The biggest project I did: renovated my house

I find human centered design and research methods are very useful for many aspects in my life. I used the process and methods on my house renovation and design–the toughest project I have ever handled.

Outside look before the renovation.
Outside look after the renovation

My husband and I bought this the house on an estate sale. This house was built in early 60s. Everything was original, and the design is the fashion of the 60s—cookie cutters spacing, teal green carpets, car port instead garage, interesting pattern wall papers, and dark brown wood walls with mirrors. The house was very dark owing to its cookie cutter design nature. My realtor said it was a ghost house with huge potential.

Living room, before the renovation.
Living room, after the renovation
Master bedroom before renovation
Master bedroom after renovation.

Ideation:

For me, design ideation always starts from research and competitive analysis. I started my ideation from looking at open houses in similar or higher price houses. I talked to my interior designer and architect friends, contractors and builders at open houses. In addition, I read a lot of interior design magazines, search online, and watch house renovation programs on YouTube and HGTV. It was an enjoyable process to went through designs and understand where those designers got idea and inspiration.

After researching, I gradually gained an idea of what kind of design my family would love to have. The design has to be modern Asian style, luxurious in feeling but simple. I created an idea board at hand, and used the board to communicate with architect and contractors.

An example of one of my design style boards which I used to communicate with contractors.

It is critical to communicate with the stakeholder—my family about what they want for the design. During the process, I constantly discussed the design idea with my family members.

Design and build

Design the house flow just like sketch the wireframe:

I started wireframing on how the flow of the house should be for tasks we usually do at home. Requirements: I need a 2nd kitchen for my in laws; I hate long dark isles; We need a media rooms. After gathering these requirements, we started our design with the architect.

 After I determined the flow of the house, I worked with the architect to revise the structure. I would like to have an extension in the living room, a convert the carport into a garage, finish the huge ugly unfinished areas and make it into another kitchen downstairs. We want a huge master bathroom, so we turn one bedroom into the master bathroom.

An example picture of my illustration to my architect

After the design was done, we submitted our first draft to Bellevue City Hall. It took them 6 weeks to review it. During this period of time, I had to revise the plan according to the requirement of Bellevue City Hall. Adobe Illustrator is so handy for these revisions of building plans!

An example of my light arrangement plan.

The next rough design I has to do was the electronic wiring. The electrician asked me where he thinks the switches and cables should be.  I did a lot of research on Alexa remote control switches and a plan on where to put in cables for TV. In one day, I sent my plan to the electrician.

Implementation and iterations:

This is the toughest part. In software development, as a designer, I had the luxury to only focus on design, sometimes communication and QA. But as a house owner, this part becomes extremely complicated. As the owner, I am the product owner and product manager. At the same time, I am the project manager, and unfortunately, in the end, the worker.

The biggest problem I had was budgeting. Thanks to technology, I could find builders with good reviews on Yelp, Houz, or Porch.com. But these builders were extremely expensive. Moreover, these builders told me there was at least a 3 month of wait for them to begin my project since the Seattle housing market was extremely hot.

We did not have that 3 months of luxurious wait time to spare. So we decided to take a chance and find a local sub-builder who worked for a famous house builder. We toured houses he built and decided to work with him. He jumped in right away after the City approved our plan.

The builder gave us an estimate for this renovation. According to his estimation, the renovation will take 4 months. We were very happy to learn that.

In the first two months, his team did great job tearing down the carport, leveled the foundation, and build up a garage. The city hall approved their work for the garage.

But on the third month, workers slowed down their progress. We asked the builder what happened, he kept saying things will get better soon. There were usually 5 people work on the site, we noticed that these people reduced to 1 or 2 or, sometimes, no one was on the site.

We complained to the builder, then he made some progress by sending new people we have never seen. Then everything stopped for another 1 month.

One day, I learned the builder went bankrupted when I sent holiday season greetings to one of his workers.

After consulting to the lawyer, we found the contract does not mean much. Even though the builder messed up my house, according to Washington state law, since he was bankrupt, his bound will only be reliable for paying all customers back 12k total. We paid him much more than 12k for this huge project of course. Moreover, he has many other customers who was suing him to divide this bound money.

Lesson learned, the contract does not actually protect both sides since we are dealing with much more than the 12k bound can offer.

Not until then did we realize this project is bigger than we thought. Now we have a half-finished house that we need to find someone to finish.

At the same time, I realized many items were not built according to my design. I had to redesign the electronic wires and find alternative ways to fix these problems. There were so many things went wrong that I need to fix through redesign.

Design iteration and pivots:

I realized many items are not build according to my design. Some of them are too late to rebuild, but I still want to fix them.

Here is an example:

My original design is to have two mirrors in the master bathroom. I planned a lot of electronic outlets in between mirrors and on the two sides of the master vanity. The electrician did not follow my plan. What is worse, he randomly opens up light base on the top of the wall, and installed lights anyway.

My quick illustration on how the master bath lights, mirror and vanity arrangement.
What really happened…the electrician did not even look at my plan and assumed in bathroom, lights should go above the mirror…

Now lights, vanity and mirrors would be asymmetrical. There is no way to readjust them since electric wires, plumbing and dry walls are all done.

Since we don’t want to re-open the dry wall to reroute the wire, I had to come up with a way to mask it up. In order to mask these wiring mistake, I researched hundreds of bathroom lights, mirrors, and vanities both on line and in stores to understand how I can mask this mistake up without sacrificing my original design style.

In the end, this is what I come up with. Modern style looks with distraction so viewer won’t notice everything is asymmetrical.

Master bathroom vanity after renovation. Nothing is aligned, but I put a lot of effort for viewers to shift their attention through arrangement.

Lesson learned: As a “product owner”, I should check on every little bit of progress and ensure details are taken care of.  I tried to do it with my next builder.

Continuation of this project

Now it is much tougher to find another builder to finish a half-renovated houses. We finally found a builder who built houses we love. The same thing happened again, in the beginning, the progress was fast.

We truly appreciated his work in the beginning, but after 2 months, everything slowed down again. This time we were very careful about communication and progress. Still, mistakes happen. I informed the builder mistakes, but he did not think those are important. I learned being a project manager is not an easy job. The housing market was going crazy at that time, and the builder kept telling me he does not need to do my project since he has so many to take care of. I had to be very nice and explained to him why these items are very important to me and pled his workers to follow my design.

The hot housing market also brought another problem: there was a huge demand of construction workers than the market can provide. Labor became extremely expensive that the builder charged me a relatively high price for laying tiles. But still, the progress was slow because the tile worker said he has so many jobs to do that he wants to start from the most interested one. Unfortunately my house was always not the most interesting one according to him 😦

In order to ensure my style is consistent throughout the entire house, I visited building material distributors to look at the materials. After visiting more than 10 suppliers and browsing through hundreds of slabs, I can tell the grade of a granite/marble/quartz slab by looking at it.

Third iteration after so many mistakes:

History somehow repeat itself unfortunately. The progress was getting slower again, and works start making more and more mistakes by not following my design. In the end, the builder demanded us for more money by saying labor fee is increasing, we decided that we had to say goodbye to him. The straw to break the camel’s back was that, we can tell from our experience that the builder will not finish our house before we move in. We had no choice but had to move out of the old house no matter if the renovation is finished or not. But in the condition the builder had made, there was no way we can move in. This time, we had gain so much experience that we decided to be the general contractor ourselves and took care of the house, at least to make it move-in-able. 

Luckily I had an electrician friend, he helped me with the rest of the electric work. Also I found a very good handyman online who fixed mistakes the previous people left.

Finally we had the bedroom and kitchen ready before the move in date. On the moving date, the helper from the moving company saw my house. He laughed and said, “Recently more and more customers moved into unfinished houses. You are one of them!”

Fixing mistakes with technology:

Since the previous electrician did not follow my plan, some switch locations are funky. For example, he put light switches behind the entry door. That is, after you entered the room, you have to go behind the door to turn on the light.

Thanks to new technology, the physical location of switches were not that important anymore. We always yell at Alexa to turn on/off lights.

My light plan made with my electrician friend to correct problems.

I truly appreciate smart home technology, and integrated as much as I can for the house design. I found it well worth it for the material cost since the software update and upgrade usually cost nothing compare to hardware updates.

The stairway before renovation…

During the renovation…
The stairway now.

This is the toughest project I have ever worked, but I will do it again!

Through the renovation process, I realized being a project manager for a project which people who do not have the same goal is really a tough. I feel so lucky at work most of my coworkers have the same goals and hope to build the product together. I would conclude that this is the toughest project I have ever candled in my life.

Well, but I love house design and renovation. In addition, I love to being challenged. I think I will do it again sometime soon!

Thank you my friends for help!

Hope you enjoy reading it!

Front door before renovation.
Front door after renovation.
The deck before the renovation.
The deck after the renovation.

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