Do You Need a Mid-Century Contractor?

So, you are ready to start your remodel!

Now how do you find an experienced, qualified mid-century contractor to build your remodel? One that can match your level of mid-century stan. The perfect fit for your project who will know to include all the vintage vibes or can walk the razor thin edge between mid-century and modern. 

Well, maybe you don’t. 

And that’s okay. Your mid-century remodel can be the star of the portfolio regardless of whether your contractor even knows what mid-century means. 

Because to build the mcm remodel of your dreams (or any style remodel for that matter), what you actually need is a contractor with skill, efficiency and professionalism. Mid-century know how and expertise are optional as long as you find  a contractor who cares about their craft, is committed to clear and efficient communication and will give your project the time and attention required to do the work right.  

You may find this pro working on their own, out of the back of a work truck, with just a cell phone for an office. Or they may be part of a team at a local design build firm that is managing two or three projects at a time. You may even find a team of folks at the largest remodeling outfit in the region who will swap in and out through the various phases of your model with the highest attention to detail and commitment to quality.   

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • What makes for a great mid-century contractor. 
  • How to find the best contractor for you!
  • The secret to making sure your contractor keeps mid-century in mind.  

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Resources for finding a mid-century contractor

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Read the Full Episode Transcript

Today one of my most asked questions, put simply, where do you find an experienced qualified mid-century contractor to build your remodel?

And my answer is probably going to be at first unsatisfying, but ultimately reassuring. Because basically, you don’t, you don’t find a mid-century contractor with a portfolio of other projects that look just like your dream house and a side hustle in historical research. There are not that many of those folks out there, and the odds are that you either can’t line one up right now, or you can’t afford them.

But here’s the good news. You don’t actually need one. There are a number of key qualities you do need in a good contractor for your project. But mid-century experience isn’t necessarily one of them. Let’s get into why. Hey there, welcome back to mid Barbara model. This is the show about updating MCM homes helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast, you’re listening to Episode 1406.

Quick item of business. This weekend I’m holding another live mid-century design clinic and this time the topic is mid-century editions. I would love for you to block out a little time and join me for the live event. It’s a zoom workshop running from 11 to one central on Saturday, October 14. But if you’re not free, or you’re listening to this episode after the clinic, of course, there’ll be a recording and you’ll get so much out of it.

Meanwhile, as a gateway drug to attending the whole super fun, chill relaxing informative design class with me. I have a free PDF guide to planning an edition. Grab the pre-addition checklist to get yourself asking the right questions. Get that at mid mod dash midwest.com/additions Or just sign right up for the class and come along to figure out if an edition might be the right answer for your home space planning needs at mid mod dash midwest.com/clinic.

Meanwhile, I also have more resources for you today related to today’s topic. For other people’s opinions on finding the right contractor check out the conversations I had with Sarah year out of mid-century homes in Boise this summer in our Instagram video design chat series. We recorded two of them this summer, and I’ll find links for them and put them in the show notes. As always, that’s at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1406.

So, here’s the question. Do you need a mid-century contractor? Well, ideally, yes. But practically, you probably can’t get one. So the good news is you don’t need one. Here’s how it should work, what you should work for instead, you’re going to need help with this. Now, I am not a contractor, nor have I ever played one on TV.

But I have worked with many both in my personal capacity and professional capacity. And I’ve had client after client working with contractors even when I haven’t been directly involved in that relationship. I have a lifetime of listening to stories about remodels and have drawn my own conclusions about what worked and what didn’t and who was really to blame is so harsh. But when things go wrong, let’s say what factors contributed to the unhappy outcomes in certain remodels.

This is a question that fascinates me and frustrates me. I’ve spent a lot of my professional life contemplating it. And as I’ve mentioned a couple of times this season, my mission at mid Midwest is to help every mid-century home in America avoid a mediocre remodel. And that means very active, successful working relationships with contractors.

And here’s the thing, contractors are just people. It’s not rocket science. There’s not a magical alchemical formula you need to learn in order to create a better relationship with your contractor. What you need is a reliable, responsible person who can listen to you and a solid plan for what you would like them to do for you before you get started.

Back in high school on the robotics team, we were supervised by a grumpy middle aged machine shop manager who was a font of aphorisms, some helpful some not, some contradictory. For example, he regularly said, oh, let’s quit. That’s good enough for the girls we go out with. Yeah, it was a sexist environment.

But he also often appreciated perfection and commented that perfect was good enough. Here’s the one that really has stuck with me. Plan your work and then work your plan. Thank you, Rory, wherever you are.

It’s not a bad motto for a remodel. Certainly work your plan without having plans pre worked is a recipe for disaster. So part of creating beautiful remodels the part that I can legitimately affect personally and that you can too is the plan part.

We can’t control the supply lines, shortages, the labor market, the training and experience backgrounds of everyone out there that’s outside of our control. We can’t make other people love mid-century design, although in my experience when a contractor takes on a project for one of our clients, even if they have not yet been a fan of mid-century before, they tend to end the project with comments like “that turned out really well. It’s so clean and simple, isn’t it? When are we going to photograph that for our portfolio?”

I’m just saying mid-century homes will get you. And what you can control for is to choose a person who you want to have a good relationship with. And to give them a beautiful master plan to start from. You really do need a master plan before you reach out to a contractor. In fact, do not call a contractor before you have been through every step of the master plan process, even in brief.

You need to go through the dream stage, you need to know what matters to you, and why what kind of life you’re trying to live in your new future home, you need to go through the discovery phase, you need to know what’s up with the house, at least enough to be able to have a reasonable conversation with someone and to weigh the varying opinions of multiple experts on your own. You need to go through the distill phase. If you don’t know what your remodel is supposed to look like, how could anyone else possibly be expected to satisfy you with the result. And you need to go through the draft phase. Considering multiple options weighing pros and cons of a bigger move or a smaller one and choosing the one that’s just right for you. Thanks, Goldilocks is going to create a project that matches your budget and creates the outcome you’ve been dreaming of that you can feel satisfied with your choices. about.

All of that comes after you’ve been through those steps in the Develop phase when you choose which of multiple options are right for you, for your own reasons. Here’s the thing, a good contractor wants you to know all of those things before you get in touch with them. A good contractor who’s going to be a joy to work with, wants you to figure out how you want things to go. So they can do those things smoothly and efficiently. You are looking for the same things.

In many ways, the goals of your contractor, your designer, if any, maybe me and yourself overlap, you all want to run a clean project, you all want to have a remodel that’s accomplished in the minimal amount of time and ends up looking as good or better than what you imagined it would. You might wish the project costs a little less than it actually requires in order to do it. Your contractor is going to want to be compensated appropriately for their hard work. And you need to meet in the middle to find a price that matches both realities.

But they also want to get the project done quickly. And they also want it to turn out beautifully. Both for their personal professional satisfaction. And so you’ll have a lovely portfolio item for them and be a future reference for other people as they continue to work in the business.

So here’s what you really need from a good contractor. You don’t necessarily need your mid-century contractor to have mid-century remodeling experience before you get started. But you do need skill, efficiency and professionalism.

You want a mid-century contractor who is a good craftsman and who works with a team of craftsmen. Someone who works precisely and consistently and creates consistently beautiful functional spaces. That is key. There’s really no point in having a clear vision for how you want your house to turn out if the contractor you work with is incapable of executing that vision.

And being capable of executing your vision means they’re also a good communicator. A mid-century contractor needs to be a good listener because what they’re doing may not be in line with what they’ve done before. They need to see what you want and that it’s different. And they need to be clear with you when they run into question marks or trouble.

As a good organizer, they need to be in control of the schedule. As much as it’s possible. They need to be able to pivot and adapt when the schedule is inevitably thrown out of control by supply line or unearthing new material about the house. When demolition begins by the natural human vagaries of people’s work schedules. All of those things are fine, but you want a contractor who’s prepared to make the best use of their time and yours under those circumstances.

And you want someone who’s going to keep you in the loop. A great mid-century contractor is committed to keeping you in the loop about every new design challenge and keeping you up to date on what’s going on with their business as well as the external factors that can affect the quality of the timeline, or the quality of your build.

And you want the contractor a mid-century contractor who is a creative problem solver. Because again, in a mid-century home in a historic home of any era, things are going to happen. Yeah, a ranch is a historic building, it’s probably 70 years old.

So when you open up a 70 year old wall and find out there’s zero insulation or the previous remodel left stubbed out plumbing hidden in place, or the structure isn’t what we all assumed it to be or something else, perhaps a dangerous substance like asbestos or lead, which we’ll be talking about next week. You want your contractor to be able to think on their feet, they shouldn’t be stymied by these things, they should come to you with a solution or several solutions that you can choose from at the same time.

But the caveat to that is, particularly with a mid-century contractor, you don’t want them to creatively just solve the problem on their own without reference to you. You want to make sure that even though they think it might work one way that it’s going to plug in with your vision of a mid-century appropriate update for your home.

So that’s a major one to watch out for actually, when you speak to references from their other projects. Make sure to take note, if they tell you there was a time when a contract changed, or something in the project had to change and that happened without the contractor checking back in with the homeowner that’s a big red flag. That is something you don’t want to have happen on your project even if that client was ultimately satisfied with the outcome in their case.

Changes and plans are almost inevitable in a mid-century residential remodel, but they should always come after discussion and approval, informed consent, of the homeowner and possibly even the designer to check that that change does not create unforeseen problems with the big picture of the project.

So what this all boils down to is that you need a few key things from a good contractor. Basically, a good mid-century contractor is someone who is skilled, professional and conscientious in the execution of their craft. They can take a plan as given to them and get it done as designed while checking in with you as they go along the way about timing and other questions.

The good news is, this is a pretty easy ask. And you will note that at no time when I was stating the qualifications for a mid-century contractor, did I say that contractor needed to be deeply experienced in mid-century remodels or even know the word mid-century and be able to point to a picture of what that means.

Let’s talk about what you do not need from a mid-century contractor. You don’t actually need a portfolio of previous mid-century remodels demonstrating they have undertaken project after project that looks exactly like yours. Of course, in the dream scenario, you will find a mid-century contractor who’s done other projects maybe exclusively specializes in mid-century. There are always some exceptions to this rule. And it is a wonderful bonus when you find someone who can do that as long as they hit those other check marks that I listed before.

For example, if you live in an area in a neighborhood, perhaps a tract of other mid-century homes, Eichlers or Cliff Mays, for example, it might really benefit you to call up your neighbors with the best home updates, the tour quality mid-century home remodels and ask them who did that work? Can I get on their list? Particularly in those cases, when the houses have a very clear pattern that needs to be repeated, a historic home of a particular style with particular materials. It’s a huge benefit to you and a contractor for them already have tracked down the materials sourcing they need for perfect striated siding boards, and to have experience working to insert windows in a post and beam frame system.

You also have the benefit lucky you if that’s you of being in a place a community where other people have done your homework for you have found and trained the contractors who can specialize in your exact home type. But again, a mid-century contractor does not need to have that it’s not absolutely necessary. You’re good eventual contractor need not have done a project that looks exactly like yours, or even be particularly interested in the concept of mid-century at the start. As long as you have a clear vision, a master plan, you can show them how you want the house to turn out. And when they are a good listener who’s willing to work on your vision, it will work out properly.

A perfect example of this is a relatively recent project of mine that’s wrapping up just now. It’s a masterplan been completed a little over a year ago and it’s been in construction since then. In this case, it’s a couple who had been living in California and needed to return home to Indiana to be closer to extended family meeting their company and care. They were fortunate to bring both their California mid-century taste and house sale budget back to their hometown and after some house hunting, they found a sturdily constructed ranch brick sturdy walkout basement in a great spot on a pretty property and began the process of making it their own.

The house, however, was a real time capsule nothing had been done to change it since it was built. And while it was relatively high end for its era, it was not it was not designed, adventurous. Unfortunately also, the heavy use of original solid wood paneling had faded to a strange, sickly green. That was really unfortunate throughout the entire house. So the owner actually came to us with a design build contractor in hand. They had excellent references and had worked on a number of craftsman and Victorian houses, but no experience or understanding of mid-century style. So the answer was to add a master plan vision for a mid-century update into the middle of that process.

The owners and I dug in to create a plan to adjust the staircase open up the kitchen to the living spaces create an amazing view to the backyard. We think the finishes for a slightly more modern mid-century effect and build out a generous walkout deck to connect to the entire main floor down to the backyard. We added a groovy basement bar and a guest suite on the walk outside and planned an owner suite calculated to delight a modern eye.

So this worked out absolutely perfectly with their design build contractor. Because they didn’t have experience in mid-century. They didn’t want to make mistakes. In fact, it’s a sign of an excellent contractor if they know what they don’t know. Once we got in on the project, however, they were an amazing contributor to the team.

They sourced examples tested different stain colors, and we constantly collaborated through the last year via email and remote check ins to make sure that all of the choices they were making or mid-century appropriate. In the end, the process has been stunning. The craftsmanship level is very high and the beautiful slab front cabinets are some of my favorite I’ve ever seen.

So we get to bring the mid-century to this house even in an area where no one has been asking for mid-century remodels. And the client gets an amazing outcome. And sure enough at the end of the process, this contractor as well has been evincing some appreciation for mid-century that they did not know about before.

So if you’re seeking a truly gorgeous high end Mid-century Magazine quality for your remodel, and you can’t find someone who has done this type of work before, I always recommend seeking out a person who has experience in high craft remodels from other eras of historic homes. The same skills that allow a team to turn a perfect newel post will allow them to construct a perfectly minimalist flat slab cabinet system. The same cabinet companies that create ornate Victorian style cabinets should be able to create a nice grain match slab front kitchen. They don’t need to have done it before. They simply need to have done complex detail oriented work that depends both on the beauty of the materials, and the care and craft of fitting those materials into place.

So how do you know you found the right contractor? You should feel after you’ve met them. I don’t know good vibes. After you’ve shared your plans and heard their questions to you, after you’ve checked with some of their previous clients, I want you to feel that they are respecting your time listening to your needs, asking questions, and really working to get a clearer understanding of what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

They may even end up becoming a friend, a contractor that works out well is going to be fully licensed and bonded and insured, they’re going to be organized and easy for you to reach. Now that might mean they have a whole team in place a front office staff. Or it might just mean they keep their cell phone on and they pick up when you ask or quickly respond to texts. Or it might mean they don’t respond to your texts when they’re working on another project. But they have a clear established set of response times. So when you text them, they’ll get back to you within six or 12 hours or by the next day.

You want to know this person has high standards for their craft and their trade partners. And they have good relationships with local suppliers.

Now a quick note on scale. Remember I said they might have a front office staff or they might have a cell phone in their pocket. Who you choose to work with is going to depend on you your house, the scale of your project and how involved you want to be.

If you’re working on a relatively small project and/or you want to be involved in DIY and some of it yourself, then you might be looking for a handyman level contractor. Kind of a one man band. Who is often someone who used to work for a bigger firm and then instead of downsizing towards retirement or cutting back their hours for another life reason went out on their own.

For example, my sister often works with a guy who is also basically the stay at home parent carpool parent to a whole passel of teenagers all playing different sports. His wife works more traditional hours. So when the kids are in school, he comes over and does the most amazing craft tasks for my sister and cleanly brings his own tools picks up after himself and goes away. As a bonus, he adorably arranges all the extra packing Styrofoam from the various supplies that come into custom cat scratching pads for my sister’s cat whom he adores. It’s so cute.

Working with this type of contractor can be slower overall. But if speed isn’t your object, it can be a much more comfortable flexible community involved way to have someone regularly coming into your home, especially if you live in the house while the remodel goes on.

A couple of other scales of remodel going up one level is the sort of full service general contractor at the small end. This is a smaller company who has assembled a team of people that regularly work with them and will do some of the work in the house and then have relationships with electricians, plumbers, builders and absorb other subcontractors. They’ll manage your project. They’ll order and source supplies, they’ll keep track of timing and charge you a simple overhead fee that includes all of their management cost and time and risk absorbed into their finances. Now sometimes this is someone who’s working on one home update at a time, or sometimes managing two or three house projects.

The bigger the organization is, the more you’ll want to know who’s going to be the point person for you. Who do you have a relationship within this process? Who will be in your house every day? Stop by and check in and supervise the work and how do you feel about the vibe and the communication style of that person. This is often the way that you work with an organization that really manages the project for you.

Again, it’s absolutely necessary to have a clear masterplan vision to handoff but if you’re looking to really outsource the mental energy of a remodel this level of contractor a one to three project at a time small general contractor firm is going to be able to make most of the onsite decisions for you. It is also the best way to work if you want to move out of the house and just have a lot of things taken care of on your behalf.

Again, it’s a matter of trust, and you are depending on the strength of your master plan and how well it is executed. But it can be a very relaxing way to go through the remodel process.

This really is about your relationship, the most trustworthy handoff person that you can make sure they understand your goals and make sure they’re going to carry out what you want to get done.

The biggest category of contractor is the sort of large format general contracting company that you might work with, maybe they specialize in a city or even a small region. Some of these general contractors are also new home builders, and some are smaller remodeling companies that have just grown to the place where they become massively multiple jobbing remodelers.

If you live in the Madison area, this would be like Waunakee remodeling, you can hire them to do one big remodel or you can kind of hire them to come in on more of a room by room basis. If you’re planning to do the remodel piecemeal, this might be your best bet. The downside is that you’ll never work with one person consistently through every part of your house. So you really need to stay in charge as the defender of the mid-century goals of your home update.

So when it comes to the kitchen, you’ll show them all the things you’ve picked out that you have established, they’ll give you the price ranges, and you’ll make the mid-century friendly, specific material choices, and then they’ll execute on it. Later, when you do the upstairs bathroom, you start from scratch with a new team, they won’t necessarily remember your project, it’ll be a new manager, a new group of competent professionals, who are all veterans under the umbrella of this larger firm.

It can actually be very helpful if what you want to do is take your project apart and do it a little at a time. This larger organization is sometimes able to take on smaller projects. They can really be the best place to go if you want to do a very small project like a small powder bath remodel. They will come in and do the whole remodel at one time. So they can just zip in and take care of this one after another with the crews of people that they have constantly circulating.

Likewise, if something goes wrong with your plumbing or your hvac, your kitchen sink goes on the fritz right before you’re planning to get into the bigger project, you can call that company and they will detail their in house plumber or one of their many in house plumbers to come and solve the problem for you. So that can be very handy if you want to be more hands off with your maintenance, but a little more hands-on with your overall style.

In each of those cases, though, you need to begin with a very clear vision of what you want before you dig in to working with someone else. I just had a lovely conversation today with a potential future client of ours who said that when they started their homeownership journey a number of years ago, they didn’t realize that it wasn’t the contractor’s job to design the remodel as well as to build it.

They were frustrated because they love mid-century. And they already did. And the contractor didn’t know or care about that. But because they had given that task to the remodel to the contractor, asking them what should we do, they were given answers that did not contain any mid-century DNA. And they were sad about that.

They only later realized that they were missing a whole component. The design process. Which is often executed by an architect but can be taken on by you by following the steps of the master plan process.

Quick recap then, you don’t really need to find a mid-century contractor. What you need is someone who’s going to be a skilled craftsman, a good communicator and an organized professional. The mid-century part is what you bring to the table using the clear thinking of a mid-century Master Plan process.

You have all the resources you need to make that happen on your own of course, but if you’d like a little help more of a step by step guide with plenty of hand holding, you might want to check out my free masterclass Planning an MCM remodel to fit your life and budget. I just finished updating and re-recording this so you’ll get a nice fresh take when you check it out at mid mod dash midwest.com/masterclass.

Or if you’d rather have me and mid Midwest work for you to create a custom master plan for your home. The kind you can use to work with any contractor and not need to worry about finding that wonderful unicorn the experienced mid-century contractor. We will be delighted to help you create that vision and clarity in the form of our mid-century Master Plan package.

Find everything you need to know to follow up with this episode at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1406.

Stay tuned for next week, we will be putting together a pair of episodes perfect for spooky season on the common hazards of mid-century homes. So if you’ve been wincing and avoiding wondering about lead or asbestos or old wiring in your house, I’ll get you up to speed in the next two weeks.

These are things you need to know about and they can often be addressed handily, in tandem with other more fun updates. So there’s some candy to go with that jump scare that’s all for now. I’ll see you on Saturday for the mid-century additions clinic. Won’t I? Alright, bye