MARCH 17, 1996

The two most important tools in Sylvain Côté's toolbox are his tape measure and his laptop computer. --"The laptop changed my business," said Côté, 32, a home remodeling contractor who owns and operates Absolute Remodeling Corp. in Yorktown Heights.

Like a growing number of other remodelers, Côté has revolutionized his business by offering customers a look in the future:  He uses his laptop and the customer's TV set to draw a computerized floor plan and three-dimensional view that shows how the house would look after the work is done.

"I can design a floor plan in an hour," said Côté, who specializes in large interior remodeling jobs.  "I can make all the interior changes and make a detailed, formal estimate."

Côté, who swings a hammer as well as wielding the laptop, is convinced that using computers for customer presentations and for planning the actual construction is the future of remodeling.
"The showroom will be obsolete some day," he said.  "The future of software is amazing."

Although computer-aided design already is the standard in architecture and engineering, it is only starting to make its name in building and remodeling.  Its use is on the increase, with builders and remodelers branching out from using PC's for record-keeping, reports the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group based in Washington, DC

A survey done at a trade show in Atlanta last November showed that 90 percent of remodelers use a personal computer for word processing, said Jean Carmichael, manager of the software review program for the group.  Also 50 percent were making estimates on computers and 43 percent were designing work on computers.

Carmichael said the latter figure was probably a bit high to be representative of the entire remodeling industry because remodelers attending the show were more likely to be on the cutting edge of technology.  But she said use for designing and presentation definitely is growing.

"As systems get easier to use, a lot more remodelers are using them for customer presentation," Carmichael said.  "Remodelers are more sophisticated in their use of computers because the have so many more jobs and the jobs very so much."

For all builders polled in a 1994 study, 82 percent use PC's, she said.  Of those, 28 percent are using computer-aided design software, and 70 percent are using the computer for customer presentations.

"That's a big increase from earlier surveys," she said.  "Before we saw the computer just as a drafting tool, but now they're using it as a communications tool."

Becoming adept at using the computer software has made the job easier for Côté, who began to use software programs more that a year ago to do his design work and estimate the need for an architect.

But the real value is in presenting a project to a prospective client.  Using a split screen, Côté can show a before and after view of the floor plan and take the homeowner on a before-and-after three-dimensional tour of the home.

The computer's vision especially is helpful when remodeling jobs large in changes such as removing a wall or adding windows.  A popular remodeling job today is to knock out the wall between the kitchen and dining room and redesign the space as one big kitchen.

Lou Colasuonno, a Westchester homeowner, hired Côté to redesign and rebuild a 15-by-10-foot space in his house.  The old laundry room and bathroom were made smaller to add corridor to the home's back terrace.

"I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do but was concerned about it looking like a tunnel," said Colasuonno, a former editor of the New York Daily News.

The computer presentation helped sell Dan Sladkus of Yorktown, who hired Côté to renovate his kitchen.

"It was neat," said Sladkus, president of Deerfield Productions, Inc., a film and video production company in Hawthorne.  "It was a good service to have.  He did different versions of the kitchen, with counters in different places.  It was fun to play around with it."

A wide variety of software is available for professionals and amateurs alike to make home designs.

Côté has high praise for three low-cost software programs that he uses most frequently:  3-D Home Architect, Planix and 3-D Kitchen.  Versions of these programs can be purchased for about $60 each - in the price range of a do-it-yourselfer or a homeowner with imagination.
"But even with a software program, you need an eye for design," he said.

Côté also uses a Quantum Leap Estimator software program to come up with his detailed estimate and punch list.

The work of doing the design entails drawing the current floor plan and set-up of the rooms to be remodeled.  He has a sample library of household items.  By clicking on, say, a cupboard, he can change the size, the style or location.

"I can do a floor plan in an hour," Côté said.  "It's all drag and drop."

He got involved with using the computer on the job after attending a trade show two years ago.  He experimented with software programs on his office personal computer, then bought his laptop in December so he could visit customers' homes.

Côté's high-tech work practices are a long way from his low-tech start in contracting in 1988 after moving to the United States from Montreal.  (Côté, who plays in a hockey league for fun, is a distant cousin of a National League player with the same name.)


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