SMOOTHING THE ROCKY ROAD TO BUILDING OR REMODELING
By Jim Donohue, Special to South Look Boston Globe
Everybody knows that remodeling a house is an exercise in frustration.
But Richard Connolly of Weymouth says you can eliminate at least some of that frustration if you apply the principles of systems management to the project. Connolly runs a company which specializes in providing systems management to homeowners [who are building or remodeling].
"Its step one, step two, step three," he says. "In step one, you [learn something which allows you to go to step two. You then learn something again which allows you to go to step [three, and so on].
"You tie a very tight noose around the project so that nothing falls through the cracks, so that you’re not going to be missing things. You have total control over what it is that your [doing or] buying. You’re in charge of the process.”
That’s very much different from hiring a general building contractor and letting him take over. Connolly has nothing against building contractors. He was one himself in the late 1970’s.
However, he notes, "If you hire a contractor, the contractor is in charge of the process.
"But," he says, "you’re the person who’s paying for it. You’re the one who has the greatest interest in knowing what can and cannot be done.
"You ought to stay in charge of what’s being done to your house," Connolly says. His company, he adds, is "in the business of putting you in control and helping you make quality decisions. Since you can’t do that without quality information, we’re in the business of giving you that information."
Connolly, President of Cornerstone Consulting, Inc., Weymouth, will be explaining his project management philosophies and systems in a series of four, once-a-week, two-hour programs in January, February, and March in six South Shore towns: Cohasset, Duxbury, Hanover, Hingham, Scituate, and Weymouth.
The course is called "How To Avoid Building Or Remodeling Hell," the title of a book he is writing.
The programs begin January 23 at Hanover High School, continuing weekly until February 13.
At Hingham High School, the program runs from January 24 to February 14, and it’s January 25 to February 15 at Gates Intermediate School in Scituate and January 26 to February 16 at Weymouth High School
In Duxbury, the program begins March 1 at the Elementary School and runs through March 22. In Cohasset, the dates are March 2 through March 23 [at the South Shore Community Center].
One of the tricks used by building contractors, Connolly says, is to quote on a job and then find "surprises" as they go along that kick up the ultimate price. For example, they find ‘surprises’ behind the walls once they begin the work.
"I find this whole notion of not knowing what’s behind the walls is an exaggeration," Connolly says. "It’s one of those things contractors use as a strategy for getting more money. It’s a bidding strategy."
He adds, "There are many ways to get a house to give up its secrets – mainly just through observation."
The homeowner can figure out a lot of things about the house without knocking down walls, just by knowing its age, the area it’s in, and its general condition.
For example, brownstones of a certain age in Boston do not have studs behind the [exterior brick] walls, he says. Yet some contractors will say they are surprised to find no studs when they remove the walls.
Contractors are not necessarily conning the homeowner, Connolly says. "It’s very easy to ignore lots of things because they are in a hurry to get the work."
And, certainly, there often are real surprises behind many walls. "You can open up the wall of an old house and find the skeleton of a dead cat," he says. "I did."
A consultant like Connolly can help a homeowner choose between several solutions to a remodeling problem, Connolly says.
In Braintree recently, he consulted on a house that was in the throes of collapsing. "One of the solutions was for $90,000, which meant [taking the house off the foundation], putting it in the back yard, and starting all over again. That was the $90,000 solution, and you’d still have work to do [to finish the basement in-law apartment].
"Another solution would have the contractor digging down under the foundation and building another under it. That was a $56,000 solution, but the trouble was that you’d still have work to do to correct all the misalignments.
"Our solution cost $35,000. We leveled the foundation [on support columns that were] bored into the ground, which made the foundation perfect and caused all the misalignments to correct themselves."
Connolly came to the building business in a roundabout way. A graduate of Suffolk University with a degree in English Literature, he began work as a high school English teacher in Weymouth [while working] for The Boston Globe as a salesman for classified advertising.
While doing that, in 1973, Connolly built his own house in Weymouth and published a 13 – part series about his experiences in The Globe. At the same time, Connolly, who was working the night shift at the paper, set up his own business as a general contractor.
How does an English teacher and classified ad salesman learn enough to build his own house and become a building contractor? "By being a quick learner and asking endless questions," Connolly explains.
He also gets help from three experts in the exotica of construction who work with him [as consultants] on a continuing basis – a plumber, an electrician, and a heating contractor.
While holding on to his night job at The Globe, Connolly continued his day job as a building contractor until 1981. Being a building contractor was not a happy experience. Connolly found he had a hard time getting people to pay him.
"Not only wouldn’t they pay me, they planned on it," he says. "I had two people who actually did that. Their perception was that contractors ripped you off." So they ripped him off first.
"I lost a lot of money," he says. "I wasn’t prepared for homeowners ripping me off."
In 1981, he went to work for Atex in Bedford, a company that specializes in setting up computer systems at newspapers and had installed a computer system at The Globe. He stayed there for six years until, with business turning down, Atex laid him off.
Connolly moved to another computer company, Camex, then in Boston, and lost that job [five] months later.
OUT OF THE JOB MARKET
Like a lot of men in their mid-forties, Connolly found himself virtually aged out of the job market. "My wife and I sat down one night and talked about it," he recalls. "We figured that even if I got another job [in high tech], I could lose that one, too, in [one or two years.]
"I concluded, after having been laid off twice in seven months, nobody could help me better than I could help myself. So we agreed to cash in all my stock from Atex and my IRAs and start this business.
"I was very optimistic and really frightened to death at the prospect of striking off on my own."
Life in his own business has not been easy. The construction business has not been exactly booming in Massachusetts for the past four or five years. "I was worried about why I wasn’t getting more referrals," Connolly says, "but I knew that nobody was getting many referrals. There just wasn’t much business out there."
Connolly, who charges $40 an hour as a consultant, handles a dozen or so projects a year. To avoid the problem he had as a building contractor – not getting paid – he bills part of his work up front. "If they don’t pay me, I don’t do the work."
He bills much of the rest of the [consulting] work as he goes along. He does not wait until the end of a project to bill the customer.
The adult education courses Connolly is conducting over the next three months will be the [second] time he has taught his theories and practices in a classroom setting. The courses are $40 each ($60 per couple), for which the student gets a copy of Connolly’s workbook which, in turn, is the basis of the book and his writing.