Monday, February 28, 2011

Your Options for choosing a Design Professional

When the time comes to chose a Design Professional, there are many options available to most people.  I will try to outline the three major choices, giving the advantages and disadvantages of each choice.

Draftsman:  True draftsman are becoming a dying breed with the huge advances made in the computer world.  No longer are draftsmen sitting at a drafting board with their straight edges, mechanical arms or T squares.  For the most part, they have traded in their number H2 and HB pencils for a computer monitor and design software. 

I once was a draftsman; went to drafting school to perfect my line weights, lettering style, construction details and  cross-hatching abilities.  Draftsmen were trained to put construction ideas down on paper (actually vellum or mylar) in such a fashion that it was readable and understandable by all the sub-contracting trades that would be working on that specific project.  We were proud of our work and thought of it as a work of art.  With the advent of  CAD (computer aided design), some of the creativity and uniqueness of hand drawn plans was lost to perfect lines, perfect lettering and boring looking blueprints.  Gained was the time saved in making changes, the uniformity of line weights, lettering and overall presentation.  Multiple people could be working on the same plan and no one would see the differences in style or lettering.  Lost was the little things draftsmen would put on their plans for fun or whimsy.  I often made smiley faces in the hatching of attic insulation, spiders in the sinks and mouse traps in wall cavities.  It's just not that fun to do on the computer, so the "added features" are no longer there.  It is rare to find someone who still draws by hand, unless it is a very small project and done just to maintain drafting skills.

Drafting was a skill and talent all it's own, design was the responsibility of your supervisor that was telling you what to draw.  Draftsmen most often work for architects, engineers, builders or lumber yards.  They are taught to draw clean, neat, accurate plans; they are not necessarily taught how to design.  With the advent of the computer, draftsmen became computer operators and what little design concepts we were taught in drafting school was lost in the transition to computer training. 

I have been very frustrated with the quality of the graduates from vocational CAD training programs as potential employees because I'm expecting that they would have some interest in actual design and have a curiosity for learning more about scale and proportion, but all they want to do is sit at a keyboard and enter information into a computer program and not have to think about the swing of a door, the scale of a room or the line of sight views from the front door.  They have no aptitude for design or design concepts, so as a design option, they are only as good as the person supervising them. 

Now I have seen a few draftsmen who are natural designers, who just have an innate ability to make a floor plan work best.  They have a passion and curiosity for learning more about design than about computer programs.  Most of these individuals move on to being the supervisor or owning their own design firm, they are not content to just draw what they are told to draw.  If you can find someone like this, you will get some design help that may not be available from a draftsman/computer operator alone.

When interviewing people for design help, make sure they are interested and willing to give some input to the design and design process.  If they tell you they will draw anything you want, you had better be the design expert, because they are not.  If you feel as though you are totally capable of designing your own home without any outside suggestions or advice, then this is the way to go.  I would say, less than 5% of non-construction related people are really capable of doing this well.  There are many different things to consider in designing a home, and without the experience of knowing how it will go together or how the sub-contractor trades work, you could be digging yourself a big hole.

Often times builders will use a draftsman or drafting service, especially one that works for a lumber yard.  There again I have seen some pretty talented lumberyard draftsmen and I have seen some pretty poor ones.  In this case, the draftsman is drawing what the builder interprets what he thinks you would like.  It is usually pretty straight forward, simple construction with little thought to scale and proportion, lacking some simple design elements that could make it really nice, and he will tell you the best thing of all, is that the plan is free.  Hint, hint.  Nothing is really free.  You are tied to that builder and he is tied to that lumber yard.  If you fall out of graces with that builder, you are pretty much SOL on getting that plan done, especially for free.  If you don't like the service or products of that lumberyard, you can not go someplace else, because the plan is only "free" if you buy all your materials there.  The cost of that plan has to be somewhere in the cost of your materials, again, nothing is really free. 

Homes that are built for speculation are usually designed and built this way and may be at the end, the builder will pay an interior designer to chose paint colors or carpeting, too late for some real design help.  These homes are not custom homes and do not usually reflect anyone's lifstyle except the builders'.  There again, some builders are very good at coming up with unique ideas and design concepts and some are really good at "borrowing" other peoples' ideas.  These homes are still less than custom, because you were not involved in the process.

Plans from a draftsman or drafting service are usually pretty basic.  they will include just what is needed for getting a permit or meeting a building code.  They leave a lot of room for interpretation both from the builders point of view and yours.  Many times, homeowners are left feeling like they have to tell everyone what to do, because it is not defined any where on the plans and if left up to some contractors, would be overlooked completely.  There are many more miscommunication with incomplete plans than there are with well thought out designs that show exactly how to build a home.

The costs for going with a draftsman can vary widely; anything from "free" to thousands of dollars.  Most draftsmen or drafting services will charge a square foot price, something that is easy for builders to estimate for their final bids and for homeowners to consider in their budgets.  Watch for the extras; more than one plan change, unusual or advanced construction techniques, more than standard details, sections or elevations, additional copies of the plan, etc.  These extras can add up fast and usually are not covered by the "free" part the lumberyard is covering or what the builder will pay for.  Also keep in mind that you may very well see "your house" two blocks over, because the plan was used for other clients.  This option for design help may be the cheapest, but remember what Mom used to say; "you get what you pay for".

Next post will cover Residential Designers

Friday, February 25, 2011

Steps nine and ten in your home design adventure

Step Nine:  Think ahead.  Once your design ideas are coming together, consider the next level of detail such as what level of quality do you expect in your new home or what level of energy efficiency.  Are there specific appliances or fixtures you want in your new home.  All of these topics need to be covered in your own mind and then shared with your designer. 

If the budget allows, you should go with the best quality you can, starting with things you won't want to replace or upgrade for a long time.  Things like windows, walls, roofs, doors and insulation are things that should be the best you can afford because they are expensive and difficult to replace before their lifespan is over.  Things like counter tops, carpeting, flooring and even cabinets can be added or changed later.  I would seriously consider insulating your home to the highest standards you can, because energy cost will most likely continue to rise and it is an expense you will face every month.  I hope the American way of thinking is changing to consider energy efficiency ahead of granite counter tops.  I know that closed cell spray foam insulation is not a glamorous feature that all your friends will immediately recognize, but it is one of the best investments you can make.

Step Ten:  Have fun. Designing and building a new home should be a fun and rewarding experience.  There will be moments of stress and tough decisions, but in between, relax, dream a little and have fun with your design team, construction crew, subs, suppliers and your family.  When the whole project is done, throw a party or backyard barbecue, everyone who had something to do with your home will be happy to see the end result and it will build a basis for long lasting friendships.

These ten steps apply to new home design and remodeling projects alike.  Use them through every phase of construction as well.  Clear and open motives help make every decision easier and authentic; realistic cost expectations throughout construction will prevent costly last minute changes and second guessing.  Understand that when the excavator digs the foundation, the footprint will look small, when the foundation is in, it will look really big, when the walls and roof go up, it will look small again.  When the walls are finished and painted, it will look big again and when you move in, it should look just right.  The physical act of building the home will evolve just as the plans did.  Always be honest and communicate your needs and concerns, your design and construction team can help you see the whole picture better when everyone is calm and thinking clearly.  Have fun or find a way to have fun.  Positive attitudes are contagious and productive.

Next post:  Choosing a design professional.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Steps seven & eight in your design adventure

Step Seven:  Be honest with yourself, your partner and your designer.  Hopefully steps one thru six were done with honesty and integrity, so step seven is double check time.  This step takes it one notch farther and includes your designer.  Be honest with your designer by speaking up if you do not like the design sketches, are not happy with the progress or process or you are even unhappy with the designer personally-say so.  Don't waste time being accommodating, if you are unhappy with anything, you need to talk about it or it will not go away.  Most designers welcome honest feedback, just remember, you can be honest and kind at the same time.

At some point in your interactions with your designer, you should have developed a sense that you have connected, so that you feel as though you are on the same page, have the same goals in mind and can honestly express yourself and be heard.  You should feel open enough to be able to say when you don't like something, keeping in mind that you should also be able to say why you don't like it.  Some times I get clients who will gladly tell me they don't like a sketch, but they can never tell me why.  This is not a good working relationship.  If I can not pick up on your discomfort and understand why the sketch bothers you, then I am not on the same page as you.  If you can not express yourself beyond "I don't like it", then I probably won't be able to design something you do like, unless I can identify your discomfort.  Sometimes it is just a little thing like symmetry and sometimes it's a biggie, like you don't trust or like me.  The earlier we can identify the bad Karma, the earlier we can overcome it.  In some cases it is something that can't be overcome and you should end the relationship and try to express yourself with someone else.  If everyone is excited about the project and everyone is headed in the same direction, then you have a good chance for a successful outcome.  If there are hidden agendas, oversized egos or any other mucky feelings going on, then it is usually best to find someone you can better relate to.

Step Eight:  Be patient with the process.  Designs need time to evolve and the first sketches are not always the best.  Each rendition should be better than the last.  If things become stalled, step back, re-group and have a brainstorming session with your designer.  Sometimes it only takes one idea from "outside the box" to bring a project back to life.

Sometimes clients will feel guilty if they change their minds and others will be so indecisive that they change their minds before the last changes were even drawn.  Somewhere in the middle is where you  should try to be.  Changes are how the plan evolves.  Make the changes you need to make,to feel right with the plan.  If you can identify specific areas that need help, focus on that area but be aware of how it works with adjacent areas.  If you find yourself becoming indecisive, then it's time to stop and take a deep breath.  Sometimes taking a break from the plan helps too.  Set it aside for a few days and do something else that is less intense.  Take a weekend out of town and redirect your energy into something totally unrelated to your new home project.  Often times when you come back to it, you will have new energy and decisions won't seem so overwhelming.  Even if you are under a tight timeline, a few days away from the project will be more productive than waffling back and forth without meaningful progress.

Next post will be the final two steps.