By Katherine Salant
Reprinted from The Orlando Sentinel
An architect found out the hard way that it isn’t easy. To get through the project you have to be a combination of drill sergeant and mother hen.
Two years ago, Rockville, MD architect Richard Donnally had reached a point in his career where he was ready to live out his dream – designing and building his own house. As a principle in his own firm, Donnally, Lederer & Bujcic, he had the freedom to rearrange his work schedule. And, after 25 years of involvement in the building industry, he convinced his bank he had sufficient expertise to manage the project.
Moreover, by acting as his own contractor, he could lower the cost of his custom-built house by about 20 percent and still include all the features and finishes he wanted for the 4,500-square-foot structure.
Designing the house was “exhilarating and challenging,” but once Donnally started trying to get it built, he learned the real reason that most people do not do this and banks discourage it.
“Building a house is much harder than it looks. It’s not rocket science, but to do it well requires incredibly high tolerance for stress because there will be problems every step of the way,” he said.
Just getting to first base with a final cost figure was hard, Donnally found.
“When I started, I had a good idea of the going rates for labor and materials. I thought I could just get three bids from each subcontractor and pick the most realistic one, but I had to get 10 to 15 bids to get one that was reasonable.
To get a reasonable price and an honest profit margin for the concrete work – foundation, basement, slab, sidewalks & patio – I had to get 20 bids.”
Not only was it hard to get a reasonable price, it was hard to get any price, Donnally said. “I would give a sub specs and drawings and then the guy never called back. The truth is, though your project is everything to you, you are a small deal to suppliers and trades people. They give preference to the guy building a lot of houses because he can give them steady work.
“The thing that really drives you crazy in getting bids is that there are more than 30 tradesmen on your job. The granite counter top guy, the cultured marble counter top guy, the gutter guy, the roof guy, each one only does that one specific job. You don’t realize before you start the number of people you must get bids from.”
Include Everything in the Bid
As Donnally,’s house went up, he learned another critical fact about bidding. “When you ask for a bid, you can’t assume that your bidder will include everything that is required but not specified. For example, I assumed that the guys who hang the interior doors would include the hardware (door handles and latch plates) in their price. They didn’t. I had to go out and get these and pay an extra labor charge to get them included. An experienced general contractor would have said, “When bidding interior doors, include hardware.”
“Some of the confusion about what was included [in the bid] and what wasn’t was caused by the lack of detail in my own drawings. In the commercial work that I usually design, everything is detailed and specified, down to the length, finish and spacing of each screw. We have at least 50 sheets of details and a very thick book of specifications. If you hired an architect to design a house with 50 sheets of details, the fee could be as much as $100,000. You won’t get that level of detail in residential projects, so there are a lot of openings for mistakes and use of inferior materials.”
When Donnally finally assembled all the bids and started to build his house, the work proceeded in fits and starts.
“The subs would meet my price but not show up. Or they would show up for a few days and disappear to do other jobs. I discovered that a mark of a really good sub is not just the quality of his work. He is also really organized and doesn’t commit to more than he can handle.
“When one sub didn’t show up, I had to cancel and reschedule the others who were to come next. They would go to other jobs and it was hard to get them rescheduled back to me.”
One solution to the no-shows that Donnally tried was getting the subs who did reliably show up to take on more work. “This was a mistake. I learned the hard way that when a sub is recommended for one thing, don’t ask him to do something he doesn’t do 100 percent of the time. My framing carpenter said he could do finish carpentry, but he was lousy.”
All the no-shows and rescheduling strung the job out months longer than Donnally had anticipated.
“My original estimate for building my house was eight months. Then I thought 10 months was more realistic, but 12 months was what it took.”
Keeping Control of Quality
Quality control was another issue for this rookie builder.
“Some mistakes were easy to spot. My wife, for example picked up that the sink base was not centered with the window above it. But the average person couldn’t tell if you have a proper footing or enough nails in the framing. You can’t depend on a municipal building inspector to make sure that these are done correctly. Some are more careful than others, but they spend only a few minutes at the job site. For the framing and foundations work – critical for the structural integrity of your house – I did a lot of checking and I got a lot of references.
“If I spotted a mistake when work was just starting for the day and the subs hadn’t done much, it was easy to get them to redo things if there was a disagreement. But if a sub installed 20 of something the wrong way, it was hard to get him to change it. Often the problem was a gray area that was not well detailed on the plan. I thought it didn’t look right, but to do it my way, the sub often wanted extra money.”
Staying on top of everything was “unbelievably time consuming,” Donnally discovered. “To keep things going, I had to be there a lot more than I had thought. At the beginning, I was at the job site only once a week, then twice a week, but the last month, when we were racing to finish, I was there every day for two to four hours. It was a good thing I am a partner in my firm or I would have been fired. I managed to move my work around and I worked a lot of late nights.”
Developing the right management style was another challenge, Donnally found.
“You can be tough and mean and get the work done. But if you’re too mean, the subs will walk off. A colleague came to look at the job and spoke sharply to one person and he didn’t come back for three days. You have to have a sense of humor and be encouraging. You have to be stern. Subs can be like teenagers and never clean up after themselves. I had to get a cleaning service in halfway through construction because there was so much trash and sawdust and debris.
“In short, to run such a project well, you have to be a mix of a drill sergeant and a mother hen. And you have to have an incredibly high tolerance for stress. Problems will occur and you must know how to fix them. As a friend said, ‘Construction is knowing how to fix a mistake and make it look good.”
Now that he’s finally finished and moved into his new house, would he do it again?
“By doing it this way I saved about $100,000 and got the house I wanted. But if I’d had a $100,000 more, I would have hired a general contractor in a second.”
Katherine Salant of Ann Arbor, Michigan writes consumer advice columns for buyers of new houses. She can be reached by mail at Inman News Features, 1250 45th St., Suite 360, Emeryville, California 94608 or through e-mail:email@example.com.