Whew! It has been quite a week here in Hawaii, as I’ve been in Nuclear Robot Work Mode since arriving. It has been incredibly fun so far, and yet mixed in with all the fun and hard work have been some important life lessons pertaining to both early retirement and home renovation. As we’ve learned over time, such lessons seem to pop up everywhere.
But first I’ve got to tell you about my friends who live in this house (to preserve anonymity in this small town, we’ll call them Johnny and Jane Aloha). You would love these people – among the most Badass, Mustachian, fun people I have ever met. And their personalities have been a key part in the success of this project so far.
First, there’s the way this project began: I got an email from a guy who was a total stranger at the time, inviting me to come live in his house for as long as I see fit, and bring my little family along. John sounded enthusiastic and fun, mentioning both delicious home-cooked food and beer in the invitation. After a few emails, we had already agreed in principle that this would work, but we had better check with our wives. Mrs. Money Mustache proved her excellence by agreeing to the adventure, and Jane Aloha enthusiastically approved the agreement from her end.
Oh, and there was just one minor complication: J+J were expecting their first baby to be born right in the middle of our renovation project, and some of their extended family will be coming to stay at the same time as the Mustache family.
“Should we reschedule to another time?”, I wondered.
“Of course not! The more the merrier!”, they said, so planning began in earnest.
When I showed up here a couple of months later, I was even more impressed. Here was a couple in their early thirties who are almost constantly upbeat. The girl is a seasoned athlete who is still riding bikes, working, and doing multi-mile swims in the open ocean with a swimming club – one week before she delivers her first baby. The guy has an advanced degree and a great career doing civilian high-tech work in military-related companies. And within moments of meeting, he invited me on a high-speed bike tour of this area of Kailua in the dark, with lots of bumpy shortcuts and following the Hawaiian tradition of inadequate bike lighting.
Because of this carefree get-er-done attitude, the work project has gone extremely well. We’ve already dealt with the inevitable problems that occur with every project: material shortages due to delivery errors, insurmountable geometry challenges in framing a new floor that is very close to the ground, incomplete building plans requiring lots of improvisation, a suboptimal selection of power tools and a dying air compressor, and more. And yet, the rate of progress is blazing and as of just an hour ago, we had passed the critical inspection: the plumbing and general framing/layout review. We are now clear to drywall and “close it in”. From here on in, it’s all finish work.
At a joyful milestone, let’s review a few more of the things that Naysayers have proclaimed about this project:
- You’ll never get a permit for a separate living space in Hawaii!
- You can’t do a project like that in only two weeks.
- Are you really going to go live and work with people you’ve just met?
- Good luck getting a suitcase full of tools onto the plane.
- You won’t find a plumber in Hawaii who uses PEX. Everyone still uses copper here, and thus the labor and materials will cost you much more.
- The inspector won’t let you build things any differently than what the approved plan says.
- Welcome to Hawaii: you can forget anything you thought you knew about construction from the Mainland.
- This is an expensive island. You can’t do a renovation here for under $50,000
- The plumbers and electricians are showing up on Monday? Ha! Good luck on that one.. you’ve obviously never heard of “Island Time”.
Of course, all of the naysaying turned out to be unfounded, as it usually is. We not only passed the critical inspection, we did it quickly and while having a lot of fun. Here are a few of the techniques that helped to make it happen.
Johnny Aloha is not shy about blasting people with his Optimism Gun. I was already feeling pretty great when I stepped off the plane, but he kept increasing the energy level by staying calm through the inevitable hiccups, being excited about the work, and generally musing about how great life is in general (We’re in Hawaii, what could possibly not be awesome!?). One night, as we were sweaty and cooling off at the end of a 12-hour construction day, he said, “You know what? I think from now on we should just really BLAZE on this, so we can get it done before your family gets here and you won’t feel like you have to work then”.
I had thought I had already been blazing, but at that moment I got all crazy-eyed, stood up and walked across the room with my sweat-and-sawdust-encrusted arms high in the air, and we did a Double High Five with such intensity that we almost sent ourselves flying in opposite directions across the living room to crash through the old single-layer wood walls.
The next day, all three of us used our Optimism Guns on the plumber and electricians, who arrived in average working moods, but got progressively more enthusiastic through the day. By the end of it, we had a plumber who was unstoppable*, coated in dirt, skipping his own dinner and working past 7PM to get the plumbing work to an inspectable stage before he went home that night. The electricians were also highly motivated**, teaming up to solve problems and rescheduling their other work to come back early this morning to finish the project so their own inspection could be called in. Even the inspector quickly shed his formal shell after arriving in the construction zone, approving everything and making suggestions for improvement with a wink rather than a “DENIED” stamp.
This all sounds like magic to a normal person, but experienced optimists will recognize that we were simply applying principles that have worked on humans forever. By making a personal connection with each person on the work site, taking interest in their work and going out of our way to accommodate their needs, and offering hero-worship-like praise when appropriate, we were able to get the tradesmen and the inspector to feel like they were on our side, rather than just people working for their own employers.
Other tactics that have helped to speed things up or save money:
- By using a big network of friends, John was able to borrow most of the tools needed for this job without cost. He’s always careful to pay back the lenders generously in other ways.
- For those areas where your immediate friends are not enough, understanding the local business culture can be key. In Hawaii, personal relationships are more important in business, so the building department is more likely to approve plans from a designer they trust, and the inspector is more likely to approve work from a plumber he trusts. Hiring the right people to get through the unknowns can be a wise investment, if the numbers work out correctly.
- Despite holding her own full-time job and the baby during this project, Jane has provided full tactical support by handling the household operation, groceries, and even making dinner for all of us so we could work more in the evenings. Crazy dinners. Meals that would be worth coming to Hawaii for just for their own sake.
- Craigslist provided some major savings on things like windows, shower faucet, tiles, and furnishings for the eventual finished suite.
- Home Depot and Lowe’s (and most other building material stores) all offer home delivery of any order for about $75. Rather than spending hours loading hundreds of items of items and sheets of drywall onto a rented truck, we just emailed the order to the store and had them forklift it into the jobsite. With a 10% military discount to boot.
- Keeping an open mind to optimizing your design as you build can save money and time. For example, the unusual wall structure prevented plumbing pipes from coming up in exterior walls. It would have been a major problem for the plumber, and possibly caused a failed inspection. But we created bumped-out sections behind the cabinets to hold the pipes, which will have the side benefit of a larger countertop space. Similar ideas allow you to fit more free and reused materials into your project, and end up with fewer scraps to dispose of at the end.