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Construction manager nails home projects to completion

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Although a master carpenter, Mark Philben rarely wields a hammer these days. As a project development manager for a Cambridge restoration firm, instead he spends most of his time “building a project on paper.” Before a nail even is driven into a wall, he meticulously constructs the planning of house renovations from concept to reality, making sure the work gets completed on time and within budget. Cost overruns, construction delays, tardy contractors, all make renovation “a different kind of animal,” said Philben of Charlie Allen Restorations, Inc., which specializes in period homes. "It's important to understand the original construction of your home and have a professional restoration plan."

The restoration of older homes has been called “remuddling” rather than “remodeling” as homeowners often fumble their way through building projects. “These homes are not level, square or plumb,” said Philben. “It is usually impossible to put a new kitchen or bath into one of these rooms without first gutting and upgrading utilities.”
He tries to avoid potential problems ahead of time by putting together a project notebook that outlines special order of materials, scheduling of contractors, and design concepts. “The job can actually grind to a halt if everyone is not on the same page,” said Philben.

Q: You’ve been in the construction business for over 20 years, starting as a carpenter to help work your way through college. How has the industry changed?
A: I have a lot of professional certifications now – certified remodeler, lead carpenter, aging-in-place specialist, green remodeler – because the industry is getting more professional and setting standards as people are demanding more of their contractors and subcontractors.

Q: What’s the typical process for a home renovation?
A: Rather than the old-fashioned way of working with an architect and then getting bids for x number of dollars, the latest trend is called ‘design build,’ which brings the contractor, architect and owner together at the same time to produce, budget, plan and design a concept, which can then be implemented.

Q: It’s notoriously tough to coordinate all the different trades – plumbers, electricians, HVAC, but why is this important?
A: Most people live in the house during a remodel, and you don’t want to be working through difficulties when the walls are coming down. Thinking ahead on getting the trades from point A to point B, and knowing when contractors need to work within walls, ceilings and floors has to be laid out carefully, since it can actually alter the design of a house.

Q: What’s on your punch list right now?
A: I’m doing a final walk-through on a South Boston kitchen, making sure that doors don’t stick, appliances are working, inspections will pass, and other ‘must-dos’ that we whittle down.

Q: What do you think of home improvement reality shows?
A: My biggest pet peeve are that they set unrealistic expectations. They essentially sugar coat the whole process and make it all look quite a bit easier than it actually is.

Q: Do you have time to work on your own house?
A: I’ve picked away at my house over the years. It’s a three-bedroom in Millis, and I’ve done my kitchen over, remodeled the family room, and done a lot of work on the back deck. But I never have enough time to do what I want done. It’s like the old saying: the cobbler’s kids have no shoes.

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