Thursday, September 1, 2011

Is this a good time to realize your construction project?

Is this a good time to realize a construction project?  Clients have asked us that question frequently, especially over the last 3 years.  We thought it might be helpful to provide some information pertaining to that question.  Instead of referencing abstract indexes and financial analysis, we’ll draw from our own experience and that of our contractors.  We’ll take a look at construction costs, the cost of living, how to choose a contractor and why this is indeed a good time for a construction project, provided that you are prepared for what’s out there! 

Are construction costs really down? While there is always some flux within the costs of building materials, stemming from the supply / demand relationship, we do not see construction costs to be much lower than they were in the summer of 2008.  Several factors might play a part in this, but we believe the cost of living here in Sonoma County is a large factor, as well as the Californian workman’s comp. requirements, which add heavily to a contractor’s overhead.
The cost of living in Sonoma County has gone up, not down.  Inflation is most likely a major factor, distorting the true balance of goods and services versus their financial value.  One only has to reference gas and food prices to realize that the cost of living has not gone down. If the cost of living is not down, but has actually has gone up, and you’re using a local workforce to get your project executed, it won’t take rocket-science to figure out that those bids can’t be lower now than they were when the cost of living was lower. 

While there still is fierce competition between builders, the contractors we have talked to, agree that at least some large variations in bids are simply a matter of “pay now or pay later”. Some bidders will heavily underbid projects to get a foot in the door. Beware of a deal that seems too good to be true – it usually is.  Sometimes that’s out of despair to keep themselves and their sub-contractors busy, sometimes it will simply mean cutting corners during construction and / or a parade of change-orders. They won’t however, make an appearance, until your house is torn wide open and then rains are on their way… 

What we do see, however, across the industry is that profit margins are way down, due to the aforementioned competition in the field.  What does that mean for you?  It means you’re getting a better deal. But remember that your contractor’s leeway is also much less than it used to be. Which is only one of the reasons why we encourage our clients to get multiple preliminary bids after the conclusion of schematic design.  At this point in the design process the scope can still be changed easily (=inexpensively!)  without getting into the complexities of the re-drawing of construction documents.  This is also the time when you as a client get a chance to meet several contractors. You get to review their bid, see how professionally it is put together, how detailed, and how complete. We also recommend you to take a look at some of their projects and talk to previous as well as current clients.  Another, important thing to remember is to not make changes after the construction drawings have been issued to the contractors. Less profit also means less ability to absorb any cost derived from changes. 

Permit fees also play a big role in the costs of projects. This pertains mostly to new construction, although there are increased requirements on renovations as well. Permit fees as structured by the County of Sonoma are a hefty 5% of a new single-family dwelling to be constructed! These fees include, among others, the plan-check fees, affordable housing fee, school fees and a host of smaller permits required and their associated fees.  The County’s overarching goal here seems to be to stifle single-family development.  In our opinion that sort of attitude is commendable when the economy is going at a furious pace. When, however, the building industry is already on its knees, it seems rather questionable to further curb single-family housing growth.   

Lastly, with the adoption of the new Residential Building Code (effective since January 2011), there are extensive requirements for new residential construction. They range from catch-basins to catch all storm-water run-off on site to extensive energy and water-flow calculations and a plethora of items in between.  The feasibility of a projects requires more up-front investigation, and a thorough investigation of what the financial ramifications are. Civil engineers should be consulted early on to evaluate the site-work, which can have a great impact on design and budget. 

Should all of these factors deter you from pursuing the project(s) you have been planning?  We don’t think so.  If you can qualify for a loan, interest rates are still incredibly low. But we do think that you need to be prepared for what’s out there right now.  Your budget needs to accommodate realistic construction cost, plus at least 10% overage.  You might want to hire an architect or designer for them to talk to the building department, talk to their consultants, to find out what’s really at stake with your project, and what the implications are. This is especially true for new construction. Keep in mind that there are no shortcuts in terms of budget or getting plans approved.  Building departments are understaffed and their employees are worried about their job-security, - for good reason. This means they will do an extra good job scrutinizing the projects they’ve got to review. 

In summation, I would say that as long as you’re prepared to meet the market’s financial demands, are willing to do some footwork prior to getting started and you’re not trying to pull a fast one on your contractor or building department, this is a great time to realize a residential project. Why?  Because if  got a realistic budget, do the initial investigation, choose your contractor carefully, you can benefit from getting a good value, a comitted contractor and a beautiful end-result.  Now all you need is a creative architect and designer. Feel free to give us a call for some recommendations…

Please feel free to comment.  Don't be shy to disagree either, as we would love to have some discussion started on this blog!

Thank you

Friday, July 1, 2011

Zeitgeist Update

Finishing touches are put on the boutique office building in Arizona.  A walkway connecting an existing building with the one we designed is being built, providing a not only a protected commute between the two, but also symbolizing a bridge between the two very different designs.  The frame-less interior doors have been installed.  Now floor and wall finishes are being installed as we speak. 

The foundation work for a sleek 3-story addition / renovation in the hills above the town of Sonoma has been laid, or rather poured. This project consist of a new workroom on the basement level, the re-building of a sun-room on the main level, and a sun-deck on the second floor, off the existing master-bedroom.  It also includes a kitchen and master-bath renovation, and the replacement of existing decks. Liberal use of cable-rails, a gang-way – style stairway connecting the main deck with the ground-level and a super modern master bath with sensor-activated LED lights, amongst many other features, has us pretty excited to see this project come to fruition.

A second renovation is about to go into construction in Santa Rosa.  We have redesigned a master bedroom, master bath, two other bathrooms. Also, the living room fireplace has been re-designed to be in sync with the modern touch we're adding to this spacious home.  Jessica has been engaged to go through the house room by room, choosing colors, furniture and to design window treatments.  The master bathroom will be utilizing marble slab for the double-headed shower enclosure and radiant heat under the new 12x24 floor tiles. A new walk-in closet will be constructed, as well as a bench in the master bath and a window-seat in the master bedroom.  We are also changing the 8’ flat ceiling to a peaked one and changing the window layout to let more light and air in and make the house feel more light and airy.


La piece de resistance is a two-story, very modern single family residence in Petaluma.  This house will be built on the foundation of a non-descript 1970s ranch-style house and will feature a roof-deck, a staircase (dissecting the house in its center and being lit and vented by 4 large operable skylights), two guest-suites and a separate garage / studio building.  The 9’-6” ceiling height on both floors permits for 8’ doors and 1’-6” hopper windows above them,  enabling passive cooling.  To top it all off, a swimming-pool is planned for those hot summer days.  Covered walkways, designed to support green roofs, will assure shaded and dry travel between the building and also serve as a visual connection.

Monday, May 2, 2011


The German word Zeitraum literally means time-space or Era, period of time. But I prefer the direct translation. The space of time. What a cool concept.

Time I finally had on our trip to Amsterdam, Germany, France and the Czech Republic.  Time to think about life, work and what it all means.  Did I have any breakthroughs?  Only time will tell.  When I look back and notice a shift in my way of living.  I guess the word 'when' proves a certain optimism...

My kids got to see their grandparents. Zeitraum. Emotions.  Life is precious. How did we all fare?  Surprisingly well.   And what does all of that have to do with design? I haven't the foggiest idea, to paraphrase our British brethren...

Amsterdam. A much too long flight. A tram ride into town. A brisk, sunny spring morning. A cigar. A beer in a cafe. And a lot of walking...   Adena tries to combine two menu-items (American-style). Not in Europe I thought. She gives the stout waitress a devastated look. The waitress caves and serves the 'Unikat'. Cullinary imperialism by a seven-year old. 
Nadav and Jessica go to see Anne Frank's house.  While Adena and I built sand-castles in a verboten construction zone. A canal barge battles the gusty wind in her effort of docking next to us.
A deck-hand in a snug uniform and captain's hat handles the docking lines with military precision. These Central-Europeans are just too tightly wound. We watch the passengers drink their Amstels while they stare back at us...

Deutschland.  My brother is getting married. We are close. Despite the distance. I meet his wife at the wedding.  She is lovely and they are in love. I'm honored to be his best man.

We show the kids Tuebingen, an old University town close to where I grew up.  They love the castle and are amazed by the old houses and the mazes of 'Gassen' (lanes).  My dad loves being a grandparent. Zeitraum. It starts raining.

I lived in Tuebingen for two years. It's old and liberal, funky artsy.  In a German way.
We spend time at my cousins's house, my aunts' and my sister's.  We are fed almost to the point of platzing.  It's wonderful to see all of the children together.  Nadav shoots a bb-gun, sets off fireworks, climbs on top of roofss, falls in the creek I fell in when I was a kid. Adena catches over two dozen newts. All without any adults being nearby.  Life the way it used to be. Nadav already wants to go to Europe by himself and stay with his cousin Louis. In a few years for sure.
Back to design!  My parents took us to the Mercedes Benz Museum.  An interesting building.  Not beautiful. A bit heavy-handed. Sleek gone clumsy. Like the cars. Except for the 'Silberpfeil' (silver-arrow) on the left. I secretly hope that this generation of cars gets revived at some point.  The simplicity. The raw and throaty sound. The vibration. The air in your face. Sort of like a four-wheeled Ducati...
It was interesting to see what insane variety of vehicles MB has manufactured.  And what indelible spirit it must have taken to build such an empire.  I was in awe just looking at space after space filled with one engineering marvel after another.  I still think though, MB should have spent the money on hiring some Italian designers to help make their aesthetics more palatable!

Next stop: PRAHA!
Ahhh the pure joy of relentless speeding on the Autobahn. I tried hard, with the whole family egging me on, to reach 200 km/h (125 mph!) on our side-trip to Prague. Our little Volkswagen Polo however, could not reach that speed on the flat, and the downhill portions were either too short or crowded with Audis and BMWs going much faster, to get enought momentum going.  But we got close, and that's what counts.
Nadav in particular LOVED going fast.  Although, after going around 100 mph for an hour or so, the novelty wore off...
Prague is unbelievably beautiful. 
Honestly. Block after block of beautiful old buildings.  Architectural eye-candy.  Our hotel was centrally located and we spent 2 days walking all over the old city.
Hitler apparently loved Prague and therefore did not bomb it in WWII. Therefore it has a vast treasure of intact old buildings and a surprising wealth of jewish artifacts beautifully preserved.
And some newer ones:

Jessica and I were underwhelmed with Gehry's Nationale-Nederlanden building, also known as the dancing house and also  known as the drunken house...
While neat at a first look, it seems a bit contrived. However, I still prefer a building that conjures up an emotional response, be it positive or negative, over a building that causes none at all.
I loved the gothic and baroque architecture. My former self would have been appalled by such a statemen, the purist modernist I was in school. But while I still love modern architecture, I am able to appreciate other styles.

Sunlight falls through the stainglass window on the left and lights up the mosaic on the right. Seriously, the window alone would have been enough! This is in the St. Vitus Cathedral, which stands inside the castle complex. I could easily spend several weeks in Pague, just exploring this magnificient city.  We drove south from Prague to see some of the country-side and also to visit the city of Strakonice, which has a connection to our community here.  Finally it was time to head back Germany. As we left the Czech Republic, we passed some young women working the street just before the German border. They were much too lightly dressed for the cold temperatures.  It filled me with deep sadness to see them on this freezing, lonely stretch of road.
From Germany we took a side-trip to Colmar, which is on the French side of the Alsace region, famous for its wines and picturesque villages.  We didn't get to sample the wines, but found some wonderful crepes and other foods.  Another interesting side-note of this trip was a brief introduction to German pre-fab houses, but that will have to wait for another post...  In reflection of this trip, several things struck me. Most of all, I loved sharing my heritage, my family and the wonderment of traveling with my children.  I was also very impressed with Prague's architecture.  I honestly did not expect all that much and was blown away. I was fascinated by the German building technologies, which are so advanced, and the whole system of pre-fab building was way cool. Also all the ways of retrofitting existing building that are centuries old. Altogether it was a great trip. I wish it had been in the summer, so the kids could have spent more time outside and in the pool. And, of course, I wish I could have gotten some sailing in.  But then again, maybe next time...
(Photos by Jessica Wichmann)

Friday, February 18, 2011

ZEITRAUM - make space for time!

Just enough spring to make us forget about the 'Northern' in California. And then it rains again. Or rather, pours. Good for the salmon.

Took the kids to the Dry Creek Hatchery. Crazy numbers of fish! For the first time we were able to watch them in Dry Creek, resting in the shallows, before tackling the next hurdle. Rounded a wonderful day of hiking and fishing out with a stop at the Dry Creek General Store.

So, what does that have to do with Design you might ask. Well, a lot actually. Living in Sonoma County is so inspiring! The sparkling sun raking the ruffled water of the cove. The cool and fresh water dripping from the paddle and the shimmering black feathers of the cormorant watching you fish for a while before shaking its head and flying off.The fresh green of the hills, the thick moss on top of the low tree branches. The shades of silver, orange green and pink of the salmon. The bright and animated pink of the cherry trees planted along the road. The way the southern breeze strokes your face sitting on the porch of the general store.

Do I sit there calculating sun angles, measuring wind speeds? Dear me - NO! Although, maybe I should be. But subconsciously, all of these perceptions will somehow effuse future designs. That is a unique benefit of living in this part of the world. Unfortunately my somewhat dreamy train of thought came to a screeching halt, as something made me think of the Cal Green code in effect since January 1st.
There is so much emphasis on the need to be green. And being green is somehow achieved by juggling abstract numbers and combining them in complex formulas, which then have to be interpreted by an expert. Who then has to be hired to verify that all of the abstractness and complexity has actually made into the edifice, and whether it makes a damn of difference. Clients wanting to build a house in Sonoma County are enslaved to all of these experts, who, within their field maybe brilliant, but might be unconcerned about the ramifications of their work the whole of the project.
Sadly, a lot of the green hype is forgetting one important component in the enormous effort of making sure that California will be the greenest of them all. That component is common sense. Whaa? Exactly. Another small detail that seems to have been forgotton, is the fact that last I checked, we’re still in a bit of a recession. And a lot of the green requirements are very expensive to design and to build. Well, let’s see, how can we cripple an industry that’s already on its knees even further? I would venture to guess that the implementers of Cal Green were more concerned with their political legacies than a time-appropriate measure, or with the survival of thousands of design and construction professionals. Otherwise they would have surely phased the implementation with the economic status.
What’s also interesting is the fact that while new construction single family dwellings get loaded up with requirements and restrictions like a Moroccan mule, these rules do not apply (yet, at least) to renovations and small additions. Which is interesting, because new construction, at least in my experience, is inherently better built than most of what’s been slapped together in the 60s and 70s. It is those houses that leak heat like a sieve and won’t stay warm in the winter. While I am aware of the economic challenges of requirements on renovation. But small steps, and a little common sense would go along way in making a difference over time.
I think most of us can agree on the fact that building with the environment in mind is the way to go. But I think we also agree that we should not go German about it. And yes, I can say that (I not only grew up in Germany, but my dad worked as an architect in Reutlingen for most of his live).
Will any of the Cal Green rules and requirements ultimately be altered to be more palatable? I sure hope so. Mostly for the sake of all of those in the construction industry that are losing their jobs because projects get scrapped, because it’s just too expensive to be green. Maybe that was part of intent. To stifle development of single family dwellings. That may be admirable to some, but statistically, it does not make sense. And it is not at all in sync with a lot of the zoning laws concerning density, which will have tenants live in sub-standard living conditions, because expansion is not possible due to density restrictions. Apparently, you can’t have your cake and eat after all.
I walked off the porch of the Dry Creek General Store with a spring in my step, somehow assured, that regardless of the legal challenges present, we will find a way to come up with designs that in addition to beauty and comfort, will be infused with common sense and will be wholly inspired by nature surrounding us in this gorgeous county…