The Design/Build Remodel Process

by Dan Derkum


Welcome to your remodel! The job of every great design/build contractor is to help their customers understand, appreciate, and be comfortable with the remodeling and construction processes. Your design/build contractor should be knowledgeable and completely at ease in coordinating the intricacies of your project with the Architect, Engineers, Home Owner Associations, City Planning Department, and the Building Department. There is no better or experienced person to manage and coordinate the entire design and building processes for you than an experienced design/build Contractor. How does the design/build process work and what should you expect? Glad you asked! Here’s how successful design/build Contractors do it:


Phase I – The First Meeting

1 ) Phase I – The design/build Contractor visits your home to meet with you and discuss what it is you would like to achieve in your remodel. This allows the Contractor an opportunity to view the property and take some general notes on its present condition, current floor plan, the neighborhood, and any ideas you might have regarding your remodel. It also allows you to ask all the questions you like about the process. During this meeting, the Contractor will discuss the most important part of the process . . . Design. Design has 3 parts. The first two are as follows:

a. Part I represents the Design Elements and this has 2 parts. Part A is a very detailed list of questions that will be asked concerning your project. This allows your design/build Contractor to determine what you’re looking for, how you would like your remodel developed and built, and the products you would like to see in your remodel. Before starting the next critical step (Part B), you will be provided with the cost to begin and develop the written Design Elements. After receiving your approval and payment, Part A is completed.

b. Part B is your personal written Design Elements. This unique document represents in bullet point fashion the details of what it is you would like to achieve in your remodel. Consider Design Elements a “wish list”. They’re incredibly powerful and extremely useful. Prior to anyone performing drawings, Design Elements allow you to clarify and focus on the entire scope of the project by area. Design Elements list by level (floor) each room and area that will be worked and what will be performed in these areas. Design Elements also typically include suggested products, manufacturers, and other important items you should consider. After reviewing and making any changes, we move on to part II.

c. Part II occurs after you have had an opportunity to review and finalize your written Design Elements. In this next phase of the journey, you will meet with the Contractor and his Architect together at the project location. The Architect will ask additional questions to better understand what style, character, functionality, and personality you want your home improvement to reflect. He will also likely take some preliminary pictures and measurements. When the meeting is over, the Contractor and the Architect meet over the next several days to develop a game plan on how best to produce a set of schematic drawings, as builts (drawings of the existing floor plan), and elevations. With this information, the Design Elements will be further refined and the cost for architectural drawings will be added. Architectural drawings are the detailed “blue prints” (pictures) with dimensions (illustrates size in feet and inches) of your build out/remodel design. The Contractor will then contact you to discuss the cost for these drawings and the time frame to produce them. After the Contractor receives your approval to produce these drawings, he reconvenes with you to obtain a signature and first payment of the fees authorizing him to legally commence work on your drawings.


Phase II – Drawings (AKA – Plans and Specifications)

2) Phase II – This represents part 3 of design. The Contractor and the architect really get busy. If you have never seen a full set of professional architectural drawings, you’re in for a delightful educational experience. They are very involved, detailed, and have lots of numbers, pictures, and symbols on them. There are generally between 3 to 4 sets for you to review. With each review, more and more illustrations and information are added. The benefit of performing various progress sets is that it allows you to see and review the project from basic to complete. It’s much easier for you to make changes and see the additions with each of these sets as you understand the progression from earlier sets. It’s a bottom-up/building block process . . . and it works extremely well.


Why perform drawings? Simple; there is no better method for you to see and experience your project than on paper first. This is where you make changes (perhaps, for your lifestyle, you need electrical receptacles placed differently, switches in different locations, heights changed to accommodate your physical characteristics, etc.). Most importantly, the design and look you thought you were in love with suddenly is not at all what you had in mind - now that you see it on paper! Imagine what would happen if the project was built and you made this discovery! Now you’re stuck. There is absolutely no better or cheaper way to make changes than on paper! Drawings are also almost always required by the City in large format (minimum 24” x 36”).

Careful!. . . There is a very alarming and disturbing trend that has developed regarding drawings. This trend is to use computer programs that generate 3 dimensional (3D) beautiful color drawings or “renderings”. How can this possibly be bad you say? Very simple – these 3D drawings almost never represent what your project will actually look like or how it will function. Why? Because these 3D drawings are designed as marketing and sales tools to get you excited and entice you into making an immediate decision to sign a contract for work. They have very few details (if any), actual or sufficient measurements taken from your home, and typically do not incorporate State and local building code requirements specific to your project. Perhaps, worst of all, 3D drawings do not and can’t possibly represent what’s important to you as detailed written Design Elements were never performed. Quite simply, the idea is to quickly produce a beautiful picture of instant gratification, get you to sign a contract, and then use the Change Order process to “jack-up” the price later on (usually after your house is demolished).


There are no shortcuts in life – this includes the design of your project. I’ve always said “anything carefully planned, properly executed, will be a success”. As my own Dad says, “haste makes waste!” Think about it. Was there ever a time in your life where these two proverbs were not proven absolutely correct.


Phase III – Homes Associations (If you have one)

3) Phase III – You may need to obtain Homeowners Association (HOA) approval before going further to ensure any outside work conforms to the architectural guidelines established by the HOA. Your Contractor will develop the design portion of the association submittal package for you. You will need to obtain and complete all of the necessary HOA forms and pay any required fees and expenses they might have.


Phase IV – Structural Engineering

4) Phase IV – Structural Engineering (SE) as required. Some projects require that a Structural Engineer provide drawings and calculations. This person performs all the necessary drawings and calculations to determine what type, size, and strength is required for lumber, hardware (nuts, bolts, nails, straps, hangers, plates, etc.), anchoring systems, steel, concrete, shear, load, etc. Basically, the SE using current building codes is making sure the house has a good chance of surviving earthquakes, wind shear, and load to certain levels and degrees. The amount and type of materials the SE specifies for your safety has a measurable impact on the cost of the project. As you can see, the SE can’t perform his work until the Architect completes the drawings. This is a major reason why estimates to perform any remodel are almost meaningless until after the drawings and Structural Engineering are completed. Some projects may also require additional engineering such as, but not limited to, geological or soils engineering and/or post tension concrete engineering. Before any engineering is authorized or performed, you should always be provided with an estimate for the engineering work.


Phase V – Title 24 (Energy Engineer Calculations)

5) Phase V – Title 24. In California, most projects require a review by a Title 24 Engineer. This person ensures the project conforms to California Energy Codes and Regulations. Here too, you should always be provided with an estimate for the Title 24 before it is authorized or performed.


Phase VI – Municipal Approvals

6) Phase VI – Municipal approvals. During this process, the various municipal entities may require adjustments to the project. These are non-negotiable and will be incorporated into the already approved drawings by you. Moreover, prior to submission, you will be provided with a fee estimate for the Planning Department and Building Department review processes. This estimate may include Building Department Permit fees. At this time, however; you should only pay the plan check fees for the Planning and Building Department’s reviews. The Building Permit fees to include, but not limited to, school districts, coastal districts, fire, utilities, etc. are paid only when the actual Building Permit is issued. Remember this . . . it could save you a lot of money.


DO NOT let someone talk you into the notion that you can save money by getting your own building permits as an “owner/builder”. Neither home owners nor Contractors get special pricing or volume breaks on building and permit fees. Everyone pays the same. If anyone suggests this to you, show them the door really fast! Here’s why: Whoever “pulls” or pays for the permits is the responsible party. It does not matter if the Contractor you hired has all the insurances in the world. If you pay for the permits as an “owner/builder”, you’re responsible. This is a classic scam where the Contractor gets you to absorb all of the liability and responsibility. Why would you hire a Contractor if you assume and are responsible for all of the risk – That’s crazy!

If the person you hire is not willing to accept full responsibility for his or her actions, work, and for the job itself, don’t hire them!


Phase VII – The Estimate

7) Phase VII – After the City and any other municipal agencies have approved the drawings, now the plans and specifications are complete (architectural, engineering, Title 24, HOA, and municipal approvals), the Contractor develops a proposal or estimate to perform the work. Why now and not before submitting to the municipal agencies? When your plans and specifications are submitted, for example, to the Building Department, they perform a plan check. Here, they act as a 2nd set of eyes to make sure nothing was missed and everything is according to all building and energy codes and requirements. They double check to make sure you and your family will be safe in your new project (framing, electrical, plumbing, etc. is being planed and built correctly).


There are almost always changes that the City or other municipal agencies will require to your drawings (perhaps for your particular neighborhood, they’re aware of circumstances that are better suited for your project and would feel better if your drawings represented these items for your safety and security). The Contractor, Architect, and Engineers then make these changes and re-submit them for another review. These changes usually impact the cost of the project (up, down, or neutral). That’s why it’s always best to go through the approval process prior to the Contractor providing an itemized estimate. If you did this in reverse order, the Contractor would likely need to re-estimate the job all over again! That’s a lot of unnecessary extra time and money. It’s during the itemized estimating process where you make any necessary adjustments to more closely align the project with your budget as everything is now known and approved.


Phase VIII – Scheduling and Performing the Project

8) Phase VIII – After you approve the estimate to perform the work, the Contractor schedules your home improvement. This schedule should always illustrate the start and completion dates, when each phase of the project will be performed and by whom, and how long each phase will take. It should also illustrate all holidays, building inspections, and any other important information your Contractor believes you should know.


Very Important – The day your job physically starts, your Contractor should have on site the following items: City approved Plans & Specifications (Plans), a working copy of your Plans, HOA Approval documents, City Building Permit card (usually white or yellow in color), EPA required documents and forms, a copy of your Home Improvement Contract, a copy of your home improvement specifications, all insurance certificates and licenses, and performance lists. The really good and organized Contractors have a book they keep on the job site (Job Site Control Book) where all this information is maintained.


These documents are critical to the successful performance and completion of the job. Moreover, every City I know of maintains full time Code Enforcement Officers. Their only job is to locate people who are performing contrary to established laws. They drive around during the day looking for people who are “boot-legging” (building, renovating, and remodeling without plans and permits; using unlicensed and uninsured people to work on your home). If you and/or the person you hired is caught breaking the law, the fines and penalties (and potential jail time) could easily exceed the entire cost of your project! Let’s face it, the thought of spending time in jail and now having a criminal record simply to remodel, say, a bathroom is crazy to save a few dollars!!! Do it right and do it legal.


Be on alert for anyone who claims they can give you a "firm" price or be “within 10% - 20%” of their initial estimates prior to performing the entire process presented within this document; including receiving approval from the Building Department. Contractors (or anyone else for that matter) who do not follow the process outlined within this document are most likely displaying inappropriate and unethical behavior; they are not being honest with you and will submit expensive change orders after the project has started. Don’t be fooled and mislead by marketing and sales gimmicks.


As you can see, the entire process from start to finish is not a secret. The process is not subject to short-cuts. After more than 28 years, I’ve seen it all. I know what works and what will be a failure. The processes outlined within this document work. There is no bigger advocate for your remodel’s success then your trusted and experienced design/build Contractor. Their success is your success!


Again, it’s important that you understand and are comfortable with the process. With a competent, experienced, ethical, honest, and dedicated design/build construction team, the remodel process will be more of an enjoyable adventure than a challenge.


If you have any questions about the Design/Build Remodel Process, please call me, Dan Derkum, at (949) 380-0177 or e-mail me by filling out our quick contact form

About the Author
Daniel A. Derkum is the owner of DAD's Construction, a leading South Orange County, California design-and-build remodeling and renovation contractor.

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