A Complete Home Renovation in Three Phases

September 5, 2018

Text by Kaitlin Madden    Photography by Michael J. Lee

The thirteen years that Ryan McDonnell has owned Needham-based Hawthorn Builders have been an education in an often complicated industry, a time period during which the former accountant and his business partner, Mathew Roth, turned a nascent real-estate company into a full-scale custom home building firm. Though McDonnell attributes much of their success to working with top designers and subcontractors, mastering the art of scheduling, and honing his communication skills, it was an out-of-the-ordinary situation that gave him one of the biggest insights into his business: after purchasing a 1930s English Colonial with his wife, Karen, McDonnell hired his own firm to oversee the renovations.

“When Karen and I bought our house, it hadn’t been renovated in twenty-thirty years or longer in some areas,” explains McDonnell. “Because we were in the unique and fortunate position to have the services of a reputable custom home builder at our disposal, we saw it as an opportunity.” So he and Karen brought in Hawthorn to take on the work.

Creating the home the family wanted would require everything from new windows and a modernized kitchen to a two-story addition that encompassed a mudroom, powder room, extra bedroom, and larger garage. Given the extensive scope of the work, the McDonnells decided the best approach would be to complete it in three separate stages. “We went through a series of renovation phases dictated by budget, and did it over a period of five years,” he says.

Though the work was broken into phases, it was completed according to a singular, long-term plan that was drawn up at the project’s outset. “Karen had an appreciation for the older home we bought and had a clear vision for how she wanted the expanded and updated house to look,” McDonnell says. “At the beginning, she was able to work with the designers to put together a full set of plans for the ultimate deliverable.”

The first phase of the project encompassed the must-dos—things like updating the HVAC system and getting the kitchen into a workable state. Phase two involved replacing windows and adding a master bath. The final phase was the largest, tackling the major structural changes and expansion as well as the complete kitchen renovation.

Though acting as both client and contractor for half a decade was not without its stressors, McDonnell says the experience was invaluable. “It was so good for me as an owner of the company to go through this process on the other side, because now I can apply my experience with my own renovation to issues that come up with other clients on other projects,” he says.

The biggest eye-opener for McDonnell was timing. “In this industry, there are unfortunately a lot of built-in inefficiencies. It nobody’s fault, it’s just the nature of the business,” he says. “One subcontractor is dependent on the deliverables of another to do their work, which can cause delays.”

Despite the fact that McDonnell understood these inefficiencies intimately as a business owner, he still found it frustrating once he became a client. “It would still bother me when things didn’t happen when they were supposed to happen, so I can see how that drives people crazy,” he says. “Now, we make sure to really manage our clients’ expectations. If they’re expecting certain work to happen on Wednesday and it’s not going to happen, we know that needs to be communicated as soon as possible. When clients aren’t prepared for a delay or change in the schedule, that’s when frustration levels are highest.”

With the renovations now squarely in hindsight, McDonnell considers the project a success–as both a homeowner, and a business owner.

“I think what I’ve learned and has been confirmed having gone through this is that, as a client or customer, you need to trust the process,” he says. “I now understand how difficult that is, because these projects can take a long time, and they’re an important and expensive investment. But I also know that by the time it’s all said and done, the output is there. It ends up being worth it.”

Hawthorn Builders
Needham, Massachusetts

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