Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lessons Learned…A Baker’s Dozen of Things NOT to Do!

It wouldn’t be a construction project if something didn’t go as planned, right? Sure enough, as we reach the finish line there are some things that haven’t turned out quite as we had hoped. Read and heed!
Not enough space between outlet
and wall for the trim we wanted.

1. Poorly aligned light switches. Because we didn’t have the interior trim figured out at the time the electrical wiring was being installed in several places the light switch is located such that we won’t have room for more than a skinny trim piece. And since there will be consistent size and style for the rest of the trimwork, these locations will stand out as ones that don't fit in.

SOLUTION: Figure out your trim ahead of time and make sure every doorway and window has enough wall next to it free and clear to install the trim fully clear of light switches—or sconces, electrical outlets, artwork you want to hang, etc. Treat each wall as a composition EARLY in the design phase. Arrange all the wall elements to make sure there is room for each, and then ensure that the result is a pleasing composition. Function first, then aesthetics.

Drawer will not open once
window trim is installed!
2. Incorrect cabinet calculations. Similar to #1 above, in a couple of places we designed a cabinet to sit against a wall forgetting about window trim. In one example, the drawer of a bathroom cabinet will not open all the way if we install window trim. Of course, we ARE going to install window trim so that means we’ll have to move the cabinet slightly and then fit a trim piece the cover the gap.

SOLUTION: Same as # 1 but go beyond the look of each wall to analyzing how the cabinets and furniture are supposed to function in the space. Is there clearance to open all the doors and pull out the drawers? Does the oven door open up leaving no room to stand? (Well at least we didn’t make THAT mistake.)

Bottom drawer had to be cut off.

3. Forgetting about soffits. Soffits are really important in my opinion. They add interest to what is otherwise a boring one-level ceiling. Varied ceiling heights create interest and, in the case of soffits (a perimeter area lower than the rest of the ceiling), they create a sense of enclosure and intimacy. We designed a soffit over our master tub to create an alcove of sorts, but forgot to factor that in when we ordered an 8’ tall storage cabinet. Oops. The cabinet is too tall and one of the drawers has to sawn off to squeeze it into the space available! (Or else order a new cabinet, but we’re running out of cash to order things twice…)

SOLUTION: See #1 and 2 above but substitute “soffits” for “trim” when analyzing your spaces. Go through the floor plan and elevations for each room and ask yourself “What is the ceiling height here? Is the same throughout or will we have a soffit? How might a soffit affect lighting, cabinets, furniture placement, crown moldings, etc.?” Do the same thing again once framing is complete, and give yourself the opportunity to add character to some of the spaces through raised or lowered ceilings that accentuate certain features.

4. Awkward window placement. We did pretty well with this except for a couple of places. I had wanted to install built-in cabinets and a window seat in Miss K’s room, but the window placement that looked best on the exterior made this impossible to do on the interior. This is perhaps more of an issue with architecture that features symmetry in the design (like ours). But still, getting what you want on the inside and the outside with window placement—and doors too—can be challenging. I’m not so devoted to architecture that I’ll sacrifice all the interior usefulness just so the exterior façade looks good. But I’m also not willing to have a hodge-podge façade because everything is designed from the inside out. This is why architecture is an ART!! It takes real skill to design this object in space that must be coherent inside and out and in 3 dimensions!

SOLUTION: Hire an architect. (We did hire an architect, and he did a good job; it’s just that sometimes something has to give—and in this case it was Miss K’s built-ins. Not the end of the world, just a minor annoyance.)

5. Uncomfortable and poorly sized window seats. We have a window seat in the kitchen that did not get built according to plan, mostly because a series of slight variations in foundation and framing reduced the space available for it. (Remember that having a set of drawings does not guarantee that the house will turn out exactly as drawn. Frankly, I always think it is a miracle that things turn out as well as they do, given the imprecision that accrues with a ¼ of an inch lost here and there that multiplies with each subcontractor’s work!) The seat that we ended up with doesn’t have enough room to get one’s tush fully onto the surface when sitting sideways, so we’ll be hanging off the edge in a most uncomfortable way!

SOLUTION: You can’t always eliminate the changes that occur to the design during construction, but in this case I wish I would have built up the sides of the window seat a little to give more room, and thus stability, to the sitter. We may still be able to do that.

6. Poor choice of tile. This is a big “oops” that cost us money and time. The shower tile in Miss K’s bath has been an complete disaster. The tile with an interesting texture that I thought would nicely complement the tub tile turned out to be a horrible dead grey color in reality. And even worse, we ran out of it—see #7 below—and the second order was a whole different color. It's a patchwork of mismatched grey colors.  Thankfully Seattle Tile Company stands by their products and is refunding us the cost of tile at their expense. Even though we have to eat the cost of installation, this helps a lot. If you don’t have a LOT of experience it can be tough to imagine from a small piece of tile how it will look on an entire wall.

Shower tiles close-up--how many shades do you see?
SOLUTION: Take samples home or to the building site and look at them with as many other design elements as possible to check color matches or harmony, how light bounces off the tile, and views from across the room as well as up close before ordering. Then, before the tile is installed, lay it out on the floor and make sure it looks good! If we had done this, the tile could have been returned and we wouldn’t be paying for two installations. Sigh.

7. Didn’t order enough material. You know what they say; always order more than you’ll need? Well, do that, and then order a little bit more! I underestimated the amount of tile needed for three of the four bathrooms (how’s that for a poor track record?) and this ultimately caused about a three week delay. Because the tile wasn’t finished, we couldn’t move forward with the cabinets, and that caused a delay in the carpet installation, yada yada and so forth.

SOLUTION: Measure and measure again. Then ask someone else to check your figures. Better yet, just have the tiler order the amount s/he knows s/he’ll need. A good tilesetter will factor in the waste from all the little cuts that you didn’t know about and therefore didn’t account for. And if there still isn’t enough tile, at least you aren’t to blame!

The pair of windows to the left were supposed
to be the same height as the triple ones.
8. Ordered the wrong size windows. Similar to #7, I made the mistake of not going over the window order one last time before ordering. Somehow I overlooked a change that occurred with the size of the sunroom side windows. They are not as tall as the ones in the front of the sunroom and they should have been the same. I will always regret not double-checking the order, and even after the windows arrived, not swallowing my pride and just reordering the right size. From inside the sunroom, the side windows are just too small, period.

SOLUTION: Check and recheck orders until your eyes are bloodshot. Then don’t be afraid to “waste” money on a reorder if the item doesn’t match what you wanted, even if it is due to your own mistake. Reordering those windows probably would have cost us another $1200 which is not exactly lunch money, but still is not a fortune either, especially in the context of a house we expect to live in for the rest of our lives.

9. Lost track of internet “receipts.” This may be my own particular brand of disorganization, but I somehow lost track of some of the lighting and plumbing orders I placed online which made it difficult to return a few items. If you are opening boxes and installing items right away, it usually isn’t an issue not to have a receipt—the stores often have a record even if you don’t. But if you are ordering items way in advance, like I did with light fixtures (and this actually was a smart thing to do), you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to forget what you ordered, what room it is supposed to go in, who you ordered it from, and what it cost.

SOLUTION: Keep electronic AND hard copies; save the e-mails receipts in electronic and paper folders. Make notes about which credit card you paid with, whether it was on sale, etc. Bonus: Keeping these records also makes it easier to transfer all these items to a household inventory database later on for insurance purposes. Open all boxes as soon as they are delivered and check for damages. No exceptions.

This 3' topography change at the west
property edge made it necessary to
install a concrete wall.
10. Underestimating the site drainage and topography as key drivers of the design. Our site is not considered steeply sloped by any means, but even the 12’ drop in elevation from north to south over 135’ made for some challenges in setting floor grades, figuring out site drainage, and planning entries. I had some ideas in advance about the garden, but didn't fully work through the impacts topography would have on the overall design. If you don’t think about the exterior spaces at the same time as the interior spaces, you are also likely to end up with outdoor space that doesn’t function well with the house.

SOLUTION: Just as you have dreams about the function and aesthetic of each room, think similarly about your outdoor “rooms” and figure out how your topography can either help or hinder those ideas. Pay particular attention to the connection and grade change between the kitchen and the outdoor entertaining area.

11. Not trusting our instincts when it came to subcontractors. We had a situation with one of the subcontractors that almost ended up in court. Within the first week of working with this individual, we felt something wasn’t quite right but we didn’t follow our instincts and ask for clarification on the contract scope or fee. At the time, the value of the work in question was less than $200 so we thought we’d let it pass. BIG MISTAKE. When something starts out shaky, it only gets worse over time. And it did.

SOLUTION: Spend the money to have an attorney review your contracts—at least for the really big ticket items like foundation, framing, roofing, electrical, and plumbing. If something is unclear, ask questions (we didn’t ask enough). Keep notes of all your conversations and never sign a change order or write a check under pressure. A good contractor should not have any problem with allowing you a day or so to review invoices and compare them with estimates.

12. Not having a coordination and communication plan as a couple. Apart from setting up computer and paper files to keep track of contracts, invoices, and materials, we did not set up any kind of plan for how, when, or where we would coordinate and communicate between ourselves and with the subcontractors. We inadvertently frustrated some of the subcontractors by giving conflicting information and leaving them unsure who was in charge. We also had no plan for our own conversations which meant that “the project” intruded anytime and anywhere one of us wanted it to—during a meal, right before bed, early in the morning… Usually one of us had something to talk about but the other person was too tired to address it on the spur of the moment. The miscommunication and arguments that ensued really wore us out and frayed the relationship.

SOLUTION: If you and your partner/spouse are managing the whole project yourselves, figure out your approach in advance. What time of day will you both be sharpest and ready to discuss the project? Consider your work schedules (your real job whatever it is), any designated family time, and private time as a couple and work around those commitments. Do not let the project creep into your every interaction with one another. Next, divide up the tasks according to each other’s strengths and stick to it; don’t undermine your partner’s decisions if you made a commitment to abide by them.

13. Not coordinating subcontractors effectively. In the early phases of construction, there was usually just one contractor working on site for an extended period of time. Later in the project, we started to have several contractors at a time on the jobsite whose work had to be carefully choreographed. This is where our lack of experience began to hurt the project schedule. We had too many days lost between subs and we weren’t as effective in motivating subs to keep working steadily as we should have been.

SOLUTION: I now see this choreography as the real art of the general contractor/project manager. The person who knows how much time each sub ought to be spending on a given task; how to schedule the next worker at just the right moment; and how and when to push and when to back off is worth his/her weight in gold. It takes in-depth knowledge of each trade, a firm but collegial communication style, and meticulous attention to detail. It is also important to have the respect of the subs—treat them well, honor their work and expertise, and have a win/win attitude. We didn't have enough experience to excel at this. Unfortunately it probably takes a ½ dozen houses before one acquires even a portion of the skill of an experienced general contractor, which is why hiring a general contractor is usually the best approach for the average homeowner. We stumbled through the process without too much damage, but I can see a lot of room for improvement too.

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