Dispatch from New Orleans: SoCal contractor moved there after storms

For beautiful wood counters with very tight grain, Tom Borland does some of his shopping on the side of the road.After I wrote about a green home renovation in New Orleans (see it here), I heard from contractor Tom Borland, who had made that home's beautiful wood countertops. The counters are notable for the warm beauty that came from old, salvaged pine with super-tight grain.

It turns out Tom was a SoCal builder who moved to New Orleans just after the storms of 2005. Tom has a lot of tales to tell. Here's what he had to say:

Question: How is it that you came to move to New Orleans just after the storm? Many people were leaving at that time.

Answer: For some reason, the storm was an event of great interest to me from the start. I was working on a vacation home my wife and I bought in Jacksonville, Fla., when it happened. I remember telling my wife in California at the time that I wanted to do something to help, as I heard the daily reports on National Public Radio about the destruction and the failed response in its aftermath.

My church in El Segundo (Hilltop Church of Christ) has an elder who is from Slidell, La., and church members put together a major relief effort, comprised of more than 10,000 volunteers, over the following year. A friend called and asked if I wanted to take part, and on Sept. 17, 2005, we were en route to Slidell. After two weeks of gutting homes in St. Tammany Parish, I flew home to Los Angeles, met my wife at the airport and told her that we were moving to New Orleans. I packed my stuff, finished the job I was on and left for NOLA [the city's nickname], arriving back the beginning of October.

I suppose I moved here out of a combination of wanting to help, the possibility of making a little money, a chance to escape the traffic and rat race of L.A. and the feeling that the future was wide open in NOLA. I remember riding around the city from job to job and feeling like the city was just waiting to not only be rebuilt but possibly reinvented. The people involved in the rebuilding were an interesting combination of hucksters, idealists, do-gooders and hard workers.

Q: How is building and remodeling in NOLA different from building and remodeling in Southern California?

A: The differences are so many it’s hard to know where to start. With the exception of the suburbs, everything here is old. I know that back in L.A. we have neighborhoods like Pasadena, Hollywood, etc. with plenty of '20s-era homes, but I think most guys are working on homes like you would find in the Valley — post-war, minimal detailing as far as interior trim, level floors, lots of stucco exteriors and most important, you can remodel them with materials readily available at your local Lowe’s.

Here, the stock of turn-of-the-century and older homes seems to be . . .

endless. Also, the architecture and building practices here — such as bargeboard construction — really seem to be native only to Southeast Louisiana. If the owner is at all trying to rebuild in a manner sensitive to the character of the house, you will be making lots of replacement moldings from scratch, patching plaster, restringing double-hung windows, tracking down appropriate plumbing and lighting fixtures, restoring old hardware such as mortise locks, haunting the salvage yards like Ricca’s for odd-sized doors and windows, and looking for lots of building materials that aren’t at Home Depot.

On top of all this, I have never encountered so much deferred maintenance — out-of-plumb walls and floors, bad wiring, bad plumbing and poor foundations.

For example, it seems to me that it was not uncommon, prior to the flood, to be living with a six-circuit 40-60 amp service with a fuse box and knob-and-tube wiring for a 1,200-square-foot house. One of the conclusions I’ve come to is that, unfortunately for the city, when you look at the homes that have been damaged (from the viewpoint of a dispassionate outsider), a lot of the homes down here don’t make economic sense to fix. In other words, the repair bills will exceed the fair market value of the house fully restored.

I’ve found that the reason I have rehabbed the 20 or so homes that I have done is because the owner has enough insurance/Road Home proceeds to do the job (rare) or they have too many memories and emotions tied up in their home to contemplate not fixing it. For them, the economics are not as important as going home.

I’ve found that the ’50s and later homes in Metairie and the like were relatively easy to fix, and people seemed to get enough insurance money to fix them. The problem has been with the older homes that probably needed to be rewired and repiped, didn’t have central HVAC, had termite damage and shoring issues, and all sorts of other problems prior to the flood that have been laid bare when they were gutted.

Unfortunately, the checks for the storm damage often don’t cover all of the other items that need to be fixed (and were not caused by the flood). To me, this is the biggest reason there are so many homes that aren’t fixed, and probably never will be.

Q: What’s been the most challenging part of working down there?

A: Rather than the biggest challenge, here some of the many I have faced:

• Going to City Hall to get licensed and, after asking two or three questions, being told that I was “out of questions” and would be getting no more assistance for the day.

• Calling numerous insurance agents for a Louisiana workman’s comp policy and finding that the one out of 10 agents who will talk to you tell you, “I’ll have a price for you in three weeks, payable upfront and in full for the entire year, and you better take it whatever it is because nobody wants new contractors on their rolls.” This was frustrating for me because before you can apply for a license in Louisiana you have to buy the workman’s comp.

• Going to four different Home Depots or Lowe’s to buy things that back home you would get in one trip — because all of the other builders got to the store first.

• Falling 15 feet off a roof a month and a half after my arrival, landing on my back and having to wear a cast from my fingers to my shoulder for 12 weeks.

• Finding skilled labor the first year.

• The prevalent attitude that all of the out-of-towners were here to steal from every unsuspecting homeowner they could find.

• The unbelievable amount of racism and crime. The number of homicides within half a mile of my shop is staggering.

• The incredibly ingrained culture of corruption. Tales of bribing inspectors to get jobs passed seem to be legion around here.

Q: What’s the most rewarding?

A: The most rewarding thing about working here, without a doubt, is the fact that your work is not to satisfy Susie Homeowner’s desire to have the best kitchen on the block but that you are allowing people to get back into their homes that they love. This gives real meaning to your work that granite counters and custom cabinets for wealthy individuals don’t. That and the fact that I never sit on the freeway.

Q: What can you tell me about the cabinets in that green home renovation?

A: I originally was brought in to build custom cabinets for the job using formaldehyde-free panels and safe finishes. Unfortunately, custom cabinets weren’t in the budget, and Julie was able to get some store-bought cabinets that were also formaldehyde-free. I did paint them. However, we used Benjamin Moore Satin Impervo oil enamel as we didn’t feel the water-based alternatives were durable enough.

The counters came about when she told me that she would be using laminate and I suggested that the wood might be a more green alternative. I obtained the wood from a remodel we did on Esplanade Ridge, old 2-by-4s made redundant by the moving of walls, and from piles of timbers from the side of the road from houses that were demolished.

After planing, jointing and gluing the boards together, they were installed and finished with Bona-X Traffic (a two-part water-based low-VOC finish). The amazing thing is that because the wood is old growth, the growth rings are very tight and as a result, the wood is very hard, and there are few knots. My favorite feature, however, is the rich natural red color of the wood.

Tom Borland can be reached here.

(Photos: Tom Borland)

5 Comments on Dispatch from New Orleans: SoCal contractor moved there after storms

  1. Kim Lambert

    Keep up the good work Tom! We miss you guys but know that you are right where you need to be. We have always appreciated your work and we are so thankful you are using your gifts and talents wherever you go! Blessings!

  2. Curt Carothers

    This is superb. What a great interview!!! It’s nice to know that all of your good work is not going without notice. In my golden years I will look back and say I knew this guy when he was just …oops..these ARE my golden years.
    Anyway this dispatch has made my day. Thanks for sending it. Now I’m going to forward it to everyone I ever knew.

  3. Charla

    What a terrific interview. Tom, it really brings out not only your incredible skill and compassion, but how articulate and knowledgeable you are. You are an inspiration to our family! We are so grateful for the outstanding work you have done on our homes over the years. I’m including the Hilltop Church of Christ link (www.hilltopchurchofchrist.com) because there are wonderful things happening at the Hilltop in service to children, the community and now the world, including the work of Hilltop Rescue which is serving the victims of the fires here in California. We miss you both and think of you everytime we eat Cajun food and listen to Cajun music, or just spend time enjoying our home!

  4. Jeff Layton

    Glad to hear that work still goes well. Where is the mention of the Louisiana cooking that I am sure helped keep you in NOLA? Those are some cute pants. They look like they may be chaps. I heard you picked them up at the West Hollywood Home Depot.

  5. Benjamin Hopkins

    That’s great Tom. It was certainly great to work with you in Slidel directly after the storm and see you take the time to ask questions of the locals, igniting your passion to return to NOLA. We miss you in LA, but it’s great to see you overcome many obstacles in your career and that you’re helping people who just want to move home.
    God Bless You!