The Process, Part 3: Things You Should
Know About Construction
Things get tougher during construction. While hiring a designer and working through the design process might have been alternately a bit confusing (hiring) and fun (design), construction ups the ante into "playing for keeps" territory.
We're going to break this one down into some extended bullet points instead of a semi-sequential narrative like our first two parts. This is a situation where there are some non-negotiables that you just have to know about and be prepared for.
The right contractor is worth searching for
No matter how well as we do our job as designers, and no matter how carefully as you prepare as an owner, the contractor still has the ability either to screw everything up or to turn a problem situation magically into a great project. That's why you need the right person for the job and why it's important to get quotes from AND INTERVIEW multiple options. Two different contractors can turn the very same situation into something wonderful or horrible depending on how they approach it. We're happy to help out with the contractor selection process -- in many ways, it's the most important part of construction.
• As a minimum, a contractor needs to be insured and registered, and they need to prove both those to you. They need to pull permits for the work where required; permits are required for virtually all work within city limits. Outside of cities, requirements are less stringent.
• On smaller projects, the cheapest is rarely the best. Cheaper costs upfront frequently turn into lots of hidden costs, schedule delays, and outright lies. Not always, of course. But frequently. This is a hard lesson to learn because it's difficult to tell the difference between a good deal and a business tactic, and it's very tempting to take the "discount" up front and deal with the consequences later.
• Talk to the actual person who will run your job. Marketers are great at marketing, and lots of companies will send you a marketer to meet with instead of a contractor. As soon as they have your money, you'll get a rotating cast of chumps. No good.
• Your contractor doesn't have to be nice, but they do have to be honest and fair. Construction attracts a lot of people who have rough edges. It's a tough job, and regardless of how you look or act, you need to be tough to do it well. But you don't have to compromise your ethics and morals. So don't worry if your contractor wears stained jeans and doesn't say please and thank you. DO worry if he or she won't tell you the truth or doesn't treat you with respect (even if it's grudging). And DO worry if they're a pleasant, smooth-talking person who has clearly never used a hammer and who excels in changing the subject when you try to talk about real issues.
• Be sure that you have an actual contract and that it covers EVERYTHING that you expect it to. Ask questions and negotiate before signing if it doesn't. See point #2: cheapest isn't best. Lack of clarity about scope and responsibility is a favorite method of extracting more dollars out of people after they're already on the hook.
• Go look at other projects they've done and talk to the owners. We put this last because it's definitely not a failsafe. Lots of contractors have three good and 20 bad projects -- guess which ones they use as references? But it's still worth your time.
Construction is a tough process
The more variables you add to an equation, the harder it is to solve. Construction is like that, too. We're dealing with three-dimensional space, lots of different parts and pieces, and surprisingly large numbers of people. If this is a remodel or renovation, then we also have the potential to be surprised by things hidden in walls and below ground, not to mention the fact that the existing building is never square and plumb. So things NEVER, and I mean never, go exactly the way we think they will.
That's OK, believe it or not, so long as everyone is prepared to resolve issues as they come up. That includes you, us, and the contractor. Other people might tell you that they're so good that they can figure everything out beforehand and their construction projects always go seamlessly. It's just not true. We believe it's better to accept that construction is tough and to be prepared to resolve issues than it is to pretend that problems won't happen. You should be leery of anyone who doesn't approach construction that way.
It usually takes longer than you think
It also usually takes longer than your contractor thinks. People tend to be naturally optimistic with regards to construction schedules. But work like this follows the 90/10-50/50 rule: 90% of the work goes smoothly and takes 50% of the time. The other 10% doesn't go smoothly, and it ALSO takes 50% of the time. This is why realistic scheduling frequently starts with doubling the time period that a rough first estimate might yield.
Ironically, very small and very large projects are less subject to this problem. Very small projects are simple enough that people can realistically assess the potential problems prior to starting and can properly account for them. Very large projects a) should have more sophisticated scheduling going on, and b) have more flexibility in scheduling so that if one sequence gets thrown off, other things can happen at the same time. The overall schedule is more resilient, even if individual pieces can be problematic. That said, big projects can lag, too. Sometimes dramatically.
It's going to cost more than you think
Money is the source of much design- and construction-related unhappiness. Let's break it into individual situations.
• Is construction really THAT expensive?
Yep. Unless you've built something very similar recently, you might not have a good handle on construction costs. For example, what you paid for your house from a mass-market builder 10 years ago bears little relation to what you would pay for a renovation project today. Further, scale plays a big part. Small projects cost proportionately more than large projects -- sometimes WAY more. That said, there are also many contractors out there who charge significantly more than is reasonable, especially when the market is hot. We can help you avoid that situation.
• I have drawings and a bid from a contractor -- don't we know exactly how much it's going to cost?
Close, but nope. That's what contingencies are for. See, situations always come up. Perhaps a bid comes back higher from the drywall sub than the contractor had accounted for, and his bid was based on sub bids. Or maybe you find out that your sewer line is clogged by tree roots, or when the wall is opened up, we find out that the studs are all rotted. There's always something. But this is a known issue, and it's why you should never have a budget that doesn't include a certain percentage dedicated to unknowns, called a contingency. The amount varies according to project type and size (more for renovations and smaller projects; less for new construction and large projects) but 15% is a decent figure to start with.
• What do I DO?
Carry a contingency. On a project which has a low potential for surprises -- a ground-up project or an addition or finish-out to relatively modern construction -- keep an additional 10-15% of the total bid in reserve. If you're dealing with old existing construction or your project is unusually complex, then make that 20% to 25%. Keep it in a separate savings account, and don't let anyone know you have it, but plan on having to spend it on the project. If you're lucky, you can spend it at the end on furniture and a big party. If you're not, that money is going to save you when you have to replace the entire sewer line or repair electrical problems you didn't know you had.
Is this conservative? Yes. Yes, it is. Will it also absolutely save a project? Yep. We've seen it happen often enough to know that trying to rationalize away the need for an owner's contingency is a fool's game. Don't be the fool.
It can strain your relationship with your significant other
First of all, WHAT?!? Well, believe it. We mean that seriously. This obviously applies to residential projects, primarily, as well as to those commercial projects where you and your spouse or significant other are both heavily involved.
You probably know that one of the biggest obstacles to a healthy personal relationship is money problems. Construction projects include that money factor, but then you also have to make lots and lots of decisions together -- another traditional relationship difficulty. Be sure that you're ready for both of those, and be prepared for rough spots from time to time as we work through disagreements and tackle things that come up.
You won't hear this from many designers, but it's the truth, and it's why trusting the person you work with is so important and why finding the right contractor is so critical. And it's important that we can trust you, too. We've walked away from clients who we don't feel like we can trust. This whole set of issues is why this series is sprinkled with words like "communication" and "responsibility," and this is frankly why we took the time to write this series in the first place. The more you know about us, and the more we know about you, the more trust we have together and the more successful a project will be. That's the bottom line.
Ask, please -- contact us by phone, email, Facebook, or whatever works for you. We're happy to talk through your situation or to come meet you. We realize that some of the things in here are a little scary. That's done in the interest of making you aware of what can be a challenging process, but do remember that we do this every day and can get you through it smoothly.
Come back soon for Part 4, where we'll answer some miscellaneous questions and wrap things up.