Doug Hanna: Don’t Skimp on Design

February 25, 2014

The residential construction industry is on the rise, which is great news. But lately we’ve noticed a trend of owners trying to build or renovate without good, solid design plans. This is not anything new, but it seems to be more prevalent these days. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the recession, or, as one architect recently said to me, “the commoditizing of our industry.” I’m not quite sure the reason, but what I do know is that undertaking a homebuilding or remodeling project without a complete set of architectural plans is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

The design of this condo pays homage to the uniqueness of the
original house designed by artist W. Whitney Lewis. All photos
courtesy of S+H Construction

Think about it. Would you take a trip through a mysterious and confusing country without a map, a guide, or a GPS? Well, homebuilding and renovation can be mysterious and confusing as well, not only to the homeowner, but to the builder who is trying to navigate his or her way through a project without a well-defined set of plans and specs.

One of the primary objectives of this contemporary home was to
incorporate energy-efficient systems into the design. The extensive use of windows
allows for a marriage between the interior of the home and the outdoors.

I didn’t always think this way. In fact, when my partner Alex Slive and I first started in this business, we’d pride ourselves on being able to build off the back of a napkin. As my former father-in-law used to say, “when you’re young, you’re stupid!” But whether it was these blunt words of wisdom—or, most likely, the first-hand experience of trying to build without a solid set of plans—we at S+H are now complete converts to the “religion of design.”

This modern home offers a striking, functional living area. Equipping
the space with a pleasant fireplace brings a cozy feeling to the modern, airy design.

If you are going to build new or remodel and are looking for accurate, competitive estimates that are “apples to apples,” it is critical to invest in good, thorough construction documents. These documents give real definition to the project and help you understand what you expect will be built and what the finished product will look like.

This kitchen is designed to take advantage of the
natural light, with large windows throughout.

Of course there are other factors to be considered when hiring a design professional. You need to be comfortable with the design sense of your architect, have a good feeling that you will be able to develop a positive working relationship, and decide on the involvement of the design team throughout the course of the job. There is also cost, of course, but cost should be one of the last considerations (did I mention yet that this is not a good place to save money)?

Make no mistake: this requires work on your end. You should interview a few architects and designers the same way you would interview builders. It is time-consuming and it requires patience and thought, but it pays off many times over in the long run. Design is not simply another line item in your construction budget. It’s the headlight illuminating the way. You turn it off or dim it down at your own peril.

—Doug Hanna

Doug Hanna is president of S+H Construction, a multi-award-winning firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that specializes in custom homebuilding, residential renovations, historical restorations, renewable energy, site work, and landscaping solutions.

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