Plan for Remodeling Design

Design-planning do's and don'ts: at the crossroads of home improvement fulfillment

design dos and dontsNearly every homeowner eventually takes the plunge to tackle a major home-improvement project. When he or she does, designers and building contractors—at least the seasoned and organized pros among them—typically respond to the call with a regimen of questions.

At the first meeting, at least two key questions surface: "why do you want to make these changes to your home?" and "what changes are needed to make your home more livable?" Once these queries are addressed, then solutions can readily begin to flow.

Most homeowners need some form of design assistance for their home-improvement projects—from getting a contractor or tradesperson to answer a few planning questions to hiring an architect, engineer, and other design professionals to provide extensive plans.

Usually, a good builder can assist with designing smaller projects, such as bath or kitchen remodels, which typically do not require a full set of drawings approved by the local building department, only enough to secure an over-the-counter permit. Often, general contractors double as designers and produce drawings that satisfy requirements to obtain these permits. Skilled design professionals (those experienced with designing construction projects, as well as generating drawings for approval) can be helpful with these small projects, and some are even proficient enough to design a new house from the ground up, or anything in between.

However, unlike architects, professional 'designers' are not subject to state-regulated licenses or certifications, and consequently their references and portfolios of prior projects become the only basis for qualifying them. That is not to say that designers are less effective than architects. In fact, some are quite good. But anyone can proclaim him- or herself a designer without having formal education or credentials—so homeowners need to scrutinize during the selection process.

When altering the exterior lines of a house, adding to the exterior footprint, or addressing any complex design detail, it is recommended to involve an architect, and in particular one who is experienced with the design and construction of your particular home's design. When working on an Eichler, for example, an experienced architect can anticipate issues specific to Eichlers and develop creative solutions once the project is underway.

Also, if an owner is not experienced with the building process, an architect can also assist in project oversight; conduct inspections; advise on any questions regarding construction methods, billing, understanding contracts, or any other project management issues. These services are usually available and can be negotiated in the contract. In most cases, an experienced contractor can manage these particular issues; however, the idea here is to involve the architect as an additional measure of quality control.

After the broad strokes of design are addressed, it is generally wise to produce a set of progress drawings—often referred to as 'not-for-construction' or '50-percent' designs. These drawings allow the contractor a basic framework for reviewing the scope of the project design and assign a rough estimate to the project without committing the homeowner to the greater costs usually associated with elaborate finished plans. Any contractor experienced with Eichler construction and design nuances—this applies to those familiar with other specific mid-century modern tract houses as well—should be able to provide a 'ballpark' estimate of the cost of the project.

Without this step in the process, a homeowner could conceivably spend thousands of dollars on elaborate architectural drawings—not to mention fees for engineering, surveys, and Title 24 reports—and wind up with a full set of drawings for a project for which construction costs render the project impractical. In these cases, only expensive wallpaper gets produced.

Once the homeowner has identified a contractor as a qualified candidate for their anticipated project, one way to create incentive for that contractor to draw up an estimate for an incomplete design is to offer a bid deposit (usually $100 to $500, depending on the scope of work, deliverable after the estimate is produced), which can be applied to the cost of construction.

Estimating is oftentimes time-consuming and laborious, and without a full set of drawings in place, many contractors perceive this process as spinning their wheels on dead-end projects that won't get built, and unfortunately lose their incentive to get involved. Certainly, if the homeowner recruits an experienced contractor that has a good working relationship with the participating design professional, it is oftentimes possible for the architect or designer to obtain a rough per-square-foot cost for any project—whether it be an addition, interior remodel, or a new house. These numbers can be used to steer the scope of work to follow budget guidelines.