In October of 1993 a series of wildfires swept across southern California stretching from Laguna to Malibu and spreading out through the valley areas of Altadena and Eaton Canyon. In all, thousands of acres were burned and hundreds of homes were lost. The victims of the "Firestorm" as it was called, faced the daunting task of rebuilding their homes and lives. At the time, I was volunteering at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo as the Director of the California Center for Construction Education for the College of Architecture and Environmental Design. The goal of my Center was to produce and deliver quality continuing education to the working professionals and practitioners within the construction industry.
About a year earlier, recognizing the quandary that many homeowners faced as they set out to build their first home, I wrote a program for a six hour seminar accompanied by a workbook as an introduction to the process. It was simply titled: "Having It Built: A Consumer's Guide to Purchasing Construction Services." After the news of the Firestorm was only a week old, I approached the Chair of the Construction Management Department and asked him if he would be interested in co-presenting the "Having It Built" program with me to as many of the fire victims that we could assemble. Before another two weeks had passed, we were in contact with recovery groups and grass roots efforts to schedule presentations of our program. The seminar was filled with information regarding contracts, permits, insurance, the roles of architects, contractors, subcontractors, estimating costs, billing practices for completed work, the art of scheduling, and most important, mechanics liens management. It was a careful blend of helpful tips, construction law, communication management and common sense. After several presentations, we felt that those who attended the workshops were better equipped and informed to travel the path to rebuilding their homes.
Then in 1994, the "Highway 41 Fire" ran through portions of San Luis Obispo County leveling homes in it's path and leaving many families in the area burnt out of their homes. Once again, the team reorganized and began a series of seminars to assist the latest group of fire victims. Cal Poly, once again provided facilities and support so the "Having It Built" could assist hundreds more victims as they embarked on rebuilding their homes.
For nearly nine years the fire seasons in southern California did not produce the large losses and casualties recorded in '93 and '94. But in 2003, the Firestorm returned with a fury that dwarfed the fires of a decade before. This time the workshops became a traveling road show reaching out to hundreds of families as they sought to deal with issues of under insurance, changing zoning laws and other obstacles to rebuilding their homes as they were and where they were before. It was marked by a series of lawsuits between building and safety departments, insurance companies and planning departments. This time, however, Cal Poly was not involved with the training programs, so I headed off alone to lend what help I could to the thousands who lost their largest worldly asset... their family home.
For two years repeat fires in the mountainous areas of Lake Arrowhead brought renewed efforts to assist in the massive task to rebuild. All in all, it's been over 20 years since "Having It Built" was introduced to the fire victims and in that period of time, the Salvation Army, The Jewish Assistance League and the American Red Cross signed up to be involved in a "Train the Trainer" program so that they could go out and offer the assistance to members of their audiences as well.
Every time I think it might be time to retire the "Having It Built" program, it seems I am faced with re-vamping and revising to keep it current with the changing horizon of building practices and laws. Now, in this year (2015), there have been hundreds of forrest fires in Northern California and the call for assistance has never been greater. The journey for W.F. Dexter goes on.
Reprinted from Mountain-News, Lake Arrowhead, California:
Surviving the Construction Game
By Joan Moseley
The seats were filled on Saturday, January 12 at Running Springs' Robert Hootman Senior/Community Center for a fact-filled presentation entitled “Having it Built: A Survival Guide to Purchasing Construction Services.”
The seminar, sponsored by Rebuilding Mountain Hearts & Lives, was presented by Bill Dexter of W.F. Dexter Company, a construction risk management firm in San Luis Obispo. The fascinating, hours-long meeting was meant to enlighten fire victims on ways to avoid pitfalls in hiring architects, builders or contractors for the rebuilding process.
Dexter kept the program moving along, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The amount of information covered during the meeting was staggering and very useful, said several people during the lunch break.
Dexter, who has given the presentation six times following fires in Southern California as well as following a devastating fire in San Luis Obispo, was happy to meet Wayne Palmer, president of the Association of Building Contractors San Bernardino Mountains, Inc., and local contractor Cory Avarell. Both men live in the mountains and are familiar with issues of not only building in the mountains but living in the mountains.
Dexter had many suggestions for homeowners in helping them realize the legal as well as logical steps in working with a contractor. He emphasized several times during the day-long event that homeowners make contracts with contractors and those contractors make contracts with subcontractors. Homeowners do not have contracts with subcontractors so if there is a problem with a subcontractor, the responsibility falls to the contractor to solve it, not the homeowner.
Some of Dexter's other recommendations and comments were:
• Many homeowners choose to work with an architect. If they do, he recommended discussing with him or her how they live in their home and use that way of life to help pattern how the house will look when completed.
“Letting the architect know how your family lives will help him or her design better and the family will end up with a more comfortable home that suits their lifestyle,”
• Dexter said: The architect is the artist and he brings in the orchestra,” referring to the architect as the person who designs the home but brings in specialists of many kinds to make it become a reality.
Homeowners shouldn't hire the various consultants, he said, because they should be hired by the architect in case there is a problem. If a problem arises at some stage, then the homeowner doesn't have to try to work the problem out because that is one of the purposes for hiring the architect in the first place.
• Paying an architect to inspect the work done by the contractor and his subcontractors “could be some of the best money you spend,” said Dexter. He said the architect can look at the contractor's quality and make sure construction codes are met. He also said building codes are the minimum standards accepted by the county, but an architect could check to make sure the contractor and subcontractors are properly doing their jobs by making sure the home meets the minimum standards.
• Architects have five years of study in college and then one to two years in a firm before they can sit for the licensing board exam. Once they've passed their “board” test, they can then begin working. Dexter said there are no formal educational requirements for people to meet before they take the contractor's licensing test and he cautioned homeowners to investigate a contractor's experience and match that experience to what they want rebuilt. References are a must!
Dexter said to make sure the contractor is licensed and he encouraged computer users to log onto www.cslb.ca.gov to see if the prospective contractor's license is current. People can also call the State Contractor's Licensing Board for information.
Dexter stressed homeowners should always, always stick to the contract when paying people working on their home. Do not ever give monetary advances for future work.
One statement that brought a lot of laughter was when Dexter told the audience, “You'll never finish the job for the price given.” He added that no matter how “watertight” the contract between the homeowner and the builder, changes will be made, including oral changes. When new ideas come up and are agreed to, whether homeowners realize it or not, those changes alter the contract between the homeowner and the contractor.
Joan Moseley is a staff writer for the Mountain-News in Lake Arrowhead, California