The search is on for an amazing contractor that will help you make your dream midcentury home a reality. So, where do you start? As owners of H3K Design, Kevin Kemper and Howard Hawkes have the knowledge and experience to share their insight on what to look for in a contractor. “We specialize in whole-house renovations for second homes and vacation homes, and we have a passion for Midcentury Modern design,” they say. “Part of our job is helping our clients find contractors that will work with us to build their dream homes.” Here, they share their top questions and considerations when hunting for a MCM contractor.
- BEFORE. “At some point in time—probably the ‘80s—the amazing breezeway between the house and carport was enclosed off this Alexander house,” says Kevin Kemper and Howard Hawkes.
- AFTER. “The contractor was instrumental in helping us bring it back to life by opening the space, installing a fountain and adding breeze block,” says Kevin Kemper and Howard Hawkes. Photo by Patrick Ketchum Photography.
1. Check their MCM experience.
Contractors are used to tearing things down and working with a fresh start. To ensure that your contractor shares your desire to preserve MCM features when possible, it’s best if they have experience with period homes. “Renovating MCM homes is more about restoration and keeping and improving upon the things that are already there,” says Kevin and Howard. “If you want to keep things that are valuable, you need someone who is experienced, so they can think outside the box and come up with solutions for problems that may arise.”
This is also relevant to materials used. “Let them know the aesthetic is just as important as the function,” they say. “They may want to choose the path of least resistance and go with travertine tiles when you want cork or linoleum, or they’ll suggest cheap vinyl windows when you want aluminum. Decide what you want to do with your restoration and stay true to those roots.”
2. Research their past projects.
Look to websites for a contractor’s past projects to see the kinds of houses they work on and whether they’ll give you your desired aesthetic. Their portfolio will show you their quality of work and the kinds of homes they’re used to working on. It can also be a place to reference if you love a specific project they did and want it emulated.
- BEFORE. “The living room of this great MCM Alexander house in Vista las Palmas, Palm Springs, California, was horribly reinvented in the 1990s with sandstone floors, shutters and an inappropriate mantle to name a few elements,” says Kevin Kemper and Howard Hawkes.
- AFTER. “Working with our contractor, we realized the original fireplace of this home in Palm Springs, California, was covered over and just needed some minor repair work. Because he had experience with these fireplaces, it was very easy. It was also easy for him to determine that the wall at the end of the ‘before’ living room was non-bearing and easily removed to connect the old media room and living room to create a large open floor plan,” says Kevin Kemper and Howard Hawkes. Photo by Patrick Ketchum Photography.
Of course, it’s important to make sure your contractor is licensed and insured. Check their references and follow up with previous clients to see if they’ve had a good experience. “Find out if they have a regular group of subcontractors,” says Kevin and Howard. “It’s a good sign if they have a team that will regularly work with them. Plus, you can use them as a reference.”
4. Give the same bid.
Before you start meeting with different contractors, make a detailed list of everything you want done on your house, so you give every contractor the same bid. Include details such as materials, finishes and paint colors. Put together a vision board if you’re unsure of official names. “If you show one contractor around the house, show the other one pictures and another a list, you’re going to get completely different bids,” Kevin and Howard say. “It’s important that you give the contractors an identical scope of work, so you know each one has the same parameters to make a bid on.” Though price is a factor, don’t just go with the cheapest bid. “You don’t want a contractor that’s horrible to work with, so make sure you get along,” they say. It’s a balance between affordability and how well you think you’ll work together.
- BEFORE. “The kitchen in this project was original to the house, but, unfortunately, original doesn’t necessarily mean good quality. The doors didn’t work properly, the drawers didn’t have glides and the kitchen was past its prime,” says Kevin Kemper and Howard Hawkes.
- AFTER. “With the help of the contractor, we could install new cabinets with a walnut finish that looked the period. He was also talented enough to recreate the retro soffit over the windows. We even used the same lighting—simply chroming the frame! Reusing and refurbishing is a must with any Midcentury Modern project,” says Kevin Kemper and Howard Hawkes. Photo by Patrick Ketchum Photography.
“If they can start immediately, find out why,” they say. “They may have just finished a project, but it could also mean they’ve been out of work for a while, and there may be a reason for that.” “Some contractors like to generate extra income for themselves by surprising you with change orders in the middle of the project,” they say. A change order usually results from an unforeseen circumstance like a rotting wall that was unknown when the project started and will end up costing more money to fix. Check with references to see if the contractor issued a large amount of them.