The remodeling process- the path from here to there.

William Mark Bostic, Square One Design Service


Am I a candidate for remodeling?


Before we tackle anything else in the process, we need to take a moment and think of why you’re here in the first place.  You’ve got a roof over your head now, might be too small, might need a little work to get where you want it to be, but I assume here that you have a home that that you want to stay in for whatever reason.


It might be that you’ve had your home for a while and gotten attached to it.  For many people that means getting attached to the neighborhood.  You’re close to work, or to a relative, or friends, and can’t see uprooting your whole lifestyle just to get a new kitchen like the one you saw at the parade of homes.  I mean come on, it was a really nice house and all, but I couldn’t think of driving that far every day to go home if my life depended on it.  And you have to pay that much to live way the heck out there? No way, explain this remodeling thing to me, please.  All I want is to see what I can do to my existing home and see whether I can afford it before I get in too deep.


How do I do that, just pick up the phone?


Well, if you did, what would you say?  “Please come and tell me how much to enlarge my kitchen and add a sunroom.” will only get you an answer like,

“Gee Lady, it depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“Oh little things, like how big, how many windows, what kind of floors do you want, picked out your appliances yet?”


If you haven’t figured it out yet you just jumped the gun by a few steps.  You’re going to need a process, a set order of steps that will get you from where you are now to where you want to be, and hopefully spending a preset amount of money in the process.


What does a designer do and do I need one?


The designer that you hire is essentially a problem solver.  He has the job of figuring out what you want, where to put it, how to make it fit, how to make it stand up, how to make it look good, and how to do it with the amount of money you have for the project.  Also your designer creates a way for you to communicate with your contractor and all of his subcontractors, what the finished product should look like.


Now some jobs are more complicated than others.  If you are redoing a 5x8 bathroom that’s thirty years old you probably don’t need a designer.  Maybe for colors, but I don’t get into that anyway.  You’re probably picking out new faucets, fixtures, flooring and stuff like that.  The locations of things are not moving, so you really don’t need a drawing to show where they go.  A little time talking with your contractor, a visit to the plumbing supply house, the lighting store, the paint store, the wallpaper place, and the tile place and you’re ready to go.   If you’re doing a kitchen and keeping it the same size you probably don’t need me either.  The cabinet places have excellent kitchen designers who work with their specific products everyday.  Add in a contractor, a plumber, electrician, countertop guy, and well you get the idea.


Some jobs get more complicated.  Rooms need to get larger, rooms may be added, and gee a real laundry room would be sweet after all of these years.  Now you are moving into designer territory, the world of foundation details, roof layouts, moving structural walls, and site setbacks.  The contractor can do it if he can figure out what it is you want.  You just have to figure out what you want and draw a little picture of it.  Sounds easy, right?

It might be time to call in professional help.


Do I need a designer or an Architect?


Believe it or not, I have heard this question before, so I will give you some insights.  Architects are professionally trained to design buildings, specify everything that goes into a building, and certify that it gets there.   If you are building a church, or an office building, a school or a hospital get an architect.  He knows exactly what you need to put into each to make it successful, how much parking, how much lighting and power load, how much special equipment, etc.   You just want the building and want it done right and by someone else.  You got your man.  


Remodeling circumstances are a little different. Most of my potential customers don’t need quite that much from their building designer.  What they need is a great design that they can afford.  They are willing to do a little shopping to pick out what countertops they want, what flooring they want, what windows they want.  They are willing to interview a couple of qualified contractors and select the one they feel they can work with.  They feel that they are able to personally tell (along with the building inspector) if their contractor is delivering quality workmanship.


Architects do have the ability to produce great design.  I would look for one with experience in wood frame construction at the residential level, instead of one who works with steel and concrete all of the time.  You’re more likely to get a design that converts to actual construction practices at less cost.  That’s important when you’re on a budget, ask any contractor.  I went to architecture school, graduated too!  Just didn’t do the graduate school or intern with an Architect.  I’m definitely not qualified to do your next hospital, but I can probably handle your remodeling project just fine.  When you are looking for a designer, look at some of his completed projects if you are able.  If you like the way he solves problems for other people you’ll probably be a good fit together.  Some of my potential clients do need an Architect.   They want no part of design, material selection, or working with contractors, or any decision making, they just want the building done when they come back from Europe or someplace.   If you are that full service type of guy get an Architect.  If you are willing to take on some of the aspects of your project that I mentioned earlier a qualified designer may fit your needs just fine.


How do I get started with my designer?



Well the first thing is an on site visit.   Good design is a process that begins with a site survey, and this is more important in the area of remodeling that anywhere else.  Every remodeling job is different.  Your needs along with your site conditions, and your budget are the deciding factors when your designer starts to hatch out a solution for you.


Looking at what you have to work with is extremely important.  First we want to see the style and period of your construction.  This will give important clues to the experienced designer of how your home is put together underneath the drywall so to speak.  We’ve probably seen homes like yours taken apart during jobs before, so we know what to be looking for.  Homes have been constructed using different methods during different time periods.  Your home may be constructed with balloon framing if it’s old enough and plate type construction if built later.  It may have plaster walls, or walls of drywall depending upon its age.  Different areas around town usually have similarly built homes that differ from other areas in style and construction practices.  Once in a while we discover something unusual, like a home with brick interior walls tucked away in a neighborhood full of wooden framed homes but that’s pretty rare.


We are also looking at the style of your home, is it a bungalow, or a ranch or Victorian?  A good designer can make changes to the livability of your home and still keep the styling that makes it unique.  We want the changes or additions to be seamless so to speak, so you are less able to tell where the old stops and where the new begins.  Part of it is using the same or similar materials, but part of it is how you do the design, size of the windows, roof pitch and overhang details, stuff like that.  On occasion we can change the look of the home from one style to another in the process if that’s what you want.


The designer will probably measure some of the rooms for a small job, and all of the rooms for a larger job, and take digital photos of the home.  When I get your home laid out on the drawing board I can trace some design solutions over it to start to get a few concepts or preliminary drawings.  I usually also pull up all the photo’s I took to help me remember all of the details of your home.  Are the windows at the same height as the doors?  Where was that window in the kitchen?  How much overhang did that cornice have?  Those photos are very valuable to the process and way cheaper than when we had to take those old Polaroid photos. Remember those?  They were expensive and grainy.


The designer will also look at the site.  The site along with the existing building drives the solution to your remodeling problem.  What’s there to work with is so important.  Which way does the land fall off?  Where is the view?  Where are the trees?  How close are you to the property line?  How do the existing utilities enter the site?  Do you have a septic tank?  If you have sewer will a new addition be able to drain downhill enough to connect without a lift station. It is most helpful and sometimes imperative to obtain a survey plat showing the house on the lot.  This helps the designer comply with the setbacks and come up with the best design solution for your particular situation and site.  Nowadays the city or county may have restrictions on what percentage of your lot you can cover with your construction.   All of this stuff is better to find out sooner than later for obvious reasons.


Now the designer should listen closely to your needs and desires.  What do you want to accomplish?  What is on your ultimate wish list?  You might have seen something cool at a friend’s home.  Describe it to him or show him a photo you took.  Show him all those kitchen photos you’ve torn out of the magazines.  All those cool windows.  It’s what I call sponge day.  The day I try to absorb all that I can about your desires form your project.  Looking at the photographs is good.  Sometimes it’s not the cabinets you were looking at but the amount of light and openness that was in the space.  Try to paint for me a mental picture of how you want your space to feel.  I’ll try to tie back into that picture later when I’m at the drawing board.


Preparing design sketches.


Later, when I’m at the board I’ll use those measurements, pictures, and notes to try to come up with a design solution for your situation.  I will prepare a design sketch.  It will be pretty rough.  I work in markers and pens for preliminaries for two reasons.  First is that it’s faster.  I can sketch faster than I can draw in the computer.  I can explore several possibilities before I come up with one that I prefer.  Secondly, my clients seem to understand and respond to loose sketches more easily than hard-line presentations.  It’s a lot like looking at a painting rather than a photograph.  With a photograph, you just see it as it is.  With a painting, or other artwork, you have to interact and fill in a few details with your mind. You and the artwork interact to complete the final picture in your mind.  The artwork and your mind become one and your version of the experience is unique to your mind and different from anyone else’s experience. (Ouch, flashbacks to my days in Architecture school-enough of that already!)

 The first sketch usually not perfect, (sometimes it is but don’t hold your breath), in fact lots of times it’s pretty far off base.  But by interacting with the sketch we can come up with some positive adjustments and improvements that really help out on the next one.  See why we’re using sketches?  It’s much faster and more fluid than hard-lines.  Pretty soon we’ll have a sketch that we think is going to work for the house, the site, and for your needs. Now comes the acid test.  How much do we think it will cost to implement the solution?


Aligning the design with your budget.

 Overcoming the “sticker shock”


This is the most critical part of the process and cannot be taken lightly.  If you’re anything like me, it’s hard for me to buy into an idea or a product without knowing the cost upfront.  Say I see a dishwasher. Or maybe a car. The first thing I want to know is how much is that?  I can’t even decide if I even like it if I don’t know how much it costs.  Maybe I’m weird that way.  But I have to align the reward with the cost involved to obtain it.  In a remodeling job this is definitely where the rubber meets the road.  Remodeling is expensive.  There I said it.  What makes it expensive is that no solution is ever the same.  No set of existing conditions are ever the same.  When you go look at that new house it’s so much simpler, because it’s already there and been done by someone else.  There’s this house, along with a price attached, just sign on the dotted line and move in, take it or leave it.   Remodeling and new construction are a different ball game.  You get to decide the sum of your parts by what you pick out.  If your tastes are beer budget, you get a different outcome that if your tastes are champagne so to speak.  So as far as houses are concerned there is the pre-built or existing variety, the custom home where your selections and taste drive the budget, and then there’s remodeling.


You mean it costs more than new construction?

 “You only have to do half as much; I mean parts of it are already there!”


Consider the differences between remodeling and a new custom home.  First in a new home there is no tear out, no big piles of old appliances and plumbing fixtures to take to the dump.  And you have to be neat. New construction guys can make a big pile of trash in the yard and clean it up later when they put the yard in.  They don’t have to worry about trampling the rosebushes, there aren’t any.  They don’t have to worry about letting the cat escape, or making too much dust or noise. Or making sure that the power and water and phone are still working when you get home.

And here’s the big part.  They can’t go down to the lumber yard and get the standard stuff they usually get and it just fits.  Your house might have 8’ ceilings, might be 8’3”.  Might be 10’.  Standard 93” studs aren’t going to work.  You have to buy longer and trim everything to fit.  You also have to match the existing cornice, siding, shingles, brick and mortar colors.  Then you need to address some of those other issues, like “ maybe we should re-roof the whole house”,  and “gee, my air conditioner is already eighteen years old, maybe I need a new one?”


Finding out about the cost before it’s too late.


How do I actually determine if my sketch meets both my desire and my pocketbook? Well we could guess, people do it every day.  I hear from them after they are in way over their heads into a project. Out of money and way over budget.   Or we could draw up a complete set of plans and specs, select everything and then try to find a contractor to give us a price on it.  I’ve seen that too, the customer has something like six to ten thousand dollars worth of drawings and specs for a project that’s supposed to cost $155,000 to build but the actual price quotes come in at$350,000 or more.  Believe me those guys are not happy campers either.


Here’s the way I like to do business.  I draw homes and remodeling plans.  I don’t actually build them or pay for them.  I’m not the best guy to actually tell you how much your project should cost.  I recommend getting the price from the guy who has to deliver the product- the contractor.  Now if we draw complete working drawings for him to look at he can give us an actual price.  But it’s probably going to be too high.  We can then draw another solution or two until we get it right.  Look, let’s be honest, you don’t want to pay for a scenario like that and I don’t want to draw the same job four times even if I do get paid for it.  But we have some design sketches, let’s get some contractor input in the design phase that will help us drive our design closer to the budget you want.  Usually I get a couple of good remodeling contractors that work in your area to see your sketches and give you a ballpark price.  They will take into consideration the existing condition of your home, and try to get a feel for your expectations about materials and finish quality.  If you are bold enough to tell them your budget, which I recommend that you do, then they will be able to help guide you to your solution.  We may have to cut back on the size, or give up some bells and whistles to make it work.  A lot of guys adjust their budget up slightly after a week of soul searching.

 After you make it through this period and if you make it through this period, you now have a design solution that matches your budget, or is within 20,000 or so to your target budget.  That’s as close as you need to be right now.  We will tweak the numbers and selections later and get you right on.  You have the proper design solution, all you need are the drawings now.  If the number you got from the contractor and your budget are still way off, then your design needs to be adjusted once or more times to get it right.


Time to get some actual plans.


This is the part I like best because I have converted you from a prospective job to a real job.  This is great for you because you have a design solution.  It’s good for me because I get to get some money.  At the time of starting construction I know how much I need to charge you to implement plans for your design solution.  I can give you this number.  When we start final drawings I usually get half of the amount with the rest due when you get final drawings.  We might need to adjust your final drawings later, based on your selections, but I don’t charge for that, later changes are included.  It usually takes a couple of weeks to get your drawings back.  Usually I go with 2 1/2 weeks to be safe. When we get back together you will have complete working drawings for your project. I give you the originals or the vellums.   Sometimes when you order plans you get a certain number of sets and that’s it.  I give you the vellums and let you make as many copies as you need.  Later on you will understand why this is the best approach.  You could actually go and buy a permit and get started if you wanted to, but you won’t be ready yet.  You’re plans are ready but you’ve still got more work to do.


Now it’s time to get specific.


Well, you’ve got your plans in your hand, and it’s time to go shopping.  Only two things left to pick out, your builder, and well, I lied about that second thing… actually you have to select all of the finish items that go into your job.  You can either select them or rely on your builder to guess how much you want to spend on each area of your job.  In the old days your contractor was in a hurry to close your deal and get your job going.  There wasn’t that big a selection process anyway, everybody got carpet for $9.50 per yard installed, vinyl installed was $7.50 per yard, and all the walls were painted except you could get wallpaper in the kitchen for $500 extra.  You could sign, and pick your colors out later and we can get started right away.  Later if you pick out something more expensive we can settle up at the end.  Really, it wasn’t so bad, there weren’t that many really cool things to pick from anyway.


But then the industry started to change.   Manufacturers got tired of trying to sell products to builders and architects and began to market directly to the end consumer.  They started advertising in magazines, and setting up displays at home shows, and later began touting their products on the information superhighway.  The consumer became aware of a lot of new choices.  At first the builders and remodelors sort of ignored the whole thing, “You want what? Nobody gets that, it’s way too expensive, not really in your budget.”  Then one day they began losing jobs because they weren’t responding to their customer’s desires.  So, on their next job they said oh, you can pick out anything you want and if you go over budget we can just settle up at the end.  No problem.  So the customer picks out all the things that they find out about along the way and the contractor installs them.  Then at the end of the job, the contractor says, “Man, finally done, and it looks beautiful doesn’t it?  And you only went over budget $60,000.  I can take a check if you want…”

I’m sure this is the sort of surprise that you are looking forward to in your job, right?  I don’t think so.  So how do we avoid it?


Doing away with allowances.


While you are in the bid process, your prospective contractors are preparing detailed cost estimates from your final plans.  They are reading the blueprints and figuring out how much of each item your job requires.  How much footing concrete, how many bricks, how many studs, plywood sheets, rafters, and shingles your job requires.  His major subcontractors are looking over your situation to give cost estimates for plumbing, framing, electrical, heating and air systems and other work.  What he doesn’t know is exactly what your selections are going to be.  He used to just guess about that and put in something called an allowance.  If you spent less, you got a credit , if you spent more you got an extra bill.  In an effort to win the job from a competitor a contractor wants his price to be as low as possible.  So of course he wants to trim the fat out of your allowances.  They may be and usually are too low to get you the stuff you want.  The only way to fix the problem is for you to replace allowance numbers with actual numbers.  You can do that buy selecting your finish products in advance and getting hard quotes to replace those allowances.  I mean you’re going to pick out the stuff anyway, by doing it now, you can actually see how the choices you make impact the bottom line of your project.


The Quest.


 When I give a client his “final plans”, I joke that now it is time to begin “The Quest”.  It is time for the client to begin selecting all of the finish products in his job.  He will travel to see windows, plumbing, floor coverings, appliances, and lighting.  At the window supplier he can show his plans to the window consultant, see the products, and get a quote for the selections made.  At the others he can now do the same thing.  Now, if he gives the quotes to the contractor, those dangerous allowances can be replaced by solid numbers.  As a buyer you can usually sit with your contractor and analyze how your selections are affecting the cost of your project.  You can get input from your contractor as to whether your selections are on target with others in your price point.  You can even see how different quotes from competing window companies can affect the bottom line of your project.


You will begin to make value judgments about the selections that you make.  Is one brand of window worth more than another?  Well for some of my clients it’s really not that important, while for others it really makes the job a thing of perfection.  Same for plumbing, heating and air, cabinets, and floor coverings.  You will soon find out that there is not enough in the budget for the “Cadillac” of each selection.  You will have to give up some things in order to get other things.  I was having a conversation with a window supplier about how he had the best window on the market and couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t selling more of them.   I told him that he probably wasn’t losing sales to another window manufacturer, he was probably losing sales to the tile man, the floor man, and the appliance man.  He was stunned at first, but then realized that there was only so much money to go around.  He had to make his customers want the upper end windows more than they wanted the upper end tile, or that home theatre system.  While you are going through the selection process, you will weed out the not so important while keeping the items that are hot buttons for you.  All the while, the vision of your project should solidify in your mind.  Finally things will coalesce to a point where you are getting the right amount of finish quality with the right amount of price.   You will also be amazed at how close your contractor bids will be once the product selection has been reduced to an apples to apples comparison.  I’ve had smaller jobs bid out within $500 of each other when each contractor was bidding the exact same thing.


Ok, about ready to start.


Probably by now you’ve made your selections, picked your contractor, and negotiated a price.  Now you may have made a selection or two that requires a change to your plan.  A lot of times clients decide to add or remove a window, change a door, or make adjustments to the lighting plan.  Since your remodeling plans have been done in cadd these changes are usually pretty easy.  I like for my clients to make me a list and we go over it.  In a couple of days I can make their changes and then re-plot any of the pages that have changed.  Now you have a set of plans that will match your project more exactly.  You can give your plans to the contractor and let him make as many copies as he needs, or you can supply him with the set.  Either way you have the originals, and can make more sets as you need them.  And all of the sets will be the same and match your vision and budget.  That’s why I didn’t give you six sets in the beginning, because I knew that they would adjust some as you made your selections.


Now you really are ready to start your project.


 You will have the satisfaction that you are going to be as close to your budget as possible, and reasonably assured that you are going to get everything that you want.  Your job will progress smoothly, and you will sleep more soundly at night.  Depending on the size of your job, in a few short weeks or months, you will have the home or addition of your dreams, without having to actually move away from the area that you love.

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