Flexibility: The Key to a Successful Restoration?

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Musings

I was in the construction business for almost 30 years and during that time was involved in the construction of probably 700-800 new homes of all types and sizes, and also supervised many major old house restorations along the way. It was a very enjoyable career and I still go out of my way on occasion to drive past some of the new and old houses that I once worked on and many families now call their homes. When I look back at my professional life, some personality traits come to mind that helped me and that I believe would help anyone involved in restoring an old house or building a new one.

What Are We Going to Find Down Here? Photo from ourvictorianhouse.com

What Are We Going to Find Down Here? Photo from ourvictorianhouse.com

Attention to detail definitely needs to be near the top of the list, and so does the ability to plan and schedule; nothing happens while restoring an old house–or building a new one–unless it has been scheduled. The right materials in the correct amounts need to be on the job waiting for the contractors, but not so soon that they are damaged or walk off the job site to another house. The ability to communicate effectively is important; contractors need to be called and re-called–and even then they may not show up on the right day.

Contractors or materials not showing up make another trait very desirable; the ability to work under pressure. Pressure during a restoration project is having the hardwood contractor who needed to be scheduled three weeks in advance showing up tomorrow and the gas company still hasn’t arrived to set the meter so your furnace can run to provide the heat the floor installer needs. When you’re the person running the show, everyone looks to you for the answers and solutions. Which brings me to the last and what I consider to be the most important personality trait for managing or working on a restoration project–flexibility.

Restoration Flexibility

Flexibility is needed in new home construction, but it can be critical for keeping a restoration project on track for a successfulcompletion. With an old house restoration you never know what you’re going to uncover when you tear up an old bathroom floor, open up an interior wall you thought was non-load bearing, or begin restoring an old Baltimore, Maryland row house that was close to being condemned.

We Thought it was a Non-Bearing Wall photo from geocities.com/karlesgoddess/

We Thought it was a Non-Bearing Wall photo from geocities.com/karlesgoddess/

Flexibility is having the ability to make quick educated decisions to help keep the restoration process moving forward, even if you are having to change course slightly or sometimes a bit more than slightly. Missing a summer’s worth of restoration work on an old house due to loan complications definitely requires a display of restoration flexibility.


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  1. 5 Responses  to “Flexibility: The Key to a Successful Restoration?”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    Conrad, your experience taught you well. Patience and flexibility are required personality traits when restoring an old house because, as you mentioned, you never know what you might find when you peek under floorboards or behind drywall. I think another helpful tip is to always over-budget for a project. That way when a complication sets in your wallet is ready!
  3. Aug 29, 2011
    Jonny that's a great point! Unfortunately it isn't just about tradesmen deciding they want to become general contractors; I have been around construction supervisors and managers who have never done anything other than act in a construction managerial position and I wouldn't let them build me a donkey barn due to their lack of knowledge and organizational skills. Fortunately these people are the exception and many of them are out of the industry due to the housing downturn. The majority of the general contractors and construction supervisors I have come into contact with over the years have been very good.
  4. Aug 29, 2011
    Hi Erin, I would have two suggestions that might help you in the future. The first is to only hire contractors who have experience in working with old houses. Working with old houses can be very different than working with new construction and any contractor who has worked with a lot of old houses should be experienced in being "flexible." I would also always check their past references, especially those with similar projects to yours. But keep in mind when checking references that restoration and remodeling is more than just workmanship; it is also personalities working closely together for long periods of time. So if you get a lot of good feedback and one that isn't so good, it could just be a matter of personalities not meshing well. If you're happy with the quality of your contractor's work and you get along with him well, it might be worth putting up with the fact that he's not the most flexible person in the world.
  5. Erin
    Aug 29, 2011
    I am currently working with a contractor that does good work but organization is weak for the 20+ years of experience under his belt. Do you have any suggestions to know if a contractor is flexible and can stay on track when encountering little glitches?
  6. Jonny
    Aug 29, 2011
    Great post. I have worked with many contractors who were amazing carpenters, but their organizational skills were so lacking that their projects always turn into goat rodeos. I think to many skilled craftsman decide that its time to become a general contractor and off they go! Unfortunately it takes many more skills to be a good general, than a great carpenter.