As someone looking to purchase a home you need to wonder and ask yourself:
  • Is the house safe?
  • What renovations were done in the past without a permit?
  • What is the first thing in need of replacing?
  • What's the real cost of yearly maintenance?
  • How difficult will it be to do what I have in mind?
Knowing the answers to these questions is something every prospective homeowner would like to have, and they rely on a Home Inspection to provide them with some insight. Both realtors and seasoned building professionals know the limitations and constraints applied to an inspector when they're conducting a Home Inspection.

Testing for the presence of hazardous materials, determining if a building conforms to municipal zoning by-laws, or if there are hidden deficiencies such as inadequate structural components or a persistent water problems hidden behind finished walls or stacked boxes in a basement corner are beyond the scope and mandate of a Home Inspection to find and report on.

Yet these are the conditions that result in many non-disclosure lawsuits against previous owners and realtors.

There are other limitations to the Home Inspection.  For example, as a prospective buyer the Home Inspection will not let you know how big an addition to the existing home can be, if the kitchen is in a good location or needs to be moved, if opening up the floor plan is out of the question or a feasible option, or determine how the house can be altered to suit your lifestyle.

The Home Inspection will provide you with insight about the various elements of the home and whether they have reached the end of their service life.  The Home Inspector will also be able to let you know what items are red-flagged when it comes to needing repair.  The Home Inspection provides you with a snap shot of the condition of the house as it is today.  You may be looking for a detailed scope of work outlining how the work will be done, pricing, or identifying the risks associated with purchasing the property when looked at from the context of a future project.

In other words, you need more information.

Whether your intent is to evaluate the existing conditions or challenges faced for the future growth and expansion of the house, what you may find you need are answers to describe how feasible your future plans for the home would be.  Your focus is more on the future of the house and how the current state of the house impacts those plans.

If you or your clients are looking for honest answers and clear, professional advice and direction for the evaluation of the structure and condition of the house, where pointing out both immediate and future concerns or limitations are needed, feel free to contact me.

A 10 minute conversation will allow us to determine if your requirements and this type of service make sense, and if it does, we'll both decide what the next steps will be.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Keep It Dry. Keep It Safe.

Include This, Exclude That

Plans for finishing a basement are typically filled with lots of stuff to include. Maybe you want to include a media center, fitness studio, or a basement apartment for an aging relative.  These are important items to consider but even more important is what you need to exclude.


To help you do this you need to manage:
  • Surface water
  • Ground water
You have to admit, it's a small list, and if ignored or overlooked, the negative consequences for you, your family, and the health of your home are huge. Ensuring the exterior of your basement walls and floor slab are as dry as they can be is a big step in the right direction.

Your Mission - Impossible

Considering how impossible it is to keep your foundation walls and floor slab absolutely free from being exposed to wet or damp earth, wind driven rain, sprinklers, melting snow, or other interesting sources of water, accept the fact your foundation walls and floor slab will always be moist or contain some amount of moisture.

This means you also need to provide your walls and floor slab the opportunity to dry out, somehow.

That's Interesting

Enough talk about the exterior.

You've done what you can to manage surface and ground water to the best of your ability.  Let's take a look at the interior now. Are there major sources of moisture you need to manage there?

Surprisingly, enough, there are. There is one huge internal moisture source in your home you've probably overlooked and is a major reason you may have a moisture problem, if the bulk water systems are properly managed.

This major source of moisture is: air.

Unfortunately, because air is moist:
  • Cold surfaces will form condensate when exposed to warm moist air
  • Air is warmer than your concrete foundation wall
  • Air is warmer than your concrete floor slab
So now you not only need a strategy to manage exterior water, but somehow prevent warm moist air from coming into contact with cold surfaces too.

There Is A Way Forward

Don't Do This!
How do you do that?

Simple, use thermal insulation.

How you implement or build this system this will either be a good thing or a disaster.  In other words, there is a right way, and many different wrong ways to do this, and it's up to you to decide which method to use. Fortunately for you and me people have made it their professional career to figure this out for us.

Unfortunately, most of the contractors or renovation "experts" are not those professionals which means you're likely to be told how to do things the wrong way, like the way this basement in the photo is being finished.  The end result of this project is you end up with a warm damp basement making you and your family sick.

Your next step is to discover what materials and methods are needed, how they need to be installed, and how to minimize or eliminate warm moist from contacting the cold surfaces of your basement's foundation walls and floor slab.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Your Project's Scope Of Work

A project's Scope of Work has often been mentioned in my discussions and you may be asking yourself "Just what, exactly, is a Scope of Work and how it can help me with my project?"

You may also be wondering how big does a project need to be for a Scope of Work? Does the Scope of Work apply to really massive jobs as well as small jobs, like installing a new light fixture for example?

You bet it does. 

The Scope of Work concept is quite simple. It's used to accurately describe:
  • Who is responsible for what work
  • How will the work be done
  • What is the work
  • When is the work finished
  • How will you measure the work's completeness
Most people have the strange concept that any contractor given a set of drawings or project will approach the work in essentially the same way to create the desired result.  This couldn't be further from the truth.

If you're a contractor you're probably thinking, "I don't have time to write out a Scope of Work for every project I bid on!"

You know what? You're right.  The responsibility for creating the Scope of Work rests with the owner of the project.

So how do you convince the project owner they need to provide you with a Scope of Work before you invest the time and effort to price out a project?  I mean, the typical homeowner is probably thinking the Free Estimate is a pretty good deal right about now.

No hassle, pick up the phone, call, someone comes over, and then a few days later appears with a polished proposal.  Who needs a Scope of Work?  Want the job, give me your price.

Well, times are changing, fortunately, and more homeowners are now beginning to understand the difference "quality" makes, and it all starts with the project documentation prepared for the project.

What A Scope of Work Describes

Imagine, as a homeowner, or a contractor, you have the means to describe milestones, reports, deliverables, and end products for every phase and aspect of the project. If there is a dispute about the trade not performing to speed, it's because that speed was defined and identified prior to.  If the documentation says the agreed to crew size is one lead carpenter, an apprentice, and a laborer and just the carpenter shows up Day 1, as the customer and contractor you know your project's milestones are not going to be met.

If you're a contractor, the days of yelling into your phone, throwing your hard hat around, and being an ass and expecting an increase in performance as a result of your temper tantrum are over.  Same goes for you, the homeowner, who's hired on trades to do the work.  You can change the rules and demand more but understand this, the expectation is everyone has to agree to the change, how to implement the change, and what the impact is on the project in terms of compensation, deliverables, and milestones.

What A Scope Of Work Includes

So, what should a complete Scope of Work include?

These are the recommended components:
  • Glossary
  • Problem Statement
  • Goals of the Agreement
  • Deliverables
  • Administration
  • Timelines
Kia Ricchi, a Blogger for Fine Homebuilding wrote an article about how to Create A Scope Of Work. Some of Kia's points "are the description is accurate, detailed, and includes all the work and materials you will provide. Excluded items and additional work that the homeowner might assume to be included should also be noted.  In summary, a good scope of work should tell a prospective client exactly what is, and what is not, included in your bid."

Read more at: and be sure to check out my comment under my username misturfyxit. The comments made by me and others back in 2011 are still as valid then as they are today.

Who Prepares the Scope of Work

If you're the project owner, it's your responsibility to prepare the Scope of Work. The problem is, the typical homeowner is unaware of how to prepare a Scope of Work or who they need to talk to do so.  If you're replacing light fixtures, building a deck, or a new home, the Scope of Work varies, as does the expertise needed.

The question now becomes, who do you get to write your Scope of Work? Are there resources out there for you to use?

Fortunately, the resources are out there.  It's just a matter of getting them to all mesh together.

Disclosure And You

As the seller of your home you may be asked to sign a Seller Property Information Sheets or SPIS. In some locations they are mandatory, but in Ontario, they are voluntary.  So what is the purpose of a SPIS anyway?

The current law is that a vendor is not under obligation to disclose glaring or apparent defects of quality.  So, if you as the seller of the property are aware of quality issues such as product performance, you don't have to let anyone else know about it.

If you do chose to go ahead with a SPIS for the property, the question now is do you have the knowledge necessary to accurately answer the questions? What happens if there there is a latent defect that makes the property unfit for living in or dangerous after you sign the SPIS? Are you required to disclose that too?

If you as a buyer walk into a property and discover the seller did not want to sign or provide a SPIS for the property, your first and last thought needs to be what is it they're trying to hide?

One of the criticisms about using the SPIS is you probably don’t understand many of the questions let alone know the correct answers to provide.

So, to help you out let's take a look at couple of the questions to see what information can be provided.

Encroachments, Registered Easements, or Rights of Way

Here are some definitions to help you out.


"A situation in real estate where a property owner violates the property rights of his neighbor by building something on the neighbor's land or by allowing something to hang over onto the neighbor's property. Encroachment can be a problem along property lines when a property owner is not aware of his property boundaries or intentionally chooses to violate his neighbor's boundaries. This is also known as structural encroachment."

Registered Easement:

"An easement is an interest in another individual's land or property. Easements are typically created by express grant, by implication, by prescription or by necessity. Additionally, easements are classified as negative or affirmative. A negative easement gives the holder the right to prevent another individual from doing some act. Possessors of affirmative easements are entitled to go onto someone else's property for specific purposes."

Rights of Way:

"Right of way is when someone gets approval from someone to travel across their property. It gives that person a type of easement, so that they can use the owner's land to access public places on certain areas of his/her land."

How do you determine if there are any encroachments, registered easements, or rights of way?

Get a property survey prepared.  The property survey will show you where the easements and rights of way are, where the location of the building is on the lot, and other features such as a driveway location, for example. Once you have the survey, be sure to have a professional examine it to determine if there are any issues you need to disclose.


For the Province of Ontario, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing defines your zoning by-law as:

"A zoning by-law controls the use of land in your community. It states exactly:
  • how land may be used
  • where buildings and other structures can be located
  • the types of buildings that are permitted and how they may be used
  • the lot sizes and dimensions, parking requirements, building heights and setbacks from the street."

You can read more about zoning by-laws here or download Citizen's Guide 3 Zoning By-Laws.

Some may say these rules are too restrictive and you, as the property owner, should have the final say as to how you use your property.  That's all fine and dandy if you're a sociopath and lack empathy, but you have neighbours and they also have expectations for their quality of life and enjoyment of their property too.  The zoning by-law describes what type of buildings, business activities, and lot coverage are allowed for you and your neighbours.

To find out information about your property's zoning by-laws, phone your municipality and ask for the Planning or Land Use Department.  They will be happy to provide you with the information, especially if you have plans for building.


It's common law you are not allowed, under any circumstance, to drain surface water from your property onto another privately owned piece of property. Period.

If you build a fence, mound up dirt, or do other "improvements" to your lot, you may have impacted the drainage plan for your property.

To prove the drainage plan and your existing property are still as one, a topographic survey is required.  The information for the topographic survey can be combined with the property survey.

Moisture and/or Water Problems

The scope of this questions pertains to the building envelope which is composed of the roof, walls, and foundation.  Anything that gets wet from weather or ground or surface water is impacted.  If there was a leak with any of these systems and it was repaired, it needs to be disclosed.

Considering the vast majority of lawsuits involve leaky or wet basements, it might be worth it to acknowledge if you have a basement and just like every other basement, it used to be a wet, damp, and moist environment.

Buyer and Seller Beware

I'm often surprised to walk into homes people have recently purchased to discover a number of defects waiting for them to deal with. The number one issue is always a leaky or moist basement, closely followed by zoning or encroachment issues, then by hazardous materials in building products.

The first thought that comes to mind is why didn't the previous owner disclose the problem? This is followed by how can the previous owner or buyer be so unaware of how serious an issue this can be?

As a building professional, there are a number of scenarios I've seen that really made me upset for the owners of the property.  I remember one case in particular.

It was a young family who had purchased a property in a part of the City that is now being gentrified.  Their intention was to purchase the home, renovate the areas needing repair, and live there for quite some time afterwards reaping the rewards of their being the first into a neighbourhood in distress.

They showed me the existing kitchen addition they wanted removed and replaced.  Their hope was to reuse the foundation, extend the basement into the area under the kitchen, and make the kitchen the heart of the home.

When examining the existing structure it became apparent the foundation was non-conforming, as was the plumbing, wiring, and framing too.  A number of red flags were thrown.

Then I asked if they had a property survey, to which they replied, yes they did have one. I took one look at the survey, walked over to an area inside the kitchen, pointed at the floor and said "According to your survey, your property line is here, meaning, your neighbour owns this side of the room and all of that exterior wall too."

The reaction received was curious, in that the young mother picked up her child, sat down in a corner, and held the child up as a shield. The young father stood there looking at me dumbfounded as all the blood drained out of his face.

So begins their adventure in home ownership.

If I was a sociopath I would have signed them up for a renovation contract and bled them dry but instead I felt a great deal of sorrow for them. We discussed a strategy for them to pursue in order to become better informed.  What they needed to do was:
  • Have the state of the home (property, structural, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC) professionally assessed
  • Prioritize findings
  • Decide on how to move forward (move, renovate, or demolish and build new)
In Ontario, it's buyer beware, although there have been recent court decisions holding the seller and realtor accountable.  Here are a few to note:
  • Rampersad v. Rose, [1997] O. J. No. 2012 (Ontario Small Claims Court) 
    • A leaking basement case.
  • McQueen v. Kelly, [1999] O. J. No. 2481 (OSCJ) 
    • Another leaking basement case.
  • Stone v. Stewart, [2009] O.J. No. 1674 
    • Leaking basement again.
  • Riley v. Langfield   [2008] O.J. No. 2028 
    • A flood that had happened in the basement
  • Swayze v. Robertson, [2001] O. J. No. 968 (OSCJ)
    • Leaking basement
  • Gallagher v. Pettinger, [2003] O. J. No. 409 (OSCJ)
    • Hid evidence of moisture in the basement
  • Moore v. Page, [2002] O.J. No. 2256 (OSCJ)
    • Structural defects and water leakage
  • Kaufmann v. Gibson  [2007] O.J. No. 2711
    • Not being truthful about conditions of the home
  • Hunt v. 981577 Ontario Ltd., [2003] O. J. No. 2051 (Small Claims Court)
    • Ongoing obligation to report changes after disclosure was made
So, if you are in the process of buying or purchasing a property, take the time to educate yourself so both you and your family are protected. When looking at a home, forget about stuff like paint colour, whether or the carpet works for you, or if the kitchen looks dated.  That's emotional tug at the heart strings stuff and when the lights are out, meaningless.

If your roof leaks, your house encroaches into neighbouring property, or there's mold in your basement making you and your family sick, these are serious issues requiring significant time, energy, and money to repair.

Purchasing and selling property is a business decision and you need to be informed about what your obligations are to both yourself and family as a buyer or seller.  Be safe. Be aware.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Aging In Place

Like you, I want to stay in my home as long as possible and I've met many customers who feel the same way. The vast majority of customers who are concerned with these matters have or have a family member with a mobility issue, are faced with the challenges of housing an aging parent, or are proactively making the right decisions to help them make use or modify their existing space for the future. 

I want you to know that if you find yourself in this situation, you are not alone, there are others who have been here before, and there is help to get you what you need.

Health Canada has put together some thoughts on the matter and you can find them here at Thinking About Aging In Place.

I have to agree with their list of questions we, as individuals, need to consider as we age. I would also like to share many of my customers ask:
  • If I want to live in my current home as I age, what modifications could help me remain safe? (e.g., installing hand rails, a ramp, emergency response systems, etc.)
  • How will I maintain my home if I need help? Are there services available in my community? Do I have the money to pay for the services if I need them?
  • Do I need to move to a more manageable home or consider a home without stairs?
  • What are my housing options if my current home no longer suits my needs? What will be the costs?
The article also mentions you need to either move to or be living in an area where you are able to receive the support needed.  Selecting a neighbourhood, maintaining strong connections with family and friends, and staying healthy are wonderful assets as well, but if you have trouble getting up and down the stairs, doorways need to be made larger, or hallways are too constricting, you need answers today that work for you and enable you to stay in your home tomorrow.

It comes as no surprise builders of new homes design for young healthy people (and I plead guilty on that charge), and these homes will become hostile or unlivable for anyone who is older or has a mobility issue.  Considering 90% of people aged 55 today say they want to live in their home for as long as possible, changes are needed to make their existing home more livable.

Seniors Real Estate News says "the number of seniors requiring assistance is expected to double in the next 30 years, and some 10 million existing homes will need accessibility updating if those Canadians are to age in place." You can read the full article here.

Right now you probably have a number of questions about where to start and what plans to make to convert your existing hostile home into a supportive environment you can enjoy as you age. You may also be wondering what your next steps are if you do decide to go ahead and have some work done. Questions like: how do you know if you're getting a fair price for the work?

Well, there are resources and experienced professionals out there who care, and I'm one of them.

To help you, I'm going to do what I can here to provide you with the information you need to get solid pricing and service from building professionals you hire to do the work for you.

You deserve no less.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mold and Your Basement

There is a serious disaster in the making that is going to impact the majority of homes with finished and/or insulated basements. If you are considering finishing your basement, moving into a basement apartment, or are buying a home with a finished basement, you need to sit up and take notice.

You may be putting your health at risk.

"Fiberglass batt insulation, 2X4 wood or steel stud framing, and a poly vapour barrier is commonly used practice for insulating basements throughout Canada.  This however is a recipe for disaster."  This isn't just hype.

The U.S. Department of Energy has published a short article and describes recommended basement insulation systems to use, and they mention moisture problems are "compounded when an impermeable vapor barrier such as plastic is used on the interior because it will trap moisture in the wall."

This is unfortunate because most, if not all, new home construction in Canada since the mid 1980s use the fiberglass batt and framed wall or blanket insulation system featuring a well sealed 6 mil polyethylene vapour barrier installed on the warm side of the wall assembly.

The result of this construction methodology is moisture wicking through your foundation is trapped inside the insulated framed wall assembly. Due to the low drying potential of the wall assembly, mold starts to grow.

If you think your home insurance policy is going to come to the rescue for you, home insurance policies "typically do not cover water damage caused by 'maintenance' problems. These include slower, ongoing problems like continuous water seepage or repeat leaks, ongoing humidity problems, problems related to your landscaping or drainage on the property, or condensation" says Karla Kant in her article "Home Insurance Guidelines: Mold Facts and Coverage".

The "The American Society of Home Inspectors estimates that 60% of U.S. homes have wet basements. Even well built and sealed basements that would not have mold under normal circumstances can develop mold growth from high humidity" says Robert G. Miller, Forensic Construction Expert.  You can read more here about Basement Air Quality.

"Mold occurrence in new homes has become so endemic that builder's liability insurance coverage limits the insurance carrier's liability to a few thousand dollars, if it covers mold issues at all" says Mold Occurrence in New Construction.

The conclusion I make from having read the information provided in these articles is managing moisture and how it impacts the building is serious, because if ignored, the consequences to you, your family's health, and the health of your home will be disastrous.

How Accurate Is My Quote?

You've all learned why the Free Estimate needs to die.

With the Free Estimate gone, what fills the void vacated by all that Free Estimate foolishness?

A Quote or Price for the Project, that's what.

So what's the difference between a Free Estimate and an price or quote?

Well, to start with, creating a Price or Quote for a project requires you to work with someone who will spend time, use their expertise and understanding to assess the risks and challenges, and then determine the material and labor requirements required to make your project a success.  
Most customers are unaware of what the project costs are and would like to have the flexibility to adjust the scope so they can control the cost. Being able to move markers as the design progresses eliminates a condition called "Over Design" which occurs when the designer creates a product the customer is unable to afford.  
So how do you do that?  Price your project at intervals as the design process for your project matures.

Processes And Pricing

Your project documentation is used to define, clarify, and describe your project's scope, material requirements, and configuration.  Development of your project's documentation is a four step process and looks like this:
  • Concept
  • Schematic
  • Design
  • Construction Documents
You can have your project priced at each of these intervals realizing the accuracy of the pricing provided reflects the accuracy of the documentation provided for the stage of the process priced.
Process Pricing

To help you understand what I mean, refer to the Process Pricing image. The darker the color, the more precise the pricing provided.

For example, because more than one CONCEPT is prepared for your project, the prices here vary the most. Materials are guessed at as well as the scale and scope of the work. 

As you move from the CONCEPT to the SCHEMATIC, the pricing tightens up more as the scale and scope of the project become more defined.  Room sizes are known, some material decisions are made, and the location and size of doors and windows are provided.

The DESIGN stage of the process is quite a bit more accurate because you have cabinet layouts shown, flooring types identified, and elements such as trim and door style identified. (It's at this stage you typically sign a contract with a Design-Build firm to build your project)

The COMPLETED DOCUMENTATION process provides you with the more accurate pricing levels of all the processes because everything is specified, including how the work is to be performed. (It's a this stage where all the Change Orders are issued, before the project begins).

As you can see, as the your project's construction documentation increases in its level of detail, ambiguity, assumptions, and unknowns are removed. The accuracy of your pricing is directly tied into the completeness of the documentation you provide.

Free Estimates Need To Die

Free Estimates suck.

You want to know why? Because the scope, specifications, and other items associated with the project are unknown, and because these are unknown, the ability to price out the project is unknown too.

All around, the Free Estimate is a waste of time for you, your customer, and makes us all look like nincompoops too.

So what needs to be done to fix this?

Believe it or not, I have an idea.  It's a pretty simple fix too.

First, Free Estimates need to die, and the people advocating their reps to give them shown the door to someplace else. Pretty easy fix, if you ask me.

Information As An Image

Think of the information exchanged between you and the customer as an image.  In order for either of you to have the foggiest idea of what it is you are looking at, the image needs to be clear, focused, illuminated, have context, and be viewed from the right distance or perspective.

Let's take a simple project (and I'm not going to let you know what it is either) to show you what I mean.

First, we have the initial call.

First Information Exchange

Something is being described here and the focus is somewhat customer centric.  I want you to give me, this, that, and another thing, you to be here on Saturday afternoon at 2:00 PM because blah, blah, blah.  This conversation is going nowhere fast. Usually the Free Estimate thing is brought up. Now try to describe what this project is all about, and give me a price to boot.

The Conversation Continues

Things are getting a bit more clearer and you're both beginning to share information about what it is you're talking about.  There's still quite a bit of fog and stuff going on here so to help "educate" you, the client demands you come out to "see" what it is they're talking about. Oh, and maybe you can give me some design ideas while we talk about the Free Estimate? Right?

The Conversation Continues Some More

The project still lacks scope, focus, context, is not clear in its intent, and although the customer may feel this one wee image contains all the information needed to give them a Free Estimate, a detail doesn't define a project.

If you're a customer, your first step is to hire the right professionals to help you bring your project into a focused image. This will require you to spend time working on defining, creating, and clearly illuminating the project's scope and specifications so anyone can easily understand what it is you want to do.

What The Customer Was Talking About