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Textbooks to Tool Belts -- Follow your passion

We  love getting to know Grommet creators, but we also end up learning a lot about the folks that submit these Grommet ideas to us. We are serious when we say that we value story telling and turns out we  often find out the most interesting things about others once we begin delving into conversation. Today proves no different. Bruce Irving, who wanted to share the story of Fat Toad Farm with us, wound up sharing about his sister Judith’s family business in the process. The more we got to know Bruce, the more we realized he too has a very interesting story to tell. We invited on the blog today to share a bit about his work and his passion helping others -- in a very unique setting, home renovations.

Bruce Irving

You’ll have to ask Walt and Dale, our sprightly near-nonagenarian parents, how they think their college-tuition sacrifices paid off. A couple of nice kids from the Connecticut suburbs, my sister Judy and I have taken different paths, both from each other’s and from the kind of careers Walt and Dale might have imagined for us after our sojourns at fancypants institutions.

Thanks to the Daily Grommet, you know that Judy parlayed her Russian Studies major into running Fat Toad Farm, whence cometh a bad-ass goats milk caramel. For my part, I wandered around the world for a while till I quite accidentally ended up with a 17-year career producing TV’s This Old House. Maybe you could see the use of an English major in that, or perhaps shop class in junior high school, but this isn’t a debate on the merits of the liberal arts.

It is about doing what you love, and it turns out that, post-This Old House, what I love is helping people get through their own home renovations. I started my own business in 2006 and coined my title: renovation consultant. The idea came from my having stood in the middle of 33 whole-house renovations, seeing how homeowner, architect, builder, subcontractor, materials supplier, and town official all speak a slightly different dialect, with a slightly (or more) different agenda, and how the homeowner, as the newcomer, is often put at a disadvantage.

I wondered if there was a place for a "homeowner hand-holder", an interpreter, an advocate for not only the homeowner but for the overall project itself, which often becomes the victim in the all-too-common dissolution of clear communications. Discussing my idea with a real estate friend one day at lunch, I was surprised when a woman at the next table leaned over and said, “I think you’re going to be very busy.” Happy to hear this, I asked why. “I’m a psychologist,” she said, “and renovations rank right up there with loss of a job and infidelity for stressing marriages.” The reasons: “They’re about money, power, and who’s in charge.”

Like in a psychologist’s office, the one thing most valuable in the renovation mix is straight-up truth-telling. So often an architect or builder, asked to assess a potential project, is reluctant to be the one to deliver unpleasant facts about time and money. That’s what my clients pay me for—blunt advice.

After that, the task is to assemble the right team for the job, another thing that homeowners are often ill equipped to do. How do you choose from all the professionals out there? The architect your friend liked, the GC who rebuilt your colleague’s porch—are they going to be the right match for you and your job? My wide-ranging Rolodex and my understanding of my clients and their projects have made me a successful matchmaker.

What I’ve found is that, these days, women are usually in charge of their family’s renovation and construction projects. They tend to be excellent information-gatherers and less prone to the belief that there’s some kind of magic bullet that they, and they alone, will be able to fire at the project.

Many men, in my experience, put great effort into trying to prove that they have the upper hand in negotiations with the assembled professionals. They are going to drive that price down, they are going to beat the system. Not only is that not going to happen (things tend to cost what they cost, the market does a fairly good job setting pricing, and you don’t see many general contractors driving BMWs), it sets up an adversarial atmosphere from the get-go, which redounds negatively on all involved, including the hard-driving homeowner and his wallet.

Part of my job is to set everyone’s expectations from the outset, so that the focus is the successful outcome of the project for all involved, like I’d seen it happen time and again on This Old House. Call it pop-psych, but my female clients (once they’re over their fear of this unknown territory they’ve entered) are more likely than their male partners to work with me on that goal. One of the best moments in every project is when the males see the light and realize it’s about a win-win.

So maybe those psychology courses I took in college turned out to be helpful after all. I don’t know if Judy speaks Russian to her goats.

For more information about Bruce's renovation consulting services, click here, and for more about This New House, a brand-new TV series Bruce is producing, click here. To learn more about his sister Judy's company Fat Toad Farms, click here.

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