Sunday, February 1, 2009

interviewing contractors

With the drawings and specifications complete, we solicited bids from several contractors in order to get different perspectives of the project and potential cost. I identified three residential remodeling contractors whose general philosophy and approach seemed most inline with our own. We asked each contractor several questions:
  • What is your specialty?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • Are you licensed, bonded and insured (see below)?
  • How many employees do you have?
  • How many crews do you have?
  • How many projects do you complete a year?
  • How many projects do you work on at any given time?
  • What is the average size or type of project?
  • Is my project similar to projects you typically worked on?
  • How long will my project take?
  • When can you start my project?
  • What are your fees? payment schedule?
  • Do you have a list of references (see below)?
  • May I see finished a project (see below)?
  • May we meet some of the project managers/lead carpenters?
    Besides the answers, we were attentive to how and what they communicated. Sometimes their behavior or what they did not say was just as important as what was said. It seemed as if some contractors were not particularly interested in the project or in us as clients, which was highly unusual given the current economic conditions (it’s winter 2008-09). We liked the contractor whose general philosophy mirrored our own values and whose demeanor set us at ease. Like-ability is key, as he and his crew would be in our house almost all day, everyday for several weeks if not months.

    Each contractor requested a separate, two-hour walk-through with their sub-contractors. We fielded questions from the subs and asked some of our own. The subcontractors that impressed us most were the ones that were asking questions and making suggestions. They demonstrated that they were thinking beyond what was drawn in plan, were actively engaged in the project and wanted to do what was best, as if it were their own house. When possible, we asked the general contractor to stagger the subs’ visits so that we, the general contractor and the sub-contractor could have an uninterrupted opportunity to look at the house and ask questions. It was difficult when there were several subs looking at the space and asking questions at the same time.

    We checked out each contractor with the local CCB to verify that they were licensed, bonded and insured. It is best to check this each and every time before hiring anyone. In the past, I've had several contractors tell me they were LBI when they were not.

    We obtained references from each contractor, contacted at least three of them and asked:
    • Did the project come in on time and under budget?
    • Was it easy to communicate with the contractor?
    • Was he prompt and responsive?
    • What were some of the challenges in the project?
    • What were some of the challenges in working with the contractor?
    • Were you happy with the work when it was first complete, and are you still happy?
    • Would you hire the contractor again?
    • What would you do differently?
    • Do you have any other suggestions or words of wisdom?
    As our project was relatively sizeable and involved, we asked the contractor to see a finished project that was similar in scope. We paid close attention to the finish work (carpentry), cabinetry, paint job, tile work, intersection of different materials and their transitions, and door thresholds. At each project, we asked the contractor:
    • How long did this project take?
    • Did the project come in on time and under budget?
    • What were some of the challenges this project posed?
    • What would you do differently in this project?
    • What did you learn?
    • Will you use the same subs in our house that worked on this project?
    It was surprising that some of the projects we saw weren’t the best examples of the contractor’s work. Didn’t they know that this was an interview and that they should put their best foot forward? I mean, did they want the job or not?

    Tune in next time for comparing the bids!

    the design process

    The design process below is specific to our own basement, but may be used as a general guideline for any project.

    First, we established and prioritized our goals (or scope or program) for the project. This ensured focus during design and discouraged scope creep. Our goals were simple: we wanted two bedrooms, a family room, one full bath, finished laundry room, wine cellar, wet bar and unfinished storage. We did not want the spaces to feel like they were in the basement, so natural light and air, quality materials and detailing were important. We intended to stay in the house well-after the remodel, and viewed the project as a long-term investment. We would live in the house while the construction took place. The project needed to be code-compliant and city-permitted.

    Second, we had in mind a budget, or an amount of what we wanted to invest. The budget flexed during design as options came and went. The budget informs what is possible, the level of finishes and attention to detail, and refines the project scope. If you intend on staying in your home for a long time (i.e. at least ten years) and your budget does not allow for the entire project scope to be executed at one time, consider phasing the project into manageable chunks or wait until you have enough funds. In this type of scenario, any remodeling should be viewed as a long-term investment; the worst thing would be to cheap out in order to do the whole project and then be unhappy with the design or material palette.

    Third, we measured the entire house, top to bottom, inside and out (see above). This included all site elements, secondary structures and utilities. From this data, I produced the as-built drawings (see below); that is, the plans and elevations of the house and property as they stood before any work was done.

    Fourth, I laid out several schematic options investigating how the rooms might fit in the given space. I used the structural bays, existing window locations, chimneys and utilities to define and locate the different spaces, and the layout easily fell into place. In general, it’s best to create simple spaces with a logical flow.

    To make the most of the natural light, the bedrooms were located to the south at the existing windows. A single “wet zone” was created by stacking the baths, then placing the laundry and wet bar close by. To avoid large thermal swings, the wine cellar was not positioned at an exterior wall but at the interior. The unfinished storage went next to the cellar to operate as the thermal sink. At the center of the basement is the family room which functions as the “hub” for all the activities on the lower level. The main issue was the existing stairs; although the width and rise and run were grandfathered in (complied with a previous code), the head height was a bit too low. I reconfigured the stairs and in the process gained more kitchen storage. This layout will go through one more interation before construction.

    We discussed the pros and cons of each scheme, then selected the layout we liked best. I refined the design by investigating different details, materials, finishes and fixtures. I visited local showrooms often. I consulted structural engineers, HVAC specialists, carpenters, painters, cabinet makers, metal smiths, stone fabricators, flooring specialists, plumbers, electricians, window and door manufacturers.

    Last, I tighten up drawings and specified all details, materials, finishes and fixtures. All site, demolition, framing, finish, mechanical, electrical and plumbing plans, elevations, details, interior elevations and perspectives were drawn and notated. All finish and fixture schedules were completed. The whole design process took 2-1/2 years, worked on at night or on weekends and holidays.

    Normally, the design process for a project of this scope would be 4-6 months. Although even this may seem long to some, the time and effort spent thinking through the entire project, selecting all finishes and determining the details before the contractor starts will result in a cheaper, better executed, more refined project with a shorter duration and less headaches. Or at least we hope it will.

    Tune in next time for interviewing the contractors!

    hiring an architect

    Ok, so we’ve established that design should occur before construction, but do you need to hire someone or can you design it yourself? Do you need an architect?

    Before embarking on any home improvement project, it’s a good idea to define the project. Ask yourself:

    • What am I remodeling? Is it just new finishes for a face-lift or a whole room or several rooms? Am I moving any walls or adding on?
    • Why am I remodeling? Is it for personal enjoyment and long-term investment or to sell?
    • Who will be doing the construction work? Me? A contractor?
    • When is the project to be done? Next week, next month or next year?
    • How much do I want to invest (budget)?
    Most larger home improvement projects are complex enough to hire an architect. Smaller projects such as new finishes in one room may not need the skills of an architect or designer, but if you work full time, or do not have the inclination, patience, desire or aesthetic sense, it would be worthwhile to employ a professional. An architect will suggest several design alternatives, propose a better utilization and flow of the rooms and help you to visualize and understand the new spaces. He will help clarify the project scope and keep it within budget. He is knowledgeable of the local codes, requirements and building techniques and can stamp the drawings if required. He is familiar with the different finishes and fixtures and can help you wade through the myriad of options. And he can refer you to contractors that will fit your personality and needs.

    So how do you find an architect? The process of searching for one is similar to searching for any professional. Ask friends, neighbors and relatives for referrals. Read the local paper and magazines. Search online. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) offers a class in hiring an architect and can assist you in finding a qualified professional. Go to open houses and home tours and ask for business cards of projects you like. In a few months, the HBA will be hosting their annual Tour of Remodeled Homes in which you can see the projects firsthand and talk to the professionals who designed and built them.

    Interview at least three architects. Ask each of them:
    • What different services do you offer?
    • What is your specialty? (residential, commercial, historic, sustainable, etc.)
    • How long have you been in business?
    • How many employees do you have?
    • How many clients do you work with in a year?
    • How many clients do you work with at any given time?
    • What is the average size or type of project?
    • Is my project similar to those that you’ve done in the past?
    • How long will it take to design my project?
    • When can you start?
    • What is your general design philosophy?
    • How do you approach a design problem?
    • What is the design process like? What will happen during the design phase?
    • What is my role during this time?
    • How many people will work on my project?
    • What are your deliverables?
    • Do you monitor the project during the build phase? What tasks do you do during construction?
    • What are your fees and what do they include? What is the payment schedule? (Note that fees are usually hourly, lump sum, dollar per square foot or a percentage of construction cost.)
    • Do you have a list of references?
    • May I see a portfolio?
    Look for someone who shares a similar aesthetic sense and whose design ideas are in keeping with your own values. Although he is trained to design in any architectural style, make sure he has done work that you love. Of course, the architect should be someone that you get along with easily. Be clear about your needs and ready to actively engage in the design process. Carefully reviewing the architect’s proposals and providing thoughtful feedback will help the process go smoothly.

    Now that we’ve touched upon the general topics of whether or not to design and how to hire an architect, we will return to the normal programming of Bungalow Remodel PDX.

    Tune in next time for designing the basement!

    “do i really need to design before i build?”

    The next two topics are general in nature. They are not specific to the Bungalow Remodel PDX project as I executed design work, but the questions of whether to design at all and how to hire an architect might be interesting to some.

    “Do I really need to design before I build?” I have been asked this question many times by friends and relatives, and the answer is always “yes.” I have designed during construction in the past, and the projects have always been more expensive, taken longer and were less elegant in design. It’s extremely frustrating and stressful when you’re forced to make last-minute or on-the-fly decisions in order for the tradesperson to install the fixture or finish that afternoon. By designing first, you have the opportunity to:
    • Consider the project as a whole as well as the fine details.
    • Establish a game plan.
    • Investigate different schematic layouts and finish possibilities.
    • Select the best design solution.
    • Anticipate concerns and address them before they become issues.
    • Develop a strategy to minimize construction impact.
    • Get a more accurate bid or construction cost.
    • Determine what the finished project will look like prior to construction.
    The results are a more thoughtful design, coherent finish palette and cleaner details, shorter construction time, less construction cost, better execution and fewer headaches. Although it is impossible to foresee everything, this holistic approach prepares you for the questions that arise during construction, creates a good foundation for the work to be done and sets the bar for the quality of construction. All-in-all, it’s time and money well-spent.

    Tune in next time for how to hire an architect!