10 Questions With Contractor Doug Hanna
The S+H Construction co-founder works hand-in-hand with architects and designers on residential projects that range from new construction to historic renovations, and include everything from landscaping to energy efficiency improvements.
Friends since high school when they were both home painters, Alex Slive and Doug Hanna started working construction together while in college at UMass Boston and have built one of the area’s premier general contracting firms, S+H Construction.
Specializing in both new residential construction and historic renovation, S+H Construction has won a slew of awards over three-decades-plus in business, including Hanna’s Remodeler of the Year honor from the Builders and Remodelers Association of Greater Boston; and honors from the Cambridge Historical Commission. Here, Hanna shares his thoughts on going “green,” old versus new, and his dream home.
1. The Boston area is unique for its mix of old and new properties—which do you most enjoy working on?
In general, new construction is easier than renovation work because it’s more predictable. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say I like it more. The more interesting the project, the more fun it is to build.
2. What are your favorite “fun” projects, then?
We did a geothermal property in Belmont that was new construction (above). It was a steel frame with a lot of glass—just a beautiful home designed by Maryann Thompson Architects of Cambridge.
Another in Cambridge (below) was a home with a traditional exterior, but the inside was renovated in a very European way—very spare details, no trim on the doors, a beautiful staircase with glass panels going up. The homeowners found a set of plans in the wall that came from a 1930s renovation of the house and they had those plans etched onto the glass of the railing on the stairs. It was pretty cool.
One time we renovated a building for Lesley College on Mass. Ave. It was a beautiful home from the 1860s—I guess you would call it a mansion at the time. Inside the front foyer door jam, we found a message from a guy in the Civil War. It talked about how many men had gone from Cambridge, how much the house cost to build, and the price of gold at the time. We took it down to the historical society, and they photographed it and had us put it back in the door.
3. That’s not the first time you’ve collaborated with Cambridge Historical, is it?
There was this very other cool thing that happened when we dug up a pole from a firehouse in the 1870s. It had an inscription on it and it weighed about 600 pounds. Charlie Sullivan, head of the Cambridge Historical Society, showed me some pictures of the firehouse from the 1880s. There was a group of men standing in front of the firehouse and their names were at the bottom. One of the names was my great-grandfather. I knew he lived in North Cambridge and had a plumbing supply store right next to where that firehouse was. I guess he was also a volunteer firefighter for that company—it just was like “Ghostbusters” or something. My son recently dug up an article about him from the Cambridge Chronicle. He was a Civil War veteran and a master plumber.
4. Are you a history buff?
I really love history and I love the architecture of this town. I’ve read quite a bit about all kinds of places and I just spent time out in Boulder, Colorado. I’d never spent time in the Rocky Mountains, but that was just beautiful. There are bike paths everywhere, and it’s easy to get around. And I love Mexico. I’ve spent most of my life here, but it’s good to see new things, too.
5. What kinds of new technologies are you seeing that will help homeowners?
More technology is coming into homes all the time—there’s improvements in energy and communication, and in people being able to control things remotely. It’s already happening, but I’ve been reading about robotics that are going to get more and more sophisticated. Recycled materials are big. And heated floors. They’re not “new,” but more people are doing radiant floors now−the cost was quite a bit higher years ago. Your feet are always warm, and that’s a great thing.
6. Solar energy seems to be trending now—it’s especially natural for your clientele, which is mostly in Cambridge. Do you think homeowners have forgotten the unsightly panels of decades past?
People are definitely interested in solar and other forms of renewable energy. We tell homeowners that the best thing you can do is improve your building envelope—in other words, stop cold or hot air from getting into your house, depending on the season. Essentially, insulation improvements are the best bang for your buck. Once you do that, then you can look to renewable energy. Some people want to wear it real proud on their house, so people can see they have solar panels, and others want to conceal it. You can add solar panels into roof shingles, but they don’t perform as well.
7. Do you have any money-saving tips that surprise homeowners?
Get a good designer and a good architect. Spend the time and invest the money to create a design that you’re happy with, and make sure you understand it. Then, stick with that design. You have to have faith in the designer, because nothing can blow a budget like changing things while you’re in the middle of construction. You should have a lot of input, but it should be on the front end of the project.
8. What sort of space-saving techniques do you suggest?
People are definitely designing things for small spaces because homes in the city are getting smaller all the time. In multi-level homes, there’s space to be had under the stairs and behind knee walls, that could open into the attic. Cabinet makers and manufacturers are all constantly coming up with new space-saving hardware, too.
9. How did the most recent mortgage crisis change construction and design trends for S+H?
There’s been a lot of deferred maintenance that’s catching up on people. It’s also difficult to buy a place on the inner ring of Route 128, so many people are deciding to renovate instead. There’s still a lot of caution out there.
10. Say money is no object—which of “your” homes would you live in?
My dream home is in Paris, or in the mountains, or near the ocean somewhere. It wouldn’t be too big—just a small, compact home. All I need is 2,500 square feet, now that my kids aren’t at home. We built a new house in Rockport on the ocean (below). That might be the one I pick.
Connect with Doug Hanna at S+H Construction, 26 New Street, Cambridge. Info: 617-876-8286, shconstruction.com.