Everyone lives in a house or apartment so it is easy to ask “How tricky can it be to build or renovate one?” The answer is “A lot harder than people think!”
As an architect for more than 30 years, I have had a front row seat to hundreds of projects we have been involved with and perhaps just as many we have heard about or watched second hand, and so I will impart a little of the wisdom I have gathered over the years and tell the prospective home builder or renovator a few things that most contractors are reluctant to say:
1. “Construction is expensive.”
Most things we buy are consumables only and so we have a certain time horizon built into our thinking about clothes, computers, and even cars. When you build a house that work will be depreciated over twenty, thirty, or maybe even fifty years. It is important to remember you are creating an asset, not buying a consumable good. Adjust your thinking away from buying at a “low price” towards attempting to get the “best long term value.”
2. “Construction is unique.”
Unlike products that are engineered to be manufactured identically thousands or even millions of times, your construction is frequently unique due to your site, your requirements, and your aesthetic. That means that although the contractor and designer may have done similar work before, your project will be different, special, and unique. The degree of uniqueness is what requires the significant time, energy, planning, and professional involvement.
3. “Construction is complicated.”
Because construction is expensive and relatively permanent in nature, laws are put in place to make sure your construction or building is both safe for you and future owners but that it is also compatible with its neighbors. It must meet zoning requirements and perhaps historic district guidelines. It must conform to guidelines as thick as a dictionary governing every aspect of the design and fabrication of the structure. Sometimes these guidelines will be at cross purposes to the client’s goals, budget, or schedule and yet they must be understood and obeyed. Because building is made up of tens of thousands of component parts, pieces, and products, sometimes these elements will be in conflict with one another, and must be made to work together in unexpected ways. Construction can be just as complicated legally as it is physically so make sure you are properly protected.
4. “Construction must be carefully planned.”
The best way to address the complexity of construction is through careful planning. This planning, which is essentially building the construction on paper or in a computer before the first shovel is put in the ground or the first piece of wood is sawn, is critical to identifying challenges and conflicts before construction begins. As difficult and expensive as it is to do planning when a client wants to immediately see their vision of a building brought to life, every minute and dollar spent in planning will save an hour and twenty dollars of labor fixing or figuring something out on the job site. It is frustrating for many clients to spend time and money on paper drawings they may not fully understand but these drawings will frequently be critical to the success of their project and the maintenance of their construction budget.
5. “Contractors will primarily look out for contractors.”
Even contractors who are hardworking and honest, and that is the vast majority of them in my experience, are first and foremost business people. They will naturally structure contracts to be paid as much up front and minimize opportunities for clients to sue for defects and delays. Having an architect or expert house designer serve as an professional advisor can be a big help. Furthermore, having your architect help you contract for the work using an AIA standard form is a great way to get protection and additional value from your designer in the execution of the work. These contracts provide for “retainage,” which is a small amount of the value of the work being held back to help assure that all small punch list items and corrections are completed at the end of the project.
6. “Construction takes longer than expected.”
Because construction is so complicated and has so many parts, an expected delay may cause downstream delays that extend longer than the initial delay. Imagine there is a heavy freeze and so the foundation cannot be poured when expected and the company providing reinforcement is promised on another project. These sorts of issues happen all the time. It is possible to write a penalty clause into contracts if delivery on a particular date is critical to the project but these types of clauses will tend to inflate your project costs significantly. Contractors tend to come in three flavors: “fast,” “high quality,” and “good value.” It is almost impossible to get all three qualities at once since they are mutually exclusive in their natures. Decide upfront which is most important and ask your architect to help select your contractor accordingly.
7. “Construction is a partnership.”
Many clients approach construction as if it were any other purely transactional purchase. With construction, the contractor and his team are in your home, building the house you and your family will be living in for decades. Care, quality, and precision are critical and working with your contractor and designer in a spirit of respect and cooperation is critical to the success of the project. Although thankfully we have never seen a construction relationship deteriorate to the point of failure, we have had to come in and try to clean up and finish projects where things have gone terribly wrong and it is not easy or inexpensive to do. This is the nightmare scenario every client has to work hard to protect themselves from and avoid. Choose a contractor you like personally and keep that relationship strong through good communication and fair treatment.
8. “Allowances may not match your expectations.”
When there is not time to do a design properly or the clients are unsure what they want, often the contractor will put an allowance into the bid. When the time comes to select cabinets, the $5,000, which seemed like a fair number in the mind of an inexperienced client, suddenly is discovered to be far too little given their expectations. The problem is that, because they felt they had sufficient funds, the client may have already demolished a bathroom that they would have chosen to keep as existing, so that the kitchen cabinets they truly wanted could be purchased. The moment the project scope and budget collide is never a pretty moment, but it is better to have that happen before construction has actually begun.
Your home is likely your most valuable asset and also the one that will affect your quality of life the most. Make the investment of time and money up front to get it designed properly and built as well as you can afford to. If done well, it should give you and your family pleasure each and every day and sell for more money than you ever imagine it could at some point in the future. If done badly, your construction project has the danger of becoming an expensive nightmare resulting in an end product that is much different than you imagined it would be. Furthermore, it may be more expensive to operate and repair than it needed to be, thereby costing you money far into the future. Design and build once but make sure you design and build well!
Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport for A4 Architecture He holds architectural degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia Universities and is a member of a numerous committees, commissions, and boards.