Article by: Anne Higuera CGR, CAPS

Some good friends of ours just finished a master suite remodel. On the whole it went well: on time, on budget and generally to their satisfaction. Still, the process and execution were less than flawless, and as I listened to what didn’t go exactly to plan, I realized that other people could benefit from considering many of the lessons my friends learned before they embark on their own projects.

1. Have a plan. This is not just an idea in your head and some hand waving or rough sketches. A plan is dimensioned and intentional, and includes elevations showing what rooms look like from different directions. Plans are most frequently and effectively assembled by design professionals who know the amount of space required for common features in rooms, like showers and vanities, and are accustomed to working out solutions for challenging spaces.

The purpose of a plan is twofold: to show homeowners what they should expect, and to show contractors what they are expected to build. Without a plan, you have only hand waving, and that’s not much on which to base a contract, or from which to build.

Having a plan also enables homeowners to interview a short list of contractors and to evaluate their thoughts on the likely cost. Without a plan, every contractor you talk with will have a slightly different idea of what you have in mind.

Hire a design professional to create this plan. Design professionals do this all day, every day, and will put together a functional plan that 99.9 percent of the time will be better than anything you could come up with yourself. It will also have some beautiful feature or function that you never would have thought of (or would have thought impossible). Spend the money. It’s worth it. If you’re not convinced, talk with a friend or two who decided to forgo professional design and see how their project turned out.

2. Specify materials. A corollary to plans is specifications. This list of materials and methods outlines what will be installed and in what way. Specifications provide the opportunity to outline everything that will be installed and mention things like where seams will be in countertops and how many seams are acceptable. These kinds of things can have a large bearing on cost, so documenting what you expect will help contractors provide pricing for the specific things you want.

Think about cars as a comparison. Do you just ask for a 14-foot-long black car with a 6-cylinder engine? That could be a lot of different cars at different price points. Think about the kinds of details you’d consider for ordering a car, and make sure you ask for all of the features you’d like in your project, or you might end up with a base-model bath or kitchen.

As in item No. 1, hire a professional to do this. It will be money well spent.

3. Don’t be frightened. The dollar amount you will spend on your remodel can be high, particularly if the plan for the project you really want costs twice what you thought it would. It’s not unusual for homeowners to start with a wish list and then make decisions to bring the scope of work for their project back in line with their budget. Expect this to be part of the process.

The first step of budgeting for a project is to talk with your design professional about how much you are willing to spend. Make sure you account for at least a 10 percent contingency amount in that so you are aiming for a realistic number. When the first round of pricing comes back from contractors and it’s higher than your budget, it’s probably because it includes your entire wish list.

This is when value engineering (VE) comes in. When you value engineer a project, you identify parts of the scope of work (either the materials or the size of the project) that can be deleted or substituted. In most projects there’s a decent list of items that will reduce costs and allow you to bring the project into the range of your budget. 

Working with design professionals through this process will allow you to benefit from their expertise and delete or change items that won’t substantially affect the finished project.

4. See the value of CA. CA is not California. It’s construction administration, and it’s one of the key services that architects offer their clients. 

When the construction set of plans is done, the elevations and electrical plans are complete, and the project is ready to start, it is not time to bid your architect adieu. Construction administration keeps architects on through construction, usually attending weekly meetings and providing design details as needed, assisting with electrical and tile layout, and providing feedback to the contractor as they build.

Architects also provide clients with an objective and experienced eye as construction proceeds. They can scan the room and notice whether framing is installed as they designed it and whether the materials they specified are being used — particularly on the components of the house that are inside walls.

I can unequivocally say that the projects we work on where CA is part of the project go more smoothly and have more consistently excellent outcomes, because of the collaboration that is built into the process. Would you rather have your contractor work out design details, or the architect to whom you entrusted the design of your project? Let all the professionals do their jobs, and keep your team together during construction.

5. Ask how and why. If you aren’t entirely certain about how something is done or why it’s being done, ask. Construction professionals’ work is usually routine and expected. Because of that, tradespeople sometimes will install things a certain way because it’s the simplest and easiest way to do it. But sometimes the path of least resistance won’t yield the result you want.

Why does that ductwork need to go there? Probably it doesn’t. It can go in one or two other places, and having a conversation about where it will go can make a big difference in your finished space. The same thing with plumbing lines and other infrastructure.

In residential jobs, plumbing, electrical and HVAC work is almost always bidder-designed, meaning that your construction plans won’t give instructions about how to get utilities to their locations — it will just show where they need to end up. That means a deliberate discussion is needed. If you don’t ask, and your contractor is not proactive, don’t be surprised to see ductwork or plumbing in places you don’t want it.

6. Ask how long and how much. When changes are made during construction — and they inevitably will be — don’t just ask whether a change can be made, but know the cost and the impact on schedule. Change orders are supposed to detail the change made and all of its effects, but sometimes they don’t capture everything. For instance, you might like to add an outlet to an existing wall. There’s the obvious cost of the electrician, but what about the demolition where the outlet will go, patching the Sheetrock and repainting the wall at that location? Oh, and protecting the floor while the work is going on. It never hurts to ask, “Is this really all of it?”

One other thing to make sure you ask with change orders is whether the decision you’re making affects anything else. An example might be changing the size of a vanity sink base from standard to custom. There’s an obvious change in cost for the cabinet, and perhaps an adjustment to the countertop cost if the size of the cabinet makes it larger or smaller, but did you think about the sink and faucet you selected months ago for the standard cabinet? Changes to casework almost always have a cascade of effects, from countertops to tile to millwork, and can necessitate revisiting sinks and faucets to make sure they still fit.

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