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Where Do You Start A Renovation Project?

–A Zen saying… ” To climb a mountain, start at the top.

Dream.  Create a concept, brainstorm, mental imagery… do any thought process without concern for cost.  If you lived in your home for a while, I’m sure there’s a few things that you’ve grown to hate that weren’t all that bad when you purchased.  Or you overlooked them, knowing they’d be fixed later.  Well later is coming.  Start making a list.  Organize the list by room.  Or organize the list by problem areas.  What you’re doing is developing a building program.

For example, when you moved in, you remembered having to take the hinges off the door to a bedroom or two.  Why did you do that?  Maybe you don’t care but good design considers these situations.  Maybe the original home builder put a closet in a room and just bumped out the wall and getting into the room was no problem EXCEPT when you spent hours trying to get a dresser into the room.

What’s Your Renovation Goal?

In my opinion, the underlying goal of renovation design is to meld form and function to create a living space that entices you to return at the end of work. Start by seeing the end result, then make a list of those items to renovate before figuring out how to accomplish the tasks.

Seeing the end result may be hard but there are a plethora of magazines, websites and TV shows devoted to home renovations.  Surely, you can find something that sparks an interest.  Make copies or take photographs and start to develop your wish list in a visual format so that you can communicate your ideas to your designer and eventually to your contractor.

While You’re Thinking… Start Measuring

A critical thing with renovation work is to acquire accurate as-is conditions of the building.  Without this information, architects and engineers can only guess at what is needed.  In design and construction, guessing is not allowed.  Starting point of as-is drawings is the Plot Plan or Survey received when you purchased the home.  This gives you the outline of the building from which to do your floor plans.  As-built plans should include site plan, floor plans and exterior elevations as the starting point of all renovation design work.

Without them, it’s an expensive shot in the dark.  A couple of comments are needed here…  If you’re not experienced with architectural drawings, as many are not, remember, walls have thickness.  Also, just because a Plot Plan is signed and sealed by a Licensed Land Surveyor, does NOT means it’s accurate.  It’s not that they made a mistake… it just depends on where they measure.  Do they measure to the foundation of the siding?  If by chance you happen to have existing plans to your home, it’s almost certain that they are not accurate.  Your job in measure is to field verify existing conditions and document them accordingly.

Why all the fuss about as-built drawings? It’s my obsessive-compulsive behavior.  I liken the as-built plans as the foundation of all renovation work.  A weak foundation causes problems with the rest of the building.  Spend a little time getting the existing information.  Get it down on paper, then you’ve got a starting a communication tool that everyone can work with.

As an incentive, your architect or designer needs the information but they’ll charge for the service.  And while you’re measuring, you’ll become much more familiar with your surroundings…  BUT why so concerned with accuracy…?  “We’re not building a watch.”  When design issues are critical, there are times when moving a wall 1, 2, 3 or 4 inches can have a major bearing on the outcome and function of a space.  I know, I’ve been there.

Home Renovations on TV… Be Aware.

It’s amazing to watch TV shows about home renovations or flipping shows. Rarely do I see any plans, just reactive yelling and screaming to unanticipated problems.  With renovation work, you must accept the fact that things will go wrong.

Don’t bury your head in the sand, things will go wrong, expect it and be prepared to react rationally and logically… with as little emotion as possible.  And that’s not easily done when the problems always cost money.  Having somewhat accurate as-is drawings can help determine load bearing walls, direction of floor joist or rafters, define where mechanical and electrical elements are located.

The starting point for renovation design is a concept, a wish list and existing as-built plans…

Next, follow a past project for design insight…


Types Defined

This is fairly simple to define. The activities, once defined, are not so simple to perform if your end result is to build a beautiful usable functional space utilizing local materials, minimizing waste and energy consumption.

The first type of construction is ground-up or new construction. But isn’t all construction new. Yes but in this definition, the second type of construction is renovation work on existing buildings. So there is ground-up new construction and renovation construction of existing buildings.

Renovation Construction

In my opinion, renovation construction is more complicated than ground-up new construction because one must work with the existing idiosyncrasies of previous owners and builders.

Years of implanting an owner’s personality into a building need to be erased to accommodate a new owner. Previous renovations done by the owner or his contractors may have been done with varying degrees of success or competency… or maybe no capabilities at all.  And work could have been done without permits or worse, not  built to minimum code standards.

Ground-Up New Construction

The other type of construction is ground-up new and this is like starting with a blank palette. Of course, I don’t mean to cut down every tree to plop a house or building in the middle of the lot.  As has been said to me too many times to count, “We used to just throw a rock on the site and that’s where we built…”

Site planning is an integral part to ground-up new construction. One needs to consider the exact locale regarding solar orientation, winds during summer and winter, vegetation, frost-depths, water tables, soil conditions, etc.

What I mean building with a blank palette is to do it right. Homes in suburban tracks are on straight streets with the houses… facing the street. Newer developments are done are winding roads with the houses… facing the street. Most of these homes are mass produced with time and budget being the driving force with little regard for quality.

Doing it right means to orient the home to maximize solar gain during the winter, minimizing it during the summer. Aligning the home to direct prevailing winds through the home during the summer and blocking them during the winter. Minimizing waste and using local products versus getting that gorgeous marble from Italy is doing it right. Designing spaces to accommodate more than one use is doing it right. Making the home efficient by conserving energy and even harvesting energy is doing it right.

What’s Next?

You want to do a construction project and it’ll be one or the other.  If you’re not accustomed to the process, where do you start?  Future blog entries, will hopefully help organize the information and thought processes required to undertake a construction project.  As a friend, colleague and mentor used to tell me, “Construction is not a venture, but an adventure…”

I’ll tackle renovation work first because in this economic climate, renovating your existing home can be more economical AND more aligned many Green Pundit advisors.  Where do you start?  Next up: beginning a  renovation project… is to dream.

We’ll use the following home as an example…

Existing Front Elevation


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