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Gerard Lee Architects-Residential Renovation/ Remodel FAQ's- Guide:

Please read the other FAQs/ guides in this series:

Below are just some items you should keep in mind when renovating/ remodeling a home. In remodels or renovations of an existing structure, be it a house or a commercial building or any type of building for that matter, you should always anticipate problems. Right now you are probably wondering what those problems are?
Well stop a moment and think about it, you have an older home or even if it's fairly new. Do you know how it was built or what exactly is in the walls or under your floors? Can you see what's beneath all that wallboard or carpet? Do you even know if there have been changes made to the building over the years that are not documented?

Older homes
kitchen pavilion

In older homes, you will have surprises galore and you should plan on contingencies. Basically you need to budget for problems occuring and not just the construction of the intended design. This is not something anybody wants to hear.

Your design professional will attempt to anticipate these issues during the course of design but unless they actually are ripping entire walls, etc. out, there really is no way to see what is hidden within your house.

Updating older homes with the current amneties, newer appliances, kitchens, bathrooms, personal spas, etc, will require that existing electrical wiring be brought up to code or updated. Occasionally you get the house that has no foundations and new foundations have to be designed and placed. Since you can't see your foundations under interior walls or floors, this problem may not become apparent unless you were replacing a slab/ floor. This usually occurs when finishing a basement that does not have the required head clearance or if the slab has suffered some structural damage over the years. In older homes, you may run into asbestos or sub par plumbing, framing etc. You might be surpised at how many shoddy remodels have been done without the required building permits for a "quick sale".
So what does this mean? Well a simple kitchen remodel or bathroom update may end up as a major project if problems like these surface during the course of demolition or construction. An experienced design professional can help guide you through the process but unless they have x-ray vision there's no way anyone can anticipate every single problem that could occur. You should budget for your dream project and then add approximately 15-20% for contingencies. More if the home is older.
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Hidden/ Unknown factors
There normally is a solution for problems that crop up during construction and normally your design professional should be able design a solution. It's important to maintain good working relationships between the contractor, architect and structural engineer or any other consultant required for a project. By working together, a good design solution can be achieved through cooperation. Another way of looking at an unknown/ hidden situation that becomes a problem during the course of construction is that by fixing it, you now have a safer and better home. Which in turn provides you with a sense of security and peace of mind, not to mention a better return on investment.

Many people are surprised by the costs of construction or the design fees for a home addition or renovation. As stated before, remodels carry a lot of risks and unknown factors that can drive costs up. In some cases, home additions are so ambitious (i.e. basements, lofts, new walkable roof decks, additional floors, etc.) that they actually become more complex than a building a new home. A client needs to take these into consideration when deciding between a home addition or a new home.
When designing a new home, the architect or designer has the advantage of starting with a clean slate. They can use the site to design a home that will fit well in it's environment. A remodel or addition on the other hand will always be hampered by the existing facility. Depending on how old a building is, building codes may sometimes require a seismic retrofit. If you are adding on a second floor, the existing foundation may not be sufficiently strong to support the new loads. This requires quite a bit of engineering to solve. The same applies to adding new basements (where none existed before). You have to excavate below the existing home, shore and support it to ensure it does not fail during construction. It's a difficult design and construction exercise.
Architectural fees reflect the amount of work, risks and difficulty within the scope of the project.
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Things to remember:
Architects are required to properly document the existing space to be remodeled. There is a lot of liability in not doing so or on relying on information they have not verified.

Buildings are complicated structures and sometimes this means multiple visits to verify what has been drawn is reasonably accurate. In older homes, this process can be compounded by walls that are not straight or plumb. Occasionally, during the course of documenting the building, interesting aspects of how the building was originally designed and built may reveal themselves through the measurements (i.e hidden chases, spaces, walls not lining up etc.).
This process technically generates a set of drawings that could be called "as-built" drawings. Both the reviewing agency and the contractor will need them to better understand what is there prior to demolition and construction. If we use the analogy of customizing a car, think of it as making sure an engine fits before you install a new more powerful engine block under the hood.
Therefore if you do have existing drawings, it helps shorten the process of documenting the existing structure. Be aware though that the design professional will still need to verify the drawings in the field and convert it to a CAD or digital drawing (if not already a CAD file). A remodel is not like new construction where you start with a clean slate. There will be surprises along the way but the more information you have and can provide to your architect, the better able they will be to deal with any issues that occur. Besides some "problems" could actually be turned into design assets in the hands of the right architect.

Many jurisdictions will not allow two kitchens on the same lot or property. Some cities have ordinances against the creation of "in-law" units. It's best to verify with your local planning or building department before proceeding with projects like these. Some agencies will consider them if you apply for a "Second unit administration permit". This involves additional fees, time and costs. As with any project you would need to comply with setbacks, and zoning requirements. Just because an option to have a second unit or "in-law" unit on your property exists, does not mean it will be an easy process.
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Illegal unit remedy:
Drawing up or drafting plans for an "illegal unit". There is a tendency for many people to try and avoid the complications of obtaining a proper design review/ planning permit or building permit. The permit process is meant to safeguard life, health, property, public safety and welfare. Building without a permit is illegal and has repercussions once the planning or building department discovers it. Heavy fines are levied and sometimes a notice to demolish what was built, especially if it violates codes or planning requirements.

We suggest that permits should always be obtained and all proper procedures be followed on any project. Note that, if you have an illegal unit and have been notified to submit drawings/ plans, it is not as simple as it sounds. Just because it was built does not mean it meets code. Asking an architect to come in after the fact and draw up plans to submit to the planning department is probably too simplistic. Hoping that's the end of it, is not going to make it so. You are better off getting an architect to review what was done and the extent of work they have to complete to get a set of drawings that complies with the planning department and or building department's requirements. Getting an architect to give you a fee over the phone in cases like this without a site visit probably will not result in what you hope to hear. A better way to think about it is that by trying to avoid paying permit fees and design related fees, you get an illegal unit, resulting in the situation that has been presented above. It always costs more to fix a problem and it's always costs effective to get it done right the first time. That said, it's probably not a good idea to repeat the same mistake twice.
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Stock plans:
Stock plans are a set of completed designs that are sold by certain types of designers or a stock plan service. These designs can be sold a multitude of times to different clients and tend to be generic in nature. Basically a one size fits all approach. For us at GLA, stock plans go against the grain of a design solution tailored to fit a clients specific needs and desires. The designs we come up with for our clients are unique to them and they will never have to worry about driving down a street and seeing a exact replica of their home in another neighborhood. Stock plans maybe cost effective solutions for certain clients who may not want to use the services of an architect. However they should ensure that the plans still meet local ordinances and building codes. In addition most stock plans will have to be modified to fit a particular site, especially if the site has steep slopes or are on tight lots. While technically not remodels, modifying stock plans to suit a particular site may end up costing more than if a custom design was created for the site.
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Architect's proximity:
Some clients prefer selecting architects who tend to be within close proximity to them or the project site. Others select architects from the nearest big city (ie. San Francisco). Again it's a personal preference. Having one in close proximity or from a certain region has its advantages but in no way has any bearing on the firm's abilities or talents. With todays rapidly evolving technologies, many good architects (albeit even small firms) have the ability to work on projects around the globe. The advent of BIM ( building information modeling), the internet, collaboration technology etc. have provided tools that enable architects to work on projects in their own communities and abroad. We can generate designs and have them reviewed by our clients from our secure project web sites. While we are based in Oakland, California and tend to serve the San Francisco Bay Area and it's surrounding communities, we actually have a global reach and very effective tools that our clients can use to stay updated on their projects, review and comment on the designs. It's part of our desire to have an open dialogue and to have effective collaboration with our clients and consultants. We use PDFs which are easy to access and read with Adobe Acrobat reader. We can e-mail, fax, courier, upload to the internet our drawings in many different but easily accessible formats for a client's benefit.

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Published 10/12/05-last updated June 15,2009