The Reveal of the House Estimate

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.

I couldn’t sit still. I paced around the Yurt as my mind raced. We had anticipated this moment for over a year and it was finally happening. Drew, the builder, was about to arrive with his estimate for what the new house might cost. This was the number, the one piece of data that had the potential to change our direction. It could help us kick off the project in a matter of weeks, or be a setback with the potential to ruin our plans. 

In preparing for this moment, we had completed a few basic calculations in our heads. Often, construction estimates come down to cost per square foot, and are highly dependent on location. The conventional wisdom is that it can cost up to 20% more to build on the island, in part, because of transportation costs.

Based on the square footage in our plans, we had a number in our heads. Our architect, John, also had a number that was higher than ours, but not by much.

We met at 1pm on a Tuesday and I could feel the pressure build as the meeting got closer. In the best case scenario, we could build the new house with the funds from selling our house in Seattle. It would be like trading one for the other.

Drew arrived and immediately got down to business. He handed out copies of his estimate in the form of a multi-page document full of line item details for nearly every part of the project. In the weeks leading up to this moment, Drew had shared the building plans with his sub-contractors and their estimates were now rolled up into his overall document. There were specific numbers for framing, electrical, fireplace, labor and everything else.

As soon as the document slid into my view, I hesitated. I wondered to myself if it would be rude to immediately turn to the final page and view the bottom line. In my mind, everything else was details. I asked, “Is it OK if we go ahead and take a look at the bottom line?” Drew said, “Sure…” and I pulled back the final page. There at the bottom was the number we had anticipated for over a year. And I couldn’t believe my eyes. I tried to play it cool and laid the closed document on the table and picked it up again, like some kind of analog reboot. Surely, I had looked at the wrong page. Maybe I missed a decimal place. I looked again. Nope, the same number was there and it was orders of magnitude more than we expected.

As I tried to stay composed, my heart raced and sank at the same time. It felt like the dream was suddenly dead and I was looking at the culprit on the page in front of me. Any thoughts of trading homes were squashed and we were now in “is this even possible?” territory.

I looked over to Sachi who appeared calm and collected, as always. In her mind, the number was bigger than expected, but made of individual parts that all had their own numbers. Her first reaction was to study the estimate, line-by-line and try to figure out what caused the number to be so high.

Leading up to the meeting, we had brainstormed questions for Drew and I had them on my phone. After taking a cursory look at the estimate, Sachi prompted me to go through the questions and my immediate reaction was to look at the questions and think to myself, “It’s all moot. None of these questions matter anymore. This is a waste of time.” In my mind, that list of questions about the project might as well have been a lunch order. Until we addressed the bottom line staring us all in the face, nothing else mattered.

For the first time, we were confronted with the reality that we’d spent over a year planning a project that we might never see happen. None of us expected to see such a big number, including Drew, and we all felt the shock. It was heartbreaking.

Eventually, I asked the obvious question: “If you were in our shoes, what would you change to bring down costs?” Drew was prepared for this question and had a list of the most costly parts of the design. As a group, we went through his list and documented a handful of other items that could be changed or delayed. For example, solar panels could wait. We could use a heat pump instead of expensive in-floor hydronic heating.

A big part of the cost was in the design. We had designed the best house we could imagine and those choices, from a high level, were more expensive than we understood. These were things integrated into every part of the house, like insulation, concrete, and steel. Reducing them wasn’t as easy as choosing a different building material. Making the house more affordable could mean rethinking and possibly reducing the entire design.

For example, we imagined having a roof that hung over the deck without obstructing the view. To make this work, the roof overhang was designed to be a cantilever that didn’t need supporting posts. On paper, it was obviously the best way to design the west side of the house.

Unfortunately, we were dealing with more than just the roof design. The location of the house, the one thing that could not change, meant that our engineers had to account for weather and specifically, wind. The structure needed to withstand 125 knot (144 mph) winds. That nice cantilevered roof overhang, in the right conditions, could become a sail and rip the roof off the house. Keeping it in place required steel beams in the roof and other supports that raised that overall number.

cantilevered roof overhang

After an hour of discussion, I could feel the tension. We had come so close to making it all happen. We had a property, a builder, a place to stay during construction, a full set of plans and a building permit. And with the number now in place, it was up to us. Was the project going to happen or not? We agreed to take some time to decide our next move. As Drew left the Yurt, I could tell he wasn’t betting on us moving forward. 

John’s ferry to the mainland didn’t leave for a couple of hours and we had time to talk through the options. He made a list of items to discuss with the engineers who made decisions about the house’s structure. He said he had ideas for what he called “value engineering”, which means engineering with a priority on lowering costs. This was a new term to me and I wondered why there is any other kind.

Throughout these discussions, I was still reeling and feeling exhausted. I wanted to go into the bedroom, get under the covers and hide. As Sachi drove John to the ferry terminal and I had some time alone to run through what we could do. Selling our house in Seattle wouldn’t be enough and we had to adapt to the idea that might include serious debt.

I knew that Sachi would have a positive spin on the situation. Unlike me, she is not easily discouraged. Upon her return, I saw someone who was full of ideas for how to proceed. In her view, this was simply a challenge to overcome. We’d have to make sacrifices, take risks, work harder and devote more time, but the dream was still in reach. Her confidence inspired me and I needed it.

As I tossed and turned in bed that night, I thought about all the times we’d taken risks in the past. We always seemed to plan projects just beyond the edge of comfort and usually found ways to make them work. It felt like we couldn’t let the number stand in our way.

I imagined looking back from ten years in the future and wondering how I’d feel about the risks and potential of today. Would we regret the sacrifices and costs it would require to build the house we designed? Or, would we regret making changes to the design to make it more affordable? There were no easy answers, but one thing seemed clear: having come so far and there had to be a way to make it work.


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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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