You’ve decided you’re ready to pursue that renovation or new building project that you’ve been thinking about for so long now, but you don’t know where to begin or what to expect. Delving into the unknown can make us apprehensive and anxious, so here is some helpful information to prepare you for what to expect and to provide you with some direction along the way.
Like most things in life, a renovation and new home project requires some planning. The first step in the process should be to locate and interview residential designers or architects. These are the professionals who will help you bring your vision to life. Starting with a design professional will enable you to organize and develop your thoughts, needs, desires, and budget. You will walk away from the design process with the documents you need to successfully solicit comparable bids from contractors which will give you better pricing and result in a faster construction time and fewer change orders.
What does a residential designer or residential architect really do?
There are five basic phases to the home design process:
2. Schematic Design
3. Design Development
4. Design Documents
5. Construction Administration
Programming: During this phase the designer will meet with you to determine your wants, needs, and desires. A quality designer will ask you seemingly unimportant questions about your lifestyle, your priorities, your current and future needs and will want to learn about your personal character and style. Be prepared to explain what you like and dislike about your current home, be specific. Designers and architects are trained problem solvers, but they can’t read your mind, so tell them what problems you are having in your current home or have had in other homes. Prepare a prioritized list of desired changes, in the case of a renovation, and a prioritized list of desired rooms or spaces, in the case of a new home. Try to determine what the reasons are for wanting to renovate or build in the first place. Perhaps you need more space, better flow between rooms, more natural light, improved function or more storage. Let the designer learn about you and what you need so they can successfully transform those needs and desires in a unique design solution. If you are beginning a renovation project, the designer will visit the site and take measurements of the existing home as they relate to the area to be renovated. If you are building a new home the designer will want to visit the site and document existing site conditions during this phase.
Schematic Design: During this phase the designer will use all of the information gathered in the programming phase to develop multiple design solutions. They will meet with you to review their designs and will want to get your feedback. Be honest with your designer. If you do not like the solutions they have presented, tell them so and more importantly, tell them why. Most likely you will like bits and pieces from each of the designs. The designer will revise the plans and elevations based on your comments and will meet with you again to review the new designs. This process will continue until you have a design solution that meets all of your needs and desires.
Design Development: During this phase, the designer will continue to develop the project based on the approved schematic design from the previous phase. They will begin to work out details, and refine what materials will be used and get more in depth with you about the appliances, plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, mechanical systems and more. If your designer does not suggest it, you may want to request that the designer prepare a preliminary set of floor plans, exterior elevations, and an outline specification to use for preliminary pricing purposes. A reputable contractor will give you a preliminary estimate based on these early documents to confirm that the design is on target with your budget. The preliminary pricing at this stage may help you avoid costly design changes during the design document phase. The further along you advance in the design process and decide to make changes to the project, the more it will cost you in design fees. However, with that being said, it will always cost you more to make changes during construction than it will to make changes during any part of the design process. Once the design is further developed and you are happy with the results, the designer will begin the design documents phase.
Design Documents: This is phase where the designer will produce the documents necessary for the contractor to build the project. The amount of information contained in your design documents will depend on the level of documentation you request from your designer. Smaller scale or less complex designs may only require a basic set of design documents that include a floor plan with notes and dimensions, an exterior elevation showing the outside appearance of the home with notes and dimensions, and a site plan locating the home on the site. While a more complex or larger scale project would require an expanded set of design documents which can include the same floor plans, elevations, and site plan mentioned above along with wall sections which define the materials and limited methods of construction for the floors, walls, and roof; and building sections illustrating the connection between new and existing structures and any significant areas of the project where the contractor needs to be given additional information. Expanded sets can also include a finish schedule listing all of the finish materials, moldings, cabinetry, and counter tops for each room; interior elevations illustrating the designs of all the cabinetry, handrails, stairways, and moldings throughout the home along with notes and dimensions; and specifications which are written instructions concerning all of the materials to be used inside and outside the home. The more information you provide your contractor with, the less likely you are to have problems during construction. Some contractors will tell that they don’t need any drawings or that they only need a floor plan. You are putting yourself and your home at risk if you proceed without documentation or with minimal documents. If you plan on soliciting bids from multiple contractors, an expanded set of construction documents will ensure that each contractor is bidding on the same thing and you will receive competitive prices that are far less likely to change during construction. An expanded set of documents will cost you more in design fees initially, but it will save you time and money in the long run.
Construction Administration: This phase is optional in the residential industry, but it is recommended if you have limited time to contribute to the oversight of the construction. During construction administration, the designer will visit the job site at intervals relative to the phase of construction to make sure the project is being built as intended. The designer will not conduct inspections, code officials will need to be called in to inspect the project for code compliance at the various stages. If there is a problem or you would like to make a change, the designer should be asked to be involved in the resolution or redesign. Construction is the longest phase of the process and having a designer who can act as your personal advocate from start to finish will make your home and you life much better.
Obviously, this is a lot of information and I have only explained the basics of each phase, but hopefully I have provided you with a guide that gives you a better understanding of and appreciation for the design process. As always, questions and comments are encouraged. If you want more information, leave a comment on the blog or refer to my contact tab at the top of the page.
While it is true that building and construction prices are more competitive, it is also true that many builders and contractors need to make more money off each project because there are fewer of them. Herein lies the problem. The residential building and design market has become flooded with contractors and designers that have been laid off from their commercial jobs and are picking up residential projects to help them get by. On top of this influx of commercial professionals, there has been on overall decrease in the number of actual projects. Anytime you have more sellers and less buyers, the advantage goes to the buyer; however, buyers beware.
• Reputation and References: Only hire reputable professionals that provide you with current references that you actually call and talk to. Don’t hire your neighbor’s friend from church who works out of his 1985 pick-up truck.
• Residential Experience: Do not hire a commercial professional to do a residential project. The two building types are completely different animals. Would you take your child to a vet or your dog to the pediatrician? I hope not.
• Get Drawings Before You Build: If your contractor tells you he doesn’t need drawings to build from, don’t believe him. That’s like going into surgery without the x-rays or ultrasound. You’ll have no idea what you’re getting into. Contractors know that with quality floor plans, details, and elevations they are required to give you what you expect at the price they quoted you. Without drawings, they can constantly raise the price because they can claim that they didn’t know you wanted doors and windows included in the cost of your new bedroom.
• Don’t Automatically Go With the Low Bid: The lowest bid is rarely the best choice. Get at least three bids and if one bid is significantly lower than the others, then they probably left something out or they don’t know how to estimate. Ask your designer to review the bids and compare them with you.
• Desire Quality not Quantity: Bigger isn’t always better, so don’t sacrifice quality building products or methods for more space. Your renovation done right will add value to your home and life, but poorly built additions and renovations will actually decrease your home’s value and result in headaches and repairs galore. If you don’t know the difference between high quality and poor quality building products and methods, you need to hire a designer that does.
This is great time to take advantage of some lower construction costs, but there are also more people willing to take advantage of you in the process. Don’t be afraid to pursue those renovations and additions you’ve been dreaming about. Just be smart about who you choose to help make them a reality.