Posts Tagged 'project cost'

Getting the Project Started

“We want to move forward.  What next?”

Now that we know we’re on the same page (see How to Prepare for the Architect-Client Interview), we build the foundation for a successful project, beginning with:

  • Contract and retainer – When the budget, objectives, timeline, and chemistry are all in place, the next step is signing a contract. A retainer is required with your signed contract, which is applied to your final invoice. The retainer is typically 10% of the estimated fee.
  • Follow-up meeting – This is an opportunity to continue the discussion about design we began during the interview. You may be able to fill in a few blanks that you hadn’t been able to earlier, or you may have additional questions, ideas, or inspiration images to discuss.
  • Measure and draw existing – To get started on a remodel or addition project, I first need to document what is there. This may be limited to relevant areas or include the entire house, depending on the scope of your project. Most Seattle homes that are “typical urban lot” size take two people 3.5-4.5 hours to measure, which includes significant architectural features (walls, doors, windows, etc.), but does not include mechanical or electrical systems and fixtures, or items which would require destructive demolition. Note: We need to open closets, cabinets, etc. to measure how deep they are and will also take photographs.  Access to the attic(s) and crawlspace(s) should be cleared and ladders provided, if needed.

The Truth about Green Design

From the food you eat to the car you drive (or bus you ride), the idea of being “green” has become a part of daily life in America, especially in forward-thinking cities such as Seattle.

When I have clients who ask about whether or not I do “green” design, the answer is, “Of course!”  I have always been motivated by eco-consciousness and energy conservancy.  Now we just have more and better tools available.

A "green" green sink. Salvaged, recoated, and repurposed in the laundry room.

A "green" green sink. Salvaged, recoated, and repurposed in the laundry room.

But, what does it really mean for YOU and YOUR project?

First, I need to understand your motives and objectives.  Clients often fall within one or more of the following categories:

  • Good Steward – You want to do what you can for the environment.  You want to reuse what you can and donate what you can’t, even if that means you have to invest more money in labor. When you cannot find suitable salvage, you want to purchase products that are “green”.
  • Health Conscious – You have chemical sensitivities or underlying health conditions which have made you greatly concerned about the off-gassing of products, as well as dust and mold.
  • Investor in Technology – You want to support alternative energy innovation by using systems such as solar heating and rainwater harvesting, even if the initial investment is significant and the payback period is long.
  • Conservationist – You want to consume less, and get more out of what you already have.  You are not willing to be experimental and would rather “go with the known”.
Cabinets and light fixtures like these are excellent candidates for donation to a salvage company.

Cabinets like these are excellent candidates for donation to a salvage company in exchange for store credit, tax credit, or cash.


It is very rare for a client to say “yes” to all of the above categories and also be willing to accept the higher price tag for materials and labor that accompanies that decision.  Nearly everyone has to at least prioritize their eco-goals, finding the best intersection of cost, return on investment, comfort, and impact on the environment.

One person's junk is another person's treasure.  This mantel was salvaged from a home on Capital Hill in Seattle.

One person's junk is another person's treasure. This mantel was salvaged from a home on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

Buyer Beware

The marketplace is flooded with “green” products (including many inferior or fake ones), and using those products doesn’t necessarily make your project a “green” project.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there suitable salvage that would be an alternate?
  • How long will this product last?
  • How much of this product is wasted during installation?
  • If recycled content is important, what percentage and what type of recycled material does it contain?
  • How much energy does it take to produce and transport this product?
  • Is the source renewable?
  • How reliable is the information?
  • How much more does this material cost, and how does that compare to additional labor for reused or salvaged material?
  • How difficult will it be to maintain this material or this installation?
  • If resale value is important, how does this choice factor in?
  • Is this trendy?  Will it go out of fashion?

Establishing this criteria at the beginning of the design process allows us to filter each decision according to your objectives, reducing frustration and delivering the best outcome for your budget, life, and the environment.

Fiber cement rainscreen siding, aluminum windows, composite decking on cedar framing

Fiber cement rainscreen siding, aluminum windows, composite decking on cedar framing

10 Rules of Thumb for Remodeling

As an architect who specializes in major remodels of older homes in Seattle, I often meet potential clients who ask the same questions:  Should we add a second story?  Should we build an addition into our backyard?  Should we tear down and start over?  Or, should we fix this and flip it?

Each house and owner is unique, but there are some basic rules of thumb for making this important decision.

Rule of Thumb #1: The Big Picture

If you are uncertain about living in this house for at least 5-7 years after the major remodel is completed, then your efforts should focus on wide market appeal instead of what is uniquely important to your family’s lifestyle. The concept of owning the same home for 30 years and having the same job, or career for that matter, is a thing of the past.  Some project types have very high, immediate return on investment (ROI) ratios, such as kitchen and bathroom remodels.  According to Remodeling Magazine’s “Cost vs. Value Report, 2008-09”, a mid-upscale kitchen remodel in the Pacific Northwest averages between $62,997 and $119,361 Construction Cost with a 81.9%-87.3% ROI, and the same quality bathroom remodel in that region averages between $18,452 and $58,317  with a 76.2%-79.5% ROI.

Rule of Thumb #2: “Location, Location, Location”

Counting on your neighborhood to “transition” in 5-7 years time is a risky move and should be considered a gamble.  If your intent is to use the equity to move to a nicer neighborhood, then make choices that are appropriate to this house in this neighborhood.   Save the splurges for the house that you intend to keep in a neighborhood that is certain to support the investment.

Rule of Thumb #3: If it’s broken, fix it.

I once interviewed with homeowners whose house was full of things that needed to be fixed, including an unfinished basement remodel.  The house was already a 4 bedroom, 2 bathroom house with a 1-car garage; they were contemplating a second-story addition to include 3 more bedrooms and 2 more baths.  When complete, their house would have been the biggest on the block, and their resources would also have been completely exhausted.

Sometimes fixing the space you already own has a greater potential return on investment than trying to outweigh what is old and broken with new square footage.

Rule of Thumb #4: Consider leaving it alone.

Major remodels should result in major changes.  Unless this is your last home, don’t spend money changing all the cabinetry in the house simply because you prefer maple over walnut (or vice versa).  After all, you bought the house with those cabinets in it, and the next person who shares your tastes will probably still buy the house…as long as they believe the house is a good value.

Rule of Thumb #5: The more phases, the more the project’s cost.

Remodeling in phases costs more.  It is always less expensive to have skilled labor come once to your house to do all of the work rather than to have them come three times to complete a third of the work each time.  This is true even without considering the inflated costs of labor and materials. Homeowners are often surprised to find out that the second phase of work may cost as much as the projected total cost only two years ago for all phases. Planning to complete work in phases should only be considered if you either a) intend to stay in the house long enough to undertake all of the phases of work or b) execute the phases which result in the greatest return on investment first.

Rule of Thumb #6: Adding a second story = whole-house remodel.

The prime candidates for second story additions are homes in older, dense, and highly desirable neighborhoods.  Because these homes are also older, they usually need upgraded plumbing (often including new water and sewer mains), wiring, windows (repair if not replacement), and mechanical systems.  They often have significant deferred maintenance items, leaving them in need of exterior (and sometimes interior) stripping and re-painting, re-roofing, rot repair, etc. Not very many homeowners are willing to make such a major investment and still park on a cracked driveway or have a house with a mismatched roof.  All of these items add up to more than you’d imagine for the amount of square footage you plan to add.

Depending on your local building department’s requirements, a major remodel may require that the entire house be brought up to current building code.  Different jurisdictions have different definitions of  “major remodel”, either based on a dollar amount threshold or a ratio of the current value of the house to the Construction Cost.  It isn’t safe to assume that because you don’t intend to remodel a portion of the existing house that you won’t be required to.

Rule of Thumb #7: Consider the yard as another room to remodel.

If your addition creates a strange roof shape, difficult drainage condition, or restricts visual or physical access to the yard, proceed with caution…or not at all.  The return on investment for an extra room may be more than outweighed by the loss of the relationship, or potential relationship, of indoors to outdoors.

The porch and landscaping make rooms for outdoor living.

The porch and landscaping make rooms for outdoor living.

Rule of Thumb #8: Crunch the numbers.

Add what the house would currently sell for, less what you owe, plus what you anticipate spending.  Then, go shopping.  If your house is currently worth $700K, you owe $350K, and you are contemplating a $600K major remodel, you should have a look at the housing inventory that is up to 120% of  $1M (which is $700K-$350K+650K).  You may be shocked to find that there is a home that already meets or exceeds your needs in that price range, or one that is much, much closer to the finish line.

We need “starter homes” in our close-to-downtown neighborhoods, and choosing to sell your home to someone who is just getting started is indeed a very “green” choice – not to mention much less stressful than undertaking a major remodel.

Rule of Thumb #9: Hire a talented Contractor, and get out of the way.

Most homeowners have full-time jobs and don’t have construction backgrounds. Despite your deepest wishes to keep an eye on things and to put in some sweat equity to save money,  you shouldn’t expect to live in the house while it is under construction or use your own labor to reduce costs.  If you are counting on either of those to make the project possible, you are probably taking on more than you should.

A good contractor makes the dream a reality.

A good contractor makes the dream a reality.

Rule of Thumb #10: Hire an Architect (hopefully me).

As an architect who specializes in residential projects, I am able to help you do much more than just plan your ideal home.  I ask the important questions and consider both the emotional and financial effects of the answers. The earlier you involve me in the decision-making process, the more you stand to gain – even as early as shopping for a home.  I can help you compare the pros and cons of candidates, including the home you already own, to determine which one offers the greatest potential.

What Everyone Should Know about Windows

Whether you’re building a new house, remodeling, or considering window replacement, windows are an important decision, with a large price tag.  As an architect, I have seen dozens of brands of windows installed and have observed the lifespan and customer service factors as well.  Here is what you need to know in order to make an informed decision about your window purchase.

Lowest to highest price (in general):

  1. aluminum
  2. vinyl
  3. wood – primed interior and exterior
  4. fiberglass
  5. wood – stain-grade interior with primed exterior
  6. metal clad exterior with wood interior



  • narrow frame
  • modern look
  • “no maintenance” finish

suggested brands- Marlin

Marlin aluminum windows

Marlin aluminum windows, interior


Marlin aluminum windows, exterior


  • “no maintenance”
  • more energy efficient than aluminum
  • inexpensive

suggested brands- Marvin, Pella, Andersen


  • historic look
  • material is insulative
  • paintable
  • less expensive than some fiberglass windows and all metal-clad windows

suggested brands- Marvin, Lindal, Cherry Creek, Pella, Andersen


  • paintable, or can leave exterior and interior unpainted for “no maintenance”
  • some are insulated
  • material is dimensionally stable, meaning that it doesn’t expand and contract with temperature changes as much as vinyl

suggested brands- Marvin, Pella, Andersen

Metal Clad Wood

  • “no maintenance” exterior
  • option for primed or stain-ready interior
  • finish weathers well, even in marine exposures
  • return on investment (when compared to painted windows, the price gap is closed after only one re-paint)
  • some brands are susceptible to fading of coating on exterior

suggested brands- Marvin, Loewen, Pella


Loewen metal-clad windows



  • not recommended for painting
  • same color exterior and interior
  • most brands do not meet current minimum energy code requirements in Washington
  • some units are not “thermally broken” – meaning that the metal conducts heat and can contribute to condensation
  • some brands/lines have not undergone technological advancement since the 60’s and are still on the market
  • some metals are incompatible with others, and this must be taken into account if you will have other metals in direct contact


  • limited color choices – mostly white and putty
  • not paintable
  • same color interior and exterior
  • material is not as dimensionally stable, meaning that it will expand and contract with temperature changes more than some other materials


  • more maintenance – need to repaint every 5-7 years in the Pacific Northwest region
  • stain-grade interiors and exteriors are more expensive
  • energy code compliant units typically have vinyl tracks or seals, which are not visually desirable for some applications


  • same color inside and outside, unless you paint one or the other

Metal Clad Wood

  • higher price

Understanding the Technology

Some basic information about types of windows and doors can be found here:

Window and Door Manufacturer Association, “Window FAQ” and “Door FAQ”

Currently, the Washington State Energy Code requires that windows have a U-value of 0.35 or better if following the prescriptive path of compliance, meaning that the percentage of windows is not limited as long as the U-value meets or exceeds the minimum requirement.

A window’s U-Value is representative of the window’s resistance to heat flow, and the lower the number the better the insulating value. This is the criteria that retailers highlight the most, but it is not a comprehensive evaluation of the window’s performance.  It is also important to know that different operations of windows will have different U-values.  Although one manufacturer’s fixed window may meet the minimum code-required U-value, it’s operable units may not.  This does not necessarily mean that you will not be able to use them, but it does make it more difficult to achieve and demonstrate compliance.  More information about selecting energy efficient windows in Washington can be found here:

Efficient Windows Collaborative, “Fact Sheet: Selecting Energy Efficient Windows in Washington,” Sept. 2007.

National Fenestration Rating Council, “Questions About Buying New Energy Efficient Windows?”, Nov. 2002.

You should also be considering window’s structural performance rating, particularly if your house is exposed to high wind speeds and/or driving rains. The structural performance rating is a measure of the amount of air pressure, or wind load, a window can resist before failing.  Homes with significant exposure would benefit from a higher than minimum structural performance rating, as those windows are more resistant to wind-blown water intrusion.

The different structural classifications are defined and certified by the American Architectural Manufacturer’s Association.  To read more, visit and review their brochure.  More information about the values associated with the ratings can be found here:

Excerpt from the AAMA/WDMA/CSA “Standard/Specification for windows, doors, and skylights”

Proper Installation is Vital

Consider your windows as important to your home’s health as the condition of your roof.  Windows should be installed by qualified contractors, able and willing to identify and remedy any rot and flashing issues.  You should anticipate and budget funds beyond the quoted cost of the windows and simple installation to be able to correct any deficiencies that are discovered as well as replace interior trim and casings, repaint, and/or touch-up drywall.

“Replacement windows” are NOT the same as replacing windows with new units that have a nail flange and are properly flashed. You may be better off keeping your old windows and considering ways to reduce infiltration, rather than allowing “replacement windows” to be set into a bead of caulk which will be prone to failure.

Tips for Getting the Best Survey the First Time

When, and how much?

For the majority of projects that involve a structural change, whether “up” or “out”, a full survey by a licensed surveyor is a “must-have”. In Seattle, the fee to have a property surveyed averages between $2,500 and $3,000 for a typical urban residential lot and up to $5,000 for larger or more complex lots, depending on factors such as the distance to nearest recorded monuments, the presence of environmentally critical areas (steep slope, known landslides, etc.), and the quantity and complexity of the existing improvements.

Since subsequent visits to record additional information are not included in the initial price, a list of information required by your local jurisdiction should be provided to your surveyor, to ensure that all it is acquired in a single visit.

Permit-ready site plan, with surveyed information included.

Permit-ready site plan, with surveyed information included

Basic requirements

Here is a list of links to the checklists and standards for the city of Seattle:

City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development, Client Assistance Memo 103 – Site Plan Requirements

City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development, Screening Standards – Environmentally Critical Areas INDEX 13

City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development, Screening Standards – Shoreline INDEX 15

Be sure to check the City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development website for the most current version of these documents at prior to use.

Similar information for other jurisdictions can be found by searching for “land use department” or “planning department” and the name of your city and/or county.

Be sure to also ask for…

In addition to this list, I always request the following additional information:

  • recorded locations of all existing underground utilities. The marking of underground utilities is usually done by a separate company, subcontracted by the surveyor prior to their visit to measure your property. This cost is not typically included in the surveyor’s estimate, but is sometimes free and usually not more than a few hundred dollars. The underground utility locators can also mark depths of items – sometimes critical for locating new foundation walls and new sewer or stormwater connections, if requested.
  • the elevation of every corner
  • the elevation of finished floor at every door
  • the elevation of every ridge
  • the top elevation of every overhang
  • the horizontal dimension from the outside edge of the overhang (or face of fascia) to the face of the foundation
  • diameter of trunk and species of all trees with trunks greater than 3″ in diameter
  • locations of all impervious surfaces
  • adjacent right of way improvements (full width)
  • neighboring structures within 20′ of property line (if you are changing the front of your house, you may need to have the entire front of both adjacent houses surveyed in order to determine your setback by way of “front yard averaging”)

Avoid conflict.

Whether or not you anticipate problems, making changes to your home’s appearance is something that the neighbors will be concerned about.  For strategies to prevent or resolve conflict, see When Neighbors Disapprove – 6 Tips for Success.

When Neighbors Disapprove – 6 Tips for Success

1- Know your property.

For the majority of projects that involve a structural change, whether “up” or “out”, a full survey by a licensed surveyor is a “must-have”.  In Seattle, the fee to have a property surveyed averages between $2,500 and $3,000 for a typical urban residential lot and up to $5,000 for larger or more complex lots, depending on factors such as the distance to nearest recorded monuments, the presence of environmentally critical areas (steep slope, known landslides, etc.), and the quantity and complexity of the existing improvements.

For more information about obtaining a survey, including a list of required information and additional items that can save you time and money to have recorded simultaneously, Tips for Getting the Best Survey the First Time.

2- Be a good neighbor.

The golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” holds true.  If you have been opinionated and difficult in the past about your neighbor’s projects, they are more likely to act the same when it is your turn.  If you’ve had troubles in the past, it is a good idea to try to repair relationships in earnest long before you begin the design process.

3- Communicate.

If you plan to change the appearance of the exterior of your home in any significant way (including paint color), it makes sense to let your neighbors know your plans.  You are not (necessarily) asking for permission, rather letting them know what kind of disruption to anticipate and how they should handle any issues that arise, such as blocked access, property damage, etc.

4- Know your rights.

Sometimes, questions arise which are difficult to answer with certainty.  If your property has easements, encroachments, or other complexities involving property lines, it would be wise to do some research.  This may be in the form of a feasibility study, a binding meeting with the relevant parties at your land use department, and/or legal advice from an attorney who specializes in residential real estate law.  As an architect, I advise my clients when such additional measures are appropriate.  It is less expensive to secure your footing in the beginning than it is to fight your way through a dispute when you are in construction.

5- Have an alternate plan.

One of my former clients planned to add a porte cochere, a historic type of carport, onto the side of his house.  His property was located in a historic preservation overlay district, where many of the neighborhood homes had this feature.  There was plenty of room on his property, and the structure was permissible under the current zoning code without requiring a variance.  However, due to the overlay district, design approval was required from a separate committee, prior to permit approval.  When we presented the design for consideration, the neighbors attended the meeting to lobby against the porte cochere – not because they didn’t like the idea or design, but because they didn’t like my client!

In the end, we did not get approval for the covered carport, but we did accomplish the goal of providing off-street parking by capitalizing on the fact that the committee did not have purview of driveways, curb cuts, or fences.  Our “Plan B” was to install tire strips and a parking pad made of permeable pavers.  The homeowner now parks where he had originally hoped, and walks up a set of side stairs directly onto his porch, getting out of the rain quickly.  When there is no car parked in the driveway, the permeable pavers look like a grass lawn.


Parking beside the porch steps was a viable alternative to a porte cochere.

6- Offer up something.

When all else fails, offer up something.  In the past, I’ve known clients to share or carry the expenses on things such as tree removal or pruning, new fences, landscaping, privacy screens, sewer repair, and burying overhead cables.  All of these things cost money, but they are often items which were desired – or would soon have been required.

“How much will my project cost?”

“Do I have enough money?”

The first thing you need to know is that the total cost of your project is made up of both “hard cost” and “soft cost”. “Hard cost” is also known as “construction cost”. This includes materials, labor, and contractor’s profit & overhead. When you read about “cost per square foot” in magazine articles or ask a contractor what a project cost, this is typically the number quoted.

“What should I use for estimating my project’s construction cost?”

To get you started (only a first guess), here are a few resources:

Free Residential Building Cost Calculator

– A free online calculator for new home construction from, that uses information from the National Building Cost Manual (published by the Craftsman Book Company).

Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report

– A regional report by Remodeling magazine of midscale and upscale projects for common types of residential remodeling project. Also lists estimated cost immediately recouped by the resale value of the improvement.

“How Much Will It Cost?”

– Published a few years ago by Fine Homebuilding, this is a helpful budgeting tool in a grid matrix format. Requires a paid membership to download (it’s worth it).

“How Much Will My Kitchen Cost?”

– Same as above, but specifically regarding kitchen remodels. If you pay the membership, you get access to both articles (among others).

Don’t forget the “soft cost”…

In some areas, such as Seattle, sales tax is a big number (currently 9.5%), so you can see how quickly the bottom line can be affected by additional expenses related to your project. These items that the homeowner is responsible for are considered the “soft cost” of the project, such as surveyor’s fees, architect’s fees, structural engineer’s fees, reimbursable expenses, taxes, permit fees, and a contingency fund. A good rule of thumb is to budget at least 35% for “soft cost”. In other words, construction cost + 35% of construction cost = project budget.

Have a contingency fund.

The most difficult costs to predict (especially when remodeling) are those which will be paid from your own contingency fund. You MUST have a contingency fund of at least 10%, and I strongly recommend 15-20%. The smaller the project, the larger the percentage. You will rely upon this fund to pay for unforeseen work (conditions that are not visible or predictable prior to demolition). You will also be presented with items during construction that usually include the phrase “…while we’re here, it would be less expensive to go ahead and…” Part of my job is to help you differentiate between the “must do” and “would be nice to” items, and to think ahead to other items that may be triggered by these decisions (also known as anticipating the “domino effect”).

And, sometimes you need even more…

Some projects have unique features which may require specialized services not included in “hard cost” or “soft cost”, such as geotechnical engineering, soils testing, and environmental impact analysis. Landscaping, furnishings, and curtains, are not included in either category, so you will need to create separate budgets for those items.

Other resources

How to Work With an Architect

, by Gerald Morosco, AIA

An excellent step-by-step guide to the architect’s role throughout the design and construction process.

Not So Big Solutions for Your Home, by Sarah Susanka, AIA

Regardless of what you discover about your budget, Sarah Susanka’s advice in this book, and others in the series, will help you discover how to live large in less space.

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