“It Ain’t the House You Grew Up In”
Well, I pretty much laid the groundwork for codes and inspections as players on the home project team. I like to refer to the players as a “three-legged stool”. This cuts to the heart of our relationship. If that’s what this is. Honestly, I do feel the love. Maybe I should buy you dinner or something. Anyhow, you get that codes are complex, houses are complex, technologies are complex, and we need extra eyes looking over this stuff, right? Well, there are a couple other folks that should be on the team. They are the Designer and the Builder. Effectively, it SHOULD be approached like this:
- Designer – They are your personal advocate on this complex adventure. This person is there to take your intention (Project idea) and translate into reality by way of uniform instructions for everyone touching this building. We call the instructions ‘plans’ but they are much more. No matter what the project is, it probably hasn’t been done that way before, ever. Someone needs to show the builders what you want and how it must be done to meet code. A true designer is an expert in the field and knows all the stuff you don’t have to and, how to apply it. They set parameters and manage expectations. It’s much more cost effective to plan on paper rather than hit the ground without a plan. The plans are reviewed by the code’s enforcement people for errors or omissions to be sure everyone is on the same page before commencement. Bottom line, the plans are the playbook for the project. We’ll get into designers’ role much more in time. I kinda’ have a soft spot, ya’ know? Effectively, consider the designer the COACH. Every good team needs a good coach.
Next in the lineup is the Builder. This is where I feel the industry has gone off the trail. As a rule, design is highly regulated in terms of plan quality and completeness virtually everywhere. In the greater metro Atlanta area where I live, the plans must meet a very detailed criteria and extensive review for acceptance and subsequent permitting. It takes a skilled design professional to produce quality, compliant documents. If the plans aren’t up to the task, no permit. However, the certification and regulation of builders varies widely from state to state. In Fl., the licensing test alone takes 3 full days to complete. It usually takes 2 – 3 months of prep to have a fighting chance. The 1st time passing ratio is dismal. In the end, the worst builder in FL is a seriously vetted individual. Not so much in some other states. Some states put less emphasis on knowledge and more on financial status with very basic testing criteria. This leaves a lot to be desired for the consumer. Especially when this person is the QUARTERBACK. Their job is to execute the plans, as designed, in a safe and professional manner. Unfortunately, I’ve seen licensed builders that honestly can’t read and interpret a properly prepared set of drawings. One builder actually said to me, ”Damn, that’s a lot of words!” Another said the info he needed wasn’t on the plans. When shown it was there he said, “I never look there anyhow!” So, vetting your builder is critical. This is why you engage a designer first. The best path for any homeowner is the conventional bid process. 3 builders (max.) should compete for your business based on a common set of plans. Then you can vet their experience, technical ability, business acumen, etc. A properly prepared set of plans provides a uniform criterion for all three bids. Hence, an apples to apples comparison. This is just smart. Builders hate this about me. Go figure!?
- Last, but never least, is the Oversight (Permitting and Inspection) Authority. We’ve already covered them pretty effectively. They of course are essential. Consider them the REFERREE. They most certainly maintain fair play and flag violations. You may still find yourself grousing about the Fascist regime unfairly restricting your freedoms. Fear not! The brown-shirts are benevolent in this case. Building inspectors are unsung heroes.
Although there are many other people and trades involved, these are the essential 3 legs of the stool. It takes all three to maintain stability. Everyone plays a role and never the twain shall meet. I must say, it seems everyone is a designer. I actually had a client once say, “What’s the big deal; it’s just lines on paper!” What a maroon (as Bugs said). They effectively told me that I was just a means to an end for the building permit and that the builder would be directing the process. Really? As a proud Southerner, we have a saying (of course);”If you don’t pee in my pool, I won’t swim in your toilet!”. Kinda’ captures the concept, don’t ya’ think? People have too much to do with their own job without back-seating on everyone else’s. We all have skills in our field. We work hard to hone them to become more valuable. Annexing other player’s duties is not a good way to do that.
One challenge has been the advent of the “Design/Build” residential model of the early 80’s. It’s the common practice now. It had been somewhat common in commercial construction for some time until a few of us idiots (yep, me too) saw it as a marketing tool in residential. I promise my intentions were honorable. Builders kept taking my plans and making arbitrary changes or cutting corners for profit or because they just didn’t know better. They would just pull the owner off to the side for a friendly chat about how I was a really good guy but perhaps a little out of touch on this matter. They would help the owner bypass this unnecessary expense of my ineptitude! I was touched. They used to love to throw around the term “over-building”. As in, “That Designer just over-builds his designs!” Puckey. I like to think I submit to the highest law in the land….gravity. A great deal of what I do is math. For example, how much something weighs and what can hold it up safely and….wait for it….within code (minimums). My insurance company is very proud that I haven’t squashed anybody, ever, seriously. Bad for business.
So, in summary, these are the 3 players and they should come on the team in the order I just listed. Before taking a road trip through Oz, seek an experienced guide. Vet and engage a competent Designer. With their guidance, develop a design that meets your needs safely and as cost efficiently as practical. A good designer will offset their cost in savings by reducing errors, cleaner schedules and more precise purchasing. Then, take that design and solicit qualified builders to compete for the contract using your Designer as the mediator. Later, we’ll show you places to start looking for competent builders. Then, start construction under the watchful eye of the oversight authority. Be aware, if you avoid getting a permit, you’re doing a lot more than breaking the law. You’re playing with your family’s well-being and your own over a few bucks and some inconvenience. In other words, you’re being an ass, and an idiot for that matter. Nasty combo by the way.
Remember, there is as much to go wrong as right; from common complexities to incompetence to cutting corners for profit. Doing complex things properly is difficult. So, how do you do the smart thing and gain some peace of mind? First, acknowledge what you don’t know. Doesn’t mean you aren’t intelligent. Next, realize that there is a brilliant, albeit complicated, system out there to support your effort and intention. Then avail yourself of the talent to navigate that system.