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Amy Johnson throws the book at builders


Published April 28, 2004 at 1:45 p.m.

After a live remote interview with CNN last week, Vermonter Amy Johnston was invited to do future segments in person at the cable network's New York City studio. As author of a new book -- What the "Experts" May Not Tell You About...Building or Renovating Your Home -- the Burlington resident has been caught up in a whirlwind of national promotion. Yet this literary interlude is merely the latest chapter in her lifelong passion for the nuts and bolts of construction.

"Four generations of women in my family have been visionaries who renovated old houses with the help of men," Johnston says of her unusual legacy. "But I was the first to swing a hammer."

That hands-on experience since childhood led Johnston, now 45, to a rather male-dominated career. In the late 1980s, she bought, remodeled and sold dozens of "dump houses" until mortgage interest rates soared and her body rebelled. "It beat the heck out of my back," Johnston acknowledges. "I don't swing a hammer anymore. Now I just do the cerebral part."

For 15 years she has assumed supervisory roles -- construction manager and owner's representative -- on projects throughout the state that convert rundown property into affordable housing. Some were downtown revitalizations incorporating commercial and residential spaces.

Johnston acquired a reputation that often preceded her. "I'd meet people socially who expected me to listen to their horror stories," she says. "At a wedding, I was all dressed up and some guy told me: 'I want to talk with you about my toilet seal.'"

Despite such awkward requests, Johnston felt compassion for the walking wounded of home construction and restoration. "When I saw the level of hurt and failure and betrayal -- worse than divorce stories! -- I thought, 'There's got to be a better way,'" she explains. "If these people knew even 10 percent of how professionals manage a job, they could avoid 90 percent of their problems."

There may be an information boom on the airwaves, but Johnston sees a vast wasteland of confusion. "Even though we have more than 500 hours a week of happy home repairs on television, contractors are still the most-complained-about group, according to the Better Business Bureau," she says. "It's like entering a foreign culture, and most people have no idea how to prepare."

Johnston's Dreamhouse Institute began to offer intensive training seminars called "Avoiding the Money Pit" in the mid-1990s. At her first session, one participant was a judge who said that, in a quarter-century on the bench, he'd observed that 40 percent of his lawsuits were between contractors and homeowners.

Clearly, the dilemma had reached epidemic proportions. Johnson decided it was time to reach out to a nationwide audience of "beginners who need to become informed consumers of design and construction services," she says. "I'm trying to close the knowledge gap."

In late 2002 Johnston found a publisher, Warner Books, for her proposed compendium. She researched other works available on the subject. "Most were written by contractors and had all of this technical detail, like how many screws are needed in a piece of sheetrock," she says. "I had to focus on a triage of the incidental material and provide a linear text with lots of cross-references."

What the "Experts" May Not Tell You covers a range of topics from dealing with loan officers to getting bids from contractors to surviving the permitting process to monitoring construction. Johnston offers plenty of practical advice for those building from scratch: "Nature can provide nasty surprises like rock ledge, high water, no water, bad soils, poor drainage," she writes. "If you are not familiar with what's underground before you start and the neighboring property owners can't assure you of what's under there, some advance work by a civil engineer may be money well spent."

A hip subhead, The Yin to Your Yang: The Right Architect for You, is followed by a quote from I.M. Pei, a modern master of the art: "Nobody would question Einstein about relativity, but everyone has an opinion about architecture." Johnston suggests that it's crucial to understand what specific skills to look for in the person you hire to design your home. One size does not fit all.

The 299-page book reflects Johnston's mission to provide a "tangible resource" for anyone making or remaking a house. "My intention is not to be an author, but rather to get all this information from my head to paper to homeowners," she explains. "I also wanted to write it as an invitation to my seminars, which I hope to do all over the country.

The media seems impressed that expertise in these matters emanates from a woman. For Johnston, however, the female factor is old-hat in a family of visionary renovators. Her elders were always a formidable support group when she was still swinging a hammer.

"I remember how my maternal grandmother in a nursing home would revel in it," Johnston recalls. "She'd ask, 'Dear, how did the floors turn out?'"