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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.