The Rest Of Us Will Need Tools And Expertise (Part Two of a series)

The rest of us.

That is who are going to be doing the majority of the rescuing during the first several days after a major earthquake hits, similar to the one on October 17, 1989 in the San Francisco area.  It was a 7.1 on the Richter scale, big enough, but not the really big one that everybody is talking about currently (see my previous post for a description of how to interpret the size of an earthquake).  And we have a challenge that no one is talking about properly, that of volunteer rescuers.

In Learning From The Earthquake, Stewart Brand, the author, happened to be in the right place at the right time.  He wrote about what really needs to happen, and I will quote the first paragraph:

There simply aren’t enough professionals available to cover all the emergencies in a disaster.  Volunteer rescuers in San Francisco’s Marina District on the night of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake outnumbered professionals three-to-one during the critical first few hours.  And it still wasn’t enough.  Only a small portion of the people present offered emergency help, despite the romanticized press to the contrary.

If you peruse the entire article, it is a bit sobering frankly.  But I want to be very sober about this subject, for I am frankly unprepared to abandon the responsibility for my family, friends and neighbors to the politicians and professionals.  All the happy thoughts in the world will not prepare us adequately for what might happen in our lifetimes, a 7.0 or worse earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone.

Volunteer rescuers are survivors of the initial earthquake who are in an area where people need rescuing; some poor soul dazed, and dirty, and amazed to be alive.  Buildings collapsed, fires starting, they look around and all they see (if lucky) are a few other hardy souls.  The odds of seeing a professional are roughly zero.  Then they hear the yelling for help, seemingly from everywhere, and they have to do what they are capable of personally at that moment, which may be nothing.

My thinking is this:  are there people that we are ignoring who may be able to become brilliant rescuers?  Maybe they already have the training?  Can we offer specific courses?  What about tools?  Challenges galore.  But Brand’s article points to preparing and enabling the person left standing, and it is completely random chance as to who it could be and where they could be at that moment.  Is there a way to increase the odds that that person has some skills and tools and could possibly save some lives?  I believe that there is, provided some governmental barriers can be removed or, at worse, ignored.  Absolute heresy.

The first challenge is British Columbia’s “Good Samaritan Act”:

No liability for emergency aid unless gross negligence

1  A person who renders emergency medical services or aid to an ill, injured or unconscious person, at the immediate scene of an accident or emergency that has caused the illness, injury or unconsciousness, is not liable for damages for injury to or death of that person caused by the person’s act or omission in rendering the medical services or aid unless that person is grossly negligent.

Grossly negligent is a legal term that has no simple interpretation for the lay person in the middle of a disaster zone immediately after an earthquake.  Question five people at random, if they are even aware of the law, they may decide not to help because they do not want legal or criminal problems later.  If I am going to tunnel into a collapsed building, I do not want the law chasing me if my rescue attempt lead to somebody being hurt or killed.  I did my best.  We must make that presumption.  The negligence provision must be removed in an earthquake disaster zone.  Period.

The second, and just as significant, challenge is the government’s tendency to try and control everything having to do with earthquake preparedness.  An example, did you know that Highway #1 through the city and up island is a designated disaster route after an earthquake?  This means that you cannot leave and go to your family up island, where many Victoria workers actually live due to the high cost of housing.  Yet many provincial bureaucrats have a magic pass, literally, as they become disaster “bosses” and are allowed to use it?  So potentially, people will not be able to leave a disaster area immediately and take the stress off the system in the hardest hit areas.  Police will be handling traffic while people are trapped.  Borrowing a World War Two acronym, SNAFU.  There are bound to be many more unfortunately.

And finally, what about tools and expertise?

The rest of us will need tools and expertise.

Who is going to come rescue me? (Part One of a series)

Earthquakes.  They are ethereal, something you watch in an old Hollywood disaster movie, dismiss as “never going to happen in my lifetime, so why worry?”

I was awake at 11:40 (on my clock), Tuesday, December 29, 2015 when a magnitude 4.7 centered near my parents home in Sidney shook the building.  It lasted less than a minute, but sometimes a minute can change the way that you think about things, in big ways.

People close to me know that I have thinking about earthquakes, their effects, being prepared, having a plan, for quite a while.  My family just says “let Dad handle it.”  So, this father and partner has been thinking the whole thing through, and where we are at on southern Vancouver Island is not a good place, neither to be in an earthquake nor in how we are prepared to deal with the consequences.

The rest of this article is going to be a bit black frankly, so if your heart is a faint one, close the page.

There is something you need to know about how to imagine an earthquake will feel while it’s happening, which is that each number is roughly 30 times more energy than the last one.  So, rounding our 4.7 to a 5.0, assume that all of you know what a five feels like, as you just went through one.  A 6.0 is 30 times the energy of a 5.0, so it lasts longer and beats us up more.  A 7.0 is 30 times a 6.0, or 900 (30 x 30) times the energy of what we just went through, which means more violent shaking for a longer period of time. Imagine three minutes at this level.  Yes Virginia, more violent for three straight minutes.

I have come to the conclusion that earthquakes here fall into four categories: 1) relatively minor ones, like the 4.7 we just experienced; 2) ones that cause a bit of damage, think 5.5 to 6.0; 3) ones that produce minor and major damage over the whole area, think 6.5 to 7.5; and 4) the place is shook like a rag doll by a dog, everything has some damage (to a builder), think 8.0 and up.  The local preparations, mostly fire and police, will rely on a combination of an earthquake under 6.0 and pure dumb luck. Beyond that, all bets are off.  The local and provincial governments have pretty much agreed with me on this one, as they are now advising we all have three weeks of food for those who survive.  If we need food for three weeks, then everything food related is gone.  No new food is coming to the island, and they have no system to distribute it.  What does the city then look like?  A bit more thought, who is doing the rescuing immediately after the earthquake?  Lots of people to rescue, nobody to do it.

The government people (politicians and bureaucrats) will disagree.  They point to binders on shelves, locked containers on schoolyards (only for kids!), and the ever present comfort that more levels of government are going to do the rescuing.  If you read the following article, The Really Big One, the other levels of government are going to be really busy in both the United States and Canada.  Oh yes, we live on an island, just to add an additional degree of difficulty.

The place will be a mess.  We need to have a better system for rescuing ourselves, and we need to stop counting on government to do it.

Who is going to come rescue me?

The rest of us.

So what are you waiting for, get the lead out!

My friends in the hazardous materials industry have recently informed me that the levels considered “safe” for lead have recently been lowered.  Coupled with the hiring of more WorkSafeBC staff here on the south island (more visits from them), this means that lead is the new asbestos.

I have been chatting about how asbestos (heck, any hazardous material) and it’s impact on a project means that people now have to decide if the project is “worth” it due to the additional costs of hazardous materials handling that is really just a part of demolition.  The changes to the lead levels mean, for example, that the exterior paint on most old buildings now has to be removed as a hazardous material if you are doing any renovations or demolition.  If you scroll down the link here, you will see a reference to a WorkSafeBC document that warns the homeowner that a “cheap” bid may mean that your contractor is not doing their job when it comes to hazardous materials.

A recent project that I got told about had the client wishing to demolish and completely remove an old house.  The exterior was painted with lead paint.  This meant that the exterior had to be removed in four foot square sections (the special bags are four foot cubes) while encapsulated (think inside a tent) and disposed of at a special section of the landfill.  Once again, our local Hartland landfill is the only one on the island that takes this stuff, and the demolition firm will charge roughly $1,250 a bag.  Yup, a bag.  Plus the cost of doing all the work is on top of that.  Think European vacation, 5 star, business class flight, for a month.  Oh, and once all that is finished, you still have to tear down the house.  And build a new one.

This gets back to the Latin expression caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.  It has been my experience that you cannot rely on anybody but yourself to be sure that before you buy an older house that will become your new home, you need to go through a complete checklist of items that will take both time and money.  Nasty stuff, but essential.  The cost of a real fixer upper in the south island (in a decent neighborhood) is now roughly $500,000, why would you not check all this stuff out?  Ignorance, emotion, wilful blindness, or some combination of them.

As with so many things in life, this topic requires some action on your part.  Contact somebody who knows what to look for who can give you meaningful answers.  So what are you waiting for, get the lead out!

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Ah, January.  A time here in Victoria, and on the south island, where people examine the things that didn’t work about their home over the holidays.  Relatives sleeping on an inflatable bed, kitchen counters smaller than a turkey and a ham, bad floor plans making the house feel microscopic, bathrooms with no shower (or tub), too cold or too hot, foggy windows, drafty doors, bad lighting.

“Honey, I was embarrassed about this old house when all our mooching relatives showed up.  Let’s sell it and get a better one!”

Seems pretty reasonable, the old barn can be sold to some other sucker, let them fix it up.  Why waste all that money on renovations when we can buy another with all of the work already done?

Renovations are not cheap, ever.  But they are 100% under your control (countertops can be laminate, stone, not done at all), and they can always be done in phases.  Switching houses is pretty cheap, and none of the construction mess.  It is cheap, right?

There is an old poker saying, “If you have been playing for half an hour, and do not know who the patsy is, you are the patsy.”  Let’s take a bit of a look at what it costs to switch a house (and assume the sales and purchase price is the same, which I bet it will not be), and make sure that you are not the patsy.

  1. Real estate fees.  These are usually 6% on the first $100,000 and 3% on the balance.  Plus GST.  An $800,000 house in Fairfield costs $27,000 plus tax for the agent to unload for you.
  2. Sales preparation costs.  Hey, wait a minute, the realtor wants us to spend some dough on the barn to make it more “appealing” to buyers.  Clean out the garage?  I was going to do that when we moved. There is a ton of great stuff in there, bet they’ll be happy to get all that thrown in as a bonus!  Paint?  Let them paint it in colours that they want, painting is expensive.  Repairs?  Hey, we are unloading this place so that we don’t have to do any of that.
  3. Property Transfer Tax, which can be $14,000 on that $800,000 Fairfield house that you buy.
  4. Banking and mortgage fees.
  5. Get a lawyer.  They are champs at the paperwork.
  6. Packing.  Now, even if you put no value on your time, this probably is more than a Saturday afternoon.  You have to find boxes, tape, friends who will work for cheap pizza.
  7. Maybe rent a big box to move all of your treasure, I have used UPak personally.
  8. Unpacking.  Probably alone because you bought your friends cheap pizza.

I will also bet that you will do some renovating to the new chateau after you move in (it is cheaper to renovate before you move in, but it is your choice).  Paint a bit, fix this and that, redo the bathroom.  Does the furniture work in your new space?

I have been a bit tongue in cheek so far, but I find that people often talk about selling rather than renovating and they do not count the dollar costs, some of which are listed above, nor the so called soft costs.  You know your current neighbors, and neighborhood, and probably like it there.  The commute to work is a known entity, you know how much time it takes now.  The 13 municipalities that make up our fair city are constantly changing roads and transit, heck, Victoria is constantly adding bike lanes (have to appease the 5% who ride bikes), lowering speed limits, creating transit only lanes, and replacing bridges.  You could find the new commute takes a lot of time out of your life.

So maybe it would be a useful exercise to get an estimate or two on fixing up the old barn into your new chateau, and compare that number to the dollar cost of changing houses plus the intangible values of living where you do now.  Only you and your family can answer that age old question, should I stay or should I go?


The Bogeyman under the bed is real: Asbestos could get you

The asbestos noose has tightened, and homeowners need to be aware that if a tradesperson works on your home and later develops asbestosis, or it’s symptoms, then you are legally liable to compensate WorkSafeBC for all costs of their treatment, rehabilitation, and future compensation.  You need to either take out coverage on the job yourself or ensure that your trades do, but no amount of squirming will get you off the hook legally.  They could seize your home after a court has determined that you were liable if you had no coverage.  “I had no idea…” is NOT a defense.

I have touched on the topic of asbestos in earlier posts, but the issue is taking on it’s next life.  We have a cottage up in the valley and the local dump (oops, dating myself, landfill facility or some such nomenclature) has now BANNED anything that contains asbestos, click here.  Sorry, we do not take that stuff.  Take it over there please…over there is often 50 kilometers away and the tipping fee is $250 or so a ton.

So what you say?  Well, if you have ever done a renovation to your home then you may be somewhat aware that a surprisingly small pile of debris weighs a ton.  And the trucks do not come cheap either, special bins and covers, and in an era of $1.37 per liter gasoline (as of today) they are also not known for their fuel efficiency, therefore, they are expensive to operate and expensive for you the client to use for disposal.

Why do you or should you care?  If your home is constructed before 1990, then you probably have asbestos in your home, meaning that renovation will produce asbestos waste.  It is not simple nor inexpensive to legally dispose of the stuff, and it often ends up literally being dumped on the side of the road and being handled by the local government.  This brings me back to another old topic, asbestos and the law here in British Columbia which is enforced by WorksafeBC.

Did you know that WorkSafeBC is having an enforcement campaign for single family renovations until the end of this year?

Check this out: click here

If you have ever had a government inspector stop by your worksite, then you are in for an experience.  They regard all contractors, big and small, as big ones when it comes to compliance.  This means that your renovation contractor could spend a day or so simply dealing with the inspection even if they are squeaky clean.  All work usually stops, as a precaution.  You have been advised as the British constables say.

The business of renovation is getting more and more difficult, as a business.  This is why there are fewer competent and compliant contractors today, it is difficult to stay in business when the cost of enforcing government regulations puts your quote out of the ballpark compared to some of the “dashboard contractors” (they run their business on their dashboard, piles of paper and Lord knows what else hidden away).  The homeowner needs to beware, it is a matter of time before the government closes the loop and requires the sale of a home to be accompanied by either a clearance certificate for asbestos or a declaration about it’s presence.

Now sit back and ponder what a declaration about asbestos will do to your home’s resale value.  Or what a clearance certificate could mean as a sales price booster.

The Bogeyman under the bed is real, and his name is asbestos.

Storey’s Gate does chunky (what the heck is that?)


Storey’s Gate is a chunky builder, and I realized this after watching a TedTalks episode, featuring Malcolm Gladwell, over the Holidays.

For those of you who love this kind of thing, here is the link

He was talking about the history of pasta sauce and made a comment that stuck with me.  Research showed that people would buy chunky pasta sauce if one small challenge could be overcome, the only pasta sauce available was pureed.  Nobody made chunky pasta sauce.  I started thinking about the Canadian construction industry, and how we offer the same type of house (one type of pasta sauce) and wondered whether people would buy/contract/renovate for another, for chunky, if it was available.

Chunky is the feeling that you have when you sit in an old building in Brussels, in a 200 year old chair in a 400 year old building that has been well maintained.  The floors may be huge planks, or oak strips like they have in Paris.  The walls could be plaster or cement.  The doors are nine or ten feet high and have clunky old locks with skeleton keys that work.  The bath has a huge clawfoot or copper tub, often in the middle of the room and the floors are wood.  Furniture is not built in, rather they used antique cabinets.  Light and colours interact with textures, making the “look” difficult, but not impossible, to reproduce. The whole thing is a mish mash of new and old, vintage and antique, residential and industrial.  You are comfortable the minute you enter the space.  The most amazing thing is that the same can be found anywhere in Europe, from London to Berlin.

My love is for chunky, and I am here to tell you that I can build it, I know who can design it, and you can have it.

What does the industry offer here?  Drywall boxes, laminate floors, cabinets made of sawdust or wood chips, imitation leather, gas fireplaces, and reproduction stone countertops.  All of this is marvelous if that happens to be what you really want, but are you sure that you would choose it if something like the above was available?  If we made chunky, not everybody would want it, but how many would?  Most importantly, would you?


The Secret to Comedy and Construction Projects – Timing!

Here I am in early December already looking at next year, all of next year.  As an owner of a growing construction company in Victoria, B.C.,  I am already looking at what projects do I have booked and which are likely to become booked.  My definition of a booked project is one that has both a signed contract and an accompanying deposit cheque.

This may surprise the reader, namely that a client is asked to provide a deposit for a project that may not start until next summer.  Remember what the client is asking, that I block off several weeks to several months of my company’s schedule, which also means that I am turning down work for the same time period (my company can only handle two simultaneous projects, depending on their scale and scope).  It is difficult to turn down work at any time, but especially difficult when the economy is slow.  Great clients do not grow on trees.

So if you and your family are considering a new construction or renovation project next year, it is a good idea to start looking for your project management team and your building team ASAP.  As a famous balding blond builder from Toronto has stated in his columns and television programs, any construction company worth their salt will probably not be available when the telephone conversation goes like this:

“Hello, Storey’s Gate, Michael speaking.”

“Hello.  My name is Peter Procrastinator.  The City just issued my building permit and I was wondering if you would like to quote on the job?”

“I might, depending on the scale of the job and your timetable.  When were you hoping to start and when will all the quotes be in for your evaluation?”

“Well, I was hoping that you could start Monday.”

“Thank you for the call.  The challenge is going to be that today is Friday…”

Now before you say that that would never happen, I have had that call (OK, it was Thursday, not Friday) but you get the idea.  Now you as the client should wonder about any company that can give you instant gratification on any project that lasts more than two weeks.  That said, references count too.

I prefer to be involved before any project ever gets to this stage.  The main reason that people do not involve a builder is cost, as in I want to pay my builder to build, not think. Now we builders have been known to do a bit of thinking, as in when we are putting together a quote based on a design and permit that has some potentially expensive decisions (or obvious lack of decisions) within it.  So the reality is that you can pay me to think up front or pay me to think and fix your decision to have me not think during the process before building, either way, somebody has to do the thinking.  I have the experience, you probably do not (YouTube videos do not count as experience, especially when they are by a guy in Mississippi named Gator).

So, if I have been working with you for the last six to eighteen months to get the project ready to go, we have got a good relationship established.  Therefore, you can see how it is reasonable for me to take your booking as I am confident about construction schedules, weather, when permits will probably be ready, etc.  I want my clients to be confident and comfortable with the process, that requires time together.  A couple of hours together up front can save you days or weeks on site later, which saves money and may save a marriage (if a couple can build together, they shall rarely be torn asunder in my experience).

You choose the time to call, I answer the phone.  But remember, the secret to comedy and construction projects is …..TIMING!

Project management: size doesn’t matter

I am a member of the sandwich generation, meaning that I have children at home and retired parents living nearby.  My mother and father are closing in on their 80th birthdays, and are thankfully hale and hardy.  They have me handle all of the details of any project having to do with their townhouse, and I am going to tell you about their upcoming project to replace their wall to wall carpeting.

It is a two story townhouse and they have an Acorn Stairlift to get to the bedrooms on the top floor.  The entire house is carpeted except for the entry hall and the kitchen and bathrooms.  This means as well as moving all of the furniture around as we remove and then lay the new carpet, we also need to remove and then replace the Stairlift as the stairs are being re carpeted as well.

Seniors want one person in charge of the entire project, it lessens their stress and makes them feel comfortable with any “issues” as they arise.  This means that I will be dealing with three separate contractors:  the carpet wholesaler, the carpet installer, and the Stairlift maintenance staff.  The potential for challenges are several, the biggest being unable to get the Stairlift back in working order quickly, which has a very serious impact on my parents’ quality of life.

It is going to be a three day process from start to finish.  A non exhaustive list of challenges is:  carpet not precut correctly, missing pieces of carpet, contractors showing up late, potential finger pointing exercises due to a contractor not having their “normal working conditions”.  A project manager (who needs to be a very effective communicator) is responsible for handling all of these situations and to ensure the work meets industry standards and is delivered on time and on budget.

In terms of all of the projects that I have dealt with over the years, this one is very small.  But it needs to be remembered that as far as the clients are concerned, it is very big, and will be the focus of their lives for the entire three days while the work is going on.  A skilled project manager will make it all go smoothly and on budget.

Because in project management, size doesn’t matter.

Somebody should do something about that.

Ah Summer!  Time for you and your imagination to get outside and do something with the yard, if only because the grass is now so high that you cannot see the dog.  But wait, what is THAT on the side of the house (this is where you can fill in the blanks, that could be peeling paint, missing trim, etc.)

This time of year is when even the most novice of homeowners looks at their home and says to themselves “something has got to be done about that”.  But then life gets in the way, it gets put off, another spring comes, and so the cycle continues.  Looking around Victoria tells you that many homes are now into counting decades when the last real maintenance, yes maintenance was done.

We have such a mild climate temperature wise that most people simply wait for their house to break, then they will fix it.   Then they need cardiac help when they get the quote/bill for neglecting their house.  It is always less expensive to maintain than repair or replace, presuming that quality materials and workmanship were used in the first place.

A simple list of things that could need checking: perimeter drains (keep those basements dry), siding (keep those insects out), foundation (twelve inches between the ground and below the siding is ideal, so use the compost somewhere else silly), windows (are they sealed, is water getting in around them, drafts), eavestrough (they connect to perimeter drains, are they clean, do they drain in the right direction, do they leak, are they secure), soffits (ventilation for the attic, keep insects out), roof (shingles all there, any leaks, tin around chimneys, seals around ventilation pipes for plumbing), chimneys (pointing, tin work, covers), you see there are a few items.

Get in contact with a professional contractor and ask them to help you setup a maintenance schedule.  This would mean that all of those items may not need to be addressed right away, but you could budget for them and knock them off the list over several years.  This is a true win/win:  you get your home fixed before it “breaks” at a good price, and the contractor has work booked with smart clients.


With a little luck, you may not start to cough until later.

WorkSafeBC recently did a series of two hour information sessions for contractors that they called “Exposing the Invisible – What’s in the Walls?”. The sessions were to educate the contractor community about renovation and demolition hazards, asbestos, and other hazardous materials.  It got me thinking about homeowners who try to save money by doing their own “dirty work”, as it is considered low skill and people often resist paying contractors to do things “that we can do ourselves”.

Let’s paint a dirty picture:  you decide to start your renovation project by doing a little demolition first.  Knock out some drywall, pull up a smelly carpet and underlay, pull up some old tile that is glued to the floor.  Low skill, save some money, put on the old clothes and go for it.  The challenge is that you may have just exposed yourself to the possibility of asbestos, mould and asbestos, in that order.

First, the current cutoff date is a building built before 1991 (1990 and older) may contain asbestos.  Asbestos was used in everything from glues and tiles to insulation and drywall mud (my list is by no means exhaustive).  Does this mean that your house has asbestos in it?  Maybe.  The anal retentive route is for the homeowner to get an environmental survey done covering all of the hazardous materials in the home (ballpark cost $1,000 plus just for the report).  Then you have to pay to remove them.  So much for low skill.

As an aside, this report and the certification that your current home is free of hazardous materials will, in my opinion, soon become a sales incentive for buyers of older homes who wish to know that the house they are buying is healthy.  With average sales prices of $500,000 plus in Victoria, it looks like money well spent to me.

In a previous post, I talked about how many people do not want to use a building permit, so you can imagine how popular hazardous materials reports would be for the average homeowner.  That said, you could presume that there are hazardous materials and simply take the proper precautions and use the appropriate procedures for disposal to minimize the risk(s) to all concerned.  A reputable contractor shows up with hazardous materials gear (the jingo is hazmat) and knows how to perform demolition and renovations according to current guidelines.

For the do-it-yourselfer, the minimum clothing and protective gear is eye protection (available at most building supply stores, they are NOT sunglasses), gloves (protects “office hands” from getting too beat up and helps prevent injuries), footwear (they now make shoes with steel shanks and toes, for women too),  and a facemask (rubber with replaceable cylinders rated for asbestos…paper masks are usually useless against asbestos).  Throw in a paper suit (with hood) and booties.  It is hot work, and the mask is not necessarily comfortable to the uninitiated.  Regardless, I will not let anybody work for Storey’s Gate who is not both insured and properly equipped, and I frown on the attitude that “…I do not do this everyday like a professional, so a little dust/dirt/asbestos won’t kill me…”

After all, with a little luck, you may not start to cough until later.