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From pilot to contractor: (20) The clarity of hindsight: Design and Budget

John Bleasby's dream home is 99 per cent finished and in this blog he begins his 'post-mortem': Looking at what he got right - and what he was challenged by - during this, his rookie build.


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October 14, 2014 by Robert Koci

Editor’s Note: John Bleasby, a former commercial pilot, has blogged weekly for the past 5 months about his building a new home for his family north of Orillia, ON.  Find his older blogs easily by typing ‘Pilot’ in our search bar.

It is nearly done. My house, my first project as a General Contractor, is nearing final completion. I started with certain preconceived notions and personal disciplines imported from my professional piloting career. At the same time, I was also wearing two hats: Owner and General Contractor. Each had specific objectives. It’s interesting to look back and see how those dual outlooks complimented or conflicted with each other.

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No plan? No budget? At the mercy of a rogue designer/carpenter? You may find your project highlighted on a HGTV Renovation-Gone-Wrong show one day!

I begin by remembering the Smart Alec tradesman who would turn to me during the early days of the project and say, “The first thing you do when you build a house is throw away the architect’s design and throw away the budget.” What nonsense! Without a plan and without a budget you are lost: the entire project enters a state of limbo where the owner is at the mercy of some rogue carpenter-cum-designer who takes over the project without any concept of costs and/or regulations.

I never wavered from believing in the plan and never lost sight of my budget and expenditures. And since Design and Budget are where all projects must start, it’s a good place to begin my post mortem.

Design
I’ve owned houses that have both been extensively renovated or built from scratch. I’ve also been around similar projects undertaken by friends. I have always hired an architect and wondered why others are so reluctant. In my opinion, it’s money well spent. I don’t want a cookie-cutter house, something I might see across the road or on the other side of town. I want to customise to my personal needs and wants. My house should be my house. True, custom design is more expensive than plans bought from a catalogue. However architects can save owners money down the road through smart design and by providing approved drawings that are easier for a builder to follow.

As a Contractor, the architect’s plan is a compass. It’s the reboot button, the anchor. It reduces last-second, seat-of-the-pants decision making. “Look at the plans”: The answer is usually there. If not, the architect is only a phone call away. Sure, there are conflicts sometimes, but a quick discussion resolves them without vectoring off in wild directions. Deviations from the plan usually end up costing money, rarely saving it.

And another thing: Architects design, builders build. I had a lead carpenter who thought he was smarter than my architect and requested special meetings to tell them how they should do this or that. In the end, he was not only overruled because his ideas were ill-conceived, but the process was costly. My error was giving the man too much rope before I realised we were going off-track.

Budget
You can’t go anywhere without a budget. The owner has to put a final dollar figure on what he/she can afford. The owner must also, with the architect’s and contractor’s assistance, understand all the costs right down to appliances and trimming details. Everyone must be realistic. Wishful thinking early on will only lead to heartache later. The fact is, owners dream of houses more elaborate (and more expensive) than they can afford simply because they can’t grasp the scope of the all costs.

The contractor should have some awareness of whether the client’s money is in the bank, is borrowed, or is pending the sale of another property. It’s the contractor’s job to offer a dose of reality. It’s foolishness to engage an owner who is vague about budget or has a deer-in-the-headlights look when money is discussed. Trouble lies ahead! Be frank about all the costs that will likely be incurred. Don’t lure clients by quoting low-ball numbers with a high contingency attached. You’ll regret it later when the real costs come in. They will be inevitably higher than the client had imagined. And after all, you want to get paid!

In my case, although I had developed a very detailed budget, I still spent more than I expected. My budgeting errors were the result of inexperience during the final trimming stage, but at least I had it covered.

With the project underway and a budget in place, it’s time to talk about what I learned about selecting the right team of trades, working with timelines, and the pros and cons of buying hard goods well in advance.