Outside the Box
The old, gray-painted deck boards ran from the house to the clumsy bench and trelliswork that blocked access to the yard. Barsness replaced them with natural cedar decking that stretches the full length of the house, extending under the porch to make both deck and porch feel larger. A wide stairway and airy rails open the deck to the gardens. After photos by Jerry Swanson
Success in the exterior remodeling orbit propelled Lake State Remodelers into a whole new flight path. In 2000, after six years as a specialist in replacing roofing, siding, windows and simple decks, the Brooklyn Park, Minn., company was pounding out 188 projects a year. Most of the jobs were exterior replacements, but company co-owners Doug Schultz and Glenn Litwiller found themselves accepting a growing number of design/build projects for repeat customers.
A year later, the balance had tipped, and Lake State had become a design/build firm taking exterior replacement jobs as fill-in work. The rocket-fast transition was a testament to Lake State's solid reputation and work quality, but it shot the company's learning curve into the stratosphere. And Celeste Gervais' remodeling project sat squarely on the launching pad.
For years Gervais had dreamed of converting the sorry porch and deck of her Edina, Minn., house into a Cape Cod-style outdoor space for entertaining friends and enjoying garden vistas. The low-ceilinged, 10x12-foot back porch of the 1946 house was so small that she never used it. The adjoining, three-level deck had rotting wood, peeling paint, and a barrier of bushes and trelliswork that hampered garden views. Additionally, says Scott Barsness of Lake State's sales and design department, the deck was starting to pull away from the house and sink.
On the recommendation of her handyman, Gervais had hired Lake State a few years earlier to re-side the front and sides of her house. The job went well, and she called Lake State again in 2001 for the more complex job of designing and building a new back-of-the-house structure.
Where dreams meet reality
Barsness went out to the house for an initial meeting on May 11, 2001. Though he had years of construction, selling and estimating experience with Lake State, he says, "This was one of my first design projects, if not the first."
Gervais greeted him with a mound of pictures from magazines and books showing gorgeous porches and decks. Most of the pictured projects were too big and elaborate for Gervais' house. Rather than discourage Gervais, Barsness decided "not to discuss budget a lot" in the first meeting. Instead, "we kicked around ideas - wants, needs, goals," he says.
Gervais had several definite ideas. "I wanted to either revamp the porch into a larger room with vaulted ceiling and cathedral window or just make a covered deck." As for the deck itself, "I wanted wide steps down the middle into the back yard." She wanted a pergola over the deck "for effect and look, and a wee bit of shade." Barsness found that Gervais was open to suggestions on how to achieve "the feeling and flow" of the pictured projects rather than mimicking specific details.
Back at the office, Barsness drew up a few design scenarios. In the next meeting three weeks later, he presented them, with estimates attached. They ranged from a basic, $24,000 plan to a more elaborate $35,000 version with a larger deck and trelliswork underneath. Though Gervais was determined to hold the line at close to $20,000, she wanted Barsness to try to work in many of the extras in his expanded plans.
Because the construction was scheduled for the following spring, the design process could - and did - stretch on for many meetings and phone calls over several months, says Barsness. "I didn't have an efficient way of showing my ideas," he says. He would describe his ideas to Gervais, then she would try to visualize them. She'd come back with questions or ideas that called for more changes. The process took "countless hours," Barsness says. One of the first things Lake State did after the Gervais job was buy CAD software.
The white-painted rails, pergola, window boxes, window and door trim combine with new cedar shakes to evoke the Cape Cod beach cottage look Gervais wanted. "The only thing needed to make it perfect would be the Atlantic Ocean" in the back yard, she says.
Eventually, Barsness found a crossroads between Gervais' design aspirations and budgetary realities. Some things, such as maintenance-free composite decking, had to be dropped completely, and other ideas had to be scaled down.
To achieve bold visual impact for a budget price tag, Barsness employed several design compromises. Among them:
- Sticking to the existing porch size and structure;
- Reusing the leaky porch roof, with new rubber surfacing to end the leakage;
- Scaling down the pergola to cover only half the depth of the deck, thus requiring fewer posts;
- Crafting columns from 6x6 posts and 1-by base trim rather then buying fancier decorative posts.
Still, the final design for a $26,000, 475-square-foot structure hit all the hot buttons: It featured a covered porch area; a broad, angular deck with wide central stairway into the back yard; a pergola stretching all the way across the deck, from the porch on one side to the garage at the other; and new cedar siding to match the rest of the house. Gervais loved Barsness' design solution. On October 30, she signed a construction contract.
The claustrophobic three-season porch was "a waste of space," Gervais says. By removing the walls, adding open rails and raising the ceiling, Lake State turned the porch into an inviting outdoor room that better connects to the deck and outdoors. Extending the deck 1 1/2 feet and angling it toward a wide central stairway created a gracious connection to the yard.
Between concrete and a hard place
In April 2002, at an onsite pre-construction meeting two weeks before production was to begin, lead carpenter Dwayne Smith made an alarming discovery. Looking behind the bushes and through the latticed deck skirt, he found a concrete patio on the designated building area.
Lake State had a problem. Barsness' design called for building the new deck on 2x12 joists, attaching it to the house and supporting it with intermediate and perimeter footings. With the concrete in the way, intermediate footings were out of the question. But removing the concrete would be a budget buster. Just getting front-end loaders into the back yard to handle the concrete removal would be virtually impossible because the only access was through the garage service door. Breaking up the concrete by hand would kill the production schedule.
Barsness went back to his span charts and devised a system that had no intermediate footings but used double-thickness supporting posts next to the house and around the rim of the deck. Doubled-up joists and a double-thick header supported the load in a cantilevered portion of the deck midway across the back of the house. Smith chose southern yellow pine instead of fir for the 17-foot joists because the harder pine can carry longer spans.
The toughest section of deck was at the garage service door, which was a few steps down from the main deck level. Smith trimmed off the main deck and had to create a lower deck in front of the door, says Barsness, "with double and triple-thick joists to create a beam" where the main deck left off.
Challenge and reward
Building a new wall-less porch under an old roof was tricky, too. Smith pulled out a window and some lumber to see how the room was held together structurally. Finding no solid headers around the space and no header at all across the front of the room, he had to build temporary walls to carry the roof load when he removed the walls. A side header was too low to meet code, so Smith raised the existing headers, filling in with soffits. After working in a new front header and adding new bearing posts all around, he dismantled the temporary walls. Then he added three tiers of beams to dress up the ceiling structure.
Despite the problems, the project introduced fresh rewards to a com-pany new to design/build. For the first time, Barsness experienced the satisfaction of seeing his designs take shape.
Lake State owner Doug Schultz views the Gervais project as a successful launching point for his design/ build business. It tested his systems and proved the need to "get all the bugs worked out" during the design phase. And it demonstrated to Schultz that design/build lets you strut your stuff. "I love the way [the Gervais job] looks," he says. So do prospective clients. With photos of the project prominently displayed in the company's office, presentation books, newsletter and on its Web site, the project is helping to generate a whole new universe of remodeling work for Lake State.
Decking and siding: Cedar. Joists: Southern yellow pine. Joist hangers: Simpson. Paint: Sherwin Williams. Stain: Cabot. Water Seal: Thompson's.
On the financial side, Lake State got lucky with the Gervais project. "As each design/build job goes along," says Doug Schultz, "our [financial management] process gets more efficient." Because the Gervais job was one of Lake State's early design/build ventures, the financial management system was unrefined. Nevertheless the company pulled off a gross profit of 36.7percent on the job, actually beating its estimate by a few points.
Design agreement: Lake State asked Gervais to sign a professional service agreement (PSA) and pay a design fee upfront, which was credited to her when she signed the construction contract. To compute the PSA price, "back then we figured out the designer's fee - the time he'd spend - and threw a number at it," says Schultz. Gervais' $800 fee fell far short of covering the prolonged time Barsness spent on design.
Profitability: On the other hand, construction came in under budget. Schultz knew that his old exterior remodeling price formula - "a third for materials, a third for labor, a third for profit" - would never work for design/build, but Lake State did not yet have a job cost history on which to base design/build estimates. Fortunately, Barsness' careful time and materials estimate on the fixed-price contract was good. Though Barsness did not anticipate the problem with the concrete, the revised deck support system "cost more for lumber, but less for footings" because fewer footings were built, Schultz says. The job was finished in four weeks (a few days sooner than expected), saving labor costs. Bottom line: "I'm happy with where the job came in" financially, says Schultz, even if it was "a fluke."
Today, Lake State plays it safer. The company uses QuickBooks Pro to track estimated versus actual job costs on all divisions, which yields a reliable basis for ongoing estimating. Lake State's PSA fees now incorporate 1 percent of the estimated job cost for concept drawings, another 1 percent for working drawings, and $150-$300 to cover the legwork of collecting plot plans, surveys and so on. If changes exceed an agreed-on limit during the design phase, Lake State is considering assessing an additional fee.
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