Saturday, September 25, 2010

Reader question - Should I hire an architect?

Today I recieved an email from a reader with the following question:
I was wondering if it is a necessary evil & even more critical to hire an architect before you hire a Contractor to build a couple of major additions on your house (estimated at $100K), and just as importantly, is it the architect who takes your wish list to redo the whole interior with high end, cedar, tresses, stone etc.; or does the contracting company have the structural engineers and designers working for them to do this. When you hired your architect, how much did she charge? Did she have the exact knowledge of the structural supports, readjusting H&V, electrical or is that the Builder? Before you did any of that did you have to make a trip to the municipality to ask what the land regulations were? What did you learn from your process, if you had to do it over.

These are all really good questions and exactly the questions I had when we embarked on our little house renovation/building adventure almost a year ago now.

First, let's deal with whether or not it's critical to hire an architect before hiring a contractor. The short answer is no, it is not absolutely necessary, but chances are you will almost certainly need to have an architect at some point in the process given the size of your renovaton.

In my earlier post Architect, Designer or Design-Build? Lot's of choices for renovating a home I talk about the differences in the qualifications and services provided by architects, designers and design-build companies. Basically, all of the advice that I received boiled down to the fact that if you are doing something really complicated, or if you want to preserve a certain look, then hire an architect first. In any case, if you are adding square footage to your house or your are doing major structural changes, then you will most likely need an architect to sign off on the drawings before you can even submit them to the municipality for a permit.

That said, it does not mean that you must hire an architect before hiring a builder. If you know a builder with a stellar reputation who you have upmost confidence in, and you know exactly what you want, then you could take the cheaper route of hiring an architectural technologist to produce the drawings and then hire an architect just to review and approve the drawings for the permit application. A slightly more expensive route is to hire an architect just to do a design and construction drawings and then take these to several builders to get a quote. The most expensive option is to hire an architect to do the design, produce the construction drawings, run the tendering process and oversee the administration of the builder contract. This last option could cost 15% or more of the overall construction cost in architect fees, but it's a great way to go if you don't feel like going toe-to-toe with a builder because they haven't done their work correctly.

The bottom line is that before you start anything you need to have some sort of drawings or specifications that you can give to a builder to get a quote. The more detailed these specifications are, the more accurate the quote will be. If all you have is a vague, very general description of what you want, then I think you run the risk of a builder either giving you a very high quote in order to cover off many different possibilities, or worse, a very low quote for the most basic of work that will quickly ramp up as you start to specify details. If you really trust the builder, then you could have them design and build it, in which case I think you should pay them produce the design first before you sign a contract with them to build it. In any event, someone is going to have to design the final product and produce the construction drawings, and nobody is going to do that for free. No matter what you do, follow Mike Holmes advice and check lots of references before you hire a builder.

Second, let's deal with whether it's the architect who takes your wish list to redo the whole interior with high end, cedar, tresses, stone etc. or whether it is the contracting company that has the structural engineers and designers working for them to do this.

Architects are certainly capable of doing interior design, as are designers. If you look at the work of Linda Chapman or Chris Simmonds, they do a lot of their own stunning interior design. Again, the benefit of producing a very detailed design first with an architect is that you will then have a specific set of drawings to take to builders to get a quote, which means the quotes you receive will likely be more accurate and more competative. You could also get an architect to design the basic structure of the addition and then have a designer design the interior finishes, but not all architects like to work that way. Finally, a lot of builders do have a good design sense and can put together a pretty nice interior. The only down side is that it is too late to find out that their design sense does not mesh with yours once you have signed the contract with them.

In my research, I certainly heard lots of stories about how architects will design a fabulous house that cannot possibly be built for the budget you provided. Mostly, I heard these stories from design-build companies, so the veracity of the statement is somewhat dubious in my mind. I think that most architects actually have a pretty good idea of how much it costs to build a house and if you give them a budget, they will design a product that fits within that budget. Furthermore, many architects work directly with builders to get more accurate cost estimates. In fact, it is wise to factor in a couple of thousand dollars so that the architect can hire a builder as a consultant to help estimate the costs. In terms of keeping the construction costs down, your biggest enemy is probably yourself. You see a fancy kitchen island or bathtub in a magazine and you tell the architect to add it in and the next thing you know you planned renovation is thousands of dollars over budget.

Third, let's deal with the question of how much an architect costs, whether they have exact knowledge of the structural supports, readjusting H&V, electrical or is that the Builder?

The cost of hiring an architect varies. Some of the more established architects charge a set fee. We interviewed one architect that wanted 15% of the final build cost. The one we settled on cost 10% of the final build cost. Other, mostly younger architects that we interviewed charge a set fee for each service. So, for instance, the initial design drawings might be $5,000. Construction drawings would be$ 5,000 - $10,000. Running the tender process to hire a builder might cost $5000. and so on. The younger architects argued that this was a fairer fee schedule because the amount of work to design and draw a house with cheap fixtures is the same as the amount of work to design a house with expensive fixtures. After all, just because you decide to put in $60,000 worth of exotic wood kitchen cabinets, there is no reason the drawings should now cost $6,000 more. It's a fair point, however, I think for an average quality house the cost will work out about the same whether one hires an architect for a set percentage of the build cost or based on a fee per service. It's when you get into a house with lots of expensive finishing that the price will sky rocket with the former fee schedule. In my blog post Picking an architect for our renovation I talk about some different ways to pick architects and how much they cost.

It's absolutely true that architects will have knowledge of structural components, H&V and electrical, often better knowledge than the builder. For anything really tricky, they may call upon the advice of a structural engineer. In any event, most structural changes to your house must be signed off by an architect or a structural engineer.

Fourth, let's deal with whether we had to make a trip to the municipality to ask what the land regulations were.

Fortunately, I did not need to go to city hall because the City of Ottawa has a pretty good website. However, depending on what you want to do, it's wise to check things out with city hall first. For example, if you wanted to open a B&B, or put in a rental apartment in the basement, your zoning may not allow for that. Similarly, you may not be able to add a floor on to your house because you are already at your zoning's height limit. Before even thinking about doing renovations on our house, I checked out our zoning and the required setbacks to make sure we had enough room to put on an addition. Still, that said, any architect or builder worth their weight in salt should know where to find the relevant regulations and one of the first things they should do before they start to design your renovation is look up the relevant regulations. I talk more about this in my blog post Getting zoning information and old air photos of your property.

Fifth, let's deal with what I have learned from the process so far.

I think going into our renovaton project we vastly underestimated the cost of bringing the home up to the standard we wanted. Part of that was because we came across expensive problems, like the foundation, that there was no way to predict. But part of it was because we really had no idea how much renovations could cost. If I had known from the begining that the cost to renovate would be almost as much as the cost to build new, then I think we would have gone straight to Uniform to begin with and skipped everything with the architect. That said, I loved the process of working with the architect, I felt a good connection with our architect, Linda Chapman, and when I do it again, I will go into the project with a much more realistic budget and the intention of building a new house with an architect.

I would also say that I feel the cost of hiring an architect is worth it, especially for big custom jobs. I had lots of builders tell me it is a waste of money to hire an architect, but I don't think it is. With an architect, you do all the planning up front and end up with a very specific design which can then be taken to a builder for a quote. In turn, the builder's quotes will be accurate and competative, saving you money. Certainly, I did not get the sense through my research that it is any cheaper to go with a build-design company or a designer, at least for big jobs. However, for smaller jobs, where there are no structural changes, then I think a designer would be just fine for the job. It also depends on how confident you are reviewing the work of your builder. If you feel that you have both the time and the technical skill to check the work of your builder on a regular basis, then it may not be worthwhile hiring an architect. But most of us don't have the time or knowledge, which is where hiring the professional expertise of an architect comes in.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Exterior cladding

Last week we picked our colours for the new house. The exterior of the house is clad in a combination of brick, CanXL hardboard and cedar shingles. On top of picking colours for those items, we also had to choose colours for the trim around the windows, the soffits, the front door and garage door, and panels that are placed on either side of the bay window at the front and on the side near the roof line, the roof shingles, as well as some other trim pieces. All I can say is that building with Uniform certainly made this task very easy.

Uniform works a lot with acclaimed Ottawa architect Barry Hobin and Hobin's team puts together many of the colour combinations that you can see on Uniform houses. Since we like Hobin's work, all we had to do was drive around different Uniform developments and see if there were any colour combinations that we liked. We found a combination in Uniform's St. Georges Yard development in Westboro. We gave Uniform the address of the house we liked and they pulled up the colour scheme from their database. Within about half an hour, we had all the colours and the brick style picked. It was extremely easy. We had toyed with the idea of putting stone on the house instead of brick, but stone is more expensive, and besides, most of the houses in the neighbourhood are brick, so I think brick will blend into the overall streetscape better.

The next task is picking the interior finishes. This will not be as easy

Monday, September 20, 2010

interior design - main floor

We met with our designer last week to pick interior finishes.

For the floor. we chose a maple floor in natural stain finished on site. We love dark floors but decided against it for a couple of reasons.

  1. I strongly dislike oak and to do a dark stained floor in maple requires using an engineered wood floor. That's because maple does not accept stain evenly, so there could be a lot of variation in staining and the floor could end up looking terrible. In order to ensure a consistent quality of staining the only option is to use a factory stained engineered wood floor. While I like engineered wood floors, it would have cost about $10,000 more to put in such a floor.

  2. Walnut was not really an option for us either. While it is easily stained on site, it is much softer than maple. With two little kids in the house, it would not take long for the floor to have dents and grooves all over the place. Sure, you could argue that dents add to the "lived in" look of the house, but I think I'd rather have smooth floors

  3. Everyone we talked to who has had dark floors at some point in the past agreed that dark floors really show the dirt. Again, with two little kids, there is no shortage of dirt and crumbs constantly on our floors. On our current maple floor, that dirt is barely noticable. That's a look worth keeping.

We also picked a tile for the kitchen, powder room, mudroom and entrance. It's a 12" X 24" light grey tile with slight flecks in it. It has a look of natural stone, but it is also very simple and clean.

For the kitchen we wanted something fairly contemporary, but practical too (ie. not one of these pure white shiny kitchens that you see in magazines).

We were inspired by several kitchens including the one below:

For our kitchen, we picked a simple flat door stained in chocolate brown and we are pricing a white quartz countertop from cesarstone. The countertop we are looking at is not pure white, but rather white with with some flecks in it so that the crumbs and such don't show up so obviously. The flecks actually have some grey in them to pick up on the floor tile.

In a couple of weeks we will meet again with the designer to pick the upstairs finishes.

services located

Over the last few days, Uniform has been by to fence the rear yard and locate the water, sewer, gas, and phone lines underground. No word yet on when the permits will come, but today the rental hot water tank was removed, which was the last thing holding us back from demolishing it. Demolition should now take place any time within the next two weeks.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Permit application submitted

The permit applications were submitted by the builder at the beginning of September. If all goes well, we should have our building permit and our demolition permit sometime in the later half of September. As soon as the permits are issued, work on the house will begin.

We had hoped to be able to sell the house and have it moved. Besides saving us a bit in demolition costs, it would have been nice to see the house recycled. The house is well built and could have made someone a good home. However, the buyer who was interested in the house decided that it was not for him. Unfortunately, this late in the season it is hard to sell it to someone else, so it will be demolished instead.

The electricity has now been shut off at the house and on Monday the rental hot water tank will be removed by the the rental company.

Things are really starting to move now.