Changing Course in House Planning ➡️

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.


After a year of planning and dreaming, it was clear that something had to change. We couldn’t afford to build the house we designed. The estimate was just too high and it still had holes that represented additional expenses we would eventually encounter.

Along with all the practical roadblocks, I was feeling emotional ones. We’d worked so carefully to not only complete the design, but to line everything up to support the project. Drew was holding a spot for us on his schedule. The guest house was ready. The plans were complete. If we dilly-dallied too much, we’d miss those opportunities and be taking a significant step backward. This put pressure on us both to make it work. 

Initially, we looked at possible options, including a construction loan, and considered delaying the whole project for a year or two. A delay seemed to open up more risk in the form of increasing construction costs, changing interest rates, lost opportunities, etc.

What we didn’t discuss was changing the design in significant ways. Like the project itself, the plans were not just a plan, but a combination of smaller, independent plans, all wrapped up into an overarching one. Those included a stormwater plan, a geology report, and structural engineering. Changes to the house plans would create an expensive ripple effect impacting all the smaller ones. And more extensive changes meant bigger ripples. 

After the meeting where the number was revealed, John, the architect, immediately got to work on identifying ways to bring down costs. He found he could remove steel from the deck and worked with the engineers to simplify structures. His goal at the time was to maintain the current design and footprint of the house. It was encouraging to see progress, but the scale of these changes seemed too small to us. They would likely save money, but for the project to be affordable, we needed to think much bigger.

For a couple of days, I had been mulling an idea. We had designed a house that was unique and relatively expensive. Simpler houses on the island were being built for much less per square foot. Could we be happy with a house that is more like those? While I knew it wasn’t practical to start over, I started to consider large, fundamental changes. Rather than tinkering in the margins, what if we looked at changing big chunks of the design?

Initially, Sachi pushed back. She felt it was tantamount to giving up on the dream. From her perspective, we’d done everything we could to make this our forever house and we just needed to push harder to make it work. We couldn’t trade a year of thoughtful design for something inferior.

I expected this reaction. Sachi is one of toughest people I know when it comes to getting things done. She has a deep well of confidence and ambition. If something is in her way, she will apply everything she has to overcome it through sheer force of will. For her, the number was a barrier, but one that could fall with an acceptance of risk, sacrifice and hard work.

With her so convinced, I knew compromise wasn’t going to be easy. But I kept pushing. I assured her that I didn’t want to design a new house. In fact, there were parts of the house that absolutely could not change, like the unobstructed view of the water. I told her that I just wanted to think much bigger in terms of the scale of the changes.

In what I think was a turning point, I asked her to imagine going to John with a challenge. Instead of focusing on relatively small “value engineering” changes, what if we told him we needed to reduce overall costs by 25%? How would that work?

Before long, we were in agreement and started to think through the implications. We’d have to be prepared for the house to be a bit smaller and simpler. The changes would require us to pay for new rounds of design and engineering. We’d need to go through a building permit revision and push out the start date for the construction. It would be added cost, but in relation to the expected savings, it made sense and seemed like the responsible direction.

So that’s what we did. We met with John and told him we were prepared for major changes to the design and that we wanted to reduce costs by 25% or more. We told him that the view was the priority, but everything else could change. Further, the design changes had to happen quickly, as we might miss our window for construction this year. John accepted the challenge.

This was a turning point in the project. We were, to some degree, starting over. Within days, John arrived at our house with the familiar rolls of plans under his arm and more ideas to discuss. What I love about this process is that John doesn’t just show up with ideas that fit with our requirements. He gets excited and says, “OK, now look at this, it’s going to be SO COOL.” When he’s excited, we’re excited. 

In this new phase of the project, however, the excitement was different. Previously, we were excited about the overall design and how awesome it was becoming. Now the excitement was about how much money we could save while also having a design we loved. That was the true power of having the estimate in hand. It contained line items for concrete, steel, deck material, ceiling material, flooring, labor, etc. We could look at it and say, “Let’s take out as much concrete as possible” or “Let’s simplify the deck” knowing it would save money.

Before long, we had recovered from the shock of the estimate and felt that we were doing everything possible to make it work. We were delaying expensive line items like solar panels and landscaping, choosing more affordable options for heating and air and using wood instead of steel. Even with all these changes, we’d still need a construction loan, but hopefully a smaller one.

What we didn’t have was extra time. In the northwest, the weather is dry through the summer. Then, winter storms arrive in late October and bring near constant rain and bouts of windstorms that last for months. Every builder tries to start new projects early enough to get a roof on the building before the rain arrives. For our project, that window of time was closing with each day that passed and we all felt the pressure. The house needed to be ready for rain.

We were faced with a now familiar feeling. To get the project started in time, the new puzzle pieces had to line up just right and now, as quickly as possible.


Ready for Rain is  a newsletter that's personal

On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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