Video Tour: Magnolia Mid-Mod

There is a lot more story to tell (and stuff to show) about this wonderfully livable and accessible home than photos alone can capture.  

So, when the fabulous Chibi Moku team decided to film in the Pacific Northwest for a few weeks this summer, Karen and I jumped at the opportunity.  Enjoy!

How a small splurge may become a big expense (and how to maintain control)

TEMPTATION BY DESIGN

You probably don't realize it, but the same tricks used in grocery stores to entice you to spend more are used in showrooms for construction materials and products.  In a grocery store, the sugary cereal is placed at childrens' eye level to grab their attention (and begin the begging process).  The guilty-pleasure cereals that camouflage as healthier options are at adult eye level.  And, the really healthy stuff?  On the top or very bottom shelf, collecting dust.  

When you walk in a showroom, the most popular luxury goods will be front and center, and you will surely find yourself in "love" with some expensive (and probably trendy) goodies.  

THE LABOR FACTOR

With any construction material, the cost of labor must be included to determine the actual price difference.  Labor rates can sometimes eclipse the unit cost savings.   

Example:

When selecting the backsplash for the kitchen at our Laurelhurst project, we immediately loved the classic look of the 1x3 statuary white marble herringbone pattern mosaic tile.  But, at about $21 per square foot, the material cost was significantly more than a $4 per square foot matte white subway tile we also liked.

So, we came up with two options:

  • Option 1- All herringbone mosaic

  • Option 2 - Inexpensive white subway tile with matching trim pieces and a narrow accent band of a marble tile

We asked our general contractor to give us a total installed price for both options.  Surprisingly, the additional labor to install the less expensive tile made Option 2 MORE expensive than Option 1.  The labor to install each piece individually, plus additional time to determine the best layout in the field (to minimize small pieces), more than closed the price gap of the materials per square foot.  This would  not have been true if Option 1 also required piece-by-piece installation and fussy layout calculations in the field, but since the herringbone mosaic came mounted on a mesh in 12"x12" interlocking pieces, the labor factor was significantly less.

PURCHASE INCREMENTS AND SUBCONTRACTOR LIABILITY

Some materials have an even larger price difference between the material cost and the total installed cost.  One reason is that some items must be purchased in certain increments, regardless of the amount needed -- such as certain tiles that are sold by the box and stones that are sold in whole slabs.

When fragile or difficult to fabricate materials are being handled and shaped, there will also be a liability factor in the subcontractor's pricing.  After all, if they break the slab, they will have to purchase and fabricate a replacement.  

Example:

Upgrading to manufactured quartz from plastic laminate may seem like a small splurge if you rely upon square foot costs to make your judgment (see the yellow highlighted cells in the spreadsheet, below).  However, once labor, fabrication, and mark-ups are added, the multiplier is much higher (green cells vs. yellow cells, below).  

laminate-vs-quartz.jpg

 

You may also have to purchase more slabs because of the shapes of un-spliced pieces required that can be cut from a single slab.   In contrast, plastic laminate can be continuously applied to a substrate in much longer pieces, so a purchase increment is less likely to trigger a significant overall price swing.

HOW TO STAY FOCUSED

Appointments are recommended (and required at many showrooms) so that you get individualized attention and answers to your questions, but you will have a true insider's advantage when your architect/designer is either by your side or has called to brief the salesperson regarding the design objectives and budget expectations before your appointment.  

If you find yourself captivated by a more expensive option, collect the information needed to price it, but spend time to find a less expensive option that would also work, keeping labor, purchase increments, and subcontractor liability in mind.

6 Tips for Selecting the Perfect Contractor

1- Chemistry

The vibe you get from the interview is so important that it should be an automatic elimination factor, even if all the other boxes are checked.  

Remember, you are entering into a relationship that is going to last a while.  Communicating should feel easy, and you should feel comfortable discussing any concerns.  

They should seem genuinely interested (excited, even!) about your project and give you the feeling that they want to — and are able to — hear you and help you to the finish line and beyond.  

time-cost-quality.jpg

2- Time, Cost, Quality

The saying goes, “There are three aspects of every project:  time, cost, and quality.   You can only prioritize two.”  

Realize that if you want high quality on a low budget, you will have to be more flexible with your timeline.  If you want a quick turnaround on a low budget, you should expect a lower quality level.  And, if you want high quality on a quick turnaround, you will have to have pay more.

 

3- Experience

My own contract with my clients states that “The Owner shall select a qualified Contractor, experienced in projects of similar scope and quality.”  

As you browse a website, look for projects similar in scope and/or style to your own.  If there isn’t a website (or you don’t find similar projects there), call to ask whether the scope of your project is similar to other completed work.  They may be able to bring photos to your interview or arrange a tour. 

4- Timeline

In addition to the standard questions of “When could you start?” and “About how long will my project take to build?,” ask:

  • Do they have the manpower to begin your project and keep it steadily moving forward from start to finish?
  • What do they do to avoid delays in the schedule?
  • Do they enough employees to compensate for sickness or injury if it occurs?
  • Will they provide you with a schedule of deadlines for decisions you need to make?

5- Fee Basis

There are two main ways that builders price a project:  Cost Plus (also known as Time and Materials or T&M) and Stipulated Sum (also known as Fixed Price or Fixed Bid).  Both are acceptable under the correct circumstances, however I strongly recommend a Stipulated Sum agreement for most residential projects.  The exceptions are for jobs where it is not possible to accurately predict the time required (such as complex repair work) and for clients who have difficulty sticking with decisions they’ve made and are likely to change both the overall scope and materials chosen throughout the construction process.  

Working with an architect (like me) results in a detailed set of plans and specifications that become part of your contract with your builder.  As a result, your contractor will have the information he needs to facilitate bidding and should be able to provide you with a fixed price to complete the work as described.  This shifts the risk of underestimating to the contractor.  

The sales pitch you may hear is that Cost Plus could save you money.  In order to enter into a Stipulated Sum agreement, most contractors include a contingency fund in their price that is theirs to keep if they don’t need it.  It might feel like leaving money on the table, but in my (many) years in architecture, I have only had 2 projects where the contractor completed the job for less than originally estimated.

6- Referrals, References, Requirements

Ask your architect to recommend contractors before you ask others.  Once you ask your friends, family, and colleagues, there may be pressure for you to work with them or at least solicit a price from them.  You may think that allowing them to price your job is a nice gesture on your part, even if know they won't get hired.  The truth is that putting together a thorough estimate is extremely time-consuming.  Every contractor I know would rather NOT price a job they have no chance of getting.

No matter the source of the referral, you should ask for a list of references from each candidate and contact a couple from your favorite candidate's list.  Also, spend a little time checking their licensing status with your state board.  If you see a history of closing the company and re-opening under a different name, that is probably not a good sign.