Follow the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This 12-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination.
Previously, my hopes of resolving a few issues with the Wellness Center zoning at a Township Board meeting were delayed. As we continued to work over the next week on the project, I got a call from the zoning administrator who told me that he was able to get our matter into a budget meeting that was happening the next evening. I was relieved.
I could not attend the meeting, but one of the owners went. She told me after that everything was taken care of by the Board — a victory for us and the project! If the Board had not signed off on the amendment paperwork for the additional square footage of the project, we could have waited months for a public hearing, or worse yet, been forced to remove the front addition that we had added to the existing barn.
Nothing could stop us now; we were racing towards a finish!
Pandemic Delays Construction
I began to work long hours and I was doing everything that I could to get things ready for our occupancy inspection. We would listen to the radio every day — the music kept us motivated.
One day, we were listening to the radio and we heard about a virus in China and that it was sweeping across this certain town in China. We were getting so close to finishing. Then we started to hear about a possible lockdown in the State of Michigan due to the virus. With the grand opening of the Wellness Center scheduled, we started to get really concerned that we might be unable to finish the project because of the lockdown.
I decided to get all of the sub-contractors on site immediately to finish whatever they could in case this mention of a lockdown actually happened. Thankfully, each trade was willing to show up except for one who was going to Florida. He came back with enough time to finish the majority of the electrical work. The plumbers and the heating contractor were on site each day working to get things ready for their inspections.
Then it happened: Our Governor shut construction down except for essential work. We stood as a group in the center of the big room in the Wellness Center after the announcement on the radio and didn’t say a word.
The young apprentice from the heating contractor was scared and rambling about losing his home. I told him that everyone would be alright and that he shouldn’t worry too much. There had been talk of unemployment funds that would be available. I didn’t want anyone in the room to see that I was feeling all sorts of scary things in my mind.
We all felt that a Wellness Center was an essential job and that we should be able to keep working. I was glued to my phone looking for updates that may allow us to work. I didn’t know what to do or think, so we kept working. Then the owners came into the Wellness Center and said that we had to stop working. They had called the Governor’s Office; our work was not considered essential. The heating company employees were instructed to leave immediately by their boss, but they stayed the rest of the day to finish the work that they were doing.
I was dumbfounded by the Executive Order. Thoughts to defy the order crossed my mind, as I’m sure they did for many in construction. But the stakes were too high and the risk on all levels was too great. The owners moved forward, legally employing someone who lived on the property who finished most of the work.
A Health Scare
During the course of the project, I was starting to feel some major discomfort in my lower left abdomen. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I was moving slower and getting winded more often
Just before we heard about the lockdown, we had the load of interior doors show up to the job site. I had received 14 extremely heavy, solid core interior doors that needed to be unloaded and staged inside of the Wellness Center so that I could set them and trim them out. For some reason, I unloaded and hauled every door in by myself. By the last door, I could really feel a serious pain in my lower left abdomen. What was going on?
I thought maybe I was having an intestinal flareup from stress and tried to mask the pain as best as I could. Given the lockdown, maybe it was a time to give my body a rest.
A few weeks into the lockdown, I sneezed at home and something strange happened in the area that I had been feeling pain. There was a large bulge that seemed to grow larger every time I moved. I had a large hernia.
I had to get the courage up to tell my wife that I had something that we couldn’t heal at home. We are not the type of people to run to the doctor’s office every time we get sick, so this was going to be something difficult to deal with. We make the majority of our living off of my body in the construction business, so we were going to have to take a major hit to get me fixed.
I scheduled an appointment with a surgeon and then told the owners what had happened to me so we could line up other contractors to do the concrete work. (This time, I did not start my sentence with, “now, don’t get upset.”) We were so close to the end of the project and on lockdown, I thought the timing was almost divine in nature. How else can you explain the massive effort that I put into the project only to be unable to continue because I got injured?
Working through the Pain and the End in Sight
The focus of the owners was to finish the Wellness Center and as I sat at home on lockdown, I watched the pictures come through on my phone of the progress. I got to go there on a few occasions before my surgery (the work that I did there those days was considered essential).
I bought and wore a special pair of supportive hernia underwear to try to keep from strangulating my intestines while I worked.
I worked the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before my surgery to finish the tricky stuff: stairway painting, building the stairs, and the trim work that no one else felt comfortable doing. I felt like I was letting the owners down and had to be constantly reminded by my wife that I could strangulate my intestine and die. Nonetheless, the pressure was mounting to finish the Wellness Center in case they were allowed to operate while I was recuperating.
I felt like I could not win either way. The owners were not happy that I wasn’t there to finish the project and the hospital was the last place that I ever wanted to be, especially during a pandemic!
The owners seemed relieved to have their able-bodied tenant on site doing the work that we were not allowed to do. With a one-page list of things left to do to gain occupancy, the Governor opened construction up in our state and then the pressure was really on. We had to wait for a few items that were ordered to show up when the shutdown backed up production on those items. The last big question was whether we were going to get occupancy without any issues.
Final Inspection and Reflecting on a Roller Coaster Remodel
Two and half weeks after my surgery, I wrapped myself up and drove the hour and 20 minutes to the Wellness Center to finish the trim that was left to do and to meet with the building inspector. Normally, inspectors will find something to correct and not issue occupancy on their first inspection, so I wanted to be there to make sure that there were not any questions. I also needed to be there, because I was the licensed contractor who is liable for the project and I had spent countless hours meeting with the inspector to get to this point.
The building inspector arrived and could see that I wasn’t standing straight up and asked me what was wrong; I told him that I would tell him as we did our walk around. The inspector found two minor things. The guys corrected the issues the next day and the Wellness Center was granted occupancy!
That was my last day on site as the contractor. The remaining work was finished by the onsite tenant along with someone hired from my crew. I had mixed feelings as I gathered up my tools and hooked up the job trailer. I put a pillow on my lap before I put on my seatbelt and took a deep breath — I hadn’t stood and moved that much since before the surgery.
As I drove down the driveway for the last time, I couldn’t help but stop and think back to how much of an emotional roller coaster this project had been. I thought about the hundreds of texts and emails that went between everyone involved in the project. I thought about how much effort it took before we could do any physical work on the project. Then I thought about how I was forced to stay home right near the end of the project because of the lockdown and surgery and how someone else did most of the punch list work in order to keep the project rolling. I was happy that I made the decision to help myself for once. Feelings aside, the goal for over a year was to get occupancy and we got it. Mission accomplished.
The state lockdown is still in effect as I finish this story, so the Wellness Center’s grand opening will wait. I am happy to have spent a year of my life consulting, designing, and building this project and I am very thankful to have been part of such a great adventure.
Read the full series of how this horse barn transformed into a wellness center.
Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project Michigan. Adam has degrees in marketing and management, and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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