Fall Real Estate 2007

Publication Date: Friday, October 12, 2007

Back to basics
Course demystifies home remodeling and building processes

By Lila Razzaqui

When civil engineer Julia Harkola first decided to teach a class two years ago on the basics of home remodeling and building, her ultimate goal was to empower women. "Women are often dissatisfied with their home and are just too scared about making a wrong decision and getting stuck," she said.

But the remodeling and building processes mystify male home owners as well, she said, so she opened her seminar, "The ABC's of Home Building," to men and women alike.

Covering topics from property evaluation to managing a contractor, Harkola offers a thorough survey on home remodeling and building. Students gain a general understanding of the processes, learn about "green building" principles and develop an action plan. The course fee includes a one-hour individual consultation.

Geared to homeowners, the ABC's of Home Building clarifies the homebuilding and remodeling processes. Most students don't know how to start a project, and some don't even know what the planning department is, Harkola said.

In addition to teaching the basic homebuilding course, Harkola will be expanding the seminar to include more green-building principles in a class next February at the Green Building Exchange in Redwood City.

Harkola's interest in engineering stemmed from traveling in developing countries. "I saw there was a need to improve sanitation and water systems," she said. "My motivation was to improve peoples' quality of life through sanitation."

But after realizing that water management was largely an economic and political issue, Harkola decided to focus on smaller projects. "Residential contracting is a much more practical way of improving quality of life," she said.

Since most people don't know much about contracting, she saw a need for a basic course. "Consumers of general-contractor services don't understand the process, even after completing the process," she said.

Harkola's credentials include a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Stanford University, where she was an acting assistant professor, and experience as a project manager. She and her husband Bill are co-owners of H&H Builders Group, a general contracting company based in San Carlos. Harkola has also worked as a civil engineer for the City of Los Angeles Department of Water & Power.

But it was not until after becoming a registered yoga teacher that Harkola realized how much she loves teaching. With her interest in project management, the seminar is a way for her to combine both passions.

Citing transparency and fairness as part of her personal philosophy, Harkola is determined to make the home building and remodeling processes less stressful. One element of her Ph.D. studies was social network analysis, which involved the creation and study of a map tracking relationships between project players and the way those relationships impact the project, she said. Studying tunneling engineers in Japan and the impact of their social relationships on choosing technology gave her the chance to see theory in practice.

"Successful contracting is all about relationships," Harkola said.

It's not so much the complexity of the process but the risk that makes remodeling and rebuilding education and her seminar so important, she said. The home is a major investment and people want to do the right thing, which is hard if they are intimidated by their contractor, she added. And with few resources for homeowners on how to proceed with a project, beginning can be tough.

"Contractors have a horrible reputation," Harkola said, "and most people start a project putting themselves in the hands of a contractor." To help homeowners avoid unforeseen costs and stress, she highlights the importance of a good working relationship between homeowner and builder.
Before signing a contract, a preconstruction phase is essential to establish the history and trust essential to a strong relationship. Owners should decide on finish specifications, such as window style, door material and tile color, rather than leaving them to the builder, Harkola said. A detailed construction budget reduces changes during construction and provides a more accurate initial budget, preventing unexpected costs and ensuring homeowners get the results they want.

Harkola offers other tips in her seminar, drawing from her experience in residential construction management. "Contracting seems like a secret game," she said. "People might have an idea of what they want, but then what? It's important to start in a way that's safe."

Editorial Intern Lila Razzaqui can be reached at lrazzaqui@paweekly.com.

What: ABC's of Homebuilding seminar
When: Saturday, Nov. 3, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Where: >Reed Morton Community Center, 1120 Roosevelt Ave., Redwood City
Cost: >$70 general, $54 seniors over 60. Additional $7 materials fee payable at class.
Info: >Call Redwood City Park, Recreation and Community Services at 650-780-7311.

What: ABC's of Homebuilding seminar
When: Saturday, Feb. 9, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: Green Building Exchange, 305 Main St., Redwood City
Info: Registration through the Parks and Recreation departments of Menlo Park, 650-858-3470; Redwood City, 650-780-7311; and San Carlos, 650-802-4382. Call to confirm date.