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Saving The Last For Best – October, 2014

My current renovation project, Sea Cove Cottage, is a small shingle-style Victorian cottage in a fishing village in Maine. It was built in 1905 by a local fisherman out of kit parts most likely from a supplier in Boston. Except for the addition of a deck out back and some band-aid repairs, the house had not been altered over the years.

My job was to do a very sympathetic renovation/restoration without going too crazy on either scope of work or cost. Then the three most expensive words in renovation came into play – “might as well” – and the scope of the job expanded. Add to that rotten sills, remedial structural work, extremely demanding clients (me and my wife), and one of the bitterest winters in recent memory in New England, and now I’m neck deep in a job that’s three times the cost and three times the timeframe I first anticipated.

But it’s the beginning of the end. The painters arrived today to start the exterior; the floor man starts tomorrow; the kitchen order goes in next week. There’s still a tremendous amount of detail work, such as the finished carpentry, building nooks and window seats, and installing kitchen and bath cabinetry, countertops, and so forth. It’s work I enjoy, but still there’s a lot of it, and I’m anxious to finish up the project, move in, and hang up my tool belt for a while. Then there’s the aspect of writing a continual series of large checks – we’re pretty tired of that, too! But this is exactly when all the hard work, attention to structure and infrastructure will pay off – in the finishes.

The next time you walk into an unfamiliar but comfortable space, ask yourself, “Why does it feel good?” You’re subconsciously reacting to good design, of course, but also quite likely to the overall quality of the finishes. The finish carpentry and installation of the tile, cabinets, and countertops all have to be of excellent workmanship, with a close attention paid to the detail of the layout and crispness of line. Painting, wallpaper, and floors should all be held to the same high standard: neat and crisp with clean cut-in lines is the general rule. Materials and finishes can be simple and of modest cost, but through attention to detail and workmanship, they will read with the same harmony as expensive materials. Think of a traditional Japanese temple or teahouse. Constructed of wood, metal, and paper, it is the definition of elegance. Conversely, even the most expensive materials will read as cheap if poorly installed.

So my morning mantra is “It’s all about the finishes.” No one will ever see the cleverly engineered and executed way in which I was able to underpin the failing foundation, nor will they see the big engineered beams I inserted into the walls to hold the old place up. But they will see the finishes, and so will I. So I’ll take a little more time, spend a little more money than I wanted to, and in the end, Sea Cove will be just right.