Monday, November 7, 2011

What is Design/Build and Why Should I Consider this Approach to Building?

Design/Build is a team approach to building. The team consists of 3 primary players; Owner, Design Professional and Contractor, all of which are equally important.  Just think of a 3-legged stool. All 3 legs are required in order for the stool to function. If one leg is weaker than the others, or is removed, the entire stool collapses and ceases to function.

Traditional Hard Bid Approach

Most homeowners who approach a building project hire someone to draw a set of plans and then solicit multiple bids from multiple contractors with those same set of plans. This is the most common approach and has been done for decades. Here’s the problem……… when using this approach you are assuming that all contractors have the same level of expertise, same level of competence and will use the same quality materials and the only difference is going to be the price. THIS IS THE FURTHEST THING FROM REALITY!
It’s almost as if you decide to buy a particular car (your project) and you just go from dealer to dealer (the contractor) to get the best price. This process is usually fine since all cars are built on an assembly line, in a controlled environment and the materials and quality are controlled by the same manufacturer. With the exception of a few ‘lemons’ here and there, the end product is rather predictable, therefor PRICE is the only thing that is negotiable at that point.
Construction, however, is completely the opposite. The end product is hand made by fallible humans with different levels of expertise, different business practices and with different motivations, hence a different end product than you think you are going to get when you started out.

Design/Build is a Negotiated Bid

In a Design/Build approach to building, the owner selects their “team” (design professional and builder) from the beginning. Referring back to the 3-legged stool, the owner communicates their needs to the designer who interprets those needs into a preliminary design and then the contractor runs a preliminary cost analysis based on the preliminary design. If the costs are outside of the budget (and it usually is on the first draft, it’s a matter of how much over), the designer, contractor and owner work together to design the project to the budget and not the budget conforming to the design. This is the negotiation part of the process. It’s NOT about negotiating profit margins, but rather negotiating the aspects of the design, identifying the costly portions and developing creative design solutions to bring the costs down.  During this process, it is the design professional’s job is to ensure the integrity of the design solution, the contractor acts as a consultant for projected cost purposes and the owner steers the direction of the decision making process. All three are equally important.
Once a final design solution (including construction costs) is arrived at, final construction documents are completed by the design professional, permits are obtained by the contractor and construction begins. The advantage of having the contractor involved during the design process is that by the time you are building, all parties are fully versed of the expectations of the project and a working relationship between the owner, design professional and contractor is already established before a shovel of dirt is ever turned. A dialog and working relationship has already been established. This will prove invaluable during the actual construction when something goes awry (and it will) and issues can be headed off before it becomes a major problem.
Throughout my entire 25 year career of designing nearly 800 projects, I can say that the most successful projects have been the ones that were done in a design/build approach. My definition of ‘successful’ is when all the parties are still talking to each other by the end of the project!

Common Household Building Code Violations

In my travels and experience over the past 25 years, I have observed numerous building code violations that most homeowners aren’t even aware of. These are common “mistakes” that are made, not on purpose, but due to a lack of knowledge and just simply not being aware.
I would like to share the most common, routine violations in the hopes that people can be more aware of their surroundings and live safer in their homes.
The following references (written in bold below) are taken from the IRC (International Residential Code) with is the building code in force throughout the United States EXCEPT for California, which uses the CBC (California Building Code). Both codes are very similar with only slight variations between them.

Smoke Detectors: (IRC- R313.1) …to be located in hallways adjacent to sleeping rooms, inside each sleeping room, top of stairwells and in basements.
Note that these can be battery operated if placed in existing construction. If new construction, they must be ‘hard wired’ with a battery back-up and interconnected. The purpose of smoke detectors is to wake you up if there is a fire so that you can respond appropriately.  Some people incorrectly install them in kitchens. It is NOT meant to be your ‘dinner bell’! Try not to locate them near bathrooms as the steam from showers can inadvertently set them off.
Carbon Monoxide detectors, although not required by the building code, may be required in certain regions of the country. Please check your local building department or government agency for requirements.
Although not required by code, I recommend installing a smoke detector in the garage for extra protection. Most house fires actually start in the garage.

Water Heater/Furnace (gas only) located in Garage: (G2408.2)…If located in a garage, must be installed on a minimum 18” high platform.
The purpose of this requirement is for Fire Safety. The pilot light (which is located near the bottom of the unit) can ignite combustible fumes and gases stored in the garage. These sources include the gas tank of your car, lawn mower and other items such as solvents and paints that are typically stored in your garage.

Interior Garage Doors: (R310.1)….Openings between garages and residence shall have solid wood doors not less than 1-3/8” in thickness or honeycomb steel doors not less than 1- 3/8” thick or 20 minute fire-rated door.
Many times I have seen homeowners replace these doors with Patio doors, doors with a window in them or even cut ‘doggie doors’ into these types of doors. This is NOT allowed. Once altered, these doors do not provide the proper fire separation between your garage and house and will cause fire to rapidly spread between areas. Remember, most house fires start in the garage!

Dryer Vents: (M1501.1)….Dryer vents must terminate to the EXTERIOR of the building.
Most often, dryer vents are vented directly into the garage. Weather the appliance is located inside the garage or inside a utility room, the venting of these units must be routed directly to the exterior of the building. I have seen these units vented directly under the house in crawl spaces, directly into the attic and even directly into the garage. The lint build up is amazing! So much so, that it’s like walking on a mattress. Not only does this condition add more moisture to these areas, hence accelerated rotting and insect infestations, but creates a fire hazard with the buildup of lint.

Guardrails (R312.1)….required where walking surfaces are greater than 30” from grade. Guardrails must be a minimum of 36” high and have openings less than 4” in diameter.
 This code requirement applies to decks, porches, balconies, patios and any areas directly connected to the dwelling in which this code is being applied. It does not apply to landscaping or other hard scape areas of a yard that are secondary to the dwelling (ex. Terraced landscaping, driveways, walkways).
Many times I have seen front porches that are in total violation of this code. If you have more than 3 steps up to a porch or landing, then more than likely you are required to have guardrails encompassing the porch. It is also possible you may be required to have handrails on the open sides of the stairway as well.
The requirement of less than 4” diameter is so that a child’s head or body cannot get through the openings, get caught in the openings or completely fall through and off the surface. The actual wording is: “….so that a 4” sphere cannot pass through”.

Electrical Plugs in Kitchens (E3802.6), Bathrooms (E3802.1) and Garages (E3802.2) must be GFI.
GFI refers to ‘Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt’. These are the type of outlets that have a reset button located in the middle of the plug so that you can test the circuit. It is designed to shut off the circuit (or ‘pop’ off) if it detects an imbalance of electrical current which would cause electrical shock and possible electrocution. This is required where electrical outlets are located near water and protects the user from being shocked.
You can test these outlets yourself by using a “Circuit Tester”. You can purchase these handy devices at any local hardware or home improvement store in the electrical department. This small device can be plugged into the electrical receptacle and colored lights will tell you if the circuit is protected, there’s reverse polarity, open ground, hot and ground reversed etc. If you suspect an issue, contact a licensed electrician to trouble shoot or repair the problem.

Minimum Light and Ventilation: R303.1….all habitable spaces (except kitchens and bathrooms) are required to maintain a minimum of 8% light and 4% ventilation of floor area of the room they service. Bathrooms may have a mechanical means of ventilation (exhaust fan in lieu of a window) with .35 air changes per hour.
This pertains to the minimum size of windows (light) and open able area (ventilation) in your house. I have often seen this part of the building code in severe violation when homeowners replace their existing windows either by modifying the original opening or changing the style/operation of the window itself. Many times, homeowners decide to change the type of window when they replace them. For example, changing from a casement window (crank out type) to a single hung (slide up and down) style of window. This change might not seem like a big deal, but you just reduced the ventilation by 50% and may not have even known it! Another inadvertent violation is when a homeowner decides to put ‘picture windows’ (fixed glass) in a room with a nice view. Well, you might have just removed ALL of the ventilation in that space and not realized it.
Don’t depend on your window salesman to know what is appropriate for your house. They may not have even been to your house or don’t want to bother measuring the rooms for compliance. Often times the salesman will have fine print in their contract stating that they are not responsible for code compliance. READ YOUR CONTRACT, be an informed and wise consumer!

EGRESS: R310.1…..Sleeping rooms must have at least 1 means of egress.
Egress is defined as a means of emergency escape. You must be able to climb out of an opening (door or window) from a bedroom if there is a fire. This also applies to habitable basements. The MINIMUM requirements of this opening is as follows: R310.1.1 – 310.1.4
·         Maximum sill height is 44” from the floor.
·         Minimum height of opening is 24” clear
·         Minimum width of opening is 20” clear
·         Minimum CLEAR opening must be at least 5.7 sq.ft. * (grade floor openings can be 5 sq.ft.)
*NOTE: if you multiply the min. width x height, you will be LESS THAN the minimum 5.7 sq.ft. required. Therefore, only ONE dimension (width OR height) will qualify. The other dimension must be greater!

When Do You Need A Building Permit?

According to the 2009 IRC (International Residential Code) Section R105.1, “Any owner or authorized agent who intends to construct, enlarge, alter, repair, move, demolish, or change the occupancy of a building or structure, or to erect, install, enlarge, alter, repair, remove, convert or replace any electrical, gas, mechanical or plumbing system, the installation of which is regulated by this code, or to cause any such work to be done, shall first make application to the building official and obtain the required permit”. (You should always check with your local building department to verify which building code version is in effect as different jurisdictions may be different.)

So what does this mean in laymen’s terms? Let’s use a kitchen remodel for example. If you are planning to remodel your kitchen, you need a building permit. Even if you ARE NOT planning to relocate any appliances or fixtures, you still need a permit. Typically in a kitchen remodel, you will probably be upgrading electrical items such as adding more plugs, installing hot water dispensers, adding more lighting or installing or upgrading an exhaust vent over the stove.
In this case, for example, the electrical code requires a minimum distance apart for the location of convenience electrical receptacles (plugs at your countertops) and that some or all must be GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) protected for your safety.  All of the work required to install these types of items must be inspected by the local building authority for safety reasons. The same applies for other items such as gas shut off valves (for gas stoves), plumbing air gap installed for dishwashers, proper mechanical venting for exhaust vents over cooktops. Most newer electrical codes also require that certain appliances have dedicated circuits, such as built-in microwaves. Your current kitchen electrical loads may not be adequate for this and therefore electrical upgrades to your main electrical panel or sub-panel may be triggered.  All this work must be inspected, hence the permit requirement.
If you are merely re-facing your cabinets or replacing countertops, a permit is NOT required.
Even if you replace your water heater, a permit is required in order to inspect the gas line connection, TP valve and other issues. As soon as you touch an electrical, plumbing or mechanical item, a permit IS required.

What could/would happen if I don’t get a permit?
Well, here’s where it gets interesting. Several things can and will happen if you do work and do not secure the proper permits.
§  Disclosures: If you do work without a permit, it must be disclosed at the time of listing of the sale of the property. If you do not disclose this information, you can be held civilly liable to the buyers to correct such work or even be requested to obtain permits AFTER THE FACT by the potential buyers. You may even loose the prospective sale of the property if it is significant enough. If you disclose the non-permitted work and the buyer accepts it, then the buyer accepts all responsibility.
§  Insurance: Insurance companies are very picky about this kind of issue. If it is NOT PERMITTED, IT DOESN’T EXIST. If it doesn’t exist, then it is not insured and therefore they will NOT pay out on any losses, PERIOD! Fire, flood or act of God – it doesn’t matter.
§  Red Tag or Stop Work Order: This can be issued directly by the building official. Fines and penalties can be issued by the local building authority against the contractor or building owner for violating the requirement to obtain the necessary permits. There’s nothing worse than getting on the building official’s bad side, especially when he/she has the power to approve or fail your inspections.

A few of my own personal experiences might convince you pursue the proper permits when embarking on your own projects.
A past client of mine remodeled their kitchen a year prior to hiring me to design a family room addition off their newly remodeled kitchen. They hired the proper subcontractors and did all the work correctly to the code at the time. There were no major changes to the layout, just new cabinets, countertops, lighting etc. The owners decided that since they “weren’t making any major changes, we don’t need a permit”. Oh boy, did this decision cost them later. What they didn’t realize was that the codes change every few years and they always get more stringent and not any easier. In this particular case the electrical code had changed and now required the countertop plugs to be spaced closer together and also required a plug in the island.
Since they didn’t get any permits, the work that was done a year prior (as per the code in effect at that time) officially ‘did not exist’ and was not able to be ‘grandfathered in’. Therefore, all the electrical had to be re-done to the current code now in effect in order to get ‘as-built’ permits approved on the new kitchen and the green light to proceed to do the new room addition that I was hired to do. This meant that all the granite slab back splashes had to be ripped off the walls and thrown in the dumpster, electrical re-routed in the walls, cabinets drilled and new back splashes fabricated. The granite back splash was never able to be matched with the countertops at that point. A very sad and costly learning lesson for these owners and less money in the budget that could have been spent on the new family room addition.

On the bright side, there are actually some types of building projects that are EXEMPT from permits (as per 2009 IRC). They include:
§  1-story detached accessory structures not exceeding 200 sq.ft. in area.
§  Fences not over 6 feet in height
§  Retaining walls not over 4 feet in height (unless supporting a surcharge).
§  Water tanks
§  Concrete flatwork (sidewalks, driveways etc.)
§  Painting, papering, tiling, carpeting, cabinets, countertops and similar finish work.
§  Prefabricated swimming pools less than 24 inches deep.
§  Playground equipment accessory to 1 or 2 family dwelling.
§  Window awnings supported by exterior wall that do not project more than 54 inches.

I always suggest that when in doubt, contact a design professional for guidance. They can help you save a lot of money and headaches in the future and provide you with a professionally thought out end result that you can be proud of.