Category: Managing Construction


Complying with the Code

Though building codes vary by state and municipality and can be difficult to pin down, contractors and DIYers involved in major projects must heed the letter of the law.

Building Codes

Photo: living-future.org

A building code is a collection of regulations regarding building construction that is intended to ensure public safety. Not all codes are identical, however, as they vary from one jurisdiction to another. There are state codes, city codes, and town codes, and more than one may apply to your job. Although the contractors you hire will assume the responsibility for meeting code specifications, a rudimentary knowledge of building codes may be useful as you consider your renovation. Among the restrictions that may concern you are these:

Ceiling Height
The standard is for a minimum of 7 feet, 6 inches for habitable areas. Exceptions may be made for kitchenettes, bathrooms, and cellar conversions. Keep this in mind, particularly if you’re converting existing space in the attic or basement.

Fenestration
According to most codes, a room is not a room unless it has a win­dow. This applies consistently to bedrooms, living rooms, and dining rooms, although in some places bathrooms and kitchens may be deemed habitable if they have ade­quate mechanical ventilation. In some municipalities, no room that is below grade is classifiable as a habitable space.

Stairways
The requirements for stairways typically specify a minimum overall width. The treads must not be too shallow (from the nosing at the front to the junc­tion with the riser at the rear); the risers should be of consistent height and not too tall. Angled treads called winders (they’re shaped like slices of pie and are often used when a stairway changes direction) may be prohibited except on secondary staircases. The rules on railings specify height, strength, and location. If you are converting existing space in an attic or basement, the code may require that you substantially rebuild original stairs that are inadequate or that you add a second run of stairs.

Fireplaces, Chimneys, and Woodstoves
Most codes specify a clearance of 2 inches between the wood frame and all ele­ments of a masonry mass. New chimneys must be lined, either with clay tile or steel, and be of a specified height with relation to the peak of the roof. Spark protectors may be required at the cap of the chimney; dampers may be specified at the throat. The outer hearth of the fireplace must extend a minimum of 16 inches in front of the firebox; on either side, there must be a clear­ance of at least 6 inches between the firebox and any flammable materials. The fire­box may have to be built with fire brick. Woodstoves must meet similar installation criteria regarding fireproof materials and clearances.

Electrical Codes
The electrical code is a discipline unto itself and, again, it varies considerably from one jurisdiction to another. Some codes require all wires in the walls be sheathed in armored metallic cable; most permit the use of nonmetal sheathed cable. The gauge of the wire must be suited to the load at one end and to the fuse or circuit breaker at the other; thus, a kitchen circuit with several wall recep­tacles (outlets) will be wired with 12 gauge wire and a 20 ampere breaker or fuse.

In new construction, there are requirements regarding the number and location of receptacles, indoors and out; the gauge and type of wire used in different applica­tions; whether electrical boxes can be plastic or galvanized metal; and so on. All receptacles must be grounded (a safety feature that directs any wayward electrical current that results from an electrical malfunction to the ground rather than through you; the third prong on a plug is there for that purpose). Most codes also require ground-fault interrupters on bathroom, kitchen, and exterior receptacles (GFIs are safety devices that function as secondary fuses and will, in the event of a fault in the ground, shut off power to the outlet and prevent electrical shock). The bottom line? Even if local ordinances don’t require it, hire a licensed electrician to do the wiring required on your job. In any case, many codes require that you do so.

Plumbing Codes
Given the variety of needs in a modern house, plumbing codes, too, tend to be complex. And variable, as well, since some municipalities prohibit the use of plastic pipe, others permit it. Some allow it to be used for waste lines only, some for supply lines as well. Lead solder is forbidden for joining copper pipes in some places; in others, it’s permitted.

Even after you’ve established what’s acceptable in your area, the language of plumbing can be mind-numbing. There’s PVC, ABS, and PB plastic pipe; metal pipes may be copper, brass, black iron, cast iron, or galvanized steel. The fittings that join the pieces together range from couplings and caps to tees and street ells to elbows and nipples. There are unions, Ys, P-traps, straps, and clamps. And that’s even before you get into fixtures and faucets and their miscellaneous parts. As with electrical work, major plumbing is best left to the licensed professionals. With HVAC plumb­ing, wiring, and ductwork? Again, I’d recommend you consult with the pros.

Fire Codes
Fire codes also tend to be long and complicated, specifying the use of noncombustible materials on the roof, furnace area, and partition walls between an attached garage and the home. Some codes prohibit the use of certain plastic prod­ucts because they give off toxic fumes when burned; others require that rigid insu­lation be covered by a noncombustible surface for the same reason. Then there are fire-stop requirements in wood-framed structures, meaning strips of wood must be placed in wall bays between stories and between joists where they pass over parti­tions to prevent the spread of fire. Smoke alarms are virtually universal today.

The Letter and the Spirt of the Law
Elements of older houses often don’t meet current code requirements, having been built before the code was writ­ten or enforced. If that is so in your house, you may want to bring into compliance conditions that are dangerous and out-of-date.

Yet that isn’t always necessary or appropriate, as most codes, by necessity, take a one-size-fits-all approach. So, for example, antique fireplaces and stairways often don’t meet code. Old wooden exterior doors may also fall short. When it comes to existing work that is not demonstrably dangerous, however, only an overzealous building inspector will demand that changes be made. If the code officer asks for changes that you think are unnecessary or would detract from the historic character of your house, explain why you are reluctant to make the change. Or try to reach a compromise. There may be an appeal process as well. Good old work is worth fight­ing for if there’s no issue of safety but merely a desire by the code officer to enforce the building code.


To Hire or Not to Hire an Architect or Designer

Strange as it may seem, having an architect or designer is usu­ally more important on a renovation job than for new construction.

Architects and Designers

Photo: homesteadhouse.ca

If know what I want, why do I need a designer at all?
Perhaps you don’t. But S understand that, strange as it may seem, having an architect or designer is usu­ally more important on a renovation job than for new construction. Countless plans exist for new houses—but no two renovations are alike. Your needs and require­ments are site-specific and you can’t just go out and buy a set of ready-made plans. And you will need plans.

Unless your remodeling is confined to cosmetics, you will need a building per­mit. Before issuing one, most municipalities require that you submit plans to the code officer. National, state, and local codes require close adherence to regulations regarding wiring, plumbing, structure, and even rubbish disposal. If you are planning on seeking a loan to underwrite a major renovation, your bank may also want to see professionally prepared blueprints. The detailed listing of materials that designers prepare are also necessary for getting accurate cost estimates.

In short, whether you draft them or someone else does, you’ll probably need plans.

Do I need an architect or a designer?
Most architects happily identify themselves as designers; on the other hand, a self-described designer usually is not an architect. Because they perform basically the same role in a typical remodeling job, I use the terms “architect” and “designer” more or less interchangeably in this book. However, most architects are licensed and have more academic training and professional experience (See The Architect versus the Designer).

Can’t I just hire a contractor and work out the design with him?
Well, you certainly could. People do it all the time. Many experienced contractors are as well equipped to deal with a simple remodeling as an architect. Some have established relation­ships with local code officers so the red tape is minimal. However, if you have some special needs or your house has some peculiarities, you may want to draw upon the design skill and training of a professional designer.

Some builders are quite good designers, but most are not. Though designers and builders often work closely together, the nature of what they do is fundamen­tally different. Architects and designers specialize in the abstract, in conceiving suitable configurations, shapes, and spaces. Builders are concerned with the con­crete details of materials and fasteners and with the physical work of construction. The architect is a big-picture person, responsible for envisioning the whole. It is the carpenter’s and the other tradesmen’s jobs to be concerned with the individual parts.

In a sense, asking a builder to be your architect is like expecting an actor to write the play in which he is to perform. Certainly some actors are playwrights, and some builders are fine designers. More often, however, the disparate talents of the designer and builder are found in different people.

Can’t I do the design myself?
If you have design skills, that’s another option. But are you sure that you know enough to do the job? The simplest definition of “design skills” is that you have had the training to execute drawings that are clear and com­plete enough for the inspector, carpenter, and other contractors to follow. But that’s a bare minimum.

A good designer also has a working knowledge of ergonomics (human engineering), local building codes, materials, and costs, plus at least a modicum of design sense. That’s an intangible. It’s the ability to take a practical design problem and devise a solution that is both functional and aesthetically satisfying. If your design skills are such that you can draw the plans but aren’t so sure you can bring a mix of vision and critical distance to the assignment, getting a pro is probably a good idea.

I’m planning to do the work myself, so why can’t I design it myself?
Again, you prob­ably can. However, in most communities there are design requirements for significant renovation jobs. This won’t apply to work that involves no more than repainting, new countertops, or other minor work, but for remodeling jobs that cost more than a certain sum, or that involve rewiring or new foundation work, the requirements are more rigorous. Which brings us full circle: You’ll probably be required to submit plans that bear the stamp of a licensed architect or engineer. Such regulations were estab­lished for your protection, as well as that of your neighbors. The experts can help ensure that the work done at your house is consistent with fire and electrical codes and is structurally sound.

What are the other benefits of having a designer or architect on my team?
Architects and designers cost money … but they can also save you money. In the short term, the savings may be reflected in more informed purchasing of materials and labor, as designers or architects may be familiar with economical solutions.

In the course of the job, there are fewer change orders when a design has been thought through thoroughly, and that is the essence of the designer’s job. An architect will begin by asking many questions to elicit as much information from you as possible. This time spent in working through the design to anticipate problems can help avoid the need to make changes during construction that are invariably more expensive. A designer or architect may also help avoid code violations.

In the long term, good design work is as important to the resale value of your house as structural matters. If fact, you will cost yourself money in the future if you remodel your house (or “remuddle” it) by violating the integrity of the house’s origi­nal design or even if you simply make the sort of small mistakes that often occur in the absence of a good designer. Examples of such mistakes are doors that open into other doors; mixed up window shapes that seem fine from inside but look all out of proportion from outside; ideas adapted from magazines that looked just right in their original settings but seem grossly out of place in your house

Perhaps the most important advantage of a skilled designer or architect? While the mere presence of one on your team won’t guarantee a better finished product, the odds are greater that it will be well thought out. Often remodelings that were done without design help telegraph to the visitor, No designer or architect worked here.

Successful spaces are the result of good planning. Effective use of light, whether it’s through intelligent fenestration or artificial illumination, helps, too. So does the right mix of materials, textures, and colors. The good architect/designer comes to every assignment with a body of experience, design training, and, perhaps most important, an open mind and a fresh eye. With luck, he or she will leave you with a satisfying living space that meets your needs and expectations.

While the mere presence of one on your team won’t guarantee a better finished product, the odds are greater that it will be well thought out. Often remodelings that were done without design help telegraph to the visitor, No designer or architect worked here.

Successful spaces are the result of good planning. Effective use of light, whether it’s through intelligent fenestration or artificial illumination, helps, too. So does the right mix of materials, textures, and colors. The good architect/designer comes to every assignment with a body of experience, design training, and, perhaps most important, an open mind and a fresh eye. With luck, he or she will leave you with a satisfying living space that meets your needs and expectations.


The Architect Versus the Designer

Note these differences between architects and designers.

Architects and Designers

Photo: restyle.com

You will probably have a choice when you look for someone to help design your remodeling project. The most likely candidates will be architects or designer- draftsmen.

The architect
Architects are licensed by your state. Typically, an architect has passed a licensing examination, has at least a bachelor’s degree in architecture, and has spent three years working in an architect’s office. A registered architect must take legal responsibility for his or her work.

The architect’s formal training involves a varied and complex curriculum. Courses such as strength of materials are just as important as those in design. The architect must know not only how materials look, but how they are used. As a result, he or she should be able to advise you on what materials distinctions really mean (e.g., hardwood versus softwood floors, porcelain-iron or fiberglass bathtubs, etc.) and devise appropriate solutions to the sorts of challenges remodeling older structures often present. The architect can help engineer structural changes, too.

The designer-draftsman
There are no licensing requirements for designers in most states. Theoretically, anyone could hang a shingle out tomorrow and call himself a designer. As a result, it is doubly important that you thoroughly establish the experience and proven abilities of a designer before making your hiring decision.

As a rule, home designers are less expensive than fully trained and licensed architects. But many specialize in certain kinds of work and bring much practical experience to certain tasks. Kitchen designers, for example, design nothing but kitchens; space planners often do commercial, office, or retail spaces.

Other candidates
Your carpenter can also be your designer. For a kitchen renovation, you may find a design consultant at your disposal at one of the “big box” houseware stores. Some of them can very efficiently slot their own cabinets and fittings into a software program and redesign an existing space. You may find plans for similar renovations in books, magazines, and other sources that, in collaboration with your carpenter, you can copy. Yet in many of these cases, too, you’d be better off paying for a few hours of design time to make sure the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

I need to add, however, that degrees and titles rarely tell the whole story. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about highly trained but incompetent architects. On the other hand, one of the best remodeling designers I know is a sometime contractor who, having immersed himself in historic architecture and long acted as an intermediary between clients and architects, finally threw up his hands and said, Hey, I can do that better than those guys can! And he does.

Find a designer you can afford, whose skills are in proportion to the job you want done, and with a style that suits yours.


What Kind of Design Help Do I Need?

While all designers should have each of these skills in some measure, not all designers are alike.

Photo: poshsurfside.com

A designer must be both creative and pragmatic. He or she must have an artist’s eye for shapes and color. The designer must be able to envision the space being designed, and to anticipate the traffic patterns, airflow, and seasonal changes. In addition, the architect or designer needs to know the rules and regulations to be met in a given jurisdiction and have an accountant’s expertise for balancing budgets. As if that were not enough, the designer must also conceive a design that suits the sub­jective tastes of the client.

While all designers should have each of these skills in some measure, not all designers are alike. Some have a great deal of design training, others have relatively little. Some are especially expert at solving complicated structural problems; others are more adept at devising decorative solutions. What kind of professional do you require? Must your designer be a fully licensed architect? Or will an experienced draftsman suffice? That depends upon the job and the experience of the designer. Consider the following questions:

How complex is the job?
In deciding which professional you need, a key considera­tion is the complexity of your renovation. One that involves structural change should be reviewed by a licensed architect or engineer who has been trained to resolve the special problems presented by removing beams, opening up cathedral ceilings, or otherwise changing the skeleton of the building and thereby shifting the loads it must bear. Architects and designers alike consult structural engineers when the going gets complicated, but if you are thinking of using a designer-draftsman, inquire whether he will consult an engineer if your design involves out-of-the-ordinary or outsize shapes.

How much design help do you really need?
For small jobs, design help may be an unnecessary luxury. An experienced carpenter who has done dozens of similar jobs may have the necessary design skills to see you through a wide range of basic remodeling.

On the other hand, a good architect or designer has design experience to draw upon. When you look at a rabbit warren of tiny upstairs bedrooms in the old house you just bought, you may understand intellectually that there are many possi­bilities there. But the professional may see immediately that the addition of a dormer here, the removal of a wall there, and presto, in his very mind’s eye, a brightly lit stu­dio appears. To you, there are possibilities you can’t quite see; to the architect, it’s a matter of developing a clear image that can be put on paper. Then you get to review the possibilities.

The bottom line? If your project is very straightforward and requires essen­tially no imaginative brainstorming, you may be quite satisfied with the standard structure your contractor offers to build for you. But if you want something out of the ordinary, you need a professional to guide you in the design of your new house or addition. And sometimes design professionals pay for themselves simply by helping you avoid costly mistakes and assuring that you get what you want… not what you think you want.

On the other hand, if you are hiring an architect to supervise a contractor so you can be confident the job is being done just right, what you really need is a “con­struction manager.”


How Much Will a Designer Cost?

Follow this advice and stay informed when settling designing costs.

Home Design Costs

. Photo: landscape-architects.regionaldirectory.us

The title “architect” conjures up in many people’s minds fancy designer houses, monumental homes out of the pages of Architectural Digest. And, yes, it’s true, people with a great deal of money often hire architects. But it isn’t true that you have to be rich to afford an architect or designer.

The designer/architect is paid to perform several different tasks. You will be paying the designer to learn your house, your needs, and to develop a program for your renovation; for him or her to execute preliminary drawings for your review; and then to execute finished drawings once you are happy with the approach. The last part described is roughly half the job, the first two parts something like a quarter each. Should you hire your architect to supervise construction, that may increase the fee another 15 or 20 percent.

Design fees vary tremendously but there is a logic remodeling a modest kitchen, say, will cost less than designing a large addition. The way fees are calcu­lated varies, too, but most designers will work for a fixed design fee, a percentage of construction, or bill on a per-hour basis.

FIXED FEE
The fixed fee is just what the name suggests, an arrangement in which the architect and the client agree to a single price for the job. They also agree on what the job is so if there is a significant change from the original agreement (say, the addition doubles in size or budget), then the fee may be renegotiated. Otherwise, the fee agreed upon on day one should be the fee the client pays.

PERCENTAGE OF BUDGETED CONSTRUCTION COST
The fee will be a percent­age of the total construction cost, generally 10 to 15 percent in residential construction. The greater the cost of construction, the lower the fee percentage should be.

The key word here is budgeted. The implication is that if you determine before breaking ground that the total cost is to be, say, $25,000, then it is the archi­tect’s job to complete the construction for $25,000, and his percentage will be of that sum. However, if the job ends up costing $35,000, there is no reason why he should be rewarded by being paid the same percentage of the higher cost, especially if he has been in charge of the process from the start. (One exception would be, however, where the cost overrun was the result of the client making changes and adjustments well into the process. In such cases, it is reasonable for the architect to expect addi­tional payment for his additional services.)

Whatever the method of payment, the designer will want, as mentioned above, the bulk of his fee upon completion of the plans. If you do not plan to involve him in the supervision of the project, he’ll want it all. After all, whether the designer is to be at your side throughout the process or not, he will have done the bulk of his job by the time the finished drawings are completed.

HOURLY RATE
This is perhaps the most common approach in renovation or remod­eling jobs. At your first meeting, you agree to an hourly rate; depending upon the experience of the designer, fees may range from $50 an hour to many times that. If the price is too high, finding a less expensive designer is one answer, though many architects charge a lesser rate for the time spent by draftsmen employed in their offices.

If you opt for this arrangement, consider writing two safeguards into your understanding. First, negotiate an “upset price.” You and the architect agree on a maximum fee; further, you agree on an hourly rate. Then he keeps track of the hours required to complete the job. If his hourly wages are less than the upset price, you pay the lower sum, but if they are more, that’s his problem. You do not pay any more than the ceiling (the upset price) you agreed upon at the start.

The other safeguard (not only for this agreement, but for any agreement) is a clearly stated payment schedule. You should agree to pay the architect for performance. Perhaps a small payment is due upon signing the contract, another on acceptance of the preliminary sketches, and so on. In this way, the architect gets paid as he works, but you also know exactly what you are paying for.

OTHER EXPENSES
It is common for architects to bill separately for extra expenses. These include reproduction costs (photocopying of blueprints), which shouldn’t be more than a few hundred dollars and, for a modest remodeling job, much less. There may be a fee for the services of a specially trained structural or professional engineer, if required (an unusual design configuration or an addition to an older home that requires the existing structure to bear some of its weight are two circumstances that might call for such a consultation).

The prices for engineering services vary greatly, so be sure your architect gives you an estimate up front. Another cost would be to prepare a survey that indicates the boundaries or contours or other aspect of your property; this might be required if you are putting on an addition. As with engineer­ing fees, get an estimated cost from your architect for such a survey before it’s done.


Finding the Right Designer

Here are tips on how to find and hire the right architect or designer for you.

Architects and Designers

Photo: ehow.com

No other profession leaves such large tracks. The work that architects and designers do is hard to hide: buildings, or parts of buildings, draw the eye from far away as we drive or walk by Regardless of whether or not we like what we see, houses are too big to ignore.

In the same way, when we enter other peoples’ homes, most of us can’t help but notice our surroundings. We are wowed by what we like, we cringe at what we don’t. Mental notes get made about the dos and don’ts.

Often, such everyday means as looking and asking around help us find good designers, architects, and contractors. You see a design you like, and you inquire of the owner of the place whom he or she hired to create the space you admire. You ask for a fair appraisal of the designer’s skill and professionalism. If you like both what you see and you hear, you can call the architect, make an appointment to meet, and get on with it.

A personal reference isn’t always so easy, but if a friend, relative, or neighbor has recently had his or her home built or remodeled, ask for an assessment of the designer they used. Chances are you will get an unprejudiced evaluation—they like the result or they don’t, the architect/designer was helpful and responsive or he wasn’t, and so on. Occasionally you will get an insecure response from someone who isn’t really satisfied with what he or she bought but is unwilling to acknowledge it because to do so would be to admit having made a mistake. But generally you’ll get a pretty candid earful, and you may also be able to get a look at the architect’s work to make up your own mind.

WHERE DO I FIND A DESIGNER?
Ask friends, neighbors, or colleagues for the names of designers or architects’ names. Ask your real estate broker and attorney.

The Yellow Pages will surely have some candidates, too, as will the Better Busi­ness Bureau in your area, and you can always check with the American Institute of Architects (1735 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006) for the licensed architects in your area. If you admire work in one of the shelter maga­zines, seek the architect cited. Ask around at the local lumberyard. Ask a local contractor for a suggestion, although you may have to discount disparaging com­ments he may make. Architects and contractors are often at odds with one another.

Without too much trouble you can get a list. Once you have a few candidates, however, don’t think for a minute you are home free. Now your homework really begins, as not every designer will suit your needs, tastes, and personality.

Yet the decision to hire or not to hire should be made only after you meet the designer.

MEETING THE DESIGNER
Make an appointment to see the designer, either at his or her offices or at your home. Keep in mind this is a preliminary meeting The pur­pose of this first session is not to settle upon a design scheme, sign a contract, or make any final decisions. Plan on talking about your needs and concerns, and trying to get a sense of the person personally and professionally. The meeting will probably take an hour or more.

You will need to determine whether you can work with him (or her). If you feel uncomfortable for any reason—perhaps you realize that you’re both high-strung cre­ative individuals and you don’t relish the prospect of hard-fought struggles about every detail—maybe you should continue your search for a designer. You must make a judgment about your needs and the designer’s skills and how your personalities mesh.

This hiring decision is, in a sense, the first major decision in what will be a long string of subjective decisions. Yet it may be the most important, because the designer often sets the tone for the work to come. The experience of redesigning and constructing your living space can be immensely satisfying and exciting, and your designer must be a partner in that process. Are you confident that your designer will listen to what you say and try to accommodate your concerns? You will need to trust his judgment, too, so be sure that you feel in your heart as well as in your head that he is well suited to the job at hand.

Other grounds that may be helpful in making the decision are these:

Previous work
The single most reliable criterion for selecting a designer or architect is his or her previous designs. At the very least, you should review a port­folio of each designer’s work. That will give you the opportunity both to evaluate the designer’s skills and get ideas for your own renovation.

Checking references
If you like what you see in a portfolio, arrange to see one or more of the designer’s projects first hand. Most designers will provide such refer­ences on request and often will gladly take you personally to see a completed proj­ect. If you have the opportunity, talk to the clients themselves. Don’t be bashful about asking questions of the clients. Inquire about the process. How good were the designer’s listening skills? Did he bring good ideas and clever solutions to the process? Was she agreeable to changes along the way? Checking references is sim­ply the best single safeguard you have.

Ask the homeowners how smoothly the job went, how flexible the architect was in dealing with the client’s and the contractor’s questions and problems. Did the job come in close to the estimated budget? The architect is unlikely to send you to see work that either he or the customer is unsatisfied with, but you can still learn a great deal in looking and talking.

The work
Make sure the architect does a good deal of residential work. If there is only one house but twenty commercial spaces in his portfolio, that should tell you something. Residential work can be very satisfying for an architect, but it is likely to be more time consuming than profitable.

Keep in mind that experience is not the only indicator of ability. A young, energetic architect may be willing to do more research and may bring fresher ideas than an old pro with an established, staid practice. But here, again, you must rely on your good judgment. Experience is very valuable but not an absolute prerequisite.

Staff
Try to determine whether the architect has adequate staff and a workload that will allow for the right amount of personal attention to the project from start to finish. Who will do the actual design work? Expect that the architect will delegate much of the work on the finished drawings to a draftsman in the office, but who will be doing the actual designing—the designer himself or someone in the office? If it isn’t the person you’re talking to, insist upon meeting him or her. Ask the designer how many meetings will be necessary upfront; how many design hours does he anticipate will be necessary?

Accessibility
Does the location of the architect’s office make it possible for him or her to be available for consultations? If you plan to involve your architect in over­seeing construction, will he have to travel an hour each way to get to the job site? A long trek back and forth may mean fewer inspections, or perhaps larger, portal-to- portal billings.

On the other hand, don’t reject an architect whose work you like simply because of geography. I know of many instances where designers worked from great distances, in some cases never even seeing the work, before, in progress, or after. It’s not ideal, but with a good contractor and a capable designer, it can work.

The cost
Talk about fees, too, as it is never too early to broach this subject. Find out before the first meeting whether it’s free or if the meter will be turned on as you walk through the door. You probably won’t be able to settle upon a final design cost on day one, but don’t allow the subject to be shunted aside with assurances like, That’s no problem, I’m sure we can work that out. Make sure you have a sense of the total cost.

Can I talk to more than one designer?
The short answer is, yes, of course. This isn’t exactly comparison shopping—price alone should not determine whom you hire. But keep talking to designers until you find one that seems to suit your job and expectations.

If you begin by talking to several architects, pick one you like, and then let him or her create a preliminary design for you. On the other hand, if you have a particu­lar design problem, you needn’t feel shy about turning two or three architects loose, so long as there is a cap on what each architect’s initial presentation will cost. I know of one instance where the owner of a small apartment hired one architect and two designers to create a new kitchen independently of one another. The result was that the architect and one designer came up with workable solutions (the third solution was of no value, in the homeowner’s judgment). And the finished productincorporated elements of one of the rejected designs. If you choose this approach, however, make sure you are very clear with the architects or designers about fees and expectations.

TAKING THE NEXT STEP
When your first meeting concludes, agree upon what is to be your next step. Perhaps you will establish a time for a second meeting. If your first session was in the designer’s office, the next one may be at your home. Even if you have prepared careful drawings of the existing rooms, the architect/designer will probably want to see the space in person and may confirm your measurements.

DEFINING THE PROGRAM
During initial discussions, the designer will attempt to elicit from you what your goals are. What do you expect the remodeling to accomplish? He or she will ask about your needs, budget limitations, and your design inclinations. The purpose is to define in abstract terms the design task—a process architects sometimes term programming, as the result is a program for your design.

With the program in mind, the designer can design a structure that satisfies your objectives, working within established limitations, regulations, and other con­straints. Some architects spend relatively little time in establishing the generalities of the problem; others like to invest more hours in generalized discussion. But once the designer has a clear idea of what you want and a basic familiarity with the struc­ture to be remodeled, the visualization can begin: schematic drawings that illustrate the scale and interrelationship of the various components come next.


Reviewing the Plans

Follow these guidelines when reviewing designers' preliminary sketches and plans.

House Design Plans

Photo: youngarchitectureservices.com

Different designers have different working styles. Some take the let’s-go-for-it approach, and their initial sketches are surprisingly detailed and worked out. Many designers, however, take it one step at a time. Their early sketches are abstract, typically rough pencil jottings meant to suggest an approach that is not so much visual as intellectual.

If your architect begins with rough drawings, you will see little sense of style, dimension, or even shape but will be asked to think about the doodles as representing in a thematic way the nature of the space you are building the traffic patterns through it, and the relationships of the spaces within to one another. On the other hand, if the paperwork you gave your designer clearly spells out your desires, he may arrive with drawings that are recognizable as floor plans and even elevation draw­ings and perspectives. Then the discussion can focus in on the details much sooner.

Whatever his or her approach, your designer will probably want to sit down and review the early plans with you. The designer-architect will explain his intent in executing the design as he has, and discuss with you any reactions you have.

If you’ve given him your sketches or notes, what he gives back to you should be familiar. If at first you don’t see in his drawings what you expected to see, focus on what is different. Is the designer’s vision better in some ways but not in others? Ask your architect to explain to you his rationale for what he has done.

In part, the point here is to be open-minded. You must give your designer the opportunity to respond to the task you’ve assigned her. Pay her the courtesy of listening to her as she did you. Your architect will have taken your materials and will have absorbed what you said. She will have applied her own training, experience, and instincts. Even if at first you don’t like what she has done, give it a chance.

It is also very important to inquire about anything you don’t understand.

THE PRELIMINARY SKETCHES
These should probably look familiar to you. You’ll see elements from your existing house you recognize. Even the new parts should, at least in part, reflect your ideas and wishes. If the first sketches do not look like what you were seeing in your mind’s eye, try to look through whatever details of finish that the designer has contributed. Do you see the same shapes and relationships you dis­cussed earlier? If there has been a major departure, ask why.

Ask yourself if the design answers your needs: If not, say so.

It’s a good idea for you to live with a set of the preliminary sketches for a day or two before giving your designer your formal response. Have others in your house­hold study them, too. The architect or designer will no doubt take notes on your reac­tions as he shows them to you and as you express concerns about the size of this or the absence of that. However, almost invariably your response a day or two later is more reasoned, thoughtful, and complete than at the moment you are first confronted with new shapes and thoughts and visions.

It creates headaches for everybody to have friends or relatives kibitzing (“I wouldn’t do it that way if I were you.”), but if you are not confident of your feelings about how the plan is emerging, you may wish to involve one outsider whose tastes are compatible with your own. Take care not to let that person dominate you. It is, after all, your house that is to be renovated.

When you do discuss things with your designer, have written notes to guide you. An elaborately typed and phrased letter is unnecessary, but having a carefully assembled list is important. That way you won’t forget something, and you will have an idea of the number of issues you are raising. You may even dis­cover before you talk with the architect that there is a pattern to the problems so that one general overall comment can be made that covers a number of smaller issues.

Be candid with your architect. Don’t get personal if you really dislike some­thing, but be frank to say it doesn’t work for you. If it doesn’t work at all, say so, but at the same time be sure your response is a fair one. Just because it isn’t what you expected doesn’t mean it’s bad. It could be better than your original notion—after all, you have hired a professional to do the best job she can, and maybe with her training and experience she can see things you could not. Give the drawings fair consideration.

Be as articulate as you can about why you’re not satisfied. The more specific you can be about your objections, the more likely it is that he will be able to make the changes you want in the next set of plans.

As you consider the plans, think about the lives and schedules and habits of the people who will be living there. Imagine yourself in each doorway, seated in every corner. What do you see, in the room, out the windows, looking down the hall­ways?

Oh, and one other thing: If you do like what you see, don’t hesitate to say so. Designers like approval just as much as other people.

PRELIMINARY PLANS
How many sets of plans will you see? The earliest drawings will be the most generalized and are as much for discussion as anything. It may take one or many sets of rough sketches before you are satisfied with the direction the building is going. But once you are confident with the overall approach, it’s time to go on to preliminary plans.

If you see several sets of preliminary plans, each set should have more detail than the last and should incorporate the changes you discussed in the previous ver­sions. However, before the preliminary plans give way to the final plans and specifi­cations you should get your architect’s best estimates of the total cost. It is never too early to talk about budget (construction budget rather than design fee), as your architect should know from your first session what your financial range is. But at this point it is realistic to get specific about costs.

By this stage, the “working systems”—the electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems—enter the picture. Specific materials, too, are useful at this point. Doors, windows, wall coverings, and so on factor in here. It is also at this stage (if you are putting on a major addition) for your architect to prepare “outline specs” (preliminary listings of materials and instructions used for purposes of esti­mating).

Some clients or architects will ask a contractor to join in at this stage. A contractor can be useful at this time for estimating purposes. In addition, he may be able to offer some hands-on solutions from personal experience to certain problems, solutions that your architect might not offer.

A last act you should perform before instructing the architect/designer to go off and execute the final plans is to study the last set of preliminary plans one room at a time. Be sure you understand what is being done for you. If you get a sketch from your architect and you aren’t sure what that 8-by-12-foot bedroom he has drawn really is like, measure a similar room or rooms in your house to get a sense of what it would be like enlarged or shrunken to 8-by-12.

Ceiling heights, too, should be seen and not merely imagined. If you are con­sidering a towering 20-foot ceiling, find one and experience it. You may discover that 12 feet is just as dramatic, or that the floor space in the room you are planning is dwarfed and you feel like you’re in an upended shoe box rather than a palace.

Make sure your furniture fits. Check the location of every light fixture and every plug; are there enough of them? Again, imagine yourself living in the space: Does it all seem to be as you want it?


The Final Plans and Specifications

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These large pieces of paper are, finally, what you are paying your architect for. The drawings should be fully dimensioned—they’re the map the contractor will follow in executing the work. Review the set of plans carefully before you sign any construc­tion contracts. Make sure it is consistent with the last version you saw, and that the corrections you asked for have been made.

Make sure you understand everything. You will cost yourself money later when you want something changed that you, out of ignorance, let pass at an earlier stage. Even substantial changes are relatively inexpensive before the contracts are signed and the hammers begin to swing. The sample drawings reproduced here will give you some idea of what to expect of the final plans.

Second elements of the plans are the specifications or spec sheets. These are detailed descriptions of the materials to be used. Often these days spec sheets are long, formatted lists that came with the designer’s CAD program with a few added wrinkles peculiar to your job slotted in. Construction methods may also be specified. Taken together, the plans and specifications will enable your contractors first to estimate accu­rately what it all will cost and then to construct what has been so laboriously planned.

The spec sheets also require your close attention. They should specify a lot of details about required materials about which you may have strong opinions. They’ll cite everything from the brand name and model number of kitchen appliances to the thickness and quality of the plywood to be used for subflooring. Spec sheets will often specify decorative items like doorknobs, the maker and kind of paint, and mold­ing sizes and profiles.

In examining spec sheets, look, for example, to see if the new windows in your addition are true divided lights like the old ones are; whether the new bathroom fix­tures are good quality brand-name models or just cheap knockoffs. If you don’t under­stand the shorthand, ask questions. Make it your business to know what the spec sheets say—after all, the numbers and abbreviations describe what you are buying.

Not that you have to simply accept what’s there. In fact, you will find a new use of the words or equal in the specifications. Also called allowances, “or-equal materials” are typically finish materials like carpeting, light fixtures, or tile. The appearance of the term “or equal” means that if you don’t like one of the items listed on the spec sheets, you may substitute something else. The term also implies that you may do so at no cost if your new choice is priced the same as (and thus is equal to) what was specified.

Keep in mind, however, that the allowances specified are usually not top-of- the-line goods. Thus, if you substitute a more expensive set of lighting fixtures in your kitchen for the basic ones specified, your cost will go up from the original estimate. As you review the plans, remember that it’s caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

You should have a meeting with your contractor before signing a contract to answer your questions and concerns, so go through the specs line by line in advance of the meeting and make a list of your questions. Look, too, for the abbreviation “NIC,” which stands for “not in contract.” That means that if you’re adding a laundry room and the spec for the washer and dryer says NIC, they’re not included in the estimate. They’ll be your cost, not the contractor’s.

Faucets and light fixtures are a perennial source of friction between home­owners and designer-builder teams. The story usually goes this way. The customer explains to the designer what he wants in, say, his new master bath. Sketches and then working drawings are executed, a contractor is hired, and the work begins. The job is nearly done when the homeowner discovers to his chagrin that the faucet, the showerhead, and the sconces are inexpensive and unattractive. He complains to the contractor, and together they refer back to the specifications. Sure enough, the homeowner is getting exactly what the paperwork specifies. “But they’re not good enough,” he complains, “I want something better.” The contractor says, “Fine, you’re the boss. The ‘or-equal’ clause in the contract entitles you to substitute something of equivalent value.” Then the homeowner discovers what he wants will cost two or three or even ten times as much as what was specified and that he has to bear the additional cost himself.

It’s happened a million times and will happen again. How do you avoid it? Think about details that are important to you, and make sure your designer and con­tractor are sensitive to your concerns. Explain your expectations for the level of quality. Then examine the specifications extra carefully.

Some people decide to do some of the shopping and provide fixtures or other components themselves, excluding them from the contract. This can work, but you need to be sure you coordinate well in advance with the contractor and the subs. If something you want doesn’t arrive in time, you may find your job delayed or more expensive.


Contractors, Contracts, and Costs

Finding and hiring the right people to help do the job is crucially important when it comes to remodeling work.

Contractors Contracts Costs

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Dankmar Adler—architect and partner of the great Louis Sullivan in the firm of Adler and Sullivan—once remarked that he would rather hire a crook who knew how to build than hire an honest man who didn’t. “I can police a crook,” Adler said, “but if a man doesn’t know good work, how am I to get it out of him?”

I’m not sure I agree with Adler’s reasoning. But I do know that hiring well is one of life’s key skills—and a crucially important one when it comes to remodeling work. The right contractor can make the process go smoothly with a minimum of disruption to your life, while the wrong one can cost you money, peace of mind, and leave you with an unsatisfactory result.

While the timing varies, sooner or later you’ll need to shop for a contractor.

Or, perhaps, for several subcontractors. You or your designer may invite the partici­pation of builders during the planning stages or you may decide to wait until the plans are completed. That’s a judgment call best made jointly by you and your designer. If you’re working on a strictly limited budget, earlier consultation with a contractor to get estimates may help keep the focus on cost control. On the other hand, fewer inhibitions during the design stage may lead to more creative solutions to your particular remodeling if budgetary constraints allow.

Supposing that the time has come to find a contractor… who conducts the search?

Many architects will be happy to run interference for you. They can handle the finding, hiring, and estimating. The argument for this approach runs like this: If your architect does it, he or she will save you time (if he’s minding the store, you don’t have to). He knows whom to call to get quotes on a job. He may be able to get services and attention you would not since he can offer contractors consideration for future jobs. Since his business regularly involves soliciting and reviewing bids, he should know what to look for. He’s negotiated building contracts before, and has probably spent many hours resolving disagreements—since they are inevitable, his help may be valuable. He can inspect along the way. He can help decide on the inevitable small changes that occur in the course of construction. He can serve as a valuable buffer between you and the contractor.

If this sounds ideal, talk it over with your architect (or designer, though not all designers have the training and experience to perform all these services). Under­stand, however, that you will have to pay your architect a substantial additional fee. These additional services are not free.

Supposing you decide for financial or other reasons that you won’t be hand­ing over the reins to your architect, an alternative is to leave the supervision to the general contractor, whom we will meet shortly. Or you can be your own general con­tractor. Yet another option is to hire a construction manager. But before you decide which path to take, let’s take a closer look at the other players in the construction process.


All About General Contractors

On a building or remodeling job site, scheduling, budgeting, and more are the responsibilities of the general contractor.

General Contractors

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A general contractor or GC is hired to take a set of plans and turn them into a building. He’ll orchestrate the comings and goings of the workers, order mate­rials, inspect the work done, coordinate an ever-changing schedule, and handle a lot of the paperwork, which will include material bills, payroll, and issuing invoices to you, the homeowner.

The GC will also arrange for the subcontractors—the excavation contractors, plumbers, electricians, dry-wallers, tilers, roofers, and foundation crew, whatever and whoever is needed. It is the GC’s responsibility to make sure the subs do their jobs on time and in strict accordance with the plans.

As with an architect, you sign a contract with the general contractor that obligates you to make certain payments at specified points during construction. In return, the GC assumes responsibility for the entire building process. The GC makes a profit by marking up the labor and materials costs by a percentage. That percent­age varies considerably. The typical range is 10 to 30 percent.

Carpenter-Builder vs. Construction Company
Many GCs began their careers in the building business as carpenters but at some point decided they wanted to run their own companies and assumed overall management responsibility. In a large construction firm, the GC is actually a company rather than an individual, and an individual project manager will assume day-to-day responsibility for a given job. The project manager may or may not have hands-on building experience but does have business training. Increasingly, the tools of the GC’s trade consist of a notebook computer and a cell phone rather than a hammer and a circular saw.

The carpenter-builder GC probably has only one or two jobs going at a time, while a construction company will need more and larger jobs to pay its overhead. The carpenter-builder may have a desk at home that functions as an office and a workshop in a converted garage or basement. The construction company will have an office with an accountant, payroll clerk, and other staff; trucks and miscellaneous vehicles; a warehouse or other building that functions as the base of operations with equipment, materials storage, and workshop equipment, and a variety of other accouterments of a good-size business.

The large and small general contractors each have certain advantages. You may be able to shape a more flexible working relationship with the carpenter-builder than with a larger company. On the other hand, the construction company probably has a much greater capacity and can do a broader range of work. If your project is large, you may benefit from the larger crews of a construction company.

Logic might suggest that the smaller contractor will be able to give you the best price, but despite the extra overhead costs at the larger concern, there are also some economies of scale. In general, though, the odds are that as a small, one-time buyer of construction services, you’ll do better with a carpenter-builder for your remodeling. He is accustomed to dealing with individual owners, may have more time and patience for your special concerns, and he may well price the job a little cheaper, too. If you’re in doubt, get both companies and carpenter-builders to bid on your job.

When hiring a smaller general contractor, determine how much experience the head man has. If the candidate you’re thinking of hiring is a carpenter who’s just branching out and trying his hand at being a carpenter-contractor, think carefully before making the hiring decision. He may master his profession quickly, but the truth is it’s actually a new line of work, one that requires fewer building skills and more business sense. If your remodeling job is modest in scope, hiring a rookie GC may work to your advantage, since many people starting out on a new career have a pride in accomplishment that fades over time. Make sure you are confident he has the scheduling, budgeting, and other skills to handle the expanded duties.

Subcontractors
Subcontractors get their name from their relationship to the general contractor. When you hire a GC, he will contract with individual subcon­tractors to complete specified tasks for specified prices.

You may need several subcontractors or none, depending upon the nature of your remodeling job. Among the subs that may be needed for a residential project that involves extending an existing foundation are a surveyor, earth-moving sub­contractor for excavation and site preparation, and foundation contractor for the footings and cellar walls (though another sub, a mason, may be hired to build the walls if they are to be of block). Electrical, plumbing, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) subcontractors may be necessary and, depending upon who your GC or carpenter is, roofing, drywall, painting, and clean-up contractors may also work on your job.

Usually any vinyl flooring, tile, and countertop needs can be filled by one contractor, while another will sell and install your carpeting. If there is land­scaping to be done, you may need one or even several additional subs to plant trees, lay walks or patios, build walls, seed the lawn, and so on. Depending on local and state requirements, at least the electrician, plumber, and surveyor will be required to be licensed. Electrical, plumbing, and other inspections should be the responsibility of the appropriate subs.

If you have a general contractor handling your job, he’ll be in charge of hiring, scheduling, paying, and supervising the subs. If you are your own GC, you’ll be hir­ing them yourself.