Some owners have the time, interest, and talent to handle nearly every aspect of a project on their own. But most will want to collaborate with or delegate to others at least some aspects of the project to take advantage of their specialized skills and expertise. This section will help to decide what to do yourself, what to delegate, how to choose your team members, and how to get everyone working cooperatively to get your project completed the way you want it. Remember, you’re footing the bill – it’s your team.
A lot of people are typically involved in designing and building a home or large remodeling project. Before getting too far along on a project, it’s a good idea to assess your strengths and weakness, time commitment, and level of interest and use that information to decide which tasks to take on yourself and where you should bring in outside help. Even if you choose to design and build your house “alone,” you will need some help from others, such as public officials and bankers, who may be involved whether you want them to be or not.
Choose your key team members – especially your designer and contractor – very carefully. No other decision will have as big an impact on your project’s success. You will be working closely with these people, more as partners than as employer-employee. Good communication and give-and-take will be key. So find people who are competent and trustworthy and who are a good fit for you. Find people who you will enjoy working with.
WHO’S ON FIRST?
Being the team leader does not mean that you make or micromanage every decision on a project. Even if you know a lot about wiring, you shouldn’t have to tell the electrician how to wire a switch, but you might ask him to use special airtight electrical boxes or airtight recessed lights rated for insulation contact. If you hire competent framers, you shouldn’t need to tell them how to frame a roof, but you might want them to use rafters rather than trusses. Or you might want them to order “storage trusses” that leave no room for attic storage, or raised-heel trusses that leave room for extra insulation at the eaves. If you don’t ask for these things, you probably won’t get them. With most competent tradespeople, you only need to tell them what you want done – they will know how to do it. (Or with innovative products, you may need to figure that out together).
It’s not that the people you hire don’t care or are not competent. It’s simply that there are many ways to build things and, unless you tell them otherwise, they are going to do it by default the way they are most familiar with, or the least expensive way, or the most convenient way for them. This may and may not be what you want, but don’t assume it is. Tell them what you want, listen to their suggestions and feedback based on years of experience, then make an informed decision – often a compromise between your ideal solution and what they tell you is most practical and cost-effective.
For example, you may want a skylight on a nearly flat roof and your roofer tells you that, in his experience, a skylight installed at that angle has a good chance of leaking. Furthermore, you may learn the manufacturer won’t warranty a skylight installed at that slope. You roofer suggests a raised curb to lift the skylight up above the roof at a steeper angle. Well, it’s not exactly what you wanted, but you will probably be better off following the roofer’s and manufacturer’s recommendations. This type of give-and-take will go a long way in getting the project you want at a reasonable cost.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Building a new house or major remodeling project will involved hundreds of decisions, most of them in the planning stages. It can seem overwhelming at times, especially if you are supposed to be the “leader” but aren’t sure which way to lead.
The good news is that you don’t have to know everything – no one does. Even the most experienced tradespeople have to work hard to keep up with the latest changes in building codes and practices, and new materials. And no one knows the work of the sub-trades, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, hvac installers, plasterers, etc., as well as they do.
However, the better informed you are, the better decisions you will make. Read as much as you can about the type of project you are contemplating, clip ideas from magazines, talk to friends or neighbors who have completed similar projects, and get the opinions of experienced contractors or tradesmen. When the time comes to make design decisions or to choose product A or B or construction method (detail) C or D, you can make an informed decision.
Although you can’t know all the answers, you can know what questions to ask. Don’t be shy about asking the tough questions: How long have you been using this product or material? What problems have you encountered? How long will it last? What maintenance will be required? What about this new product you have seen or heard about? If you’re not satisfied with their answer, get a second opinion.
INNOVATION VS. TRADITION
Most tradespeople are conservative by nature – they like to use products and materials that have proven themselves over time. They don’t want callbacks, that is, having to come back to repair new work six months after a job is complete. So their advice is worth listening to. However, they may not be open to new ideas that have merit, but no track record, at least based on their personal experience. Also new products and materials have a learning curve, so they will probably factor additional time into their estimate for head-scratching time.
On the other hand, sometimes the way they’ve been doing something for years no longer works, due to changes in materials, building codes, or building skills. For example, some old timers want to slash the ceiling vapor barrier to let the household moisture escape – not a good idea in today’s tight houses. Or they may tell you that too much insulation will cause your wall to rot. Or they may want to install tile to water-resistant drywall with mastic – a bad idea all around. In this case, you, your designer, your specifications, or your building inspector may need to overrule their old way of doing things – but only if you’re in charge.
As for the latest products and building techniques that have just hit the market, it’s up to you. If you like to live on the cutting edge, and are willing to take the risk, you can try the latest innovations, some of which are destined to fail – or at least not live up to their marketing promises. Others may turn out to be terrific and will probably replace the traditional material within a few years. Unfortunately, you won’t know which. If you are more conservative by nature, stick with the tried and true and you’ll be happier.
As the team leader, it’s your job to choose the best team members you can find for your project and then to give them the information they need to get the job done. Your goal is to get the project completed correctly, on time and on budget, and with the least risk and fewest headaches. The single most important tool you have to accomplish these goals is communication. If you do not clearly communication your expectations to others on the team, you cannot expect things to go the way you want. It’s not that the other people don’t care about your needs and desires, they just have their own priorities which are often different from yours.
The tools and techniques for communication during building projects will be covered in detail under Project Management. You (or people you delegate to) must tell everyone involved what to build, how to build it, to what standard of quality, and on what schedule. The more detailed the communication, the less likely there will be misunderstandings and conflicts.
The three main tools you will use to communicate critical information about the project are the plans, specifications, and the contract. Start out with good plans, specs, and contract terms and you’ll be well on your way to a successful project.
Plans. The plans, or blueprints, are a visual representation of what is to be built. Plans can be highly detailed and precise drawings with extensive explanatory notes, or they can be more of a rough visual concept of the project – details to be figured out later. Make sure the details are filled out before soliciting bids or starting construction.
Specifications. The “specs” are written instructions that work together with the drawings to give a detailed description of the work. They describe the type and quality of materials, how they are to be installed, and may establish quality standards as well. For example: “Exterior wood trim to primed on all six surfaces with Bob’s Best 100% Acrylic Superior Primer, and finished with two topcoats of Bob’s Select Waterborne Exterior Paint – Low Luster Finish, color to be selected by owner. All paint to be brushed on or sprayed and back-brushed.” While this spec might seem pretty detailed, it could also include standards for paint thickness, application temperatures, drying times, and so on. On a typically single-family residential job, going to that length might be overkill, but in some cases might be justified.
At the other extreme I’ve seen specs as sketchy as “Exterior wood trim to be primed and painted, two coats.” This leave far too much room for misunderstanding. From my perspective, reasonably detailed specs are critical as they let everyone know, in writing, what is expected. In a courtroom (where I hope you never wind up) the specs are typically given more weight than the drawings if there is a conflict between the two. Of course, a good spec is no substitute for a competent tradesperson with high standards. But assuming you have found that person, a good spec is the best way to establish your expectations for the work to be done.
The Contract. The construction contract is the third key document used to communicate details about the job. This will be covered in detail under Project Management. Our eyes often gloss over when faced with “boilerplate” contract language. On a large building project, this is a mistake. Get a large cup of coffee if needed to stay awake, but read it and ask questions about anything you don’t understand. Hopefully, you will never need to read the contract again once it is signed, but in the event of a dispute, you’ll be glad you have it all in writing. Moreover, a well-written contract makes a dispute much less likely as it spells out how common issues, such as change orders will be handled. To start any construction project, no matter how small, without a written contract, is foolish.
Beyond these documents, make sure you clearly communicate to the key players what is important to you. On new construction projects, it may be saving trees or certain natural features that may mean little to a guy with a bulldozer and chain saw. On a remodeling project, your family might have issues around dust, pets, noise, etc., that you want the tradespeople to respect. Are certain materials not to be used because of allergies? Some of this information may already be covered in the plans and specs. However, it doesn’t hurt to remind the contractor or tradespeople about your priorities. The more you communicate what is important up front, the smoother your project will go.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
As you read though the long list of tasks described in this section, and who typically does them, ask yourself if you have the time, skills, aptitude, and desire to take that on. If you feel you have the aptitude, but not the knowledge, ask yourself if you have the time and desire to come up to speed. Learning on the job is OK – in fact, necessary. The truth is that we all are learning on the job all the time – in construction, business, or surgery, you name it.
Some lessons are learned without too much pain – for example, we use a new synthetic decking product that promises to never rot, mold, or mildew. Guess what, two years later, half the pieces are covered with mold and needs to be cleaned (or maybe it’s a warranty issue). Either way, relatively painless.
Other lessons can be pretty costly: You build a large open structure with big spans and undersize a major beam – or don’t provide a suitable load path to carry the weight of the roof with three feet of snow. Next winter, things start to sag, drywall cracks, windows get stuck. Big problem.
The moral of this story is that it’s fine to make your best guess with small decisions (since you almost never know all the answers), but unwise to wing it on the big decisions. In the case of the sagging beam, for example, you should have left the engineering to a structural engineer.
To design and build a house uses a lot of disparate skills and aptitudes, rarely all found in the same person: The design process requires creative and artistic skills, and good spatial visualization, for the conceptual part of the job, and very logical and analytical skills for the technical and planning aspects of the job.
The project management phase requires a highly detailed and organized approach to estimating, budgeting, permits and approvals, scheduling and coordinating multiple trades. Once construction begins, organizational and detail are still important, but the more pressing need is a seat-of-the-pants approach to troubleshooting job-site problems, resolving conflicts, and handling personnel issues.
Maybe you can do it all, but you probably can’t do it all well. While bringing outside professionals onto your team will cost you a little (or in some cases, a lot) more at the front end, it can save you money, time, and aggravation in the long run. Even if you decide that you want to be your own contractor, you still will need to bring others onto your team.
The trick is to be judicious in whom you hire and what scope of work you assign to them. For example, you can have a draftsman draw up your plans in a professional manner (and catch a lot of little problems in the process) for a few hundred dollars, and an engineer review your plans, if necessary, for about the same. You can hire an architect just to translate your design ideas, plan book tear -outs, and magazine photos into a coherent plan – and then take over the project management for yourself.
There’s no one way or right way to do this. As the team leader, you can structure the team any way you like. As long as you are thoughtful and conscientious, and make sure that all the bases are covered, you can save yourself thousands of dollars and end up with a wonderful result.