Friday, March 16, 2007

Homeowner's Dilemma: Renovate or Move?

A Homeowner’s Dilemma: Renovate or to Move

You have lived in your current home for quite a while. It’s comfortable and has certainly served you and your family well. You have established yourself and your children in the community and everyone has settled into a rhythm of life mode that it difficult to upset without great trepidation. But as you and your family have grown- the once adequately spacious and up to date homestead has been transformed into a shabby, crowded and somewhat outdated version of what it once was. What are you to do? Being the modernist, forward thinking person that you know you are, you have kept up with the newest trends and latest technologies in quality homes. You have thumbed through the pages of Home & Garden, Architectural Digest, Dwell , Your Green Home and other publications and stored away in your memory banks all the “what ifs” that your fertile mind could dream. The task of converting the old homestead into a shining new vessel worthy of sailing into the new millennium is a bit overwhelming. With so many new homes to choose from, flaunting every conceivable convenience it seems like a no brainer to just “bite the bullet”, find a new place and move. The problem is that you really like where you live, you have established roots, and the thought of starting anew in a different neighborhood, even in the same community has its own set of anxieties. The alternative, to renovate is often looked at with fear, mystery and apprehension.

Renovating your Dream

The right solution is often to renovate your existing abode to meet your new needs. For some people, the thought of disrupting their living space while they are still living there is a truly unfathomable concept. If the truth is to be told; when the renovation is so extensive that it cannot be economically or feasibly staged in sections then temporary relocation from the project is highly recommended for the sanity and well being of both the homeowner and the contractor. In most cases, however, with the right planning and cooperation and the right contractor the process can be at least tolerable and possibly even a pleasant and interesting experience. So how do we get to this point? Let’s start with the foundation, the architect.

Choosing the Architect

It is important to find a qualified architect that you and your family believe has a vision of how you want to live and how you want your space to both look and function. The old adage of form following function is a truism to my way of thinking. Choosing the right architect is perhaps the most critical part of renovating your home. So how do you make such an important choice with little or no experience? First and foremost working with an architect is a collaborative venture. This means that you have at least as much to say about this process as the architect does and so you must be compatible with whomever it is you choose to work. This sounds like a notion that should be obvious to everyone, but often times this basic premise is lost in the myriad of other considerations that come to the table.

These factors include the cache of working with a notable (ie: name recognized) architect; the perceived comfort level of working with someone who has been recommended by a friend or colleague; the admiration of an architect’s style as demonstrated in prior work; the deceptively inexpensive cost of one architect’s fees compared to another, the often misconceived notion that you don’t need a professionals help and other important but ultimately subordinate considerations.

The task at hand is the seamless integration of your families functioning needs with the practical considerations of the existing structures limitations and your ultimate overall budget. For this relationship to work successfully you and your architect must be able have a dialogue that communicates your ideas and requirements. The architect can then creatively and practically transform these ideas into a flowing, functioning and aesthetically pleasing design that hopefully will also meet your budgetary restraints. A great architect; one whose work is aesthetically appealing, identifiable and perhaps

of some notability, may or may not be the right architect for your particular project. Price is also an imperfect measure of the compatibility that a good client/architect relationship must have.

Design and Compatibility

Coincident vision can be a good starting point for choosing an architect that might be able to transform your needs into something that you can ultimately appreciate. Even an apparent simpatico with an architect’s design sensibility must be tempered with personal compatibility between the both of you. This ensures that your ideas and requirements will be carefully considered, evaluated, and where possible, incorporated into the design and not simply overruled as victims to a visionary on a quest. It is also important to consider that unless you have planned a major make over, one that often incorporates sweeping roof changes for your existing house with the commensurate budget, the architect is somewhat limited by the existing structural and design elements. Any changes must fit aesthetically with the remaining untouched portion of the structure so that the work is flowing and not simply a crude, inappropriate appendage.

While cost is always a consideration, it should not be the overwhelming deciding factor when choosing the right architect. The cost of architectural services is directly related to the amount of time spent on a particular project. As with any professional service, the differences between architects efficient use of their time can sometimes be dramatic and so higher rate structures do not necessarily translate to higher overall costs. An architect that carefully listens to his clients wishes the first time will be less likely to have to make repeated corrections and modifications. The cumulative fees can consequently be less expensive despite an initially higher hourly rate. A professional architect should have no difficulty explaining what amount of time he or she expects it shall take for the various phases of the project once the parameters of the project have been established. He or she should also provide a list of hourly rates for the various services the firm offers including fees for the Principal architect, associate architects, drafts people and other personnel used in the course of the project. Armed with this information it is relatively easy to determine the approximate cost of a project’s architectural fee.

Helping Yourself:

A smart consumer can mitigate some of these costs by taking a pro-active roll early in the design process. This should happen after the initial meeting with the architect to determine overall project requirements, but before final layouts are committed to paper. Taking the time to explore finishes like tile, marble, countertop materials, cabinet styles and finishes, appliances, plumbing fixtures, door hardware, window styles & brands, doors, molding profiles, hardwood flooring, lighting fixtures, carpeting and other items that may be specified for the project will go along way to educating you the homeowner as to what to expect. This education process is helpful to establish a base criteria from which to start. By carefully exploring the many different options available the homeowner can narrow his or her choices based on quality required, functionality, personal aesthetics, availability and cost. Any one of these considerations can substantively alter the approach that will ultimately be taken by the design professional and so this exercise can substantially mitigate some billable design time that might otherwise be wasted. Following this process also goes a long way to minimizing the surprise of a cost overrun that so many people fear when starting a project of this nature. After some of your choices have been presented, the architect will render his professional opinions on why a particular choice may not be appropriate for the task at hand and what substitutions or modifications can be entertained. This has the added benefit of streamlining client/architect conference time and consequently can go along way to keeping the architectural fees to a more reasonable level.

In my estimation the most important part of what an architect can bring to the project besides his or her particular aesthetic taste is their ability to make the space work for the function intended. Good design should always intuitively feel right to the homeowner.

It is often difficult for many people to visualize on plan what a space will feel like but it is often a good exercise to have the space laid out in full scale prior to finalizing the design. Current computer simulations of design space go along way to allowing people who cannot visualize in two dimensions how a space might look and feel in “3D” perspectives. The aesthetic appeal of the addition or renovation should be compatible with the overall look of the house and added space should be carefully and skillfully integrated to create a seamless, well proportioned project.

It is important to remember that you have hired the professional to render you a service, not the reverse. While a healthy respect for the opinions and suggestions of a design professional are key to a successful relationship, you should never feel intimidated or trapped by the architect or his suggestions. When and if a project starts to take on its own life, as so often can happen, it is unwise to sit back and relinquish your input to the sole judgment of the design professional. Despite the fact that he or she was originally retained because of their competency, taste and style; this does not necessarily mean the project can be completed to your satisfaction without your continued and diligent input.

It is always better to reign in a project early if you see the control being uncomfortably transferred or the process taking a turn in a direction that was not anticipated. A good architect will always be sensitive to his client’s comfort level.

On rare occasions it is sometimes necessary to sever relationships with design professionals who for whatever reason are no longer sensitive or responsive to the design parameters as originally defined. This is often a difficult decision that involves loss of time, money and sometimes professional pride and should not be taken lightly, but failure to do so when appropriate can lead to the greater disaster. A design professional who understands that a disconnect has occurred between his client and himself will usually prefer terminating the relationship rather than to continue at odds with the homeowner, provided there is a meeting of the minds on fees earned .and usually for the betterment of the project.

Building a Team: The Contractor as the professional

Another helpful tool to minimizing costs and streamlining the design process is to engage a qualified contractor to work with you and the architect in developing realistic budgets as well as making suggestions about the most practical and economical methods that should be employed to create the desired effect. A competent contractor can short circuit design features that may be difficult or prohibitively expensive to accomplish. He may offer alternative approaches that in his experience can be more easily or economically attained while still preserving the design professional’s intent. This “value engineering” can be an important part in bringing in the project within the desired budget. He can also help with researching availability of some materials that may be contemplated for the project and ensure that they can be ordered with enough lead time that they do not negatively impact the progress of the project. The last thing you as a homeowner needs is to be waiting with an unfinished kitchen or bath because a vital part of the construction was not available in a timely manner. He can also create proposed schedules that can quantify with some accuracy the duration of various phases of the project and establish benchmarks for completions times. Many contractors offer this service on the promise of being awarded the contract for the work. I have never felt this was a proper way to conduct business as it comes with an implied “quid pro quo”. A better approach is to hire a competent contractor (one that you would not hesitate to work with) and engage him for his time on an hourly rate during the pre-construction process. In this way the contractor is being fairly compensated for his time as a knowledgeable professional in a similar manner to the architect and there is no implied guarantee that the work will be contracted to his firm. This process allows all three parties the homeowner, the architect and the contractor to form a trusting and working relationship prior to the actual construction of the project, or conversely it can uncover difficulties that are best discovered prior to the commencement of the project and allow for a change of course if necessary.

Once these suggestions are implemented the whole overwhelming apprehension often associated with such a major undertaking as renovating one’s home is put into a proper and more manageable perspective. The real beauty and excitement of creating a new and more workable living environment for you and your family will be allowed to take form and blossom.

©Ralph A. Miriello

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