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Judge the Aftereffects . . . : . . . Before Remodeling

Jay Berman is a writer based in Manhattan Beach.

Westminster builder Dennis D’Ambra likes to point out that nobody ever said a blueprint was worth a thousand words.

Yet, for generations, anyone planning to build or remodel a house has had to rely on blueprints as a primary indicator of what the finished project was going to look like.

The problem, D’Ambra believes, is that many homeowners don’t know how to read blueprints. “They’ll tell me, ‘I saw the blueprint, but it confused me,’ ” says D’Ambra, 47, president of D’Ambra Inc. “Or they’ll say, ‘That’s not what I thought it would look like.’ The result is that we sometimes have to tear out a wall or practically start all over again. That can take a lot of time.”

By chance, D’Ambra made a discovery several months ago that is changing the way people look at remodeling--literally. He read a newspaper advertisement placed by a landscaping firm that used computer imaging to show potential clients what specific trees or shrubs would look like around their homes or offices.

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“A light bulb went on in my head,” D’Ambra said. “I thought, if computer imaging can be used as a ‘before-and-after’ tool for landscaping, why can’t we do it in home remodeling?”

The result is that D’Ambra’s firm can show clients exactly what their home will look like after remodeling. The blueprints are still used by the people at the job site, of course, but the customer sees either a video or a still picture before any work is done.

“It eliminates trial and error,” D’Ambra said. “And it eliminates questions and misunderstanding. Nothing is left to the imagination.”

After first realizing that computer imaging could be useful in remodeling, D’Ambra and his son, Chris, 21, went to Canoga Park, where they met with officials of New Image Industries, which manufactures computer imaging software for other applications. In addition to landscaping projections, computer imaging has been used to show would-be dieters what they’ll look like after dropping a few pounds and by plastic surgeons whose patients are eager to see what a face-lift or eyelid tuck would do for them. New Image also manufactures the hardware for the system.

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The system that New Image designed for D’Ambra allows Chris, now officially the construction firm’s “image designer,” to incorporate a virtually infinite number of roof-lines, door styles, driveways and other features into the image of a client’s house.

It didn’t come cheaply. D’Ambra estimates that he paid more than $35,000 for the package.

The results have been “dramatic,” he said. “We keep putting new styles of homes into the database,” he says, “and people can choose any feature they want and see what it would look like on their house.” The charge to the client is about $100, applicable to any job the client might order from the firm.

“Someone may say, ‘I liked a roof-line I saw at a place in Laguna Hills,’ ” D’Ambra says. Or they might like the roof from one place, the window treatment from a second and the driveway from a third. Want a bay window moved around? Like to see a double door?

“If it’s in our database,” D’Ambra says, “Chris can take the photo of their house, along with what they’ve said they want, and show them what they’re looking for almost instantly. If it isn’t, if they can give him a picture of what they want, within an hour to a day, he can show them what they had in mind, but on their house.

“He can put a (Lamborghini) Countache in your driveway if you’d like, but we don’t include the car with the deal.”

Similarly, a client can see what the newly remodeled family home would look like in virtually any color. “You want yellow?” D’Ambra asks. “We can call up every shade of yellow. If you prefer a beige, you’ve got it. The system stores more than 32,000 colors. Want to see what the house will look like early in the morning or late in the afternoon? We can change the time of day or the angle of the shadow.”

Clients who want to see a video, rather than a still picture, of the proposed project get something even more exotic. The image, of course, starts when one of D’Ambra’s sales employees goes to the client’s home and shoots the “before” video. “If neighbors are walking by when we’re shooting the video,” D’Ambra says, “or a kid on a skateboard races past, they’re going to show up on the ‘after’ video too, moving past a house that doesn’t even exist yet in that form.”

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When working, Chris D’Ambra sits at a high-tech console surrounded by vinyl folders labeled “windows and doors,” “exterior finishes,” “roofs, fireplaces and brick,” “new homes” and “driveways and steps.” Cars and people can easily be superimposed on the property, he points out, jokingly placing a likeness of former President Ronald Reagan on the front walkway of a Whittier home (“President Richard Nixon is not in our database,” Dennis says).

The new system has been especially helpful for clients who have no special features in mind, D’Ambra says. And there are a few clients like that. “People will come to us and say, ‘I don’t know what I want. You’re the builder. You come up with an idea,’ ” he says. “Others want their house to look like (Donald) Trump’s Taj Mahal.”

D’Ambra Inc. has been in Westminster since the senior D’Ambra and his wife founded it in 1967--"when you could start with next to nothing,” he adds. “You can’t do that today.” He has always fancied himself a “high-tech thinker,” and the computer imaging equipment, he believes, makes his the only remodeling firm in Southern California with such a system.

Since he started using computer imaging late last year, his firm has completed 50 to 60 jobs--everything from simple room additions to cases in which, he says, “someone doesn’t want to move and wants to spend $100,000 to make his house look like a $700,000 place down the block.” About 80% of his work consists of second-floor additions.

Surprisingly, only about 30% of his clients have asked to use the computer imaging equipment, probably because many of them already know what they want.

Since the system is unique to the area, D’Ambra allows other builders--many of them his competitors--to use it, for a price. “Why not?” he asks. “There’s nothing cloak-and-dagger about it. If everyone can benefit, there’s no reason to keep it from them. This has given us a lot of exposure within the industry. We get a lot of calls.”

D’Ambra handles about 100 projects a year, all within a 20- to 25-mile radius from his office, “but at least 80% in Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley, because that’s where we’re known. What we’re doing is taking little houses and putting houses on top of them. We’re bringing 1960s houses into the 1990s,” he says.

Apparently, his computer-generated photos are as realistic as they need to be. D’Ambra recently sought a zoning variance for a client from the Westminster Planning Commission. The man wanted a special garage built to house his boat. With a briefcase full of blueprints and a computer picture showing what he proposed to do, D’Ambra approached an inspector. “He looked at it,” D’Ambra said, “and asked why we would want a variance for something that had already been built. He gave us the variance.”

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