Gaines Group Architects
Chesapeake and Western Depot

Check out this cool find inside a wall on a renovation project

Check out this cool find inside a wall on a renovation project

You never know what to expect in the walls of a renovation project. There are always things hiding from the construction process in the past. From coke bottles to beer bottles things get tossed inside of walls and sit there for years waiting to be exposed again. On a recent project in downtown Harrisonburg, this cool find was inside a wall. The date on the newspaper is April 18, 1973 about two months before I was born. The contractor found it as he was doing demo and it was just left on the floor in the pile of trash.


Green Term Defined: Renovation

Green Term Defined: Renovation


We know a lot about how to build a new building that is very energy-efficient, healthy, and durable. However, no matter how good we can build new structures, saving an existing building is almost always better for the environment. Unless the existing structural system is beyond repair or the existing building contains toxic elements.


Renovation is the act of repurposing / updating / remodeling of a building.

Mt Crawford Basement Renovation


There is no question, it is easier to build a new building to the highest standards than it is to take an old building to the same standard. However, the embodied energy is much lower when renovating a building vs building new. A National Trust study found it can take more than 10 years for a new energy-efficient building to overcome the negative climate change impacts caused during the construction process. There is a tremendous amount of energy in the existing building from footings, foundations, materials, energy to create new materials, transportation of those materials and on and on not to mention energy to demolish the existing building.

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Design for the future: Universal Design for Every Building

Proper planning for buildings reduce the need for future renovations, extend the service life of buildings, and make it possible for people of all abilities to have access and function. When designing for accessibility the results often focus on wheelchair use in a building. These are limiting strategies that don’t work for most people and even do not work for many in wheelchairs. Universal Design on the other hand has a more holistic approach that focuses on all abilities rather than specific disabilities. UD allows easy navigation by everyone, regardless of age, height, eyesight, mobility, and dexterity.


UD is encouraged by those wanting a home that lasts a lifetime. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) survey, 73% of adults 45 and older wish to stay in their current residence as long as possible. However, fewer than half have basic accommodations for universal design in their homes.

Good planning for Universal Design prior to construction incorporates many strategies into a home that will reduce future renovations. Strategies to focus on include:

Open Floor Plans – with fewer walls, there are fewer corners or narrow passageways to navigate.

Adjustable workspace heights – Conventional heights are simply done “because that is the way we always do it”. Having a variety of work surfaces allows for kids to work in the kitchen, someone in a wheelchair to comfortably make dinner, or someone taller than average to work without bending over.

No-step entryways – From the front door to room to room transitions, having a home with no steps allows easy transitions for moving in a stroller to a wheelchair.towel-grab bar

Doors with lever handles – Another strategy to make life easier. A lever handle will allow you to open a door with your elbow if your hands are full or with arthritis.

Roll in Shower – Having a shower that does not require a step to get into makes it safer to use on a daily basis.

merillat-universalbasetable_250x188__entry_mediumAlthough it is impossible to plan for every future possible, planning for easy access will make your building more livable for a lifetime. Here is a longer checklist of items to include (click here). In Virginia, there is a tax credit that helps with incorporating these strategies (click here).

Things You Need to Know When Selecting a Contractor

Team of Contractors

Crossroads Farm Framing

Remodeling or building a new home is a complicated, stressful, and emotional process. The process is usually unclear. There are often many options and no clear right answers. So how do you make it through with the best results? Here is a list of questions that you should answer before you get too far into the process (click here). Your next step once you decide to build is to get the team in place that can deliver the best value. Your team should include an architect and a contractor. Here is a quick perspective on why you need an architect (click here). So how do you find the right contractor to continue to build your team? Here is a list of things you should ask before hiring.

  1. Team of ContractorsReputation – What is your past experience with projects of this type? Did you stay on budget? How do you deal with unhappy clients? How many projects have you done like this one?
  2. Schedule – When can you start? How many projects will you have going at the same time? How long will it take? How much of your devoted time will my project get on a daily / weekly basis? When do you start work each day? When do you stop work each day?
  3. Project management – Who will be on site every day? Do they curse or smoke? How do they relate with the subcontractors – manage by yelling or with respect? Can I ask them questions? Will they know the answers?
  4. Communication – Will we have weekly meetings? Do you communicate best by email or phone? Can I call you at night or on weekends? Do you take notes in our meetings and issue minutes?
  5. Decisions – Do you have a process in place to help me stay on track with decisions that need to be made? Do you give me options of places to make selections or do I have to shop at one place? What if I want to supply something I find at an antique store or on sale?
  6. Changes – What is your change order process? How much do you charge as a mark up on change orders? Who do I tell I want to make a change? How do you document the change?
  7. Team of Contractors

    Green Renovation

    Mistakes – Who do I need to tell if I don’t like something? What if something is not like I thought it would turn out?

  8. Billings – How do you handle invoices? Do I get to see everything you paid for and how much you are marking it up? How do you calculate the fee?
  9. Project closeout – How do you finish a project? Do I get to do a punch list? What happens in a month if I find something wrong that I miss in punch list? Do you walk me through everything and show me how to use the new systems? Will you be available in the future if there are problems? Will you provide operating manuals in an organized form? Do you provide a list of subcontractors and phone numbers so I can contact them in the future? Will you give me marked up plans and pictures showing installation for future renovations?

Thinking of Remodeling Your Home This Spring? Start Here!

BEFORE-AFTER remodelingSpring is a great time to get started on your home remodeling project. So where is the best place to get started? Who should you call? What will it cost? How long will it take? What is the best solution? Here are some things that I have learned over the years doing many residential remodeling projects:

  1. Have a complete plan before starting construction (or even before getting a contractor to give you a price). There are many variables in renovation projects and you will be making thousands of decisions. Get them out-of-the-way early: know the color paint, counter top faucet, and flooring before getting started.
  2. Don’t make changes (at least minimize them). Having a good plan in advance of construction will go a long way towards this goal. This is the place where budgets get out of hand, schedules get lost, and projects go bad – avoid making changes during construction if at all possible.
  3. Allow your contractor to purchase materials. The last thing you want is to order the studs for the addition and not have enough the day the framers are standing there waiting on the materials or even for the cabinets to be delivered a week early. Contractors know how to order materials, get special pricing from supply yards, schedule deliveries, and at the end of the day, you want them responsible for all aspects of the work being done.
  4. remodelingListen to your professionals. Your architect and contractor are there to serve you and to help you make the best decisions possible. If they say, “you can do it, but I would not recommend it” LISTEN. If it is too expensive, too complicated, or simply not a functional solution, they will tell you in most cases. Take their professional advise; after all that is why you are paying them.
  5. Have a contingency budget of at least 5%. Remodeling work is the highest risk work for contractors. There are many concealed conditions and it is impossible to know what you are getting into behind the drywall before you get behind the drywall. There is almost always a surprise in every remodeling project.
  6. Take a vacation – if at all possible, move out while the work is being done. This will help your nerves and allow the contractor to have full access to the project and schedule without worrying about bothering you by showing up too early or staying too late.IMG_0692 remodeling
  7. Get out-of-the-way – Again, you have hired professionals to do what they do for a living. Don’t try to micromanage the process. Of course everyone in the process wants you to be happy and wants to hear you concerns. However, there is a means to their madness and letting them do things the way they think is best is usually the most efficient solution.
  8. Design Matters – Don’t just slap something together. Hire an architect to think through the design that will understand the desired function / goals and plan a project that meets your needs. Proper planning on the front end is always less expensive than planning / figuring it out during construction – or worse, trying to fix it after construction is done. Beauty, function, energy efficiency, durability, and healthy solutions are all possible, but not typical in the construction industry unless an architect is involved.

Keys to an energy efficient home

I was at an event a few weeks ago that focused on making existing homes energy-efficient. One attendee pulled me aside to discuss what else she could do in her home. SO I asked the basic questions, “have you had an energy audit?” Her answer was immediate and definitive, my house is very energy-efficient. So I followed up with, “what kind of insulation do you have?” Her answer made me wonder where this conversation was heading “the normal kind.”

Most houses that are built don’t take building science into account. I believe this is in large part because you cannot see many of the things that are important for energy efficiency. So what should you look for in your home to determine if you are really energy-efficient?

energy auditFirst, I think every home owner should invest in an energy audit. You should select your auditor carefully, look for someone who understands building science and the complexities that exist in the most complicated machine you own – your home.

Get to know your home, look at the insulation in the attic, crawl space / basement, determine what kind of windows you have, and know the age and efficiency of your HVAC system. Then talk to your neighbors and friends about how much they pay per square foot for electricity. When you host a dinner party, show your friends the things that you have done to reduce your energy bills and talk about what they have done. Call a building scientist (me) to discuss all the low-cost things that you can do to make your home more energy-efficient. We all need to find ways to spend less each month – if you have not made your home efficient, then you are losing money every month that you could be saving!