A few months ago I told you how my wife and I had found a mid-century remodel project only a couple blocks away from where we currently live. We wanted to create a “lean home” – smaller with a simple layout, less storage space, and as few walls and doors as possible to optimize flow. The remodel has the ideal bones, with a single level, open layout, and a dramatic location perched on a hill overlooking the Morro Bay estuary and Pacific Ocean.
We drew up plans for the remodel which included removing many unnecessary storage cabinets, completely gutting and replacing the bathrooms, new and fewer doors, retiling the fireplace, all new appliances, and removing multiple layers of pink flowery wallpaper. To take advantage of the incredible views we decided to replace all the windows on the ocean-facing side with huge floor-to-ceiling behemoths custom made by our good lean friends at Pella. We also had to stabilize and level the hillside foundation with six caissons to bedrock as over the past 50 years the house had slipped a couple inches, and we did a complete plumbing repipe.
I engaged a contractor I’ve worked with for over a decade on other projects, and in mid-December we launched what was planned to be a two month project. The sequence was carefully planned, with foundation work and plumbing first, then the new custom windows, and finally the interior work. The very first activity was digging the holes for the caissons.
Which is when Mother Nature decided to hit the central coast of California with the rainiest six weeks in over twenty years.
Yes I guess that’s a good thing in our extreme drought, but it’s not exactly favorable for a tight construction schedule. For the first few days we simply shut down, thinking that hey this is California where most people don’t even own umbrellas so we should soon be dry for the rest of the year. But it didn’t stop, and we had to take a hard look at the schedule.
My contractor already uses a lot of lean construction principles. Materials are ordered and delivered only when they are needed to reduce storage and optimize cash flow. With the rain delays the materials were coming in and getting stored in the garage. 19 windows, half of which are 9’x7′ weighing several hundred pounds each, take up a lot of room – not leaving much for boxes of tile, appliances, and fixtures.
So how did we manage this situation and get back on track?
What my contractor also does is hire top notch people, from project managers to tradesmen. They cost more, and therefore his projects do cost more overall, but higher value is delivered to the customer – in terms of trade quality, schedule, and oversight. That people side of the equation is what has made the difference when dealing with Mother Nature.
The on-site project manager is highly-experienced and is given a lot of autonomy by the contractor. He has been able to look at changes to the weather on an hourly basis and quickly make adjustments to work activities. The lean concept of quick changeover talks about analyzing internal vs. external activities, which takes on a new, literal, meaning when “external” is impacted by wind-driven rains blowing off the ocean right into the wall where large plate glass windows (aka “sails”…) are being installed via a narrow outside scaffold.
Larger jobs were broken into smaller activities that could be completed when the weather allowed. Multi-skilled tradesmen were brought in that could easily pivot between woodworking, plumbing, and electrical work. Plywood covers were constructed so that the openings being cut into the walls for the new windows could be quickly covered and uncovered when rains hit, instead of simply shutting down for the day or allowing the wet weather to damage the interior. In effect the job is now being managed, scheduled, and rescheduled by the hour instead of the day or even week. The ability to manage smaller increments of time creates agility and flexibility.
We’re still a bit over two weeks delayed from the original schedule, mostly driven by the early disbelief that it was actually raining in California, but I also know it could have been much worse. The difference has been created by the quality and experience of people, who are delivering a higher value to me, the customer.