Home Renovations Were Always Tough. Now Many Are Giving Up Mid-Project.
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Home Renovations Were Always Tough. Now Many Are Giving Up Mid-Project.

Labour shortages and high demand have meant months-long slowdowns for people waiting to fix up their homes

Fri, Mar 24, 2023 9:04amGrey Clock 4 min

USA: A surge of home renovations in recent years combined with a shortage of contractors is turning more repairs and remodels into never-ending nightmares.

New homeowners and those renovating always expect projects to require more time and money than their contractor estimates. But for many, the costs have become so high and the waits so long that some are now abandoning projects midway, forcing them to live among half-finished renovations for months. Others are taking up the drywall themselves.

A renovation now takes 79 days on average, up 259% from 22 days in 2019, according to Jobber, an operations-management company whose software is used by home-service professionals. Remodelling is more expensive: Hourly wages for general construction workers are up 42% over the same period, from $35 to $49, according to insurance analytics firm Verisk. Material costs have climbed, too.

The Federal Reserve raised short-term interest rates by another quarter percentage point on Wednesday, a decision that will likely continue to suppress purchases of new homes. More people who had planned to move may now stay put and renovate their existing property, says Abbe Will, a researcher at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Spending on home-improvement and repair projects in the U.S. increased by an estimated 15% in 2022 to a record $567 billion, following an 11% increase in 2021, according to a report issued Thursday by Harvard’s housing studies centre. Historical growth has averaged around 5%, says Ms. Will, the lead author.

Baxter Townsend and David Zlotnick thought buying an outdated Manhattan apartment and renovating it would be more affordable than new construction. Over a year and $250,000 into a remodel quoted to take a maximum of 15 weeks and around $100,000, they say they regret their decision.

The couple had to pay to completely redo the electrical work after Mr. Zlotnick tripped a circuit and sent sparks flying by plugging in a vacuum. The tiles in the primary bathroom are crooked and the sinks askew. Still, they dismissed the design firm they had been working with this month so they could finally move back home.

“We’re like, ‘Pack up and get out. It’s been a year. Please leave,’ ” says Mr. Zlotnick, who works in international shipping logistics. They plan to hire a different firm to finish the project, if they can find one.

New recruits needed

Those renovations and repairs can’t happen quickly without an influx of qualified workers. The construction industry will need to attract more than a half-million additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2023 to meet the demand for labor, according to Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade organisation.

General contractor Miguel Villamil employs four people in Indianapolis, and says he has struggled to find more workers. His lead time for projects has stretched up to seven months, and he has raised prices for his services considerably to stay staffed. He pays his workers a starting salary of $20 to $25 an hour, up from $12 to $15 in 2020.

He says he is frustrated with contractors who deliver rushed and shoddy work—hurting the industry’s reputation—and with homeowners who don’t always recognise the realities of the marketplace.

“It’s a big, big, big problem,” Mr. Villamil says. “People without experience starting their own businesses, but also big companies who end up hiring subcontractors who have no experience because they have no choice.”

Facing long waits and high prices, some impatient homeowners are taking matters into their own hands—with varying results.

Total homeowner spending on do-it-yourself improvement projects grew 44% between 2019 and 2021, to a record of $66 billion, according to the Harvard report.

Mr. Villamil has picked up jobs from homeowners who tried, and failed, to do it themselves.

“Some of them do a halfway-decent job,” he says. “Some of them don’t.” He adds that one client inadvertently wired the TV to click on every time he flipped the light switch. “They try their best,” he said.

DIY by necessity

Laura Hrusovsky wasn’t trying to save time or money when she became the general contractor on a massive home-repair project. She just didn’t feel like she had a choice.

About a year ago, Ms. Hrusovsky came home from a day out with friends to a sopping entryway carpet and water cascading out of the light fixtures. An upstairs toilet had sprung a leak from the water line, spewing hundreds of gallons of water through her 3,800-square-foot home in Valparaiso, Ind.

When their preferred general contractor said he couldn’t start for another six months, her husband, Jim Hrusovsky, had an idea. “I said to Laura, who is very well organised: ‘Are you willing to try it?’ ”

She took on the 40-hour-a-week project, but isn’t happy she had to. “I just lost a year of my life,” she says. She says she has a newfound appreciation for construction work.

Evan Moody and Autumn Furr bought a second home in New York’s Catskill Mountains in summer 2021. The couple expected the few cosmetic upgrades and repairs on their list would take a couple of months. Almost two years later, the house still isn’t finished.

After getting turned down by every electrician in the area, Mr. Moody ended up pleading with one who was two counties over. On top of a $100 surcharge for travel, he said he could only come on a rainy day when he couldn’t do the outdoor work that made up most of his income. A storm didn’t occur for weeks.

Tired of waiting, Mr. Moody recently took a week-and-a-half away from his job in advertising to build a back deck himself. He knew he was in trouble and needed a professional to finish the job when he had barely gotten the holes for the posts dug by the end of day two.

“I think that going into this, we had the perception that we were very good DIYers,” Mr. Moody says. “I learned that, in fact, I wasn’t.”


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Wild cities and concrete corridors: How AI is reimagining the landscape

A new AI-driven account by leading landscape architect Jon Hazelwood pushes the boundaries on the role of ‘complex nature’ in the future of our cities

By Robyn Willis
Wed, Dec 6, 2023 2 min

Drifts of ground cover plants and wildflowers along the steps of the Sydney Opera House, traffic obscured by meadow-like planting and kangaroos pausing on city streets.

This is the way our cities could be, as imagined by landscape architect Jon Hazelwood, principal at multi-disciplinary architectural firm Hassell. He has been exploring the possibilities of rewilding urban spaces using AI for his Instagram account, Naturopolis_ai with visually arresting outcomes.

“It took me a few weeks to get interesting results,” he said. “I really like the ephemeral nature of the images — you will never see it again and none of those plants are real. 

“The AI engine makes an approximation of a grevillea.”

Hazelwood chose some of the most iconic locations in Australia, including the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, as well as international cities such as Paris and London, to demonstrate the impact of untamed green spaces on streetscapes, plazas and public space.

He said he hopes to provoke a conversation about the artificial separation between our cities and the broader environment, exploring ways to break down the barriers and promote biodiversity.

“A lot of the planning (for public spaces) is very limited,” Hazelwood said. “There are 110,000 species of plants in Australia and we probably use about 12 in our (public) planting schemes. 

“Often it’s for practical reasons because they’re tough and drought tolerant — but it’s not the whole story.”

Hazelwood pointed to the work of UK landscape architect Prof Nigel Dunnett, who has championed wild garden design in urban spaces. He has drawn interest in recent years for his work transforming the brutalist apartment block at the Barbican in London into a meadow-like environment with diverse plantings of grasses and perennials.

Hazelwood said it is this kind of ‘complex nature’ that is required for cities to thrive into the future, but it can be hard to convince planners and developers of the benefits.

“We have been doing a lot of work on how we get complex nature because complexity of species drives biodiversity,” he said. 

“But when we try to propose the space the questions are: how are we going to maintain it? Where is the lawn?

“A lot of our work is demonstrating you can get those things and still provide a complex environment.” 

At the moment, Hassell together with the University of Melbourne is trialling options at the Hills Showground Metro Station in Sydney, where the remaining ground level planting has been replaced with more than 100 different species of plants and flowers to encourage diversity without the need for regular maintenance. But more needs to be done, Hazelwood said.

“It needs bottom-up change,” he said. ““There is work being done at government level around nature positive cities, but equally there needs to be changes in the range of plants that nurseries grow, and in the way our city landscapes are maintained and managed.”

And there’s no AI option for that. 


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