Changing Plans During Construction 📐👀

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


The master bedroom side of the house, with garage
The master bedroom side of the house, with garage

There’s a famous quote about war from a German field marshal that says. “No battle plans survive contact with the enemy.” The American philosopher Mike Tyson improved on this sentiment when he said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

I think you get the point. Plans are helpful and necessary but don’t always reflect reality. This can certainly be the case with building a house. Plans printed on a sheet of paper are a representation of the real world that doesn’t always account for being there, walking around and seeing it with your own eyes.

Over the last few weeks, the house and property have started to take shape in fundamental ways. We now have a subfloor on about half of the footprint. Walls and ceiling structures are being put into place and the property continues to be molded by an excavator.

As the house is becoming more real, we’re learning to react to what we see. Our goal is to find opportunities to make improvements now, before nails are driven and change becomes more expensive and difficult.

A simple example is the interior doors. On our plans, the standard door was 2’8” wide and that seemed fine in the plans. Once the subfloor went down, the framers put chalk lines on the floor that allowed us to see, before anything was built, the size of doorways and rooms. One of the framers mentioned that the doorways might be nice if they were 3’ wide instead. He said it would make it more accessible and easier to move appliances in and out. We checked with John, the architect, and he agreed that the change was a good one. Within two days, the doorways were built with openings for 3’ doors and we were thankful. We changed it just in time.

What we want most is to avoid regret. We don’t want to look back and think, “We had an opportunity to make this better, but missed it.” Now that the house is developing by the day, there’s constant pressure to account for opportunities and make decisions quickly. As the owners, it’s our job to think ahead about what we want.

Another simple example involves lighting. We will soon have an “L” shaped concrete retaining wall for our driveway. Between the wall and the house, there will be a walkway that needs to be lit and we didn’t previously plan for how it would work.

A perfect place for recessed lighting
A perfect place for recessed lighting

Knowing that it’s difficult to install lighting on finished concrete, we asked Drew, the builder, if we could embed lights in the concrete when it’s poured, so they’d be recessed and look finished. He said yes, but we had to get the lights quickly so they’d be able to position them. We ordered the lights just in time and avoided the hassle and expense of trying to do it later.

One of the most surprising parts of the project has been how the property around the house has changed. When The Yurt was there, the area around it was a continual slope toward the water. This was especially true on the south side. Now, after weeks of excavation, it’s close to level, from back to front. Seeing this develop, an idea started to percolate that has become the biggest change yet. 

In our original plans, the deck that faces the water stretches across the whole house and has an upper and lower level. On the left side, the deck is 15’ above the ground. As you walk to the right, the ground, or “grade”, comes right up to the level of the deck so that you can step off the deck without stairs or railings. In this scenario, railings are necessary.

stairs or railings

If Sachi had her way, there would be no railings. She wants the house to be safe, but she also will take any opportunity to banish railings from the deck experience. It’s her personal battle against anything that interferes with the view.

As the excavator leveled the grade around the house, the plans stopped reflecting reality. The grade in front of the deck was much higher than we expected and it looked like much more of the deck could be at ground level if we moved more fill dirt in front of it. For a while, we thought we could at least remove some of the railings and integrate the lower deck with the grade. 

ailings and integrate the lower deck

Then, we started to think bigger. The fire bowl area on the lower deck is an important part of the design and it looked like it was destined to have railing in front of it and stairs that took up valuable space.

The big idea was this: What if we could bring in enough fill dirt to make one whole side of the deck, including the area in front of the sitting area, sit right on the ground? This meant no stairs or rails on one whole side of the house.

I talked it over with our architect, the builder and the excavator and we decided it was possible. The excavator said he could bring in a bunch of big rocks that could be placed downhill, in front of the fire bowl area, and bring the grade up all the way around the front of the sitting area. This way, we could remove the railings from the view, have safe space for entertaining and Sachi could rejoice. 

bunch of big rocks

Within days, the big rocks arrived, dirt from other parts of the property was moved and the plan for that side of the deck was transformed. The rock work cost a little extra, but we saved on having significantly fewer railings. More than that, we avoided expensive revisions in the future.

Here’s what it looks like today. You can see the footings for the posts that will support the deck. There’s also a rake in the photo that provides a sense of scale.

Large rocks form a retaining wall
Large rocks form a retaining wall

I’ve never felt more thankful to live near the construction site. We are there daily and always on a search for decisions we can make now that will save time and effort later. I can’t imagine living far away while a house is being constructed, but it happens all the time. People live in Seattle or Arizona or LA and visit their home projects occasionally as the construction is happening.

For now, the search continues and our battle to discover new ways to improve the design wages on. And we’re not alone. We’re fortunate to have Drew, the builder, and his subcontractors looking out for us and constantly making suggestions.

This period, when plans are becoming real, is when the magic has to happen. The house can be improved and money can be saved in a short window of time, just before the house becomes the real thing, a permanent structure that’s more difficult to change.

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