Thursday, November 20, 2014

What to Consider Before Starting Construction

So you and your designer have settled on a plan for your remodel or your custom new-build home. You can already envision gathering with family and friends to cook delicious meals in your new chef’s kitchen. Or even feel the warmth of your new steam shower. But before all that can come to fruition, you must embark on what many homeowners say is the most stressful, undesirable process of a major home project: construction. 

As with most things, the more prepared you are, the better you’ll be able to manage problems when they occur. (And they will occur.) Here are a few things to think about.

Modern Kitchen by Duvall Kitchen & Bath Remodelers DL Rees Contracting, LLC

Selecting a Contractor

There is no foolproof process for selecting a contractor. Trust is a good starting point for the decision-making process. If you trust the people you’re working with, you’ll likely cut down on hassles and cost overruns. Of course, some people can be too trusting and therefore be taken advantage of, so don’t bet all your chips on trust. 

Value for money, experience and referrals are all elements to factor into the sometimes complicated calculations when you’re selecting someone to take your project from design to reality. This is someone with whom you will likely be interacting closely for an extended period of time, so choose someone who fits with how you and your team like to work. 

You can read reviews on Houzz to get a sense of a general contractor’s work and personality before arranging to meet in person, which is highly recommended. If it sounds like dating, it is in effect, with one big difference: This person will be responsible for taking a large sum of your money and converting it into a finished product that you will hopefully enjoy for years to come. 

Contemporary Entry by Toronto Architects & Building Designers Incite Design

Get the names of the contractor’s last three to five clients and ask all of them these questions. 
  • Did the contractor seem knowledgeable and resourceful?
  • Was he on budget?
  • Was he on time?
  • If there were delays or cost overruns, was it the contractor who caused them? If so, how did he deal with them?
  • Did the client feel the contractor worked collaboratively to come up with mutually satisfactory resolutions to problems, or was the tone combative?
  • Were the clients happy with the workmanship and the contractor’s subcontractors’ work?
  • Did he keep a clean site?
  • How was he with follow-up after completion?
  • Did he come back in a timely fashion to deal with inevitable drywall cracking and nail pops?

You want to confirm that no red flags pop up as you go through this part of the process. Generally you are looking for contractors who deliver a consistent level of client-first service. Those contractors that do are almost never the cheapest to hire, but sometimes the extra 2 to 10 percent in cost can be worth it.

Modern Dining Room by Los Angeles Architects & Building Designers NEW THEME Inc.

A Bid Is Not the Whole Picture

Although on paper competitive bidding seems to be a foolproof way to get what you want at the lowest price, there are challenges with that approach in real life. If contractors were bidding on something they understood 100 percent, and there were no differences on how they delivered the finished product, then competitive bidding could be a good solution. 

But just as the same meal turns out different when prepared by three different chefs, the same set of drawings is interpreted differently by different contractors. We have had clients insist on choosing the lowest bid on a job without considering other critical factors, such as experience, reputation and trustworthiness. 

On a recent custom house, we actually had to fire the contractor from a jobsite when it became apparent the contractor was not building what was actually in the drawings. We had to find and bring in another crew to finish. This is not what you want as a client when you are trying to finish your house. Worst of all, that client now has to pay the second contractor extra to fix up all the mistakes caused by the first one, to the tune of more than $30,000. Not to mention, there’s the time and hassle of having to find and fix all the problems. All of this basically wiped out any savings over a more expensive contractor. 

Choosing a contractor should never be based on bid prices alone, but a whole host of other factors that your design team will help you with to pick the best contractor for your specific job.

Modern Home Theater by New York Interior Designers & Decorators West Chin Architects & Interior Designers

Fixed Bids or Time and Materials?

A fixed price implies that the contractor will charge you X dollars at the end of the job — end of story. But most contracts have provisions stipulating that latent conditions (for example, things that are unseen, such as termites in existing walls or large underground impediments to excavation) will add to the price. 

Another potential issue with a fixed-price contract is that it tends to put homeowners across the table from their team member (the contractor), as quality decisions are often dictated not by the scope of the project but by the budget. This means that compromises are made in how certain elements are delivered, due to cost implications (such as removing wall finishes like tile) or deleting elements altogether. I just had a meeting with a landscape contractor, who said it best: “By the time we get to the jobsite, most of the money has been spent, and we have to make do with what’s left over.”

A time and materials (or cost-plus) contract is sometimes more favorable to a homeowner, as it can be viewed as more transparent. Simply put, your contractor buys materials and charges you an hourly rate to install them. But in the hands of an unethical contractor, you might find yourself on the wrong end of a hefty bill, as latent conditions also tend not to be covered.

In reality, most contractors will break up their bid into a part that is fixed (for the parts they have a good handle on) and a part that is not fixed. This makes your contingency even more critical. (As we mentioned previously, you should set your budget and then subtract 20 percent to arrive at your real construction budget.) The contingency is not for “splurges,” but accommodates the usual price variations on a construction project.

Modern Bedroom by Cincinnati Architects & Building Designers Jose Garcia Design

Bids: What’s in Them and How to Compare

Your team should help you confirm that what is in the drawings correlates to the bid, so the contractor doesn’t miss anything. It is sometimes hard to do this without experience, because one thing on the drawing may imply several steps in construction or a different way to do things than the contractor might be used to. 

As part of the bidding process, what we like to do is go over areas that contractors should spend a bit more time on right off the bat in a meeting, so they cover all the items that are required. Remember, we all want the contractor to give an accurate bid, so he doesn’t get frustrated during construction by having to go back and redo elements of the building. As much as we advocate for our clients, contractors are running a business too and have bills to pay. 

And the good ones are in high demand, not just because they do great work, but also because they have a reliable method for assessing the work and the cost to the owners. And having a good contractor that can deliver your project far outweighs the apparent cost savings of a cheap bid up front.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Federal Funding to Help Enhance East Main Street

Federal funding of $1.55 million will help the city of Rochester pay for new parking spaces, sidewalks and other improvements along East Main Street, officials announced.

Another $811,580 is earmarked for the village of Webster for bike lanes, sidewalks and an extension of the median on North Avenue, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced Monday.

The city’s funding will be used to add 50 on-street parking spaces on East Main from its intersection with East Avenue to the Genesee River. New sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, bike racks, and pedestrian signs and kiosks also are part of the $2.4 million project.

The funding comes from the Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation Alternatives Program as the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority prepares to open its new downtown transit center Nov. 28.

“Clearing idling buses off of Main Street has given us a real opportunity to transform this thoroughfare into one that is more pedestrian-friendly and more hospitable to retail,” Schumer said in a statement.

“This funding will go a long way in remaking East Main Street so it is a place where new stores and restaurants will want to locate and where residents and tourists will want to visit. This funding is just the beginning in helping Main Street go from a bus-transfer mall to a gorgeous place to shop, open a business and explore.”

Final designs are scheduled to be completed in 2015, with construction to begin in 2016, officials said.

The funding for Webster will attract shoppers, residents, visitors and new retail to the village center, Schumer said.

Construction is scheduled to begin next summer, officials said.

Some $70 million was awarded for projects statewide, including several in the Finger Lakes region. They include:
  • $256,500 to Monroe County to install pedestrian signal devices;
  • $1.46 million to Farmington, Ontario County, for its Auburn Trail Connector;
  • $1.13 million to Ontario County for sidewalk improvements at Lakeshore Drive and Moran Road;
  • $247,493 to the town of Victor, Ontario County, for its community connectivity project; and
  • $720,657 to the city of Batavia for its healthy schools corridor.

(c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal 


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Contractor Tips: What to Know About Budgeting for Your Home Remodel

The budget conversation — it’s sometimes awkward, often slightly uncomfortable and usually comes with a bit of anxiety. Because of the nature of construction, things often cost more than what homeowners think. There are endless debates on why that is, but the result is that we designers often have conversations with clients that end with an awkward silence. The silence usually means that certain aspects of their project might be out of their reach. And truth be told, we really don’t like being the messenger in these conversations. We want our clients to be satisfied with the process and get what they really want. 

But the flip side of that conversation is that budget constraints can make a project better. Just hear me out. What we find is that financial considerations make our team and clients focus on what’s really important. That pressure helps edit down the myriad choices and allows a more coherent story to emerge. And it all comes back to sticking to that budget. Here’s how.

Modern Exterior by Baltimore Architects & Building Designers Ziger/Snead Architects

Establish Your Budget Early

We have been in situations where clients have not told us their budget until we have completed some of the initial phases of work. This, no surprise, can slow down the process. It’s like going to a personal trainer but not telling them how much weight you can lift, and so you spend time trying a few exercises to figure out what the proper weights are. 

There are situations where homeowners generally don’t know what a new custom home or addition will cost, but a key part of the process is considering how much you would be comfortable spending on the project. Obviously spending $50,000 will produce a dramatically different result than if you spent $500,000. And what you spend will be influenced by a wide variety of factors, including neighborhood, type of project and level of finishes.

Modern Kitchen by Cincinnati Photographers RVP Photography

Without knowing a budget range, we could get through the first few meetings with clients and then give them a rough ballpark figure, which is sometimes double or triple what they thought it would be.

Don’t try to second-guess your design team by holding your cards close to your chest. Help us work with you to get the most value for your hard-earned dollars. Most designers don’t look for opportunities to waste money just for the sake of it. Sure we all want a great project at the end of the process, but we also want to make sure our clients are happy. So establishing your budget early in the process will be helpful to your team, as it will give them one of the key ingredients that will go into making a design you can live with.

Contemporary Exterior by Toronto Architects & Building Designers Incite Design

Ensure Your Budget Is Realistic

It’s easy to look at TV shows and get the wrong idea about what things cost. In most cases those budgets are not realistic for a bunch of reasons, most of which revolve around how suppliers and trades price their services to be included on the show. There is an old project management saying that goes, “Price, speed, quality — pick any two.” 

It’s not totally untrue, and it underscores that there are no easy trade-offs in a construction project. It would be problematic for me to suggest pricing in this article, as it varies substantially based on a number of factors, including location, number of trades in the area, level of finish, complexity of construction etc. 

The budget number that most clients care about is the “all-in” number. That includes everything they will write a check for including moving expenses, fees and construction. (More about that later.) 

Your design team can help you get a sense of what a realistic budget might be for your project; you can also ask friends who have done projects in the recent past, or check the Houzz Real Cost Finder

Pricing tip: Pricing can change substantially in certain areas over as little as a few years, so be sure that the projects were completed recently for the best idea of pricing.

Modern Bathroom by Burlington Architects & Building Designers TruexCullins Architecture + Interior Design

After you create your budget, subtract 20 percent. Construction being what it is, there are always situations that arise that will increase the cost, and those are hard to foresee at the beginning of construction. It’s a very complicated process involving many people and a lot of communication, so there usually are things that happen that will eat into that 20 percent contingency. The contingency should not be used for upgrades to counters or splashy fixtures. 

On a recent project, our clients had to spend thousands of dollars to get their utilities hooked up again, as the electrical feed from the street was torn up by mistake. On top of that, since the utility’s own drawings said that the feed still existed, there was a three-month delay on top of the reconnection order so that the utility could update its drawings. Even though this these will never be seen, they were absolutely critical and had to be completed before construction could be completed. 

Keeping a 20 percent contingency allows our clients to end up spending what they thought they would spend initially, and they can sleep at night.

Modern Dining Room by Vancouver Architects & Building Designers splyce design

Understand What You’re Paying For

Hard costs, fees, furniture — what is in the contract? Your design team will also help you understand what is in those budget numbers. Hard costs include the costs of the construction materials and fixtures required to actually build the structure. Soft costs generally include fees for permits, consultants and designers.

It’s important to establish what your team is referring to in conversation to make sure everyone is on the same page about budget numbers. For example, construction is often expressed in dollars per square foot to give a rough guide during planning. Generally this does not include appliances or soft costs. So it’s important to know that if your contractor says your new house can be built for $750,000, there are soft costs likely not covered in that estimate. Work with your design team to understand the costs and how they relate to a schedule, and how there are items you might not have thought about, to get an overall sense of what is required.

Modern Living Room by San Francisco Architects & Building Designers Swatt | Miers Architects

What if You Run Out of Money?

We have had this conversation with clients on more than one occasion, and truly it’s not easy for either the clients or us. It’s frustrating to hear how something that you’ve been planning for is out of your reach. 

There may be opportunities to reduce costs by changing the scope of the project. For example, instead of fully constructing a basement bathroom in a new house, you might just rough in the plumbing so it could be finished at a later date. Or it could be possible to reduce the cost of fixtures and finishes such as flooring or faucets.

During a recent conversation with clients, we recommended that they wait before starting the project so they could gather more resources before proceeding. In the discussion we realized that it wouldn’t be possible to “de-scope” or redesign the project to fit their needs, so the best course of action was to delay. Was this difficult for all involved? Absolutely, but we felt strongly that starting a project that didn’t address their needs wouldn’t serve their overall best interests.

Whenever you are dealing with money, there is the potential for some uncomfortable conversations. But if you understand what you are dealing with early in the process, those conversations will be less stressful than if you’re standing in the middle of a half-completed project in the middle of winter wondering where all your hard-earned money has gone.