Behind the Remodel: An In-depth Interview with Arete’ Project Coordinator Derek Gilroy

Derek Gilroy

It was such a treat to get to sit down with one of our longtime Project Coordinators, Derek Gilroy, and pick his brain about the ins and outs of his position. During this interview, we touched on a myriad of topics including his construction background, advice to share, and what goes into coordinating different types of projects. Enjoy the wealth of knowledge (and humor) that our fan-favorite Derek has to offer below!

Q: Can you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current position as a project coordinator?

A: Sure, I have had a “side career” of owning properties, and my wife and I started building and selling homes on our own (which is pretty much the same job). If you’re a house-flipper, you’re a project coordinator. There was no “client.” The client was actually the hardest transition because normally, we would solve problems on the fly immediately and make those decisions for ourselves. Having to circle back to somebody and take into consideration how they would see it was a little bit difficult at the beginning, but that’s pretty much how I learned.

Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to begin a remodeling project?

A: I guess it’s a multitude of things: plan for more time than less, the only pressure that you have on the job is the perimeters that you put on it. If you take those perimeters off…we’re encouraged to work as fast as we can because we do better financially, so we’re not looking to drag your project out. When you create a false narrative of what is to be expected, you’re going to be stressed out because of it.

Secondly, remember why you hired us. If you could become a general contractor, go right ahead, but the reason that you brought us in is because this is not what you do, so [kindly] stay out of the way and let us do the job. Realize that we’re here to basically service what you want your project to be, and the better that we do the job, the happier you are, and everyone walks away in a great spot.

Q: Are there any new innovations in the remodeling industry that excite you?

A: I guess “new” in the sense that, when we used to build our own houses, we started to search for a cool additive that someone wouldn’t typically put money into. We built one bathtub (they used to call them Japanese shower rooms) where the bathtub and the shower were all enclosed in glass, and we had the water drop from the sky like rainfall into the tub.

We also did a job where we put a Culligan water filter into the wall, so instead of having it in the refrigerator, the homeowner could just fill up their water bottle as they left the kitchen. It’s not a huge expense ahead of time and it’s a cool little thing that will sell someone on a property. From a construction standpoint, it’s finding those small details that you can add, and from a design standpoint, we trust the designers to educate us on the latest things that are popular, because that’s really not what I specialize in. Just put the stuff in front of me and I will install it!

Q: What are your favorite types of projects to work on?

A: That’s a hard question…so there are really three different types. First, you have the full gut remodel, which I like because everything is getting broken down to the basics and you’re just rebuilding everything. It’s a little bit easier actually. It’s a bigger job so it overwhelms people, but once you’re down to the studs – everything’s new, so it’s just easier for everyone moving forward.

The quick job is kinda nice! You go in and someone just wants painting and flooring/tile, so it’s really easy and not a lot to think about. Ultimately all of these jobs fall under the umbrella of the client taking a backseat to what’s going on. As long as they do that it makes it easy on us and everybody on the team.

project manager

Q: Are there any common mistakes that you’ve seen contractors make that annoy you?

A: Yeah. I’m not sure I’d use the word “annoy,” but it seems kind of ridiculous that the same questions are always asked. More specifically, questions about the Schluter tile system, for example. You’re installing tile! Did you not think there were going to be edges on it? So the repetition of the same questions over and over again.

The real main problem that I have is that sometimes… and I wouldn’t say in the individual sense of working with other project managers, but more working with individual subcontractors…Sometimes they tend to move quickly because it is in their best interest instead of taking the entire project into consideration.

Saying, “Hey, I need to take a step back here and make sure the work I’m doing is actually enhancing what we’re all trying to do to finish instead of just moving as quickly as I can.” When that happens, I don’t even bat an eye at [figuratively] slapping them right down and saying, “I know you tried to get out of here in half a day. It didn’t work, and now you’re gonna come in here and redo XYZ, end of story.”

Q: So encouraging them to be team players vs thinking as an individual?

A: You very much have to. That’s why it’s really important, from a project manager standpoint, to be incredibly organized and respectful of their time. What gives me my job isn’t just my overall knowledge of construction. It’s the respect of my guys. Without it, I’m nobody but an organized guy with an Excel sheet. Those guys have to work for me.

One of my subcontractors the other day tried to give me a $500 bonus for giving him the work. I was like “No, no, no, man! You keep the money, that’s how this works. I’m doing fine.” When you have that level of commitment from your subcontractors, they’ll run through fire for you. Once you have that, everything goes smoothly.

Q: Are there any times that you surprised yourself in the field?

A: Yes. Construction is gray. It’s not black and white, and it’s not a linear line. You put specific things on a schedule, and you intend to get those things done, but it doesn’t always work that way. There’s a gray area. What happens on every job is that there’s an unsolvable problem, but every one of those problems is solvable because you’re building pretty much from scratch. You either have a fixed entity that says: we can’t move this column; therefore, these solutions are not gonna solve it, so now we have to move to these other solutions.

The problem is sometimes I don’t know what those solutions are. I wait, and eventually, it just wakes me up in the middle of the night, or someone comes up to me at the job site and goes “Hey, you know what we should do with that thing…” and I’ll go, “That’s the answer!” So that happens all the time and you just have to have faith that it’ll come at some point, but it takes months sometimes.

You’re just like “I don’t know what we’re gonna do with this. This door doesn’t close, it’s gonna need to close!” The solutions come to you out of thin air sometimes and that’s always surprising and kind of nice, because once it happens, you know you’re right then. You’re like “That’s it!”

Q: What advice would you give to someone just beginning a career in remodeling?

A: I mean, the obvious advice, don’t do it! That’s the obvious advice. It depends on a multitude of things…what your career is going to be. I did a lot of these jobs when we were working on our own places and I never picked any material. I can judge it. I can give suggestions and say “I like this…I don’t like this…This looks good or this would look a little better.” But ultimately, I left that in the hands of whoever was doing the design, which was my wife (the lovely Patty Carroll) on our personal projects.

Whatever she went with I just sort of trusted that. There are different lanes that you can go into within this field, which are going to create different careers, therefore there are varying levels of advice. For what I do, in particular (project management), you really have to be patient with it and take your time. I still learn about construction every day.

I also have resources, guys that have been doing this 20-30 years, that I can call up and say “I have a real problem. Can you come to this job site and look?” And I know those guys know more. Just like if a kid called me up right now who’s 27 and said “I can’t get this shower drain to work,” I’d be like “Just Facetime me, it’s fine. I’ll show you what to do!”

You have to do a lot of jobs before you want to take on the responsibility to be the person who has to answer all the questions. You are the “truth seer” on every job. Every subcontractor is going to come to you and you’re responsible for every one of them. Every one of their jobs, salaries, and families. You need to know that, if this job doesn’t go well, they could be unemployed. So when they come to you and ask a question and you answer it, they will always defer to you for that.

If you’re not absolutely sure that you can deliver those kinds of answers, then you wait until you can, and try to learn as much as can. Suck up every bit of information from the people that know more than you and listen. One day you’re going to be in those shoes, and somebody’s gonna be asking you those questions, and you’re gonna feel comfortable like “I know the answer to this!”

Contact Our Chicago Home And Condo Renovators

In this insightful interview, seasoned Arete’ Project Coordinator, Derek Gilroy, shares his experiences and wisdom about the construction and remodeling industry. His journey from a property owner to a project coordinator provides valuable insights into the challenges and rewards of the job. Derek’s approach emphasizes the importance of team collaboration, respect for workers, problem-solving, and continuous learning.

His candid sharing underscores the complex, yet rewarding nature of a career in project management within the construction industry. Schedule a consultation today and let our seasoned team of industry professionals in Chicago take care of all your remodeling needs.