Regulations with Construction, A Personal View

I have worked with many different municipalities in my line of work.  As a design and construction professional, it is part of my job to make sure our projects adhere to local codes and policies, as well as help my clients navigate various requirements with wetlands, zoning and the board of health.  I also love making the most of something as we figure that out and meet our clients’ needs.  I will say that most of the towns I work with are tough, but fair, consistent and transparent.  That is what makes for good policy. Good policy change, when the times change, create an environment where citizens can work together to resolve issues.  Many folks do not pay much attention to the changes that occur in a town department because they don’t see how those changes will affect them until they are before a town board or see areas of the town’s regulations that create some form of distress.  I’ll give you a couple examples of how I think trying to over-regulate can stop growth and backfire.

About 15 years ago; in a local more populated town nearby, “mansionization” was the mantra being misused by a group of folks who didn’t want their neighborhoods to change in any way.  As a person who loved those neighborhoods too, I didn’t like seeing pictorial neighborhoods with like-scaled homes start to become pockmarked with neoclassic oversized homes, it didn’t fit. This led to a tremendous amount of poorly drafted by-law changes in this community.  Every effort was made to stop projects of any size by trying to re-write setback requirements, home sizes, etc.  I remember representing an owner in one of these neighborhoods who wanted a family room and master suite. We were adding 400 SF to a 1,200 SF home in a way that was very respectful to the neighborhood and the architecture (picture below).  The neighbor next door in the 2,500SF colonial hired an attorney (after calling my client a yuppie – true story) to argue that we were “mansionizing”.  For the next several years we had many projects delayed because we would plan a project with the current zoning by-laws and then a petitioned and proposed change by a citizens group would be enforceable even before the Town people could vote on it because they met some threshold of signatures.  It seemed very underhanded to me that a small organized group could put a stop to reasonable projects and that the property owners would have to incur additional design and delay costs.  I believe that the misguided effort only bolstered the chess game about how to get the most house on the lot.  15+ years later, one of my favorite “small home” streets is about 80% full of new homes and I now look forward to when the last homes will be finished so the neighborhood will have achieved a balance.

My town is experiencing a 40B surge with 2 projects about to break ground. (Larger less regulated developments that include affordable housing).  We do need affordable housing, but it isn’t smart growth when you don’t have a master plan that combines the right mix of that, along with some new commercial space or single family homes.  We love our rural feel here in Sherborn and most of us would like to see that stay as close to that as possible.  For better or worse, buildings age, populations rise, and what was once the largest worldwide supplier of apple cider is now has smallest population per acre in the area.  We are actually less commercial than we were 150 years ago!  Right now in Sherborn, if you want to build a couple of homes on a parcel of land, it is likely our local regulations (which are much stricter than the state regulations) will find that the property is unsuitable for 2-4 homes.  We overregulate (or overstep in some cases) to prevent change, which simply invites growth that is more burdensome as it is not anything we can plan for.  In the case when a developer seeks permission to build 3 homes and gets rejected, they can file a 40B in any town that doesn’t meet the minimum affordable housing units and on that same land have imposed upon it a large development that has much less restriction on wetlands, zoning and of course board of health requirements.  In our case, stonewalling to slow the growth is getting us two new, much less difficult to manage, projects.

Another small town election season is upon us. There is always more at stake in these elections than budget overrides when it comes to our local policy. Most New England towns are short on the people capitol as much as we are the financial capitol. We need people that will work hard to help improve our local towns, and make it easier to live and work without losing sight of why we all picked the town we live in.  I believe that we have to stop on focusing on what we cannot do and see how we can keep it beautiful with the things we can do.

           

Before

 

After

The New Addition is Great! What Now?

So, you are all moved into your new kitchen and the company that did the job talked to you about how to get those warranty cards into the manufacturers, and mentioned what would need adjustments. But who needs to worry about all that, you have a new renovation to enjoy!! That can be done later after the first few meals are cooked or you finally get to enjoy that long hot bath in the new tub. Then, all of a sudden you wish you had a list of all those things to help with what needs to be done, and that well-tuned company isn’t there anymore to help…….GUILTY!

Wellesley Kitchen Renovation; days after completion

Just recently our staff recognized that a final walkthrough meeting and a “90 days post completion” follow up call wasn’t good enough. So we put a checklist together for our clients to bring to that follow up meeting; and we will also keep a record of it for them. Without boring you with a checklist, here are a few of the things that you should keep in mind after your project is complete: 

1. Stone and tile care and maintenance will depend on what product you have. Natural stone like Limestone or Marble needs to be re-sealed regularly (every 6-12 months depending on how soft or porous). Porcelain tiles need nothing at all, unless you didn’t use a high quality grout that self-seals- then that should be sealed annually. Be careful not to purchase metal toilet brush containers that are left on the floor- they will rust if they’re steel and leave a mark that is practically impossible to remove. A caulking is used at all the joints to allow for settling and expansions where a tile backsplash meets the counter, or the shower walls meet the shower floor. This will usually show signs of separation in the 90 day window, and should be re-done-but should only need annual maintenance at the most.
2. Warranties on the manufactured goods are important for obvious reasons. If a manufacturer asks for a purchase date, I recommend also including an install date. If there is a problem with any of the manufactured products in the project, the builder isn’t responsible for the warranty, but can likely help if there is a dispute about the install vs. purchase dates. It is common for appliances to be purchased in advance of a project completion, and you should expect the warranty period to start when you move in. In other cases, a reputable contractor with good purchasing power can advocate on your behalf if something isn’t being taken care of. If you have a number of warranty issues with something, it may be reasonable to receive an extended warranty or demand a replacement.
3. Heating and cooling systems may have been upgraded or modified for your project. I think one of the most important items is getting familiar with the new thermostat…. Yes, that programmable thingy. You could be living more comfortably for less expense if you set that up and also use less energy. There are some other items that require different maintenance- like filter changes if you converted or added warm air heating.
4. Not the last item, just the last for this discussion. Those new appliances with convection microwaves or induction, or updated features in general will offer time saving and improved cooking, and there are services available to have someone come teach you, or shortcuts in the manual for speed pre-heating. I have a few clients that actually learned how to use their speed oven, and now only go to their conventional oven for bigger tasks such as the bake sale or a holiday meal- don’t wait to start saving time and add convenience!

Not to worry if you don’t have a checklist, it is OK to call the builder to get answers to any questions that come up. Happy Remodeling! 

Modern Design vs. Paper Architecture

I recently returned from a trip to Berlin, Germany. I picked the destination because my wife was traveling on business and I could mooch off the hotel room and the breakfast she wasn’t eating :). I also wanted to have a look at some of our world’s recent history and a different lifestyle and design world. To be fair, it was the middle of February with clouds most of the week and temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit- so that can create a less blissful mood and also aid in what was a melancholy feeling as I wandered the streets.

Even giving the city the benefit of the doubt on the overcast weather, there was a sense of economy to the architecture that left me wanting, especially on the east side. Post war housing in European cities had to be done with some haste, especially Berlin which was completely leveled. In the photo below, on the right; you’ll see the clay tiled roof of the communist regime housing built circa 1950. These were very common throughout former East Berlin. To the left, a more modern building in yellow is also unadorned and strict in its simplicity. In the foreground, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, ironically (and disappointingly) poorly constructed of concrete and already showing signs of decay- as if it needed to be quickly and efficiently built. 

Berlin Architecture

Modern is more popular in countries that were affected by WWII, but not all cities share the basic approach as I saw. If you google images of modern architecture and put in Holland, or Boston Massachusetts and then Berlin, you can see a difference in color pallet, shapes and a bigger push on engineering.

I was looking for answers on why, and even had a prejudicial theory that my modern day ancestors were simply just too efficient to care about aesthetic intent. After a half day of surfing and reading, I think I was able to satisfy my curiosity. The history in Berlin has an abundance of golden (and not so golden) moments. There was a drive to build monuments in the late 17th – 18th Centuries and a fair amount of Roman/Greek styled buildings were constructed until the early 19th century. I also found that art rich cultures are also more free societies, and if you look at cities around the world with more freedom of thought, you will see a more creative expression of the way they live.

Post WWI, the Bauhaus Movement thrived in Germany through the end of a dictatorship, and then was suppressed again when Hitler gained power. Post WWII, West Germany found more freedom while East Berlin was stifled by a communist regime more intent on using construction to build inexpensive housing and a very large wall. There is a renaissance of art happening as can be witnessed in the redevelopment of Berlin, but the backdrop is large and it will take some time. For now, I will enjoy the great country I am from and better appreciate my design profession more, and the freedom of expression in my work.

First Floor Bedroom Suites

I found it interesting that just last week: I met with a former client that put in a first floor master in 1999, I met with a couple that downsized to a beautiful home with a first floor master (post the children moving off to college) and I started construction of a first floor bedroom suite at my own house. This is probably more coincidental than it is proof of a big trend; however, it does point out the diverse reasons this type of space can be beneficial and how it can help the evolution of home.

In the case of my forward thinking couple that built theirs in 1999, they wanted to add on a master suite. At the time, their children were old enough to be upstairs without them… and they knew they would likely be staying in this neighborhood for a while. The first floor suite offered an easy lifestyle then… and now offers the option to stay comfortably for as long as makes sense. We are currently designing a bigger kitchen for them to provide better entertaining and family gathering areas when they have guests. They intend on staying for the next decade or more, as they are conveniently located near work. Their foresight then and now will provide them with a collective quarter century of a better lifestyle, and who knows, maybe they will retire right in Wellesley someday? 

The couple I met with to re-designing the public rooms of their home had a 1st floor master when they moved in. They really enjoyed having the layout this way even though it wasn’t on their list of must-haves when they moved in. Because their children are older, they too are looking to redesign the first floor for a more updated open floor plan, as well as make the master suite and bath more comfortable. This home is a 1950’s cape that is relatively untouched, and it has 2 bedrooms and 2 baths on the first floor as well as 2 bedrooms and a bath upstairs. I am curious in this established neighborhood who built the home this way about 60 years ago.

So why am I… the designer, adding a first floor bedroom suite to my Sherborn home? The first most relevant reason is that I am currently short a bedroom I have a 3 bedroom home with 2 girls and a boy still there. Luke is 13 years old, Rachel and Charlotte are 12 and 6 respectively. It will make life easier if they are not all sharing a bath when we need to get ready for school. In the evolution of family, here is a list of things I have or had in my life where a first floor bedroom suite like this will pay dividends:
1. The au pair (not a need for us anymore- but a life saver for working families)
2. The guests (Then, now, and in the future)
3. The teenage boy will get some space away from pink everything, and long gazes in the mirror.
4. A room for aging guests (short or long term) without a trip up the stairs.
5. A room for my wife and I to age in place if our children settle down close to us. (One can hope!)

Just another reason to give your renovation plan (whatever it is) some thought beyond the current need. Happy Renovating!

Omissions in Renovations

When you are budgeting for a renovation, it is just as important to know what is not included as much as what is included. It can be very difficult for a layperson to identify all of the details, especially in larger projects. The most important reason to know what’s in and what isn’t in the budget is that you want to avoid any surprises either financial or in the scope. Omissions in the scope of work can hide up to 20%-30% of the true total budget requirement.

Let me start with some low hanging fruit, landscaping. In our line item budget sheet, the first major category is “Site Work”. We list about 20 items such as: Excavation, concrete work, foundations, underground utilities and landscaping (walks, walls, planting, and driveways), etc. As part of projects like additions, landscaping can be a significant part of the budget, especially if you need a new driveway for that new garage. Since most building plans don’t address this, it is often overlooked and by the time the owner gets to that stage there are often budget restraints. My personal recommendation for folks is to hire a landscape architect and landscaper if there is more than remediating the disturbed area involved. The main reason we have those line items in our budget is for the client so they can understand the projected cost they will incur while deciding what resources to use. In the example of landscaping, I can also point to the scalability of deferring this component since it wouldn’t interfere with or cost more to do it later in order to get the initial construction underway, and to also use your favorite landscaping contractor when the construction crews leave. 

A few less obvious things that are important to understand in the initial planning include:
1. Design/engineering or survey work costs and timeframe.
2. Cost and time of permitting and/or zoning issues.
3. Who buys the fixtures and if provided, what quality are they?
4. Will any utilities require upgrading such as a larger electrical or water service?

While it can be challenging to feel like you have everything covered, there are ways to better understand some of the “unknowns”. In the case of hazardous materials like asbestos, we can often know that a particular neighborhood has duct work in the walls that are wrapped in it. In this case we typically carry an allowance if we have seen this before so it isn’t a huge surprise… and if it is not present, the client gets a refund! In the initial excavation, while you cannot be certain of what lies below the ground, the builder should be able to discuss what type of issues you may find and how they would be remediated if uncovered.

Remember the 5 p’s, Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance Happy renovating!