How to get that masterpiece built and still be standing at the end!

How to get that masterpiece built and still be standing at the end!

Last week I gave my top ten design suggestions to create that great family home. This week, I’ll turn to a top ten on getting the thing built.

Let’s assume the design is completed, you are excited, you are told it reasonably complies with Council controls and you can imagine yourself living there. Where do you go from here?

1. Pay for decent drawings, a good model, a well considered and presented landscape plan coloured as green as possible and a photo montage showing before and after. Ignorance is your greatest weapon. Neighbours and Councillors cannot read plans and do not understand scale but they all love a good model and can nearly understand that. Always build into your plans a secret concession that you can live with. On many occasions you might need to play that card to get an approval. Most objectors don’t want to stop you all together, they just want to extract a concession.

2. Show your neighbours and those affected, what you are doing prior to lodgement. The time taken and public relations value is priceless. Do not assume for one second you can put anything over your neighbours. They will be just as intelligent, just as well advised as you are and quite capable of making your life a misery if they wish. Let them and council know you want to bring up your family in this house and you are not a property developer trying to make a quick buck out of this project. Pregnant wives and babies add greatly to the story!

3 Do not assume you can break the planning rules, it’s just like the speed camera in McPherson St, you may not like it but there’s not a lot you can do about it. There are three critical rules in Mosman – overall height, wall height and maximum floor space ratio. They are basically there to be obeyed, those who think they can exceed them are foolhardy and if they succeed are very lucky. Note Rule 2, your neighbours will know these rules as well, if not better than you.

4. On the night of the Council meeting, you must attend. Do not leave it to your architect (or heaven forbid your lawyer). Show your face and defend your rights. If presented with a compromise solution that will give you an approval on the night, take it. Do not lose your approval that night to a further site inspection or another report, take the best that is offered, get the piece of paper approving it and then you can go back and argue any condition or detail you do not like at a second attempt. I have seen too many tragic nights when people have the approval offered to them and then lose it before they realise it, through sheer stubbornness on the height of a fence or the placement of one window.

5. Once approved, your issues have only just begun. You must get a thorough and decent set of documents prepared by your architect and engineer. This will take time and inevitably cost a lot of money. Here is where the greatest mistakes are made. It is hard to pay for ideas and drawings, much easier to pay for physical building that you can see and touch. A very good set of documents inevitably leads to a good building experience and the reverse is certainly true. A lousy set of documents is absolutely certain to lead to lousy construction. Do not skimp on attention to ground conditions, footings, retaining walls and drainage issues, so many mistakes are made here. You can always fix poor tiling and repaint walls, but you cannot readily fix leaking basements, inadequate footings and poorly framed rooves.

6. Good clients get good buildings. It sounds trite, but if you select your builder carefully, and then having chosen the right one , give him a fair go , treat him with respect and actually go about enjoying the process with him, it can be fantastic experience. It will cost more than you hope, it will take longer than you‘d hoped, but in most cases if you get it right, the reality will be far better than you imagined.

7. Good and honest builders do exist, in fact there are many. The trouble is they have more work than they can jump over. It is extremely difficult to build a luxury house on a difficult site with poor access, with a mass of conflicting materials, to an impossible deadline using thirty different sub-trades, all with their own agendas and all for a very small margin. The risk reward ratio is crazy. It’s a wonder anyone bothers to do it. So my advice (you know I am biased because I am a builder as well as an architect ) is, give the poor bloke a bit of room to move, to make the odd mistake , pay his progress claims promptly, work closely with him at site meetings and he will mostly reward you with real commitment and pride in his job. Sure there are many bad examples out there, so carefully select the right guy in the beginning, based on personal recommendations, not lowest price.

8. The contract. Too many clients do not understand or respect the contract. You must put a great deal of time and care into preparing a thorough contract that is fair to both sides and does have provisions in it for retention sums and defects period and a damages clause. Then, having executed it, put it in the drawer, lock the drawer and don’t pull it out again. The day people start referring to contractual clauses is the day things spiral into trouble. One phone call to a lawyer from either party is the beginning of the end.

9. Fixed lump sum or cost plus contract? The great debate waxes and wanes as the balance of power shifts between builder and owner. No room here for a long debate. Suffice to say a poorly prepared cost plus contract, unsupported by proper bills of quantities and documentation, is a recipe for disaster. You may as well just give the builder your cheque book! However a well prepared one, supported by excellent documents, with an owner and builder who respect each other and look forward to working together, can be the best way to build.

10. Too many clients are too nice to their builder at the start of the project and too nasty at the end! Be strong and fair and consistent from the beginning and don’t build up false expectations. Demand proper reporting, properly attended and reported site meetings and timely financial reconciliation. In fact help the builder do it, because he won’t be as good as you at doing it ( that’s why he is a builder and not at MacQuarie bank) and prepare your own spreadsheet for him to use and report on.

Good luck! If it was easy everyone would be doing it and we’d have nothing to talk about at Mosman dinner parties. Next week it’s back to Robert and “ The Governor of Moolah “

Peter Tout
Chairman Castlepeake Group
Architects Interiors Landscapes Construction Sustainability

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