Being Smart About Space
Home Remodeling Tips from Blackdog Builders
Living in the Merrimack Valley, it’s likely you’ve seen the distinctive Blackdog logo — a handsome lab framed against a red background —and wondered about the company, which has offices in Salem and Amherst, N.H. Blackdog Builders owner Dave Bryan, who founded the company about 27 years ago, is passionate about building and remodeling, and he recently shared some tips for MV Home readers who are planning a home project.
So, who is the black dog?
When I started the company at 23, I knew I didn’t want just my name and initials [for the company’s name] — I wanted something unique. I spent my youth learning carpentry on the Vineyard, which the Black Dog [Tavern] is synonymous with. We’ve also had a series of black dogs over the years [as pets] — unfortunately, not the same one. We have a 10-week-old black lab at our feet now.
When someone is just starting to think about doing a remodel, what should they keep in mind?
The biggest challenge? People don’t start with design. When a client calls, they tell us a brief bit about the project, then we go to the house, where they take us directly from the front door to the project area. If they are talking with multiple contractors, they do the same thing several times. Each contractor may give input, so by the last contractor, the project is no longer the same. There’s no way three different contractors are going to discern the same project from that conversation.
So what should clients do?
[Hiring a contractor without talking about design is] like going car shopping and telling the salesperson you are looking for a vehicle with four tires, a steering wheel and an air bag. You can’t tell brand or price from that description. You need to have a fair and open conversation around budget and what your design goals are. That includes a needs assessment. Sometimes, for example, clients may want an addition, but when we come out, we see they have enough space, they just need it reconfigured to make the existing flow better and smarter. Sometimes a wish list exceeds a client’s budget, and we give them options to hold onto the design element. That’s why an open conversation about budget is so important. Clients can have plans drawn by an architect, fall in love with them, but have no idea of the budget, then have to slash and burn to afford it. Then the project is no longer what [they fell in love with].
What’s the most important question to ask before you remodel?
Ask, “What can I expect if I’m working with you?” You want to understand how the company is structured — who is building the project, do they self-perform or subcontract; who is on-site on a regular basis; are the people who are coming into your home on a regular basis people you feel comfortable with? If something goes wrong, whom do you contact? If, God forbid, the owner of the company is hit by a bus, what’s the fallback? In our company, we don’t ever build the same project twice, and I love that, but at the same time, there is a process in place, and that’s what you want.
You’ve been doing this for a long while. How has the advancement of technology changed the relationship between clients and contractors?
It has improved communication, but increased demand. For example, we have 14 carpenters. Our lead carpenters give 110 percent on the job. But when they are not working, they are off, and we’re not asking them to respond to texts and emails at 10 p.m. at night. Our managers are salaried and will wind up answering those questions. We have to be more accessible now, but we try to keep it in check on some level. On the other hand, some of our clients are on call for work 24/7, and they expect that of others. Technology has also dramatically reduced selection and design time. Before, clients would have to tear out pages [from magazines]. But now [they can create boards online and show them to us].
What’s the one thing you wish all clients knew before they started a project?
We’ve had clients call us back and say, ‘We didn’t hire you because you were $30,000 more, but that’s what the finished project came out at and we fought with our contractor constantly.’ They sit in their beautiful kitchen but they feel disgruntled. That’s probably the single biggest challenge for clients when they get into a project — they didn’t look at it holistically. You’re stuck in the middle of the project and realize you didn’t ask the right questions. You need to dig a little deeper and ask: What does each company bring to the marketplace; what’s the value associated with it?
What trends are you seeing right now? Which do you think will last?
We’re seeing a movement toward people being smarter about space. There’s more demand in the marketplace now for smaller real estate. Master suites are also big right now, with a beautiful closet and bathroom that may take space over from the bedroom. People are giving space to where they are [using it]. We’re also seeing [extended] families combining [their homes] — in-law spaces or multipurpose spaces that are designed because mom and dad may be moving in, but then that space can transition to a family space or home office [at some point]. Aging in place is also big. People may have a four-bedroom colonial, but would love to have a bedroom on the main floor, or create accessibility in other ways. For example, closets that are designed for elevators as needed in the future.
Do you have a favorite remodel experience you can share?
The ones that mean the most are the projects that have had the biggest impact on families. We do amazing, beautiful projects and straightforward average stuff, and the average stuff — where we change the flow so families can hang out and connect more — means the most to me.
What’s the biggest mistake you or a client has ever made?
Honestly, choosing to work for the wrong clients. The fit has to work both ways, and there are clients who just aren’t a good fit. There are times when I let my ego get in the way — ‘we’re a really good company; if anyone can make them happy, we can.’ In my youth, I probably made that mistake more often. It causes pain and suffering to everyone on my team, and life is too short. We try and make sure that everyone goes in with their eyes open. We tell clients it is going to be stressful, and to keep that in perspective. Fifty percent of all remodeling clients walk away with a bad experience. That’s because most contractors are technicians — they aren’t prepared for customer service. A lot of it is how you deliver the experience. [Customers aren’t] just buying stuff; they’re buying the way that stuff comes together.
How many remodeling projects have you done on your own home?
Lots. I’ve been married 27 years. To save the marriage, I’ve tried to become really disciplined about starting and finishing [projects] in a reasonable fashion.