On August 23, Elton Donald, senior project consultant and partner at Kerr Construction & Design, was a guest on the BC Real Estate Review podcast hosted by Jordan Kofsky of City Wide Mortgage Services.
The 29-minute interview answers many questions that homeowners usually think about in creating their dream home. Consequently, we have transcribed and edited it here.
You can also listen to the original interview.
For my guest today I have builder extraordinaire Elton Donald of Kerr Construction and Design. They have been in the city of Vancouver making magic for over 30 years now and winning awards. Share a little bit more about who you are, what’s your jam?
Sure. I’ve been with Kerr Construction for a long time. Actually, it was the summer of my grade 10 year when I started with Kerr. A lot of different roles have led me to be a consultant for the company. I now go out and meet people and we talk about what they want to do for their projects and about the services that we offer. I try to help them pick out what might be best for them.
That’s amazing. Before we get into anything specific, people in Vancouver and everywhere have mobility issues and we have an aging population. So, why is it that when we build homes, we always put two or three steps in the front to get into that home? Why are we building homes that way?
Usually, when you see that, it’s because you’re dealing with some of the complexities around various zoning rules.
For example, in order to get full use of a lot’s FSR [Floor Space Ratio], you have to have such and such space above ground and such and such space below ground. And then in order for your top two floors to be considered the main floor and upper, and the basement not to be considered a first floor, the rule states in Vancouver that the height of the main floor has to be such and such a distance above grade.
And so basically it’s because people want to have the full amount of space that they have available to develop, and they need to have some of the space considered a basement or cellar so that they don’t run over on their above-grade space. That puts the main floor a couple of meters above grade and hence you get these stairs.
Interesting. Learn something new every day.
Now, you don’t have to do it that way.
Perhaps you want to underdevelop the potential of your lot just because, and that’s a personal choice. You could say I’ve got this beautiful lot and it has so much space available, but I just want to have a space that’s right for me. And I want to have a rancher style home that doesn’t have a bunch of stairs and is relatively close to grade.
You can do that. It’s just that from a development standpoint, you may be leaving some size on the table, which may or may not be okay for you depending on what you want.
You’ve been in this business for a long time, 30 years. You’ve seen everything happen from the biggest houses to the smallest houses, many renovations, large renovations, and everything in between.
Why would someone want to go through that process of a large renovation versus just simply buying a new home?
That’s a really good question. It’s different for many people.
Typically the primary driver of why a large reno might be good is there some form of existing non-conformity that can’t be repeated and that has merit to keep.
Let’s say the house is positioned closer in a view lane or your footprint is much bigger than you could have. Or you’ve got a home that’s got some really charming character features and pieces that you want to keep.
Those reasons also coupled with the fact that people don’t like to see their homes get chewed up and hauled away to the dump and buried.
For sure. When I talk to people and see them in these gorgeous homes, I think many of them do want to consider renovating.
I’ve always noticed when I’ve asked realtors they often say as well that it ends up being something to do with the family was born there, their kids grew up there, and things like that. There are just too many memories. They just don’t want to lose the neighbourhood either.
Do you find something like that?
A lot of the times it centers around peoples’ appreciation for the lot itself. And ultimately, when you’re doing a renovation – a renovation is always going to be some form of a compromise, right? And why does someone want to pick up or do a reno?
Well, as I have said, there might be some existing conditions on the lot that are really worth saving. But the primary driver is because people want to save money in total dollars spent on a reno versus what they would spend total dollars doing a new build. This is while trying to achieve some of their other drivers behind why they want to do the project.
They know that a reno done right can give them that new home feel even though we’re using the bones and/or some of the things that the existing house had to offer.
Fair enough. So you’re saying is a lot of people like to stay in their own home, which is definitely fair, and sometimes they just don’t want to spend the money elsewhere. They’re looking at total dollars, as you put it.
Is it generally more cost-effective for renovations in their current home? That generally what you find?
Well, it’s not. When you look at renovations on a cost per square foot basis, they are actually more expensive than building new.
But what offsets the cost per square foot basis difference, with renos being more expensive, is the retention of existing work.
So, you take a home that’s got good bones, you know, it was well built. If you’re so lucky, it may have 2X6 wall studs. If you’re lucky again, you’re gonna have 2X10 floor joists, and we don’t have to then completely excavate a new big hole to reform the foundation, to redo the floor framing, the wall framing, etc.
It’s the location of the lot that people really, really get into. And that, in conjunction with maybe memories of the home. They just know it’s a good place for them and they want to continue to work with that home.
And you can. You get homeowners together with a talented designer who can show them things that they can do with a reno that they don’t realize they can do because when you live in a place for a long time, sometimes you get stuck in a box.
I hear ‘Well how would we do this?’ and ‘I can’t imagine this’ so many times. They say ‘I can’t imagine how this kitchen is going to be good’.
That’s the benefit of a talented designer. They come in and don’t have a box. They haven’t been in the home for years. They can ask questions like, ‘Well, why can’t we just put the kitchen over here and do it this way?’
And the homeowner would say,’ I never thought of that’ or ‘Holy smokes’, ‘What a great idea.’ and things like that.
This kind of thing develops when you’re working with a person. You’re talking about ideas and you can kind of see it on their faces when it really sinks home and clicks. They like it and they feel that it brings them some real benefits. It’s kind of fun too.
Have you had a really good moment where you’ve been able to see, like a really big transitional change that’s ever happened in the home? I’m somebody, personally, that likes to cook a lot. So I love that big, big kitchen, entertaining, all of that. Have you ever had that moment when you’ve seen somebody really transform? Can you share a little bit more about that?
Oh, sure. You’re in a meeting and you’re delivering the design schemes that you’ve come up with. You’ve got scheme A, they’re looking at it and they go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s better. That looks kind of nice.’ Then maybe scheme B might be something they asked you to do like ‘Could you pull this wall off and maybe shift this a little?’ You show them that and they’re like, ‘Okay, yup, that’s kind of what I was expecting.’
Then you say, ‘Well, we’ve got this other idea here on scheme C’. And you show it to them. They go ‘Oh my God, this one’s great! Look at the floor plan. Look at the space and how it works here and the relationship of the kitchen to the outside deck, to the family room.’
And, in this hypothetical situation, we’re talking about, it clicks for them. It’s an undeniable moment. It becomes “Let’s go with this then.”
Yes. Does the client really have that light bulb moment when they really see it? Is that kind of what you see what happens sometimes?
Yes, sure. Lots of times.
As someone who contributes to the design process, I get these ideas and even think they’re really good. And I say, “Oh, my God, if we did this, can’t wait to show that to the client and let them see.” And then when you show it to them, sometimes you get a reaction that is “well, that’s not right for me.” That’s okay. That’s all part of it.
But a lot of times when you’re really happy as a designer, or as an idea presenter, when you’re really excited, and you’re passionate about your idea, and you present it to the client, then they look at it and go ‘Yeah, this works for me, you got it. You listened to the things and you concentrated on solving what we had. And this really hits these items that we talked about.’
And that’s the whole idea of bringing in talented people who aren’t in your built up, layered box. A good designer is going to be able to step out of that and just give you what their creativity can bring.
Have you found that clients say the same things that need to get changed? Is it generally always the same sort of questions, like they want the kitchen bigger or the master bedroom bigger or whichever?
Well, you’re always going to get that because the primary drivers for people are your kitchens and bathrooms and the adjacent rooms to those spaces.
Especially around a kitchen as that might be a segue into some of the things that people are doing today that they didn’t do before. Generally, the kitchen renovation isn’t just a kitchen anymore. It’s a kitchen and a wall that might have been dividing off the kitchen from the dining room.
As a general theme, it’s opening things up a little bit more. People are living in their homes a little bit differently than they did back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
They’re looking for space to be allocated a little differently. We don’t want to be using as much hallways as they used to do in architecture. We don’t need as much separation of rooms. The division of rooms in a given floor can be divided with furniture layout, with ceiling light fixture placements, with things like that. So you’re not losing these hall spaces.
And so that you’re getting a bit more of an open feel where you have people living in the spaces. They want to be able to look around and see and share that space together. And I would say the kitchen is that primary driver.
Actually, that makes a lot of sense. I remember back when I had friends that had done renovations back in the 90s and early millennium. I’d be in their home and there was always hallways dividing the living room to the kitchen and to the dining room.
I can feel now that that’s what happened overall. Everything just opened up. I guess the reason was that people just wanted to share the space with each other. They wanted to watch TV, watch the hockey game and also be near the kitchen to help out there. We’re all living together instead of everyone being separated into different rooms. It brings more of that family vibe.
Is that what you’re finding similar?
When you talk about preferences, I’ll speak from my own. I’ve done several renos for myself. When I open up a home, I really like the creation of a great room where you have a dining room and an informal living room backing onto a kitchen. Like everybody knows, the party always ends in the kitchen. You sit around chatting while you’re preparing a last little course or something while sharing a glass of wine with your friends.
Just that sort of open space, that’s all one. Someone’s sitting on the couch watching the game. Someone’s sitting at your island. You’re chatting with both of them. I like having my own personal space that way and can really appreciate how other people might also like it as well as I do.
Absolutely. You mentioned several times already you work with a designer. And if a designer comes in, it really kind of changes the space.
Can you share a little bit more about the relationship between the builder and the designer? How that synergy works. And, you know, how it’s really able to help the client to make sure that the builder and designer work well together?
Yeah, that’s always tough.
There’s a traditional relationship — you hire an architect and you work your design with the architect. The architect offers a general grounding to the budget and to what it is that you’re trying to achieve. After the design is done, you then start looking for a builder to contribute and add to the team. Sometimes, I’m not saying every time, but sometimes the budget can get away from you at that stage.
You start bringing in contractors and they start giving you budgets that maybe are a little bit higher. And this is why I really feel that being a design-build firm brings some competitive advantage to the game.
This is because at the same time that we’re being creative, we’re continually grounding what we want to do against a budget. I’m not saying that I’ve never had my budget get high and I have to figure out how to value engineer. But one of the differences is that we do that a little bit earlier in the process. So we don’t get so far down a path before we might have to tell you about it.
The process is that we’re doing the design, and we’re budgeting design. And that design budget is done in real-time. That brings a real benefit to the client because they’re continually grounding good ideas.
You talk about budgets in a construction project, design is going to give continual upward pressure to the budget. All these good ideas, they bring things but every time you bring something that also, unfortunately, brings cost. You can get that snowball effect where you decide I might as well just add that and that. So what started out with a small ball is now this big, huge round ball and the budget has just been pushed up and pushed up.
So when you’re doing a design budget, you’re getting continual costing feedback and construction, sort of how-tos with a design-build firm in the designer and builder relationship.
I liked how you alluded to a couple of things in there regarding like costs, and how things can kind of ballooned out of proportion. Can you share a little bit more about some of those mistakes that clients should be looking out for to make sure that they stay on track? What are some key areas where clients have made some errors?
If we think of it in terms of an error, we have to be saying what was the error for, right?
At least this is just the way my brain is wired when I think about your question. It was an error that we raised the budget? Okay, then, it really comes back to what I was talking about earlier, a renovation is always going to have some form of compromise.
If I would try and say what an error might be or what it is, I think it’s clients who won’t compromise.
They tend to drive their own personal budget up higher because they want it to be just so and maybe that puts them at a higher budget range than they really felt comfortable with initially.
And that’s because they just didn’t want to compromise.
Yeah, that makes sense. Now, you mentioned about renovations and not wanting to compromise. What if I want to go in a completely different direction and tear down the house and build a new house on that wonderful lot that we talked about. Say I want to stay in that location. What if I want to go in that direction and just build all new? How would something like that work?
In general, if you’ve made the decision that there’s not enough retention merit in your home, then the process is to start with a feasibility study or a concept creation.
So we do up some floor plans on an initial level so that we can have something to measure from and something to confirm and show you in order to communicate design intent. Where we can look at these things together and we can say, okay, well, based on this, your end value of this might be, let’s say $1.5 million. So if you want to build this home, it’s gonna have a few more features in it, it’s going to have some things that you’ve mentioned that you want.
But let’s say this is going to be a million-dollar plot. It again comes down to compromises, right? So if you say I want custom details and I just want it to be exactly how I or the designer envision and I drive it, then the cost is going to come in again.
Simple features are generally easier to execute and thereby less expensive for the end purchaser. So it starts out with that little bit of design, as I said, and what that does for you is that without tendering all of the various professionals that you need and bringing them in, it allows you to see differences in what might be a potential home.
You know, for us, we’ll do what we call a massing model where we’ll build an initial 3D home that we can show you how it looks. We’ll spin you around the home, we’ll be able to fly you through the house and show you the rooms and the relationship. And we’ll try to populate it with just someplace center furniture, just so you can see the field and the layout. And by doing that up front, it allows us to do something that’s really important which is the zoning review for the lot. So that when we’re showing you these ideas, and any good designer is going to do this as well, we’re showing you ideas that you can do. We’ve pre-vetted those, and we’re showing you things that you can build in locations that you can build that satisfy the offsets, that satisfied total heights. That’s important to do as part of your pre-construction process when you’re considering doing a new build.
You touched on something that I thought was interesting. You mentioned a program that you’re able to show clients and allows them to fly them through the home. Share with me a little bit more about the different technologies that you’re using now. And how much of an effect that’s had on the client experience as well as the contractor builder designer experience.
Sure. I’m old enough that I can recall looking at physical 3D models that were built on modeling tables to show a prospective client what their home was going to be. Those were so cool. With what we’re able to do digitally nowadays, we can eliminate any sort of misunderstanding of what someone’s getting when they look at a 2D plan. We use a number of software programs like Revit. We use Chief Architect. Even SketchUp with some plugin plays.
When you show the person a video of what their home is going to be, they really understand what they’re seeing and what you’re doing. And you’re able to build up that level of understanding to a point where the client really knows what they’re gonna get. And that really helps with managing expectations.
When clients are looking to build now and renovate now, what are the most popular trends that you’re seeing? What are people really excited about doing now? Where are things going?
We do a lot more inside out spaces. Some of the deck door technologies that have come in with these multi slides or clip systems, they allow you to make a really nice relationship between what is an exterior space and what is an interior space. Another thing that people are reaching out for and pretty much every home now that we’re doing has a great room in it. We’re no longer seeing people reaching out for real defined second spaces. I mean there’s some, of course, but that’s why you have bespoke design. You have to work with your client and what their preferences are.
Amazing. I find myself always really interested in inside-outside spaces. I love that the sliding doors look almost like garage doors. I’ve seen houses do that from the kitchen to the deck and they just kind of open it up that way. I think it looks absolutely spectacular when it all comes together. So I could definitely see how that is so popular.
Outside of those trends, what are rooms that are people really working on? Is it just the kitchen?
No. Generally what we see is people looking to improve a floor plan that they have, and maybe hit on some of their finishes that might be dated.
So when a person calls you up and says, ‘Hey, I want to do a kitchen’, and you’re like, “Okay.” Well you go out and you meet them and you’re on site and you’re chatting about what they want to do. And really, yes, they want to do a kitchen, but they want to figure out how they can get a better relationship of space or they want to figure out how they can fix a choke point in their kitchen. Very few times do you ever see someone say “Hey, I love my layout, I love this. Just give me new cabinets and finishes and keep the existing.” Usually people want to add and improve that floor plan.
Right, that makes sense. What are the keys to success for a client? Is it just when they’re prepared? How can they make sure that they’re successful in working with someone like you?
I think the key to success for clients is to ensure that they have a good relationship with the person that they’re going to engage with. Do some research on them. Make sure that you’re comfortable with their demonstrated skillset. Make sure that they can show you projects of a similar kind and quality that you’re interested in. Then you’ll have some proven results that you can begin with.
And then once you have that in place, really make sure that you’ve got a good fit with the person. We’re all just people here, we all have our own dreams, we all have our own wants. And when we’re working together with like-minded people, you generally get a much better process. So you want to make sure that the person you’re working with has a similar dynamic and friendly interaction with you in the beginning when you’re a prospective client. And likewise, once you’re working together, you want that same good person that you thought you had when there might be a challenge or a problem that you have to look at together. And you want to be able to have someone who’s a good communicator and can bring you good solutions and who’s going to take responsibility for making sure that it gets done just so.
Absolutely. You’ve been working with clients for a lot of years. And you’ve had amazing transformations of homes. Can you share a little bit more about a story like, from beginning to end, that was really your wow moment, made you realize that this was the industry for you?
Yeah, but that happened for me when I was a little kid, you know. I knew I liked building things. I was that kid who was building tree forts out in the front yard when he was seven years old. I grew up in East Van around 34th and Gladstone. We had these big trees in the front. We built so many tree forts, and it was just something that we all did as neighborhood kids. We loved it. And I just knew that I enjoyed building and constructing and working with my hands.
Fortunately for me, I had the opportunity to grow and move into the role I now have where I can bring that sort of hands-on experience to the table for people who are looking for solutions. A cool story about clients and whatnot is really hard for me because there’s so many. You go into the industry and you end up making so many lifelong friendships with people. It’s hard to pick out just one that you want to put over another. But definitely, they’re there. There are some really cool relationships and friendships that I hold to this day with people that I worked with 15 years ago.
For sure. That’s great. You know, I really appreciate the fact that you’re open enough to say I’ve a million stories. There are a million opportunities. And that happens because you work with so many clients all the time. I loved your story about growing up in East Van and building those tree forts. What was the best tree fort you built?
It was the one that got the tree cut down, unfortunately. Vancouver, the no-fun city, someone had decided that they didn’t want neighborhood kids building tree forts in the trees anymore. But, I would say that the one that we did right in front. We had separate levels and little rooms. We had a little tire swing on the bottom, a little bridge to different spaces in the tree. It was just awesome.
That does sound awesome. Well, thank you so much, Elton. I really appreciate you being here today. Is there one final golden nugget, one final piece of advice for someone looking to do a renovation to their home?
Concentrate on doing some design and layout in the beginning. By going slowly in the beginning, you can go faster at the end. So take your time upfront, work these solutions, vet them, play devil’s advocate and say, why wouldn’t this work? What’s wrong with this? Challenge yourself to look at those. When you do that well enough, you really end up getting a project that serves you well for decades.
Fantastic. Well, thank you again. If anyone wanted to get a hold of you, how do they do that?
Yeah, super easy. You could call me on on my office at Kerr Construction. You can look us up at kerrconstruction.ca. They can give me a shout on my cell phone 604-202-6675. I always take calls. They could also call the office. I’m in and out so often that I generally get people to call my cell anyways. Or they can look at us on Houz or Facebook and all those social media things.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.