Valuable Advice for Navigating the Remodel/Rebuild Process from a Respected General Contractor (GC)

Valuable Advice for Navigating the Remodel/Rebuild Process from a Respected General Contractor (GC)

Browsing photos and ideas on Houzz and Pinterest can be really fun. But how can you make creating your dream home a reality? The truth is that renovations and construction are huge undertakings. It takes time and effort to plan, cost, source, and secure items while not incurring huge change fees and cost overruns. We talked to many experienced homeowners, designers, contractors, and industry insiders to get tips and info to help you prepare to make the right choices for your project and avoid expensive mistakes

Issue #3 Home Renovation Project Management Tips from a Respected Marin General Contractor

In our third Guide to Home Remodeling, Boulevard sat down with respected General Contractor (GC) Dan Gillies of Dan Gillies Construction, to get his insider insights on the renovation process. As with our last issue Home Renovation Project Management Tips from an Experienced Home Remodeler, Dan operates within the Design-Bid-Build method.

Bitsa: How do you go about advising clients on renovation/build projects?

Dan: I advise clients on several fronts. I try to help clarify the goals of the project which includes: 

  1. The Architectural Program 
  2. The Project Budget
  3. The Property Value 
  4. and many subsets of these items …

I recommend starting with the Architectural Program - the wish list of improvements. Ideally, the original budget analysis should be prepared in response to the wish list. Adjustments can be made from there depending on how aligned the cost is with the design. It’s typical that the wish list exceeds the budget. The options are to either scale back the design or to increase the budget. The budget usually prevails because financial resources are rarely unlimited. And, it’s advisable to consider whether the financial investment can be supported by the property value.

Bitsa: What's the most important decision homeowners face when considering a remodel?

Dan: The assembly of a cohesive project team is key. The designer (architect/interior designer) and the builder will be working closely with the owner for the duration of the project to bring out the best version of the architectural program. Designers offer a variety of options and styles. Owners should be aware of what they're asking of the designer, and designers must do their best to understand the owners' vision. As a contractor, my role can be to be present in these discussions and respond with cost (and other constructibility) input, and help facilitate good communication. 

Once the project moves into construction, the contractor works with the owner/designer team to confirm the accurate interpretation and execution of the architectural program. As the contractor, I prefer to be selected as early in the process as possible to provide a common thread throughout the project. We are sometimes asked to provide designer recommendations, which we are willing to do. The design community is full of talented, interesting, and experienced people whose profession (in residential work) is aimed at meeting the goals of their clients and providing an improved place to live. The structure of how the team is assembled is usually through the owner - the owner hires the designer and contractor. Sometimes the roles are merged for a variety of reasons (i.e. the owner is a contractor, architect, developer, or spec builder), but my experience reinforces the need for a good team working collaboratively toward the owners' goal. 

Bitsa: How do owners evaluate which GCs are the best fit to hire for their project team? 

Dan: Bringing aboard the contractor is usually through a selection process of interviews or bidding. Different owners roll differently on this. We participate in competitive bidding and are sometimes brought aboard through the recommendation of a designer or colleague. 

“...the best results happen, in my experience, when the team is aligned collaboratively on the same side of the table.”

Construction projects can be nerve-racking, a big commitment of time and money, and emotional energy; I like to try to make it enjoyable, too. Usually, that's helped by assembling a trusted team working to realize the owner's goals.

Bitsa: What is a sufficient amount of time a homeowner should allow from start to finish, including design? For Remodel/new?

Dan: There is no standard answer to this. The project duration is determined by construction or fabrication or procurement activities referred to as "critical path" items. These can include the construction of a concrete foundation or the lead time on kitchen appliance orders. Typically, the critical path of interior remodels runs through cabinet fabrication and countertop fabrication and installation. Ideally, we like to have our preliminary framing and MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) work completed to converge with the completion of cabinet fabrication. Frequently, depending on the complexity of the customized cabinetry, these items are sequential rather than concurrent, so which will influence the overall project duration. Also common in today's building climate are long lead times on windows and doors and appliances. Most of these items require the design to be advanced enough to make informed selections. Once these are known, the project timeline can be focused more accurately.

Bitsa: How often do projects come in as budgeted? What is the average sq. ft price a homeowner should budget for?

Dan: For cost control, every project is different, and not sure there's a typical cost per square foot. Every project has change orders. These are usually reflective of modifications to the work scope … everything from owner-added features to unforeseen items to be dealt with. Another factor influencing cost is the availability of material and fabricator capability. It's important for the owner, designer, and contractor to regularly discuss the budget to avoid surprises. Again, working from the same side of the table is the best approach.

Bitsa: In Marin which jurisdictions are the most favorable/easy to navigate the approval process/ are there facilitators one can hire to help expedite the process?

Dan: Every building agency has its own review and permit process. Some agencies conduct all of the reviews in-house with their own staff, and some allow the use of outside consultants approved by the agency to facilitate review and inspection. I have worked successfully in all of these cases. I've been in situations where the expediter was extremely effective, and others where they were not so much. It is an important item worth investigating as a contemplated project is being kicked-off. Especially in the covid/post-covid era, agencies are trying to return to "normal" - but we're still discovering what that means....

Bitsa: Are there time/cost benefits for a remodel vs. a new build? What are some of those pros and cons?

Dan: Remodel permits are usually easier to obtain (as opposed to new builds) because many of the planning and zoning reviews are not needed. Conversely, remodels establish building parameters which we work within - sometimes limiting architectural possibilities. Much of that depends on the goals of the project.

Thanks, Dan for all of that insight into the process of Home Renovation and Rebuilding. 

Pros & Cons Renovation


    • Generally less expensive and can be done gradually over time
    • Some existing features may be able to stay in place with renovations
    • Less time-consuming than a full rebuild
    • Homeowners may continue living in their house throughout the process 


    • difficult to match the new construction with the existing architecture
    • More limitations in altering layouts

Pros & Cons Full Rebuild


    • More flexibility of design and layout that better serves the family’s lifestyle
    • Can be more cost-effective in the long run if done correctly
    • More cohesive and uniform appearance


    • Generally more expensive and time-consuming than a renovation
    • The house may be uninhabitable throughout the process
    • Requires permits and other local approvals that can slow down the process

The decision between renovating or rebuilding depends on several different factors such as budget, timelines, and the desired outcome. Homeowners should always consult a professional contractor to weigh their options for the best possible outcome.

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