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  • Writer's pictureMike Abell, Professional Civil Engineer

What property owners should know about their construction project

Be Realistic About Time and Effort

First of all, recognize that any project is a big undertaking. The bigger your vision, the more time and effort it will take to achieve.

A lot of property owners think, "Oh, I'm just going to do this or that; it should be quick and easy." However, that's never the case.

Getting anything designed, permitted, and constructed is a lot of work. Let's start with discussing realistic expectations about time and effort.

Be Realistic About Scope and Cost

Perhaps you have some ideas and options for your project. That's awesome!

Meet with a few specialists to see what they have to say. Talk to an engineer. Talk to an architect. Talk to a contractor.

Each will have perspective, insight, and value that will help guide your decision-making.

- Architects know the constraints if you're building upward or outward.

- Engineers know structural implications and cost estimates.

- Contractors can point out logistical items and give you a sense of overall project cost.

It's good to know first thing what you can or can't do and what your options will cost. This will start your project off grounded in reality.

Consider Your Alternatives

Before you dive in and get to work, ask yourself if it's worth the trouble.

Sometimes it's best not to do a project. Sometimes it's best to move to a different residence instead of renovating.

People will often buy a property somewhere they've never lived, make it into their dream home, and swear that they'll spend the rest of their life there. I'll talk to them a few years later and they'll say, "Oh, that place. Yeah, we sold that."

Note that you always have options, but if everything points toward doing the project, go for it!

Consider Bundling Other Projects

Construction is a great time to take care of any other projects you may have. These could include repairs, improvements, landscaping, painting, or anything else to develop your property.

Consider what else you have to do, and bundle it with the project.

Get Organized

You'll need to have your workspaces clear during the construction.

If you have a garage or another room filled with belongings, it's time to declutter and organize.

This is a great opportunity to reclaim space and make your home into what you want it to be.

Get Your Timing Right

You DO NOT want to build in the rain. Contractors will tell you that it's okay to do this. But it's not.

Your wood framing should stay completely dry throughout the construction; otherwise, it will swell, and moisture will become trapped in the finishes. This can cause many problems.

Start planning your project in the spring, design in the summer, submit for permitting in the fall, find your contractor in the winter, and start construction as soon as the rain is over.

As we mentioned, construction projects have long timelines. So plan accordingly, and allow plenty of time for each project phase.

The General Process

The overall process for a construction project is as follows: Design, Permit, Construction. You want to proceed in that order. Don't start a new phase until the previous phase is complete.

- Don't start construction before you have an approved permit with the city.

- Don't start the permit process until your design is exactly what you want.

Moving the project along before it's ready will only cause problems.

Meet with Specialists

While planning your project, meet with an architect, an engineer, and a contractor. They'll help you decide on the ultimate scope of the project.

While you have these discussions, make a list of details you want implemented. This will be useful to ensure that everything is included during the project’s design and construction. Have the contractor include this list in their construction quote.

Once you know exactly what you want to include in your project, it's time to get started.

Start with an Architect

You'll need an architect if your project has:

- An addition (such as new habitable space or a new deck)

- A change to the existing floor plan (such as the removal of a wall)

- Any change to the building exterior (such as the enlargement of a window or door opening)

If this is the case, it's best to start by enlisting an architect.

Property Line Setbacks

It's especially important to start with an architect if your project has an addition or a new deck.

This is because there are requirements for how far your project needs to be set back from the property lines. This is a major factor in deciding on the footprint and scope of your project.

When an Architect Is Not Required

If your project is a seismic retrofit or does not include a change to the floor plan (such as with a deck replacement), then you don't need an architect.

In that case, you can start your project by hiring a structural engineer.

Hire a Structural Engineer

Once the architectural plans are ready—or if you don't need an architect—then you can have a structural engineer prepare the engineering plans.

Appreciate the Design Process

You’ll be eager to have your design finished so that you can move along toward construction. However, keep in mind that design is a process. It’s in your best interest to give your architect and engineer plenty of time to design so that they can do a good job and fully consider every detail. Be sure to not rush the process.

During design, there's no need to manage the process; however, feel free to ask questions, make requests, and follow your intuition to involve yourself with any details in which you're interested. Projects always turn out better with contributions from the property owner.

Otherwise, the architect and engineer will coordinate the process and let you know if there's anything you need to know or decide on.

Plan a Review with You

You'll know when the architect and engineer are finished because they'll send you the plan set and ask to be paid.

At that time, take a look at the submission and make sure everything is aligned with what you want. You might have some new ideas or revision requests. Let the designers know. This is the best time to incorporate any changes and tailor the design exactly to fit your desire.

If you'd like some guidance on how to navigate the plan set, check out our video titled "How to Read Construction Plans."

Plan a Review with the City

Once you're satisfied with the design, let the architect and the engineer know. They'll submit the permit application with the plan set and any other required materials to the city.

The city will then perform a plan review. This can take a while, anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Plan review can also iterate through multiple rounds in that the city can issue comments, and design changes might need to be made and resubmitted as a result.

Once the city approves the project, you can hire a contractor and begin construction.

Don't Start Construction without a Permit

After the design is complete, you might think, "Great; now I can start work."

However, DO NOT start construction until your project is approved by the city!

This causes all kinds of problems and can easily get your project red-tagged.

Don't even begin meeting with contractors until after the building permit is approved.

Contractors want to schedule your project and get to work, but if the permit isn't approved, they won't know when you can begin.

Additionally, during the plan review, the city may issue comments, and design changes might be made. The project scope can't be finalized until the permit is approved.

These two items discourage contractors from prioritizing a project until it's approved, so it's best simply not to involve them until that time comes.

However, contractors have a construction crew that they need to keep busy. They’ll be strongly incentivized to get your project started if they have a gap in their schedule, even if you don't have the permit approved.

What they'll do is suggest pulling a demolition permit with the city to begin your project anyway "while the plan review is finishing up.” This consistently leads to trouble because they’ll start building from unapproved plans that are commonly revised before approval, in which case, the work must be undone.

You'll be eager to start work or talk to contractors to find out how much construction will cost, but don't start this process until after the project is approved.

Hire a Contractor

Meet with a few contractors. Have each of them review the project and provide you with a quote for construction.

Don't necessarily go with the lowest quote. This goes for hiring an architect and an engineer as well.

Some professionals price a bit higher because they are more skilled and resourceful, have more experience, and add more value to your project.

You may be better served by paying a premium for more qualified specialists. Better insight and foresight provides for economical design and construction, smoother and faster delivery, and improved project longevity without problems after completion, all of which translates into savings for you.

Be sure to do your due diligence, and don't go with the lowest quote unless it's a good fit and you feel confident in their ability.

During Construction

During the initial meetings before construction, contact the superintendent, also known as the "super" or the "foreman." This individual is the project manager who will be working on your project full time, managing the crew and the work.

The contractor will be available, but they function more in a business and supervisory role and won't be on site every day.

The superintendent is a good person to know for coordination in case something comes up or you need to know something. They are more responsive to the construction process.

Feel free to periodically check on the construction’s progress, have the superintendent show you around, and ask questions. If you see tasks that can improve your building or the project, feel free to make those requests.

Special Inspection

During construction, the contractor will coordinate a special inspection with the building official and the engineer. They will visit the site at key junctures to check the work that is being done.

This may occur, for example, after rebar and formwork is placed, but before concrete is poured to make a new foundation. Or after wood framing and anchorage is complete, but before plywood sheathing is nailed to the wall.

For each project phase, the building official and engineer will certify that the work follows the building code and approved plans.

At the end of the construction, they will conduct a final inspection, submit this documentation, and certify that the project is complete.

After Construction

As soon as work is complete, take a look around your project. Let the contractor know of any issues that may still be outstanding. Make sure everything is clean and finished to your satisfaction.

If your project was a new deck, be sure to weatherproof it using paint or some type of sealant.

Otherwise, that's about it. Great job. You’re done!

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