Friday, January 24, 2014

The greatest story ever told

What is it about house renovations that turns everyone (myself included) into such yawning bores? 

We once stayed at a really lovely Bed and Breakfast in Santa Cruz where we never once saw the owner. Not really being B&B fans, we loved the fact that we didn't need to try and think of small talk in the morning. We found out after our second stay a few years later that the owners deliberately stay out of their guests' way because, paraphrasing the in-room information packet, they didn't want to hear about our house renovation plans and we probably didn't want to hear about theirs.

If we all have the potential to bore or be bored by tales of bathroom fixtures and floor coverings, why do we all seem so complicit in the explosion of house and garden porn so ubiquitous on TV and the Internet? When did arm-chair contracting and designing become a national pastime? (Based on the offerings in Britain, I would suggest the UK suffers from the same.)

Then again, does it matter? You are all obviously here because you like a good before and after. Or maybe you are contemplating your own project. Either way, prepare to be bored...

Deciding what we wanted to do
It wasn't long after we bought our 1934 Colonial Revival in 2010 that my other half looked at me one night and said "I feel like we've made the biggest mistake of our lives". Although I was heartbroken to hear him say it, I couldn't really disagree. By that time we had plunked down a hefty chunk of change on "improvements" to our "new house" that didn't do anything to make the house look better. (Replacing an AC system doesn't do anything to up your curb appeal.) Even as we made some cosmetic repairs (see here) and began feeling better about our house, we started to plot more serious renovations. 

Top of the list was a better kitchen, better bathrooms, and more bedroom closet space. But mission creep is a bitch and once you get rolling it is hard to know where to stop finding things you want to do. Certainly budget comes into play, but until it all gets priced out, might as well put it on the list. And so the list grows. And grows. And grows.

Our program includes a few big ticket items:
  • New kitchen
  • New family room
  • New detached garage
  • New master bedroom
  • Bigger master bath and more master closets
  • Bigger guest bath
  • Gut, insulate, and install new built-ins in library
  • Gut and insulate the lovely attic bedroom
  • Return the side porch to its former screen porch glory
  • Some sort of solution to a front door that empties right into our living room
Making those things happen led to the following:
  • New bedroom and full bath in the newly excavated basement under the new kitchen and family room
  • New butler's pantry in old kitchen
  • New mudroom off the driveway
  • New front hall
  • Replace the crazy narrow, steep stairs to the attic bedroom
And then the other nickels and dimes:
  • Improved water pressure
  • New recessed lighting
  • Better mantels and fireplace surrounds
  • New wood floors throughout (so much of the original was being impacted)
  • New interior trim
  • Outlets in existing house brought up to code in terms of quantity and placement
  • New or restored radiators
  • Two AC zones
  • New exterior wood clapboards
  • Improved limed finish on exterior brick
The totally unexpected:
  • A geothermal heating and cooling system. More on this soon. 
Falling in love with an architect
Finding the right person to design a project is perhaps the most difficult part of the process. Thankfully for design junkies like ourselves, it was also one of the most fun. In these days of slap-dash home improvements where little sensitivity is given to scale and proportion, finding the an architect who would respect our 1934 house was our most pressing concern.

We started by canvassing the listings on the website of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). And let me just say this to architecture firms--especially the small ones--woe to you who do not have a pleasant, easy-to-navigate website with good photos. You are design professionals and the year is 2014 (well it was 2012, but you get the idea). Would it really kill you to put some effort into your website?

After much surfing using the AIA list as our guide, we narrowed it down to four firms. Each of them appeared to know how to design additions to be in harmony with the existing house and all of them clearly understood scale and proportion. Once we had those four selected we contacted each of them by email to set up interviews. 

Here is another web caveat for firms: make sure someone is checking your marketing email inbox. We had one very good firm that never got back to us. By the time they finally did (citing a cock-up on their email inbox management) we had already chosen a firm to work with. And let me tell you, this was a good three months after we made initial contact with each of the firms.

We were thorough. We interviewed each of the three firms and checked all their references. Going into the process we definitely had a favorite firm, they were the first ones to be interviewed and did not disappoint. The second firm wowed us with their technical know-how of how to get things done in DC and  were really good at explaining how their process worked. They instilled a lot of confidence. The third firm kind of charmed the socks off of us. Ideas were flying, sexy project pictures were shown, creative enthusiasm oozed from every pore. We both went to bed thinking, wow, our first choice was no longer our first choice. Contestant number three had won us over.

And then the next morning as I stepped out of our tiny, crappy, little master bedroom shower with really awful water pressure, I looked over at the mister and said "I think I want to go with the first firm". That is, our first choice. Something about sleeping on it brought me back to the first firm. He quickly replied "I was thinking the same thing!". Happily, there would be no conflict about who we should hire. We called all their references and made our decision.

But how to break up with the two firms we didn't choose? Thank god for email. It feels so personal to reject someone who puts their creative soul on the line. Have you ever had to break up with your hairdresser? It's hard to do.

I need to say one more thing about the process of choosing an architect. There are lots of resources out there, including one from the AIA, about what kinds of questions you should ask a firm before hiring them. But one thing that might not be so obvious is that you probably should think about what kind of impression you are making on the architect. When times are good (and they always seem to be good in DC) architects can pick which projects they want to work on. If you seem like you are going to be an annoying client or if you have aesthetic interests that don't mesh with their own aesthetic, then they may not want you even though you may want them.  So the impression you make counts.

Staying in love with an architect
After so many years talking about our dream house and all of our ideas about how we wanted our living spaces to look and feel, hiring an architect was like hiring a friend. A pricey friend. One that will let you talk for hours but isn't afraid to tell you when your idea is not a good one. True, they may be more diplomatic than a friend, but the effect is roughly the same. And, like a friend they have some pretty strong viewpoints that don't always jive with yours--at least you may not think that they do. But you are friends with this person for a reason and, if you have chosen wisely, they often know better than you do.  This doesn't mean they are always right and you need to make sure that your needs and desires aren't getting lost in the process. Sometimes one can be charmed by an idea or a direction and lose sight of what one finds important. And sometimes that can lead to the aforementioned mission creep where small projects become big ones.

All of the architects we spoke with charged an hourly rate through the conceptual design phase. Once the general program, size, and style of your project is nailed down they estimate how much the construction project will cost and then propose a fixed-fee contract for the remainder of the process based on a percentage of that cost. This, along with the by-the-hour fee in the conceptual phase, generally comes out anywhere between ten and fifteen percent.

One tip: Have all of your program or design disagreements with your spouse BEFORE each meeting you have with your architect. Especially in the early phase when they are being paid by the hour. Do you really want to pay them to listen to a 20 minute conversation with your better half about how wide a shelf should be? Typically we discuss in depth ahead of time how we feel about various aspects of the projects and work out our kinks ahead of time. It helps that we are largely simpatico on most things. For those of you who don't see eye-to-eye, you may need your architect to lead you to a good compromise.

NEXT TIME: The design process and choosing a contractor

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