It’s Not Just About Looks

Wait a minute, did I just say that? Of course it about looks! But, it’s also about feeling. Have you ever noticed that spaces evoke feelings? Usually it’s the smallest, indiscreet details that create the mood of a space.

For example, have you ever noticed what a difference window and door trim makes in a room? How about crown moulding? Trim details such as these can make or break a renovation.

How about shadows and lines, textures and shapes, balance of color and placement of decor? When assembled well, all of these factors blend together to create a harmonic space in which people love to be.

When I was in design school one of the required courses was freehand drawing. We had to draw such things as pinecones and kitchen utensils and feet. What the heck did that have to do with architecture? I thought the professor was a little tapped, to be honest. But, towards the end of the course, I realized that I was noticing more and more design details, important details that really affected the sense of a space.

Then came the “wax on wax off” aha moment. The smallest elements really count! Pay attention to them! They deserve to be noticed.

P.S. I also learned that I can draw a mean ice cream scoop. 😉

Beware of the “Ball Park” Estimate

Almost every client is interested to know a ball-park estimate of what their project will cost.  Even though I might have a gut feeling of what a project might cost, I am reluctant to share it with the client because it is just that – a feeling, not a detailed estimate based on a clearly defined scope of work.

Ball-park figures almost always lead to disappointment since inaccuracy is practically guaranteed.  What does it include?  What’s not included?  The variables are too vast.  It is crucial to impress upon clients that each project is unique.  It cannot be quickly added up based on an a’ la carte menu.

In addition, it is so easy for a client to get a ball-park figure stuck in their head.  When the real costs are figured and delivered, the client then experiences an initial shock followed by disbelief and either crushed hopes or even anger.

Instead of giving a ball-park estimate when asked, I provide examples of recent projects and their costs.  I can point to a bathroom or kitchen renovation and tell a client the cost of that particular project based on its scale and quality.  That helps give a client an idea of cost without backing myself into a corner by trying to guess the cost of their project on the spot without any specific details.

Trying to guess does no one any favors and in fact ends up causing more confusion than being of any help.  It’s only fair to everyone involved to provide an actual estimate for a specific project scope, leaving much less room for error and uncertainty.

Project Bloopers, Episode 1

I once had a client who called me in to help figure a very basic bathroom remodel. They had a limited budget.  I told them we could help them get what they needed within their budget as long as we stuck to inexpensive finishes and fixtures.

The next thing I knew the clients wanted to add finishing a portion of their basement. We went through the exercise of design for both the bathroom and basement, keeping things simple for a low budget project.

It wasn’t until I delivered the renovation estimate that the clients broke out into a sweat and told me they had expected me to stay within the budget of that very first ball-park number, the one I gave when the project was for the bathroom only.  I had assumed it was understood that the cost would increase as the project scope increased.

Sometimes what you think is obvious is not so clear to someone else.  I learned it’s best to communicate, put it out there, state the obvious, never assume.

Renovating on a Budget?

I’m about to risk raising some eyebrows with this suggestion, but I’m going to make it anyway.

There is a simple way for homeowners to save significant sums on renovation projects. And that is, if you cannot act as your own general contractor, hire an Owner’s Project Manager (O.P.M.) to manage the project on your behalf.

Why should that raise eyebrows? Because it relieves the general contractor of that duty, and therefore also relieves him of a hefty mark-up on the subcontractors. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the function of a general contractor, especially on large and complex projects (in which case having both an O.P.M. and G.C. would be a good idea). But, on smaller projects where the G.C. may be only funneling work to the subs and there is not a lot of work for his own crew, an O.P.M. seems to make sense.

A G.C. doesn’t really want to be bothered with a bathroom renovation, for example, where there is little carpentry involved. However, some homeowners have neither the time or the inclination to be their own G.C. This is where an O.P.M. can help. An O.P.M. can organize the project, coordinate the subs, communicate between the client and subs, make decisions on behalf of the client when necessary, manage the schedule, manage the budget, and see that everything is done according to the project specifications. For this service, an O.P.M. could save a client literally thousands compared to a G.C.’s mark-up.

If you plan to give it a try, look for an experienced Construction Project Manager, preferably with a Construction Supervisor’s License and general liability insurance.   Here is one resource for locating a Construction Project Manager in your area:

Cost Estimating Strategy

I am a firm advocate of getting a preliminary construction cost estimate as early on in the design process as possible. As an estimator, too many times have I been in the position of having to deliver the bad news that the clients have paid their architect thousands of dollars for a design that is way over their budget to construct. Yes, there have even been tears shed over such news. Imagine having to offer condolences for a dead project, share longer-than-comfortable hugs and then drive your suit jacket straight to the dry-cleaners to remove the tears and nasal drool from your shoulder.

But, that all can be avoided so easily! In the ideal situation, which unfortunately does not happen often enough, a client will select their contractor in the project planning stages to work as a team with the designer. Even if that doesn’t happen, it is still possible to solicit preliminary bids from contractors when schematic drawings are available. The preliminary estimate will help guide the design in line with the project budget, and will hopefully guide the clients in selecting a contractor to join the team early on.

This strategy has proven very successful for me in helping clients be more at ease through the entire project. Remodeling is considered one of the most stressful events people can endure. If something as simple as a preliminary cost estimate can help ease that stress, I am all for it, and you should be, too!

Before You Hire A Contractor…

Don’t jump to sign a contract with the lowest bidder. Do your research. Because what you really should want is someone you can share your home with for the duration of your renovation project. Find out the following…

Does the company have a good reputation in their service area?

Do they have a wealth of happy and repeat clients?

What is their track record on completing projects on time, within budget and issuing change orders?

Is the crew respectful not only of clients and their property, but also of their neighbors?

Does the contractor have a solid team of sub-contractors with whom they work cohesively on a regular basis?

What is their average rate of call-backs for repairs, (i.e. long-term quality of craftsmanship)?

Positive answers to the above are professional virtues that should not be overlooked in favor of a lower price. If you weren’t already aware, you should know that there are contractors out there who will low ball their bid to be awarded the project with every intention of making up their financial loss with multiple change orders. (Another very good reason to have a solid project plan and specifications!)

Consider hiring the contractor with whom you feel you will gladly develop a long-term professional relationship, even if he is not the cheapest. Peace of mind and smiling faces at the end of a project are worth every penny. After all, the lowest bidder may not turn out to be a good financial investment at all.

The Importance of the Project Plan

More than once I’ve been asked whether or not it’s really necessary to hire an architect. Depending on the project scale, the straight answer is no, there may not be a need to hire an architect. But, what IS essential is a comprehensive project plan which is often times prepared by an architect, designer, or design-build contractor. The project plan includes specific details on the entire project scope from beginning to end.

When details are not clearly defined, the likelihood of problems is almost guaranteed. The first problems arise when the contractor must make assumptions on certain details in order to provide a cost estimate or leave those details out of the cost estimate altogether. Either scenario invites the potential for costly change orders and added time to the project schedule, both of which result in heavier stress on all sides. We all know that elevated stress levels create a breeding ground for conflict, therefore leading to further issues.

Take the time to clearly define the project plan with all of the details specified. Estimate the cost as accurately as possible and set a target completion date. It will save you money and plenty of headache medicine in the end. After all, don’t you want to enjoy your investment when it is done instead of being reminded of all the anxiety it caused?

Create a free website or blog at