Design-Build on a Tight Budget

Elisha writes: Thank you for the insight you have provided into what it means to build a house. We are planning to build in the Poconos. Given a total budget of about $200K, I’m assuming we should go with a Design-Builder to help us with siting and designing the house, and with project management and construction. Is this the best approach?

Steve Bliss, of BuildingAdvisor.com, responds: Given a tight budget, a design-builder could be a very good choice compared with hiring an architect and putting the project out to bid. At the outset, a design-builder could give you a quick reality check as to whether your budget is realistic for the size and type of building you have in mind. With a design-build contract, You lose the benefits of competitive bidding, but can save by having the design “value engineered” to fit your budget and needs. Don’t forget the many costs associated with site development, above and beyond basic construction costs.

Based on preliminary budgeting, you may discover that you need to scale back on your design and can develop strategies for accomplishing that. Options include leaving portions of the house unfinished, creating a design that easy to expand, do some of the work yourself. You may also need to use less expensive finish materials and fixtures to get a larger space. Every design is full of trade-offs.

Another option is to work with a house designer or architect to work on siting the house and to develop a preliminary design and budget. Discuss your budget at the outset with your designer, so you don’t waste a lot of time designing a house that is far beyond your means. Then put the house out to bid and let the contractors work out the construction details and specs. Some contractors will be happy to bid based on your preliminary design; others will not. The challenge here will be for you to compare bids that will not be apples-to-apples as each contractor will be interpreting the preliminary design and specs differently. In essence, you are letting the contractors do the value engineering in their bidding as they flesh out the design. Before selecting a bidder, make sure you know exactly what is included and excluded from their bid.

Whichever route you go, you can save a lot on the design phase if you can find a stock design in a plan book that is close to what you want. There are thousands of plans available online and in plan books, which you browse at a bookstore. With many web sites, you can plug in the size, number of bedrooms, style, etc., and search for plans.

If you are computer savvy, there are also a number of easy-to-use computer home design programs that will let you play around with home designs and view them in 3-D. Of course, a paper and pencil works, too, for basic design work and is still my favorite approach. To get started, buy yourself a plastic triangle and an architect’s scale ruler, which will allow you to make accurate scale drawings quickly and easily.

Once you find a house design or two that you think might work, you can play around with them and tweak them to your needs. High-tech software or low-tech white out and photocopies work equally well to develop a preliminary design.

As you work with a plan, try to imagine the space in 3D and visualize what it will look like and feel like inside. Visualize how you will enter the house and move from room to room (what architects call “circulation”). Think about sunlight — east windows get morning sun, west windows get afternoon sun, and south windows get spring, fall, and winter sun.

To help with dimensions, measure rooms in your own home for comparison with the plan. Do you want the rooms in your new house to be smaller, bigger, or the same. Mark out dimensions on your floors with masking tape to help you visualize actual dimensions, and move your furniture around to see how it will fit.These exercises will enable you to “right-size” rooms and help you avoid unpleasant surprises when you walk into your newly built home.

If you bring you rough plan to a designer or design-builder, you are well on your way to getting a design that’s right for you and your building site — and will save money and time in the process.

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