Gonna Build? Who ya Gonna Call?

How many folks thinking of building something call contractors first? I call this the C Approach. Owners probably feel some comfort that these guys know construction and cost. It matters hugely whether the contractor they call has a gold-plated reputation, is insured, is not undergoing divorce or ownership transition, understands which details and materials perform well over time etc., etc., & etc. Numbers and schedules (IF everything goes right) are thrown around at the initial meeting that usually have no resemblance to the final project outcome. The Money Pit got it right when the owner in the most desperate of circumstances was asked to believe that everything would be done in “two more weeks”.

Most owners understand little of the legal terrain of the construction world. Over the years, this appears to have gotten worse since the flood of TV home improvement programs bursting with smiling, clever, helpful workmen. Owners imagine that their own project will progress as effortlessly as long as they keep writing checks. Those on camera are on their best behavior and have discounted their price in exchange for “free” publicity!

Some contractors respond to the owner’s wishes by spending a few hours sketching out something, or in one project that I knew about, relied on a high school drafting student for contract drawings for a million dollar house. The contractor locked in his monopoly since no one else could quote on the work. The outcome was a bit disappointing because the windows selected were far too small (cheaper) for the majestic home’s generous rooms, but the owner had little recourse. The same owner spent impressive sums with an interior decorator “finishing” his home—lavish, big window treatments (drapery) to hide this goof on the inside and make the windows look bigger. Some contractors will suggest the use of an architect or unlicensed designer. This person must clarify what the owners want, describe it clearly on paper and make it easier for the contractor (after agreement on time and price) to do what he does best-- BUILD!... that brings me to the A Approach!

An experienced architect trained in listening, problem solving with an array of solutions--some quick, some lavish, some clever. Often this person brings unexpected goodies to a project: a flair for lighting, color, landscaping or even fixing chronic old building problems that owners had despaired of ever solving. Most architects have a network of capable consultants for nitty-gritty issues like heating, moisture control codes, interiors etc. & etc. Sounds expensive? Think of the cost of a botched project!

The A Approach usually leads to fewer problems during construction because architects speak the language of contractors and by using industry standard, well-tested AIA contract forms can structure a project to protect not only the owner’s, but also the contractor’s interests. While architects can’t make something half priced, they often can suggest options that will meet needs and be alert during construction and make intelligent responses to the inevitable “discovered conditions”, as well as, a variety of contractor mistakes.

During construction the architect is watching to help the contractor through the gray areas in every set of drawings and specs because it really is impossible to imagine and draw everything. Architects on site increase the likelihood that the owners are getting what they are paying for. When owners want to make changes during construction architects can often help implement them after explaining ramifi cations. However, owners who can’t make up their minds and engage in “full scale model building” quickly understand the cost of disrupting the flow of construction. With enough money and patience almost anything is possible, but a good design, understood by the owner, should reduce this tendency.

Then there is the X approach...Call a design/builder. Like construction managers, this is the black box of project delivery. The design/builder could be someone with design training, an accountant who had been involved in a few building projects, a lawyer/developer who puts together a team or a builder with a drawer full of plans and an eraser. Usually, speed equals profit. In theory, there should be fewer disputes because the check and balance system is gone. Only ethics and experience guide the detailing and materials choice. Because profit is locked in at the beginning, owners usually get less value for their money than the A approach. Only experienced owners who build the same thing many times and accept less control should even consider it.

In fairness, this arrangement can work. A firm of architects use this method to get their meticulous, highend designs actually built for a very competitive cost. Another example is a builder that is good at a certain kind of traditional home and is ready to modify his standard to fit an owner’s needs. Sometimes, the siting is a little strange and this solution is inexpensive.

Then, there are the folks who call excavators, carpenters, electricians, etc., & etc. first. I call it the Z (the last, least desirable) approach. While the owners imagine vast savings (20-50% is often mentioned to me) and have confidence in their own good taste and design and construction savvy, they place no value on their own time and energy. At best, they do not shop for lowest price but instead, should hook into a good network of subs. If the subs have never worked with these owners & will probably not do so in the future, the owners will have little clout and rarely can manage cost, coordination or time. Naïve owners acting as their own general contractor expect lots of free advice from everyone from building officials, relatives, neighbors and design professionals at parties. Sometimes, somewhere along the way, they complain about being taken advantage of, not accepting that they have made their own briar patch. If sufficiently angry, these folks often find money for postconstruction litigation, but oddly, not for pre-construction professional planning and risk reduction.

In the end, all building projects involve risk that owners should recognize and accept, because they will get the benefit of the project. The process of a built solution usually starts with a phone call. The person who answers sets the tone, opens a path and deals the deck of choices that follow.


+ Wrapping up an old church restoration involving dramatic discovered conditions & timely, expert response. Hoping to start on another church with chronic leaks and appalling workmanship.

+ Programming an ambitious local day care expansion.

+ Pleased to be asked submit qualifications for New London’s Lyman Allyn Art Museum-a wonderful Charles Platt classical edifice & hoping to help with another of his subtle masterpieces, The Lyme Art Association gallery that may still have the fall exhibit on Charles Platt on the walls or see the excellent catalog.

+ Helping New Haven folks add space to their log house in the Berkshires.

+ Consulting with a hard working owner restore the family home in a Boston suburb.

+ Learned more about designing to the Connecticut code’s much higher wind loads. According to the presenter they will affect more towns upon the next revision of the code in ’09.


Schooner Inc., New Haven has taught thousands of children and adults about marine ecology aboard great old wooden sailboats for over 30 years. Historically a patchwork of private donations and state grants have kept them barely afl oat. However, NOW they need donations and memberships in hand by FEBRUARY 20th to sustain their expensive wooden ship that is already heavily programmed for the coming year. A common misperception is that they are supported by the New Haven Dept. of Ed. (not true, but they sell reasonably priced programs to various school systems and universities). Learn more at www.schoonerinc.org

Send checks to 60 South Water Street, New Haven 06519. Thank you for considering support for this important landmark (watermark?).


Under the Tuscan Sun, by Francis Mayes is a glowing account of a long- term series of projects that brought a collapsing house and grounds back from ruin. The unusually ambitious owners combined sweat equity, skilled craftsmen and modest funds to get what they wanted (including a few good recipes). Their genuine joy after their trials is a testament to persistence and humor in the dark moments.

“Estimates are foreign to builders around here. They’re used to working by the day, with someone always at home to know how long they were there. This projecting is just not the way they do business, although they will sometimes say “Under three days” or ‘Quindici giorni’- fi fteen days - we learned is simply a convenient term meaning the speaker has no idea but imagines that the time is not entirely open ended.”

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