Here’s one silver lining for homeowners during this home-bound era: If you’ve been dreaming of upgrading your space, this could be the perfect time to go for it.
Christopher Dameron of Brooklyn’s Dameron Architecture said that homeowners looking for a redesign have an advantage if they act right now: “I think it’s an excellent time to build. Your money will go further. Interest rates are low, and there is a lull so you’ll get better pricing and service from design professionals and contractors.”
Not only do you have the couch-hours to scour Instagram for shower tile, light fixtures, wall colors, and cabinet pulls, but it’s also prime time to score a renovation team that you might not be able to snag otherwise. “There’s been a slowdown with commercial projects due to the coronavirus, so you can get a really high-end architect who is suddenly available to take on residential work,” Dameron continued. “And you’ll get more personal attention and a more personal design because they’ll have more time to do it.”
Full disclosure: I worked directly with Dameron Architecture and Lambo Construction + Design on the apartment renovation pictured here, but this is not a sponsored post. I just had a great experience with them and I wanted to share their tips on getting a job done.
Be realistic about money and time
Yes, COVID has delayed some projects, but that doesn’t mean you should wait on yours. As Dameron mentioned above, the slowdown can work to your advantage: “Because there is a lull, you’ll get extra attention—that’s the biggest perk—extra attention to your project.”
That said, in my limited construction experience, I’ve never heard of a project costing less than expected or getting done in less time than it was supposed to. While it’s perfect timing to get your design plans in order, be prepared for an arduous permit process, as city agencies could be moving even more slowly than usual. The coronavirus shutdown instituted safety restrictions on construction workers, requiring them to wear masks and stagger processes, but in our current phase of reopening, builders are back in business.
“Everybody wants the same thing. We call it The Unholy Trinity: Good, Fast, and Cheap,” Biziouras said. “But you can only pick two of those things. You can find someone to do a good job fast, but it’s not gonna be cheap. You can hire the guys at Home Depot with the van and four dudes, and it might be cheap, but it’s not gonna be good.”
It goes without saying that if you are renovating your living quarters you will have to deal with the displacement and potentially, the cost of moving out as well. Depending on your circumstances, a pandemic may not be the best time for that—or it could be a great time for you to sublet a place or Airbnb a home away from home.
Hire an architect
An architect does a lot more than just draw up a floor plan. Your architect is your advocate, reviewing payments with your contractor, making sure your specified materials are actually being used, and working on your behalf to make sure you get what’s in the drawings.
Most homeowners wouldn’t notice if the guy picking up the drywall grabbed the cheap stuff instead of the natural materials they chose. Whether a contractor makes a mistake or simply decides to overcharge clients, architects keep contractors honest and make sure you’re getting what you pay for.
“Although architects keep shady contractors honest, an inexperienced architect can mess up a project, too. In residential work, there’s a BIG difference between someone who is just out of school and a licensed professional who knows construction,” Dameron said. Plus, here in NYC, where permits and paperwork are crucial to most projects, you need an architect who is prepared to deal with specific codes, regulations, and approvals from the city.
Personally, I’ve worked on home renovation projects with and without architects. Our very first home renovation project, which was done without an architect in hopes of saving money, was the one project that went vastly over-budget—and left us with a lot of annoying design quirks that impact our day-to-day life. If I could do it all over again, I’d budget for an architect first and foremost.
“If you don’t have an architect, a contractor with no formal design training is doing your house. There are a select few who are excellent at this, but they tend to be craftspeople and not the same people who think of the space holistically,” Dameron said. “In my mind, it’s sort of like, if you are sick, you call a doctor, you don’t call the drug company to ask what medicine you need, or some random person with medical opinions.”
Get personal recommendations for a contractor
Talk to your architect as well as friends and neighbors who’ve recently done renovations. We were looking for a smart, hardworking team to power through our relatively small project, and we were intrigued by our architect’s recommendation of Lambo Construction and Design.
Tom Lambertsen, a former pro hockey player in the ECHL with 15 years of experience in both commercial and high-end residential work, heads up their construction team and takes an active role in their projects. Their day-to-day communications are handled quickly and efficiently by his partner, Nick Biziouras, a Greek-born, Berkeley educated political science professor who left his teaching job at the Naval Academy to live in New York City. Damerson explained what’s special about their business: “Nick is smart and hands-on and can get things done, and Tom is the special sauce. It’s very rare to have a Tom. He’s the problem solver, the guy who is putting things into motion. Because he’s one of the partners, he can be on-site and make decisions.”
On our site, Lambertsen worked with quiet focus but would get chatty about topics like how to install a channel in the wall to hide wires, what type of screws to use for shelving, and his favorite place to shop for cabinet knobs (Simon’s Hardware and Bath in Manhattan). Dameron agreed that passion for the work is important: “Having someone who loves it and is obviously into it is the best thing.”
Check your contractor’s references
“I have learned over the years that the most important thing is checking references, actually talking to people who have worked with the contractor,” Dameron said. “It’s better if the references extend beyond those that they give you. See if you can talk to people that can talk about difficult projects and how the contractors dealt with inevitable setbacks.”
It’s also worth asking references if they felt like they had good communication and a positive working relationship with the contractor and their team. “Construction is a very relationship-heavy business,” Biziouras said. “The whole point of a contractor is to curate people for the client—the plumber the electrician. These are people that we’ve been working with for years, so we know how much it’s going to cost and how long it’s going to take.”
Get bids from 2 or 3 contractors
Use your recommendations to get a couple of contractors to visit the site and offer a price on your project. If you need help finding contractors, a matching service like Sweeten, which thoroughly vets general contractors and matches them with clients, can help.
Seeking out more than three bids is probably overkill. Dameron said, “When I was starting out on small projects, I wanted to get competitive bids, and most of the time that was way more hassle than it’s worth. Two or three bids from really good people is better than casting a wide net.” Plus, since building costs are somewhat standard, getting one magically low bid doesn’t always pan out as you’d hope. A cheap offer could lead to hidden costs later. Dameron continued, “Contractors underbid the job to get the job and then they make up the money.”
“The magic number 3. 3 bids, 3 referrals,” Biziouras weighed in. “You’re not gonna solve the market place rate.”
Trust your instincts
“You always gotta go with your gut,” Biziouras said. “And if the guy shows up with one of those corporate fleece jackets, they probably do a lot more project managing than construction. You always look at somebody’s hands. If they’ve got soft hands they’re just putting guys together to work on projects. You should pick somebody that looks the part and somebody whose references check out.”
In other words, the first person you meet from a larger construction company might be someone whose job is to make bids. “They send out their people person, the one guy at the firm that is smart and is good at relating to people,” Dameron explains. You may never see that person again. In many cases, it can be hard to communicate with an on-site crew, which is generally led by a foreman who visits every few days and may not be as invested in the build.
We loved seeing Bizouras and Lambertson on our site regularly, but if a project manager is doing their job correctly, you won’t need day-to-day contact with your builder.
Be prepared to go 20% over your budget
“It’s good to have a 20% contingency plan,” Biziouras said. “You open up walls and you don’t know what’s inside. Plus, you might change your mind. Sometimes people visualize something and then they see it on the wall and that’s not what they wanted. So if you have to go back and undo it, that would be a change order.”
Change orders show up when things don’t go as planned, and they involve added costs to the original fee. Again, an architect can help you visualize how things will turn out and avoid the extra costs that come with change orders. Dameron said, “Most people find if they are willing to hire an architect that will be heavily involved during construction that it will save them money… Every project where I have done this, my fee is always less than the proposed change orders they would have had. Also, unscrupulous contractors tend to be more cautious in providing change orders when they know they are being reviewed by an architect who can provide alternatives sometimes or compare prices with other jobs on the market.”
It’s hard to name a ballpark figure for an architect since projects vary so much in their scope, though many will charge 10 to 15% of the total cost of the project. Ultimately, in ways that are hard to quantify (catching oversights—or price gauging—on contractor bills, foreseeing potential structural issues, avoiding change orders, filing permits correctly), many homeowners find that architects can pay for themselves.
It’s also very difficult to gauge the square footage price of a renovation in the city versus upstate, as it all depends on what you are renovating. City dwellers also have to jump through more hoops to get permits for projects, which can add to the total. Generally speaking, though, a full gut renovation could run between $200 to $250 per square foot including materials.
Wherever you are building, preparing for unforeseen costs is a smart thing to do.
Use Green Materials and Minimize Waste
One of the most surprising things about going green with your home reno project is that the cost difference isn’t that substantial. While you’re not necessarily saving on healthy and recycled materials, you’re not spending much more, either.
“You can go the recycling route where you are reusing a lot of stuff—reclaimed flooring, steel, appliances—or you can focus on getting materials with no toxins and low emissions. Or you can combine both,” says Biziouras. If you’re looking to recycle, he recommends the Big Reuse in Gowanus and following Curb Alert NYC (@curbalertnyc) on Instagram. “That really works for a lot of our clients, especially those on a budget.”
When it comes to choosing materials, it helps to have an architect who knows how to avoid VOCs (volatile organic compounds, like formaldehyde in plywood, acetaldehyde in linoleum, and phenol in vinyl flooring). “If you use natural materials, you’re less likely to involve toxins into your world. The VOCs are really harmful, and it’s something that’s in many, many different building materials,” Dameron explains. “We can give an estimate based on healthy materials, and then if cost is an issue, we can find alternatives. It’s so negligible.”
Think about air circulation
The coronavirus suddenly has us all thinking about the spread of germs through confined office spaces and recycled air, but some architects have already given plenty of thought to finding new ways to ventilate public spaces. In fact, Dameron has spent nearly a decade working on a forthcoming indoor-outdoor event space and botanical garden in Bushwick called Carroll Hall, pictured above, which is set to open when the COVID lockdown ends. He has developed garden irrigation systems that collect rainwater in sophisticated storage tanks and recycle the water through fountains, and he has employed a Danish company, WindowMaster, that uses new technology to measure CO2 levels and automatically open windows to let in more oxygen.
“I think mixed-mode ventilation is the future for sure,” Dameron says. “We have to locate buildings in the right orientation to the sun, provide for cross-ventilation, and use the current technologies that help buildings behave like organisms.”
For Dameron, these complicated, out-of-the-box, environment-nurturing projects are his favorites: “NYC work can be thankless sometimes, but when you achieve something special, it’s an amazing feeling… especially when a client is happy. That’s the best you can ask for—making other people’s lives better through design.”