Lessons Learned On My Own Project

Jun 13, 2005

Those who knew me way back when could tell you that, in my younger days, I was more rigid in my beliefs, more certain of my direction, and generally a lot less flexible than I am today. Age has done something for me beyond just adding inches to my waistline and forehead! One of those things I was certain of was that the proper way to do a construction project is to plan it out in complete detail, carefully designing everything and specifying every single piece of equipment and fixtures and everything thing else BEFORE starting to build. I worked for design firms, and that’s the way we sold our services. My recent experiences on a residential project I’ve been working on for the past seven months are making me rethink a lot of what I thought I knew about designing and building construction projects, however. What this project has shown me is how well it can work when you don’t plan out every detail in advance. Why’s that? Because seeing things go up in the flesh can impact some of your earliest decisions on how you want to do things. That dual driveway may make perfect sense on paper, until you see how one of the drives is supposed to go in right where there’s a big tree. And that other big tree on the site you were planning to save all along maybe should have come down because it’s shielding the house from a road with no traffic. That HVAC closet planned for your art studio made perfect sense in 2-D until you saw a better place above the bath to put the mechanical equipment. The bathroom is so much better now that a stained-glass window purchased on eBay was installed between the sinks. And who knew you could find stainless food-prep sinks from a restaurant supply company darn near as cheap as a tan plastic ugly laundry tub from The Home Depot? If every detail is spelled out, and there’s no room for creative redirection in the field, the joy of building will be lost to all but the architect on the job. Here’s more of what I think: More designers have to get out in the field. If they don’t, they are going to make mistakes. They are going to do things wrong and make bad decisions. Real life is different from paper! (This is a major problem. Designers don’t know enough about costs, and they don’t know enough about how things get built.) Two heads are better than one, and women see things differently from men. It IS easy if you are in control of every design decision. But, that may also lead to falling in a rut and making things overly thematic, i.e., everything goes “mission,” for example. Sweat the small stuff. You can have the best contractor in the world, and things will go wrong. Sinks get moved 3” to the left during rough in and that results in 2” falling under a window, plumbers don’t use ¾” pipe and instead switch to ½”, door hangers put locks in upside down, and so on. You must check everything! Treat your contractors like friends. If you do, they’ll take your calls, try to help you out, and not overcharge you. I am still a big fan of time-and-materials contracts when dealing with honorable contractors. I get the best performance from people working on that basis, and the worst from those on a fixed price just about every time. Shop for your materials if you want to save some money. Western Red Cedar shingles at Lowe’s are $172.50 a square. I bought 70 squares and paid only $72 a square with no sales tax by buying them online direct from the mill in Canada. Mosaic marble tile costs $25 to $35 a square foot locally, takes a month to get, and then has sales tax and significant shipping charges added to the bill. To add insult to injury, you still need to go to the tile store to pick it up once it comes in— and that takes a good-sized truck and a strong helper. I bought the stuff online for $6 a foot and had it shipped direct from Shanghai to Fayetteville, Arkansas. The shipping charges were a little more, but we got it in 10 days and didn’t have to haul it from a store. Don’t always listen when someone tells you something can’t be done. The door guy told me I couldn’t get wooden storm doors. I found ‘em in Wisconsin. And my GC thought we’d have to tear the stone off one side of the house that was getting an addition when he found another inspector who said we could leave it. Don’t take “no” for an answer. In a few cases, you may need to let things go in the interest of keeping everyone focused on getting the bigger job at hand completed. There’s no such thing as a small job. A simple recessed medicine cabinet that was just slightly larger than the one it replaced took about three hours to install. The plaster was thick, the metal lath behind it didn’t take to cutting, the hard old studs were just a little too close together, and the mess went all over the nearly finished bath and hall. As my old carpenter Ray Stackpole used to say, “There’s no such thing as a small job.” Be tolerant of the mess and destruction, but help out and clean up yourself. I used to get mad that most of the subs were such slobs on the job. Then I bought myself a new Shop-Vac and some construction-grade trash bags and helped out. Understand things will go wrong. Mistakes do get made. Point them out, be nice about it, and the majority of them will get fixed. In a few cases, you may need to let things go in the interest of keeping everyone focused on getting the bigger job at hand completed. The great thing about doing your own projects is it makes you more attuned to what clients go through. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from it! Originally published 6/13/2005

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