Sonoma County Fires Will Cause Scarcity of Contractors and Subs

We feel deeply for all those that suffered tragic loss in Sonoma and Napa this October 2017. One of the many unfortunate outcomes is that the construction industry in Northern California including the San Francisco/ Bay Area will become stressed even beyond the overheated conditions we have currently.

Even more than in the present contractors and subs will become difficult to acquire and more costly. There will also be material shortages and price hikes.

As your plans for your rebuild in Marin, Sanoma or Napa County get developed consider hiring and securing as many subcontractors and large materials as you can purchase.

Napa & Sonoma County Fires 2017

Napa & Sonoma County Fires 2017

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Tiburon/Belvedere Residents United to Support the Trails (TRUST)

Controversial Tiburon subdivision decision delayed by supervisors

Richard serves on the board of directors for TRUST who just filed a lawsuit in Marin Superior Court earlier this month claiming public ownership of several trails on the Martha Co. property due to sustained use. Please read this article from the Marin Independent Journal to learn more about these efforts.

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The Process of Building a Custom Home: Part I

The Process of Building a Custom Home: Part I

The Process of Building a Custom Home: Part I

The process of building one-of-a-kind custom structures contains many pitfalls that can derail the project. There are too many bad experiences due to budgets being overrun and delayed completion. However, with the proper controls and an informed plan, building a home can be a series of predictable, controlled activities from the start of design all the way through to an enjoyable first night at your new home. The key is to form the right team to work for you, including the owner’s project manager.

This Custom Home Building series is a Q&A to answer many of your preliminary questions about selecting a designer and builder, setting a budget, and creating a construction timetable. These are true wherever you build, and I’ve included some details specific to homes in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Developing a Budget and Making Sure it Sticks

Which should I pick first, the designer or the builder?

Create a team to work on your behalf. First hire an owner’s project manager (OPM), that you trust and feel comfortable with. That person will become your trusted ally to help you choose the design team and building team best suited for your particular wants and needs.

Should I hire a design-build firm?

In places where design styles are similar, and sites are not too challenging, this can be a good option. Subdivisions where homes are fairly similar to each other tend to be (but are not always) easier for this option.

A team that includes an architect and a separate builder is more prevalent where design styles are varied, architecture is more adventurous, and/or building sites are more challenging. This is often the case for homes in Tiburon, Belvedere, Sausalito, and also along the coast in Big Sur, where building sites are more complex.

Start with budget before design

The wants and dreams of the owners and the design of the architect will soon bump up against the budget limit. This is where you want to give your OPM the authority to be the “guardian of the budget.” The earlier your OPM is given a contributing role as part of the team, the more influence he can have on the cost outcome. Make it his role to compare the design evolutions against the budget. A thorough “get real” meeting with the entire team should take place and the budget total should be agreed upon.

All projects are driven by cost considerations, whether it is a $250 per foot residence or a $1500 per foot castle.

The earlier costs are identified and a realistic target budget established, the better the chance for a smooth process. Initially, square foot costs can be useful as a guideline for the cost. However, line item budgets eventually need to be developed. After all, you don’t compare the price of a Mercedes to a mid-grade Chevy by comparing the cost per pound!

  • Between 80 and 90 % of the project cost is determined by the complexity of the design. The OPM will ensure the design is developing within a realistic budget.
  • Typical factors in a real budget
  • The challenges and nature of the building site
  • The size in square feet of the envisioned structure
  • The cost of the design including all outside consultants such as engineers
  • The choice of products such as windows
  • The complexity of the structure
  • The amount of heroic engineering
  • The envisioned quality of finish (using other homes and photos as samples helps)
  • The builder’s fee
  • Site costs, such as landscaping and bringing in utilities
  • Permits and hook-up fees for utilities

Ask for a written set of guidelines prepared by the OPM that includes clear responsibilities and accountability for each member of the team, including the owners, leading to a guarantee of a realistic cost that is within the previously agreed upon budget.

Construction project manager owners representative marin - 49

Are the horror stories true that many projects are way over budget?

It is true that a huge percentage of dream home designs are significantly over the desired budget. Perhaps as many as 70% of designs are over budget, often by as much as 30% in cost. Even in luxury homes, budgets are a big consideration.

Usually, when the budget is missed, the next step is a harrowing process of “chopping things out” of the desired design, as well as compromising with a lower level of quality in products and finishes.

The trouble is, once the dream is visualized it is hard to imagine doing without. What typically happens is these items find their way back into the project as change orders during construction, which is much more costly in time and money.

Sustainable home features

The “chop” stage is, unfortunately, where green building features usually get eliminated, though that doesn’t need to be the case. It is possible to have a green home and stay within budget if the plans are well coordinated from the start to include energy and water efficiency designs and features.

It’s also short-sighted to eliminate eco home designs, because they often pay for themselves over time. An integrated approach to design and material selection can result in fewer materials consumed, higher performance over time, and stunning design.
How do I avoid the mess of losing synergy between designer and builder?
A key ingredient in pre-construction is value engineering–researching alternative methods and products that attain the design intent. This is one of the OPM’s primary functions.

Overall, hiring people who will act as a team and making them accountable is the most important choice you will make and can preempt most troubling scenarios.

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Point Reyes Visitor’s Center

Point Reyes Visitor’s Center
Elephant Seals sunbathing at Point Reyes

Elephant Seals sunbathing at Point Reyes

I recently visited Point Reyes visitor’s center and was surprised at how professional the building and information services are. The lighthouse closed due to high winds, but they directed us to a place where there were still some elephant seals sleeping in the sun. I recommend you drive to the visitor’s center and chat with a ranger, who can point you to where the animals of the season are or use this Point Reyes Wildlife Viewing page.

Last Existing Marine Railway

Last Existing Marine Railway

We also went over to the Point Reyes Lifeboat Rescue Station at Chimney Rock, which was built in 1927 and has the last existing marine railway on the Pacific Coast. The lifeboats are on display inside.

There’s a unique Marin historical event in July. The Night of Nights is a commemoration of the last day of Morse code in the US, which occurred right at Historic RCA Coast Station KPH. From 3 pm to midnight each year on July 12, the station at 17400 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is open to the public and begins broadcasting at 5 pm to commemorate maritime radio. Members of the Maritime Radio Historical Society will broadcast and receive signals from ships and other participants.

Point Reyes Lifeboat Rescue Station at Chimney Rock

Point Reyes Lifeboat Rescue Station at Chimney Rock

Something else I’m thinking about getting involved in is the project for Marin Marine Protected Areas Watch. It’s a volunteer opportunity to participate in citizen science by taking a walk on the beach twice a month to record what you see. Upcoming trainings are at Corte Madera Marsh and Drakes Beach, and they also cover Point Reyes, Estero de Limantour, Duxbury Reef and other areas.

Point Reyes also has a need for volunteers to help with habitat restoration and remove invasive plants through the Habitat Restoration Program at Point Reyes. Group work days are on Sundays and Thursdays.

We’re fortunate to have preserved land like this in our backyard. For more ways to explore, here’s the Point Reyes calendar of events.

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What can go wrong – Episode Two – Over Budget During Construction

What can go wrong – Episode Two – Over Budget During Construction

The second phase where budget is exceeded is, of course, during construction. Be sure that this is not always because of a greedy contractor. The cause of overruns can be varied and the source of the problem can come from multiple directions. That is why an Owner’s Representative, or Project Manager can play such an important role on your team.

To be certain, all too often incompetent contractors are at fault. They perhaps didn’t take enough time or have the skills to properly price the project before starting. Or at times contractors do not have the ability to manage the project efficiently during construction. Because of this, it is so tempting to cast blanket blame and only talk about incompetence of contractors. However, many of them are nice guys who wish to do a good job, but are not capable of that for various reasons. In this case, we can say that the owner should have done a better job of screening the contractor. Recently I was asked to intervene as the Owner’s Representative to project manage a home in mid-framing stage. The contractor had bid the job at literally 50% of his competition and promised delivery in seven months, which should have been 18 months. In this case, I think we can blame the homeowners for being greedy themselves.

This is an excellent example of how the Owner’s Representative can avoid a bad situation by doing a knowledgeable screening and selecting the contractor that best fits the project. There are some subtle qualities in a contractor that an owner would not know how to look for. An individual craftsman type of contractor might be the best fit for a small, highly detailed home. In contrast, a large project with complex structural requirements and many finishes requires a contractor who can provide a team of personnel and sophisticated office systems for managing budget and schedule. Oddly enough, the percentage fee charged by these two types of contractors can often be quite similar in the long run. Be careful not to assume the small contractor without an office will charge less. That is not always case.

The skilled and experienced Project Manager can you help not only select the correct contractor, but also monitor the project and give you reliable information as to whether the project is on track to a successful completion or if it’s going off the rails. If it is going off the rails, a professional Owner’s Representative can foresee this coming, alert the owner, and suggest changes before the problem escalates.

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What can go wrong – Episode One – Over Budget from the Get Go

What can go wrong – Episode One – Over Budget from the Get Go

I think we can all agree that the biggest problems that arise in custom home construction are budget overruns. This occurs during two distinct phases in the process: during the planning phase and during construction. Surprisingly, budget overruns happen most frequently as plans are developed before the construction has even begun.

Why is this? It is because there is no CEO of the project. There is no one person given the authority and task of determining that the design as it progresses is aligned with the owners budget comfort zone. Even if there is no mal intent on the part of the design team, often the owner is repeatedly given choices for fancier rooms, better amenities, and additional spaces without being given the context of how this will affect the overall budget. Owners can have a very difficult time making educated decisions regarding the options they are offered.

Architects want to design the absolute best product for the client and for their own glorification, so even with good intentions their creativity and the owner’s excitement about the design can begin to lead down a path that overruns the stated budget. There is no one there saying, wait a minute, how will this option fit within the budget? No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, so it is much easier to just continue drawing and specifying. Often the problem does not become apparent until everyone, both owner and designer, are way too invested into a vision that requires going over budget. At this point in the process, the vision is very hard to give up or even scale-back.

Helping keep the design aligned with the budget is an excellent service that a knowledgeable Owner’s Representative or Project Manager can provide to both the owner and the design team. The Project Manager can give trustworthy opinions in real time as to whether envisioned ideas are within the budget or not. The Project Manager plays the unique role on the team of being completely objective, able to step in and point out discrepancies between design and budget without hesitation or apology.

With this invaluable input from the Project Manager, decisions regarding design are made right from the start, before anyone is invested emotionally or financially into a concept that is outside the budget. The design and development then can proceed unencumbered. Both architect and owner can make decisions confidently, without stress towards the completion of a drawing set. Thus, there is a higher likelihood of the home being built as envisioned without causing undue financial strain on the owner.

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