Fixer Upper TV Show Myths vs. Reality

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I love fixer upper TV shows just as much as everyone else. Mainly because it gives people a glimpse into what we do here at LND Architect on a daily basis. I love to watch people buy a property that is in desperate need of repair, undertaking the amount of work that is involved to renovate it and then the reveal of the final product of all their toil. It’s almost magical to see side-by-side pictures of the before and after, which seemed like it only took 30 minutes…..and it did!!....in TV land.  Also, the cost of the purchase, the budget, the costs of unexpected repairs and finally the total cost of the renovation. That too almost seems magical, like a dream within reach. When the show is over, you feel a sense of accomplishment and possibility that all is right with the world.

Well, in the real world it all can feel that way and more, but the first steps to this dream need to be approached with an open mind, open eyes, patience and a lot of good information.
 

The Myths

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The shows always start out with a couple wanting to buy a property that needs a lot of TLC and mold it into their dream home, so they set out to see three properties to choose from. The problem with this is that costs of these homes are usually far below the market value when compared to locations like the Northeastern United States. Most of these shows are recorded in places like Canada or No-Wheres-ville, Texas, where the property values are unbelievably low. So when real people actually begin their search, they are stunned to find out that they can’t really buy a fixer-upper for $50,000.

Select where you would like to live and find yourself a realtor that knows the area to help in your search. They will show you realistic pricing for that area with comparable recent sale prices.

Next, in the TV show the couple picks a house and demolition immediately begins. Wrong!

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The process of buying and closing on a property can take at least 30 days if they are paying cash. If not, the buying process can take 2 to 3 months between bank loan approvals, appraisals and inspections. Before the closing it is possible to engage LND Architect to begin the redesign process, but the seller must be willing to give us access to the property which may be tough if they are still occupying the space. Realistically, the design process begins sometime after the closing. Also, it’s always good to have all of your “ducks in a row” by speaking with a bank loan officer about a home improvement loan that will roll into your existing mortgage.  LND Architect knows several loan officers we’ve worked with and can recommend.

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The design process will take several weeks to finalize the design and draft the construction drawings. Afterward, once construction drawings are finalized and submitted to the town, the building department review of the drawings may also take a couple of months, depending upon the town. Especially if the building department comes back requiring us to add clarifications or additional information onto the drawings until they are approved and you obtain a construction permit. These are little details that TV shows conveniently leave out.

The construction costs for the renovations always seem reasonable and totally plausible. Wrong again!

It really depends on where you are located. Construction costs in No-Wheres-ville, Texas are much lower than in the Northeast. Adding to that, the contractors that are hired on the shows will always price it far lower because they are willing to take a tremendous pay cut for the privilege of appearing on a national TV show viewed by millions of people…..not to mention re-runs. No amount of internet advertising can compete with the amount of exposure a TV show will provide.

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In TV land the construction is always completed by the end of the 30-minute show. Real construction may take 2 – 3 months depending on the scope of work. Also, once the workers begin opening up walls, they are literally opening Pandora’s box and you never know what you’re going to find. Rarely does a construction project go off without a hitch. Something always comes up, so be prepared for it. A 10% contingency added to the budget should cover it. Just think of it as insurance.
 

The Reality

When the project is completed you may not see a stark contrast from before and after since you witnessed every single part of the stressful construction process, so take lots of pictures of the before so that you can gain back that perspective. But the feeling of accomplishment will feel far greater than after watching one of these shows. Knowing that your space is now tailored to your lifestyle and you will be living in it is a feeling you just can’t buy anywhere. It never gets old for us either. Warning, the feelings are then intensified when you host your first barbeque or dinner party and your friends will have mixed feelings of awe and envy. However, the real gratification comes when things settle down and you realize that your new home will generate new memories for you and your family that no TV show could ever give you. Begin your dream home today and let us start you on your journey.

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Modern Vs. Traditional Design

Why Do Most People Obsess Over Traditional Design?

This questions has perplexed me for most of my career. I never could understand why most people would not even try a more modern approach to their projects. When I was in architecture school and for a while afterward, I hated traditional design.  I didn’t understand the allure because it seemed so stuffy and boring to me. When I looked at a traditional home from the outside, I would already assume the home to be filled with doilies on or under everything and the smell of old people and moth balls permeated the air. I was usually right in that assumption. However, when I worked for some very high-end designers, I gained an appreciation for traditional design, but I also learned that all of the trim used to decorate exteriors and interiors were also used to conceal. I was blown away when I realized all of that trim detailing helped conceal seams, joints, gaps and mistakes. Yes, you read that correctly. People who are obsessed with trim detailing are probably not aware that this was part of their purpose. This doesn’t mean that I hate it, I actually find it to be a very elegant way to solve a problem. This also doesn’t mean the more embellished a design is, the more mistakes they were trying to hide. I find that early period designs such as, Colonial, Greek Revival and Tudor styles to be very elegant and quite charming....... for their time.

 Colonial

Colonial

 Greek Revival

Greek Revival

 Tudor

Tudor

Craftsmanship And Other Myths

In my experience, I have found that some clients feel more comfortable in a more traditional setting. Sometimes it’s because it is the fairy tale design they had dreamed of for most of their lives and now that they have the means to attain it, their vision never matured with them. It’s like they are stuck in a loop of a time period that either doesn’t exist anymore, or never existed at all. People tend to romanticize these periods thinking that “things were better then”. Others feel that the craftsmanship was better and is now lost, or that the materials used lasted longer and were more “real”. The reality was that the cost of labor was less expensive then and the materials used to build structures were the least expensive or the most readily available at that time. There were just as many bad builders then as there are now or maybe even more since there was less oversight, less regulation, fewer codes to follow and even fewer people to enforce them. I have been witness to demolitions of older homes and seeing how shoddy their construction really was and how under-engineered their structure was. Many times what people considered a structure to be “settling” was actually a structure so poorly engineered that it sagged dramatically over time.


Image Is Everything

Many people feel that traditional styling gives their home or building a more sophisticated look. They have this misperception that giving it the look of an earlier period will give their building the appearance of opulence and wealth. But unless the building is actually of that period, recreating it now makes the building look disingenuous and sort of ridiculous. When people choose to build a new home or building with a traditional style in mind, I feel that they are missing an opportunity to avoid being predictable.  One of the main reasons people choose to start a project may be to project a desired image of themselves and their lifestyle. There is nothing wrong with wanting to project an image. It’s a part of our life and culture as a society. If you own a business, image is key to landing the right clients that will move your company forward. Equally, your home is a symbol of your success. It shows the world how hard you have worked and how you choose to reward yourself. So, then why waste that opportunity on a design that misrepresents you? Why present yourself to the world with forms and stylings that have been seen again and again for well over a hundred years or more? Instead, choose a design which is as  bold, innovative and sophisticated as you are!
 

Stepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone

One reason to step out of your comfort zone is because the style of your project and the spaces within will ultimately affect its value. For example, older home sales are experiencing problems because the younger buyers are looking for a more modern look like “open plans”. This is something that older homes lack and tend to be compartmentalized and closed off from the adjoining spaces. Recently, a story was featured on Realtor.com explaining this phenomenon:

http://www.realtor.com/news/trends/boomers-millennials-and-the-mcmansions-no-one-wants/?cid=soc_shares_article_fb

Another reason to consider a bold approach to your project is that in modern design there are many more clever ways to achieve the desired effect, as opposed to traditional design where you have to follow the rigid standards of that style, which becomes predictable and boring. Modern design is not rigid, it is very fluid and organic. It bends and bows to your will. But I think the best reason of all is that simplified designs that look clean and sleek are difficult to achieve because the mistakes can’t be hidden behind trim and molding. It forces the builder to build with care and correctly because mistakes are glaringly obvious.  However, if your image is what is more important to you, then nothing shows off wealth and sophistication like a modern, chic and sleek design. Also, there are degrees of modern ranging from: a transition of old and new to stark and minimal. You are bound to find what suites your personality in the varying degrees of this design style.

 The Billado Residence - Modern/ Traditional Transition: LND

The Billado Residence - Modern/ Traditional Transition: LND

Extreme Makeover

People watch reality shows of men and women who tend to wear their hair and clothes that are completely unflattering to them. The women use bad make-up or the men keep their facial hair in such a way that make them look older than they really are.  Most of these fashion victims are oblivious to the negative way their friends and family perceive them, but some of them are aware. Then they receive an extreme makeover which accentuate their best features and make them look energetic and vivacious and in turn they feel more energized from their outward appearance. Their friends and family are always blown away from the transformation. Well, architecture and interior design work in the exact same way. Give your project an extreme makeover with a modern look! You will be amazed at how energizing it will make your life and the positive way others will perceive you.

If you find yourself curious about modern or contemporary design for your next project, then I would suggest to visit some places and speak with the owners. Afterwards, come and speak to us about how we can make it happen for you.

What Will My Construction Project Cost?

We are always approached by many prospective clients who want to know exactly how much their construction project will cost before they sign anything or at least a ballpark figure. One of the biggest misconceptions is that architects should somehow know how much the project will cost to build. I am often left having to explain to them that until we create the plans and show them to a contractor, getting a realistic estimate will be difficult without plans. In this entry, I will try to explain the many variables involved in a construction project and why pricing it can be difficult especially without plans.

The best way I could explain costs to a client is to break down the basics of what it takes to build anything, mainly, materials, labor and time. For starters, we need to establish the scope of work, or what the construction will involve. We need to know everything that the client is looking to do to their property, inside and out. Once the scope is established we begin to design their project. This is where things begin to get complicated because the cost will now depend on the complexity and level of finish they want to achieve. For example: A very modern design with complex forms and high-end finishes will be dramatically more expensive than a more traditional design with modest finishes. However, in both cases the plans will dictate how much construction is to be built: how far, how wide, how high, what structure, what materials and what finishes. From these factors a contractor would be able to itemize everything and their costs to come up with a total cost of materials. Next he would add the cost of labor to construct, which in some cases may be a percentage of the cost of materials, like a 75% additional mark-up. Finally, he would add his fee to schedule, direct and pay all of the trades for the entire operation, his overhead and any other expenses. Typically, these are things that architects don’t usually handle and would not know the costs of materials and labor. It’s like asking the doctor who is treating you for a broken leg after an accident how much you can expect to win in a legal suit.

Once we explain all of these variables, the clients begin to realize that pricing a construction project is not as simple as they thought. One should always beware of unethical contractors they may have already contacted who give a “ballpark estimate” without plans, leaving themselves open to a bait-and-switch of biblical proportions. Now you are probably screaming, “So, then how am I supposed to get a realistic estimate!?!?!”.  Well, here are a couple of approaches that we like to pursue when working with a client.

  1. We can create the design drawings with just enough information to get a rough pricing estimate from a few contractors we’ve worked with closely and trust. In the drawings we ask them to provide alternate pricing for certain items which we call “wish list items”. This is so that if the budget starts to spiral out of control we can easily cut them from the scope, or we can keep them if the costs seem within budget.

  2. Again, we create the design drawings with enough information to get rough pricing, also with alternates. A construction estimator is then hired to give us pricing before we even approach any contractors. This way we can alter the design according to the estimator’s recommendations, thus saving the client thousands of dollars in the long term.

One thing to keep in mind when contemplating a construction project is the budget you may have imagined to be reasonable is usually unrealistic and way off by about 50% to 200%, depending on the person and their level of delusion.

A good way to gage the cost of your construction project is to ask a neighbor or a friend who has recently had a similar project what theirs cost. Just keep in mind, that they may have gotten a discount because either they are super handy and did some of the work themselves, their brother-in-law, Bob, was the contractor or any similar scenarios. So ask lots of questions.

Thinking Of Renovating? Where do you begin?

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Many people have thought of a renovation project for their residential or commercial space at some point, but quickly became overwhelmed on how to get started. Some people lucky enough to know a contractor, rely on them to guide them through the process. However, most people don’t know anyone remotely related to the field. It’s probably because, like most things, no one gives much thought of being in this situation until….well, they’re actually in the situation. So, I will provide some guidance to get you started.
 

Residential

People come to me wanting to either add an extension, or build a second level to their home and sometimes both. The first thing you should find out is if what you want done to your home is actually allowable. Each town or city has their own zoning ordinances which limit the amount of house that can cover your lot. They also limit the square footage, the height and the proximity to your required front, rear and side yards. If not for these guidelines, people would build whatever they wanted, which would result in neighbors clubbing each other in the front yard and ending up on an episode of “COPS”. You don’t want that, right? Of course not. You should make an appointment to speak with your local zoning official to discuss your plans. The town or city usually has a survey of your property on file which the zoning official will use to explain what possible changes you can make. By the way, this process works if you want to build a new house as well.

On occasion, towns do not have a survey of your property, or they will ask you to obtain a more updated survey. In this case, you will have to hire a surveying company to steak-out your property which can cost $1000 and up, depending on the size of your lot. I like to call this part of your journey “Mind numbing frustration #1”

Next, you need to establish a budget. I know what you’re thinking: “How the hell would I know what this construction would cost?!?!?!”. I usually use this rule of thumb: It’s more expensive than you could possibly imagine! But, if you need a ballpark figure try this: a 10 foot x 10 foot extension may start at around $50k – $60K and adding an entire second floor to your home may start at around $70K - $80K for a small house like a cape. The construction time can take up to 6 weeks to complete.

Once you have these basic things in place you are ready to hire an architect and begin your journey. When beginning this project try to keep your eye on the prize at the end. Think of how happy you’ll be in your new home. Until then, breathe, where hats to prevent from pulling all of your hair out ......and remember to have fun.

Commercial

These types of projects are different in that there are an additional cast of characters to deal with, primarily, the building landlord or the property manager. If you want to renovate your office space, your landlord is the first person you need to speak with. They may have an approved list of contractors for you to use. However, if you are the building owner, then this process is much easier, unless you enjoy talking to yourself. I won’t judge. Next, it would be best to hire an architect to get the ball rolling. An architect can provide preliminary drawings of the new layout that can be used to get pricing from contractors before the construction documents are even finished. You should expect the construction costs to be high, but the biggest costs can be light fixtures and office furniture. These costs can be astronomical depending on how high-end the office will be. But, selecting furniture and light fixtures is fun. You can get samples to try out or go to the showrooms where you are pampered and catered to. Hey, you’re going to drop thousands upon thousands of dollars on their products, so they are going to be super nice to you. The construction time line may take up to 8 weeks to complete.

If you are building a new commercial building, the process is very similar to the residential process. There will be zoning issues involved, but it will be too complex for you to discuss with the zoning official yourself. Hiring an architect from the onset will save you from listening to a zoning official use terminology seemingly created to make your head explode. Also, more consultants will have to be brought in which the architect will coordinate. You will need a geotechnical engineer, a structural engineer and a mechanical, electrical & plumbing engineer. Please refer to the MEP engineer as M-E-P and refrain from calling them a “meep engineer”, as they tend not to like being called that. The architect will also coordinate the furniture and finishes representatives, IT and phone providers. All of these consultants require intense coordination for the architect to provide, becoming the point person for the entire project. The construction time may take up to a year to complete.

These construction types are very different from each other but the process is similar. Commercial projects require an enormous amount of coordination but the same could be said for a high-end residential project. In either case, beginning is the hardest part of the process, but if you have an awesome, funny and devastatingly handsome architect to guide you along, you’ll be just fine.

 That's right...... this guy right here!

That's right...... this guy right here!

What To Expect When Filing Plans With The Building Department

All building departments differ from one another in many ways. They differ from state to state, from city to city and even from town to town. In the case of New York City, they even differ from borough to borough and there are 5 of them. This makes it very difficult to comply with all of their requirements, especially if their websites have limited or no information regarding requirements for the architect to follow. Adding to that nightmare is the fact that building officials are people, each with their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. Each building official also has their own ideas of what a set of plans needs to be approved for a building permit.

With that being said, one thing is certain. When you file a set of plans for review by the building official, the set is rarely approved the very first time. More often than not, they are rejected 2 or 3 times until the building official is satisfied with the revisions they requested. This can make the process of filing incredibly frustrating and infuriating for the client, because delays cost time and money. But, these delays are just as frustrating for the architect as well. Not only because the building official is halting the process, but also because it may make the client feel like the architect has made errors, should have known what to expect or somehow clairvoyantly included the information being requested.

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That is one of the biggest misconceptions. It is not possible for the architect to know exactly what the building official will look for on that particular day, making many of the objections seem arbitrary.  Building officials have a myriad of reasons for rejecting the plans, which may seem to include one or more of the following:

  • Being in a bad mood

  • Being drunk

  • Unhappy with their job

  • Unhappy with their life

  • A bad marriage

  • No marriage because they were left at the altar

  • Loathing of all architects

  • Client is too ugly

  •  Client is too pretty

  •  A superiority complex

  •  An inferiority complex

  • Mommy/ daddy issues

  • Their hatred of rainbows and puppies

  • Or they’re just a miserable human being

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Whatever the reason one fact is clear, they will not approve your plans unless you appease them in some way. Either by showing additional obscure information on the plans, handing them your first born child…or both.

All kidding aside, most building officials are good, well intentioned people who care about their job and the safety of the public. They take their job very seriously and on occasion a little too seriously. But, they are just people looking out for everyone, so let’s cut them some slack. How do I know? Because I was a building official with the NYC Department of Buildings.

Clients tend to get upset with their architect for these types of delays, which is basically misplaced hostility and counterproductive. The reality is that in most cases, the architect has very little to do with the revisions being requested by the building official and very much to do with just an honest request for additional information. Does this mean that architects never make mistakes? Of course it does! ……..Ok, just kidding.  Believe it or not, it’s impossible not to make any errors. I know, crazy right!?!?  But if a client expects there to be no mistakes, then their expectations are a bit unrealistic. As awesome as architects appear to be, we too make mistakes. However, architects typically don’t charge any additional fees to correct their own errors. When this situation occurs the best thing for a client to do is go out and have a drink or two, alright maybe three and try to be patient. A client should especially be patient with their architect because they are going through it together and the architect is their greatest ally.

Once all revisions are made and the building official approves, a building permit is issued and construction can begin…..AKA: the real nightmare. (cue the Vincent Price “Thriller” laugh)

Demystifying The Process Of A Construction Project

Architectural services may seem to be enigmatic to the layperson, however in this entry I will try to demystify some of the process of architectural services. To begin with, projects almost always follow the same pattern, whether they are renovations, additions, or even new construction. The process is usually the same. In every project there are typically five phases which are:

  • Schematic Design

  • Design Development

  • Construction Documents

  • Bidding/ DOB Filing

  • Construction Administration

 

Schematic Design

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During this phase the architect visits the job site to record the existing conditions by measuring the site thoroughly on the interior or exterior, or both depending upon the scope of work. This is called the survey. After the existing conditions are recorded the architect will take his notes back to his office and begin inputting the information into CAD. Once the information is input the architect can easily see what needs to be done in plan. At that time a design can begin to develop once the architect has the program or the requirements from the client. The architect can then present the client with a preliminary layout for their approval.  Also during this phase, the architect will conduct a zoning and/or building code analysis which will outline what is allowable and what are the limitations of the construction according to the laws of that town or city.
 

Design Development

In this next phase the architect can take the preliminary layout and begin to develop the design according to the client’s needs and wants. This is where the architect begins to collaborate with the client to iron out all of the kinks of the design and perfect it. It is also during this time the architect begins to present the client with possible materials, finishes, and colors for their approval. Once the design is finalized and approved by the client the architect can now move into the next phase. Also during this phase, consultants may be initiated to join the design team, such as structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers.
 

Construction Documents

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In this phase of the project is where the bulk of the work begins. The architect begins the long process of drawing in detail, everything that had been discussed and approved during the design phases. The drawings almost always include floor plans, elevations, sections and details of the design. Basically, the architect is drawing instructions for the contractor to follow during construction. In the drawings the architect uses very specific language to convey the layout, distances, sizes, heights, materials, and finishes that will make that space a possibility. Sometimes clients are under the misconception that changes are easy to make at this stage after the design has been approved. Another misconception that people typically have is that much of the cad work is automated in some way. Nothing could be further from the truth. The client has to be aware that any changes during this time will affect the design in three dimensions. In other words, any changes, as minor as they may seem, will affect an entire series of drawings creating much more unanticipated work for the architect and slow the project’s progress.
 

Bidding

In this phase, the construction documents have been completed and are ready to be submitted to multiple contractors for their pricing. But contrary to popular belief, the lowest bidder is not always awarded the project. Once the bids come back from the contractors with their pricing, sometimes the architect is asked to level the bids, which means the architect goes through each bid, line by line, to see if everything was included and to see if anything is missing. If a contractor comes back with a very low pricing, that bid is always suspected of not being correct or missing items. Simultaneously, the bid process is an opportune time to also submit the drawings to the department of buildings for their review and subsequent approval. Most times the drawings come back with comments from the department of buildings (DOB), asking for more information or to insert additional information on to the drawings. The client may see this as something the architect did wrong, but the reality is that most times the drawings come back with comments from the DOB. The drawings are rarely approved on the first try. Responding to the building department may take a couple of submissions until the building official is satisfied and issues a building permit.
 

Construction Administration

At this point the project has been awarded, the building permit issued and the construction begins. The architect will monitor the construction’s progress by coordinating the engineers, the contractor, the consultants and the client until the project is complete.

The architect may oversee:

  • all payment requests

  • shop drawing approvals

  • punch lists

  • mock-up approvals

  • alternate materials/ finish approvals

  •  any change orders

Every project varies in size and scope and the client may feel they could skip some of the phases. Often, clients who try to skip steps slowly realize the enormity of such an error and result in paying much more than they intended to have them corrected. Feel free to contact me with any questions.