Rough Construction

By Bob Vila | Updated Sep 16, 2020 7:18 PM

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If you are simply reshaping existing space, you don’t have to worry about a big hole in your yard. You also won’t have to be concerned about the framing of the build­ing or the roofing (unless, that is, you’re adding a dormer or otherwise amending the existing roof, in which case you should be sure you read the roofing and siding sec­tion).

Yet almost every remodeling job requires some preliminary demoli­tion. Those kitchen cabinets you’ve always hated will be removed. Perhaps the cracked tiles in the old bath will be sledgehammered and shoveled into a dumpster.

Make a point of being present at the work site—or having your architect or designer be there—as demolition is about to begin. It’s essential that everyone understands exactly what goes and what stays. Sometimes the meeting of the minds you and your designer reached doesn’t get communicated clearly. Plans alone may not be enough, so you (or your designer) may want to apply spray paint or masking tape to guide the workers. Even if your general contractor understands, the laborer who actually wields the tools may not. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of jobs where the wrecking bar removed or ruined something that was supposed to remain intact. The best renovations are those where you can’t tell where the existing structure ends and the new work begins. Don’t let a window frame or an old door you’re plan­ning to reuse get tossed into the dumpster.

Once the demolition has been completed, the process of building anew can begin. The carpenters will construct the wooden framing for any new walls, floors, or ceilings. In some municipalities, certain struc­tures are required to have walls constructed of brick, steel, concrete, or other materials speci­fied for fireproof construction. Most single- family homes, however, utilize a traditional wood-frame construction, so carpenters will handle the rough construction.

While the framing work is going on, you will probably hear some words that are not part of your usual vocabulary. A stud is a vertical wall  floor sup­port; a post is a larger vertical member, often at a corner; a beam is a large horizontal member that supports the structures above.

Framing doesn’t demand the kind of precise (and time-consuming) attention to detail that finishing work does, so inspecting the work site after the workers have been there only a day or two can be very satisfying. New spaces seem to emerge almost overnight, and you can suddenly get a sense of how the rooms will appear and relate to one another. With a small remodeling job, the demolition and rough framing may be completed in a day, but don’t jump to the conclusion that the job will get done much faster than expected. Framing is often uncomplicated and goes quickly. Most of the decisions will have been made already.

Sometimes the demolition and framing will take longer than expected. In the case of many older homes, only when the wall or ceiling surfaces are opened up in preliminary demolition are structural problems apparent. Your carpenter may uncover areas of insect damage or decay caused by dampness. That will mean the replacement of deteriorated structural elements that are required in the new design.

Structural problems may also result from poor construction many years earlier, or plumbers or other tradesmen who gutted members while retrofitting bathrooms or heating and cooling sys­tems. Shoring up structural weaknesses may be necessary. They’ll take time and probably cost you money as most esti­mates are based upon no unexpected obstacles.

Your job is not to supervise the men and women at work; the contractors and the subcon­tractors do that. Your job is to examine what’s been done, approve or disapprove, and determine when payment is due.

On the other hand, while the car­penters are constructing new walls, opening up new windows or doors, and doing other framing work, you and/or your designer or construction manager should spend some time measuring and inspecting carefully to be sure that the partitions as constructed coincide with the plans. I’d recommend, however, that you put your tape measure to use after hours. There’s no need to insult the carpenters, although they know as well as you do that, no matter how experienced they are, they’re still capa­ble of making a mistake. Walls do get built in the wrong place, openings set at the wrong height.

You may think there’s a discrepancy between what you see and the plans. You may find yourself very disappointed with something—perhaps you just hadn’t imagined the kitchen would feel so small. In either case, now is the time to raise the issue. Discuss the differences with whomever is supervising the construction. If your designer is in charge, ask him to have the hard conversation with the contractor/car­penter. But raise the issue as soon as you recognize it. Unbuilding gets more difficult with every nail, every board, every stage in the process. In a polite but firm fashion, raise the red flag, even at the risk of causing a small delay in construction.

Changes will probably cost you money, but this is your home. If there’ll be delays or added costs, ask yourself whether the problem will quickly fade—or will you be unable to forget about it and experience a pang of regret every time you walk into that room as long as you live in the house? As the old saying goes, speak now or forever hold your peace.

Speaking of old wisdom, if you believe in tradition, you may want to perform an ancient ritual at the time the ridge board is raised on your new roofline. (The ridge board is the uppermost horizontal piece of lumber to which the angled roof mem­bers, the rafters, attach at the peak of the roof.) Early colonists in North America placed an evergreen bough at the roof’s highest point. The evergreen was a symbol of permanence and an appeal for good luck.