Secrets to a Successful Remodeling Project – Who to hire and how you can make a difference
Originally published by Sonoma West Publishers in Homes & Lifestyles, Summer 2011
It has been said, and I firmly believe, that the only opportunity for saving money and time when building or remodeling a home is during the design and planning stage. A successful building project involves the careful coordination of hundreds of large and small tasks starting from the very first step in the design process through to the final completion of construction. It starts even before the design is put to paper. A project has a much greater chance of success if the architect or designer is working as part of a team with the contractor and the homeowner to uncover and explore exactly what is driving the desire to remodel, what design provides the best solution to the problem and how to best balance those changes to the house with the amount of money the homeowner is comfortable spending.
A successful remodeling project, then, requires that a homeowner put together a team consisting of an architect or a designer and a general contractor. Together with the homeowner, the team comes up with the most appropriate design given the specifics of the existing house, the homeowner’s lifestyle and the available budget. This approach allows the design and building professionals to work together with the homeowner in a collaborative and cooperative manner rather than an adversarial one, which is so often the case when a design is developed without the architect and contractor working together.
Each of the participants plays an important role in this collaboration. The team of architect and contractor is responsible for carefully listening to the homeowners as they describe what does and what doesn’t work about their house and what they want to change and then proposing one or more creative design solutions that are in line with the homeowner’s stated budget. In order for this process to work, the homeowners have some responsibilities of their own. They need to help during the design process by being candid and clear in their communications with the team. They need to clearly communicate their expectations so that misunderstandings can be avoided and they need to convey their budget and schedule goals so that the architect and contractor can realistically determine the feasibility of various design options and effectively plan the work.
After the design concept has been decided, then begins the task of working out all of the details. This is where the opportunity exists to turn an OK project into an excellent one. It is the design details and the material selections that can make the greatest difference in project quality and almost all successful projects I have seen have one thing in common: the structure, the finish details, the material selections and the energy issues were worked out while the design and plans were being developed, well before construction started. This is also the best time to look for opportunities to reduce costs by considering various alternative design approaches, structural systems and finish materials and selecting the ones that most cost effectively match the intent of the design. This is known as value engineering. Changes to the design and the plans made early in the process have minimal impact on the project costs. But if those same changes are not considered early on and instead are made during construction after the plans have been completed and the permit has been issued, there are likely to be significant consequences affecting costs and schedule. When the contractor, engineer, architect, interior designer, and some of the sub-contractors contribute their expertise and experience during the design process, the best opportunity exists for a seamless, cost efficient project. A successful design process is one in which the project has been built and choreographed on paper and in the minds of the participants before construction starts, much like a script for a play is written and the play is rehearsed with the involvement of the playwright, the director and the actors before it is actually performed.
This kind of approach to a remodeling project, while it is likely to result in the most successful outcome, requires a higher level of commitment from all of the participants to a common goal: That of determining the best design, that meets as many of the stated goals for the amount of money the homeowner is comfortable spending and then building it in an efficient and as organized manner as is possible. The fact is that many contractors and architects have little or no experience working with each other in a collaborative way, and as a result the homeowner is often forced into the uncomfortable role of refereeing disputes between the two. And it is the rare homeowner who has the experience necessary to resolve such a dispute.
The commitment that both the architect and the contractor have to make is to leave their egos at the door, to recognize the important skills that each brings to the team, and to work together for the success of the project, recognizing the requirement for a balance between the design and the homeowner’s budget. The attitude a homeowner brings to the process will also have a significant effect on the success of the project. Designing and building or remodeling a home is an emotional experience for everyone involved. There are ups and downs over the course of the project and even if everything is completely planned out in advance, despite everyone’s best efforts, things will still go wrong. Contractors and designers are used to solving problems on the fly, revising a schedule or “putting out fires” as just part of every job. Many homeowners, however, have little experience with the building process and find it difficult to be understanding, patient or flexible when their home is occupied by strangers eight hours a day and their life is temporarily turned upside down. But it is true that a homeowner who maintains a positive and understanding attitude will draw out the very best from the people on the team including the construction workers who will go above and beyond the call of duty in an effort to make up for any unexpected breakdowns.
So, if you are going to remodel or build, put a team together first because the success of a project is determined long before demolition starts or the first nail is driven. Find a contractor and an architect who have experience working collaboratively or work with a Design/Build company where the team is already in place. And remember that you are as much a member of the team as the professionals you hire. The greater the level of trust and the more willing you are to openly share with the members of your team your needs, your expectations, your goals and your budget the greater the likelihood of a successful project.