Articles & Commentaries

The Cost of Making "Changes"

Of the many projects I have done, one thing occurs frequently in cost impacts, budgets are frequently exceeded at the latter part of the construction. Why? Because this is the phase where impulse purchasing occurs and owners want to make revisions. It's kind of reaction to "last-chance" opportunity; behavior that has been drilled into our heads via news and television marketing strategies.

Making "changes" is a culprit in the overall project cost. There was a publication that noted cost increases from "changes" became higher the further you are into the construction of the building. Why? Systems impact. It appears to be common belief that individual components of a building, like a door, or wall, can be changed out and substituted for a nominal cost. The truth is that components may be part of a system. What is altered in the system can have impacts on other parts of the system. So "changing" the design is not just a component replacement. The further you are into the project, the more the individual components are interconnected and become parts of systems. It is more involved to alter some components, which may require the dismantling of an entire system.

Window revisions are a big "change" item. Clients see a blank wall and want to place a window there or desire to move windows around during construction. Here in California, window locations can impact earthquake-resisting systems in the building exterior walls. Moving windows at later stages of construction can have system impacts!

Cost savings and economy should be completed in the planning and designing stages of a project. Once you begin construction, the opportunities for saving money begin to diminish and the cost of making "changes" increases very quickly. The design and planning of a building project should make an effort to resolve economy early in the game, and decrease the likelihood of making changes down the line.

Doing Basements in California

So you want to add a basement to your house, or include one in the design? Let me warn you, that in California, although not impossible, there are hefty requirements to doing this. First the City Building Departments will probably require a survey. You have to get a licensed Surveyor to survey your lot. This is to insure you build the house in the right place, especially if you are going to be digging below the earth's surface, next to a neighbor's house. The City will require a Soils Investigation Report. You have to have a Soils Engineer come to your property, dig some holes for soil samples, and test the soil. Once they do this, they write a report. The information in this report is what the engineers use to design the foundation/walls and floor slab for the basement, in order to retain the earth. The City will probably require a Civil Engineer to create what is called a Grading Plan. This plan will tell how the earth slopes and how water is drained from the site, so as not to undermine the basement and foundation. All of these plans and documents (and we aren't even talking about the house), must be reviewed by the City engineering departments, separately, from the building department, in some cases. How long does all of this take? Sometimes months, and sometimes a year, plus. It depends on how strict the City is in their requirements or how backlogged the City may be in checking plans. It may also depend on how well the engineers document the design. If the engineers do not do a good job, then the documents can go "back-forth" until everything is done to the City's satisfaction. Such is the case, sometimes, when the owner has a low budget, and hires those with the lowest fees.

Now lets talk about the requirements. These eat into the budget, as well. That's right, it's not over yet! You are required to have an OSHA permit, if you are digging below 5 feet. This will be required of the contractor, and there is a whole deal about having a safety program for your project, with a "Competent Person" designated for the earthwork effort. Now, if you want to make the basement with more living and bedroom space, then their needs to be windows and window wells, with ladders or steps, in order to let the required light in, and allow for emergency escape. So these window wells must stick out from the sides of the wall and you need extra side yard space. Now, when you do this, your basement is considered another story! Are you going over the height restrictions for building a house now? Okay, so you don't want the basement to be another story! So now, it can only be a non-habitable, non-conditioned space! Basically, it has to be a garage. Water goes into the garage! You need sump pumps and drains in the parking area to get the water out! The City of Los Angeles requires 2 sump pumps- the other is a "back-up." Okay, lets call the basement "Storage." Well, it can't even be "storage" because "storage" is considered a habitable space. Well, so you say, "At least can I have a bathroom?" Remember, you are below the surface of the earth. You need some way to get the sewage up to the main sewer line. Now you have to include sewer injectors! So, we need a mechanical engineer to design and size all of the sump pumps and sewer injectors! Run you another 10-20k!! Please do not be in a methane zone, or have an abandoned oil field around you. Methane mitigation systems have to be installed. So you say there is no methane on your property? The City may require the services of a methane consultant to come to the property test, and provide a written report to that effect. Still want to do a basement? Oh, by the way, this has nothing to do with the size of your basement either! And don't even think about taking short cuts on this! A City building inspector, who thinks that you are attempting to cut corners can make your life a living… well you know…

Standard Plan

Let's re-use this set of plans and save money!

As my bosses used to say, "Mike, let's create a "standard plan," and then we can repeat it over and over, and save money." During my term as an employee, I heard this directive over and over. Attempting to execute this notion never met expectations because the designs would continue to be revised, becoming something different than their original state. It never seemed to work. It took more time, attempting to have it "fit" the circumstances, than if we had just started from scratch! In my professional opinion, this has got to be the great fallacy of our design industry! It is a concept based on an illusion of economic profitability. In some cases, it creates even more cost and sacrifices human health, comfort, and environmental conservation, in an attempt to manifest it's ideology.

There is no piece of land or property that is identical in it's soil properties and conditions, slopes, water content, vegetation, orientation to views, accessibility, exposure to sunlight, rainfall, temperature variations, and many other characteristics, tangible and intangible. No piece of land is duplicated. There is always variation. Therefore, one building design can't possibly be placed on all these variations of land characteristics, without alteration of some type. But once the building design is altered, then it is no longer same. Now, it's a different design!

There is a myth. The myth is that the plan can be duplicated and re-used over and over. But there will be revisions to that plan, because no properties and their surrounding characteristics are the same. A single property is not ruled by the same set of building codes, or adoption of codes over time. These things, and others, change.

Once, a contractor requested I design a small, one story office building that could be built anywhere in the United States. To him, this meant something easy to repeat over and over, and let the cash roll in! But to me, as a designer, this meant the design had to conform to all codes in the U.S., and be able to be built for all conditions; terrain, soil conditions, or high winds, earthquakes, etc. By the time it was done it was determined that the design was not economically feasible for the contractor. Because of his request for one design, it had become, for him, over-designed, because it had to withstand the worst conditions. This occurred because this contractor did not want to return to us for site-specific revisions; paying extra design fees. He wanted a one-time fee, "one-plan-suits all" type of design, composed of
"off-the-shelf" standard construction. But it failed to culminate his objective.

How many times have you entered a tract home and the windows didn't even look at the views the site had to offer? This comes from re-using the plan over and over, without consideration to the site and the comfort of the inhabitants. As was explained to me, "Well you see Mike, if this was my house, I would do it differently, but these are just "spec" homes!"

My purpose here is not to condemn this application. My purpose is to advise my design constituents and potential clients, that more comfort and quality may be experienced in designs that respond to the specific considerations of the site, it's environment, it's occupants, their lifestyle, etc. A new suit from a tailor is, most likely, going to be more comfortable than one bought at the department store.