Pop Top Experience: An Interview with Camille Hook

by Osman Parvez

As you know from a few of our other posts, Martin Acres continues to buzz with construction and remodeling activity. Recently, I had an opportunity to interview Camille Hook, a local resident who completed her "pop top" project last Summer.

Martin Acres is a small, well established neighborhood in South Boulder. It's a place where kids play on the street, the neighborhood park hosts picnics and birthday parties, and many folks know each other. It's also an entry point to buying a home in Boulder with prices that begin around the $300,000 mark. Changes are happening in Martin Acres. On one section of street alone, several former rental properties have transferred to resident owners in the past year. Many residents have remodeled and added square footage (map), converting post World War II era 1,200 SQFT ranches to more modern and functional 2,000 SQFT+ bi-levels. More projects are clearly on the way. These and other changes are transforming the neighborhood.

Camille Hook and her family have lived in Boulder for 8 years, all of that in Martin Acres. She's active in the community. She volunteers regularly at the neighborhood school,Creekside Elementary, coordinated the Martin Acres EcoPass Program (2005-7), and been Martin Acres Zoning and Codes liaison. Camille also volunteers with a grassroots organization RESULTS.org. Last summer, I noticed her house was under construction. It wasn't hard to miss given the missing roof. Today, the project has been complete for 12 months and Camille and her family have lived to tell the tale. We're fortunate to have her share her experience with us on the blog.

Osman: How would you describe your neighborhood?
Camille: Community centered, a yummy, warm atmosphere where ideas and efforts are shared along with laughter and celebration of friendships.

Osman: Why did you decide to go ahead and "pop the top" on your ranch? How long had you been thinking about doing it?
Camille: When we purchase our home in 1999 our vision was to add onto the size as our family grew. We began saving immediately. In 2005 we realized that we were finally in a position that we could make the decision to go for it.

Osman: Can you describe the general process? Let's say I own a house in Martin Acres and I want to expand it. Where should I start?
Camille: The first place to start is to figure out how much money your family/household has to spend on such a project. This will dictate whether you “go up” or “go out” with your addition, as well as the size. The second consideration is time. A project like this can be successful whenever you begin it, but I strongly believe ours was timely and on budget because we did not rush anything. One year prior to breaking ground (2/05), I contacted our Architect, Samuel Austin to discuss the spirit of designing an extension of our home. By August we had drawings and 3 names of contractors. And in November we had a contract with Silver Lining Builders, LLC to do the work. By taking our time to look at all choices with the architect and builders, we were able to feel secure about our decisions. We did not have to make big changes throughout the project which keeps on budget and schedule. Plus I was able to shop on my own which made for huge savings on things such as our tub, sink, tiles, windows etc. I had all that stuff sitting in our garage before we even broke ground.

Osman: How long did your project take from start to finish? Did you have to move out, and if so, how long were you out of the house? Was the work completed within the estimated time-frame?
Camille: Silver Lining Builders broke ground in February of ’06 and stayed on schedule and budget completing the project by the end of July. We absolutely moved out, with three children and pilot for a husband, I needed to be able to feel my kids were safe and I was organized so I could have the energy and resources to stay on top of the project. I wanted to be out of the way of the builders so they could get their work done. However, we did find a place to rent in the neighborhood, close by…so I could stop by everyday and keep an eye on the project. That way I could notice any miscommunication or make the day to day decisions that may be necessary. I answered clarification questions in person, rather than on the phone and that left not room for miscommunication. I even made a few small changes here and there that ended up really sharpening our design.

Osman: What were the approximate costs of the project? Did you experience cost overruns and if so, in what areas?
Camille: Our project cost @ $250 per square foot. That does not include the architect fees, which were about $12K. Keeping in mind that we had a few fancy features: a porch, an upper deck, steam shower, custom concrete counter in master bath, sprung dance floor (9’x9’), 2 built-ins (ceiling to floor shelving). We also had to demo 4 interior walls and repair hard wood flooring where the walls were. We did not touch our kitchen (other than to retrofit electrical), that would have added at a minimum $20K. We stayed in the budget listed above and in the contract, but had cost overruns when the city became involved, due to unexpected situations (asbestos abatement for our 4 interior walls, soils issues when we poured our concrete porch and the city made us pop-out our garage). Those were above and beyond unexpected projections, although our builder helped us absorb some of those costs by making some cost benefiting decisions (Resourcing out many of the construction materials).

Osman: Tell us about the most useful/enjoyable design feature you incorporated into your new house.
Camille: Master bedroom and colors. Not a huge suite, but we do have some very fun personality in that room. French doors to enter, claw foot tub in the room, walk in closet, steam shower and custom concrete counter tops. Very cozy, yummy space to relax in when my kids let me.

Osman: If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently? Would you use the same architect and contractors?
Camille: We have no regrets with Samuel Austin or Silver Lining Builders. They were great and worked well with us and together. There are definitely changes we would make if we did it again, but most of those were very small changes, like putting a window in a different place or using a pocket door, those kind of tiny things. It’s unavoidable because of how much you learn in the process, there is bound to be something you’d have done differently by the time you finish. We didn’t make those changes because the more you deviate from your original plan the more costly the project.

Osman: Do you have any advice for how to choose good contractors?
Camille: Yes, chose at least 3 to give you a bid and interview with you. Our architect gave us 2 referrals of the 3 contracts. This is good because you want your architect to get along with the contractors and many of them have already established rapport.

Osman: Are there any aspects of this job that people can do themselves? Did you do any of the work yourselves, and if so, what? Did you have fun doing those things?
Camille: We did have fun during this project. Things we did ourselves: 1. make sure to label or save anything that needed to be saved or preserved. For example, light fixtures, fans, invisible fence boxes, sprinkler system boxes. Contractors will not save ANYthing that you leave unmarked and then it costs a lot to replace. 2. We purchased as many materials as possible ahead of time (manytimes charging to contractor so to get their price) so they were there and ready, sometimes we accompanied our contractor to purchase items. 3. We helped with some of the painting (cabinets). The biggest is #2

Osman: Do you have any remaining projects that you'd like to get done? Now that you think about it, would you recommend that people do these at the time of the "pop top" or is it better to wait?
Camille: We still have our kitchen to do. But we simply couldn’t afford to do that. Since it’s a project in and of itself it made sense. Generally speaking, we tried to be efficient with our renovations. For example, we upgraded our fireplace to a gas burner, because we knew we’d have to eventually, environmentally…so doing it now was far less expensive. Mostly you want to be happy with what you have. If that means a little less building for now then we went with it. We’ve heard too many stories of people to “went for it” and then suffered greatly due to a stretched budget. Our main goal was to stay on budget and we made sure to ask our contractors to stay on top of us about that.

Osman: Congratulations on building yourself a beautiful home. What was the best part of the project? Was part was most fun in each stage?
Camille: Watching the framing go up was exciting because it is the fastest part of the project. The next most exciting was when the drywall was completed and we could really see the interior. For me (the color selector) I LOVED the paint.

Osman: What is the best piece of advice you would give to anyone just about to embark on their own "pop-top" journey in Boulder?
1. Stay abreast of your budget. We asked our contractor to always refer to budget, EVERY time we made a decision or thought about a change. Some changes are not a big deal, but many changes...especially towards the end of the project can be disastrous on your budget.
2. Stay honest and in full communication with your contractor. If we ever thought something was off with money or design we IMMEDIATELY contacted our contractor and worked it out.
3. VISIT your project as often as possible. I went everyday, yes everyday. My husband was not able, but I made some excellent “catches” by doing this which resulted in fun, new ideas and sticking on budget and even a couple of big mistakes that were simply oversights.

REMEMBER: projects like this are individual…the process is very complicated and I venture to say that no contractor could stay on top of every detailed piece…the project will be most successful the more you help supervise.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions Camille. Hopefully your experiences will help other owners make a better real estate decision. See you around the neighborhood.

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