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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 4/16/2007
The intent of this chapter of the book is to think through the house in sufficient detail to get accurate bids from subcontractors and avoid rework and change orders. Rework costs money, potentially a significant amount. Change orders are a potentially significant source of frustration for everyone involved. Trades don’t like them, who likes to do work multiple times because expectations were not clear (think about your professional career, how do you like it?), so trades will charge a frustration factor into change-order prices. You don’t like them, because the increase in cost is something that you have not budgeted for. And this is a potential significant cost increase, one that can be avoided through your 1,000+ hours of planning that Mark espouses in his book.
Now looking at your spreadsheet of expectations; I notice that many of the items are things that should be included on your plans. However, many significant details that normally wouldn’t be included on your plans and need to be in your story of a room are missing.
To illustrate the level of detail necessary, let me pick a seemingly simple room you haven’t completed your spreadsheet for. I will pick a full bathroom, not master bathroom; typical level of finish with a bathtub, toilet, and sink. A relatively small room we have all seen hundreds of times, if not more. These only encompass roughly 50 square feet, how hard can it be after all?
Starting with your bathtub, do you have a left-hand tub or a right-hand tub? Now this will actually be shown on your plans, but do you want a cast-iron tub, a fiberglass tub, or a steel tub? You need to know this because while fiberglass tubs are all built to a standard dimension, and cast-iron tubs are all built to a standard dimension, they are not the same dimension, as fiberglass tubs are wider than cast-iron tubs. Why does this matter? It affects your drain plumbing. If you are building this in a basement or slab-on-grade, this plumbing is put in before the concrete gets there, and changing this plumbing later requires a jackhammer (read lots of time and frustration for the plumber plus tool rental equates to a big unbudgeted bill for you). If this is installed on an above-grade framed floor, your framer needs to know because you do not want a floor joist directly where your drain belongs. And if you are using an engineered floor system (TJI or open-web joists), your engineer needs to know as well, as they need to know where they cannot put a floor support because a drain is needed. Engineers take a dim view of field modification of their engineered system, and if a plumber hacks a floor joist or engineered system to get his drain where you want it, it won’t pass your framing inspection. And what does this mean for you? Rework and additional cost that could have been easily avoided simply by knowing where that drain has to be, accurately.
OK now, we have a tub. Is this tub going to be mostly shower use, or do you intend to use it for baths as well? I ask this because on a standard 60” rough-in dimension for a full bathroom, if it gets significant use as a bath, I like to have the bath roughed-in at 61” so that the sheetrock can extend all the way to the floor surrounding the tub (normal sheetrock installation is to a lip at the top of the tub), this allows for insulation and the additional sheetrock really helps hold heat in the tub, which is nice for whoever is bathing. However if this is just a guest bath not intended for frequent use, I would forgo this minor detail (which isn’t standard, so your sheetrockers better know what you intend as well, as this moves you drains a bit so your plumber needs to know, too).
For your tub, what do you intend to use as a surround? If this is a fiberglass tub, is it a one-piece insert? If so, this answered your question. Do you intend to tile your surround? You need to know this, because your plumber needs to mount the shower valve so it will be flush with the finished wall. Tiled wall has different thickness depending on your tile selection, and fiberglass is different yet. Now if your plumber is using PEX, remounting this is not too much trouble, but if it is all soldered together (copper) then it takes more work. Your plumber will charge less if he only has to install it once. This is also the time to think about the height of the showerhead. Are you extremely tall, does it really bug you to stoop to wash your hair? For a child’s bathroom, maybe this isn’t a problem, but this is one of my pet peeves when I go to hotels - having to stoop down to get my head under the shower. You get one chance to do it right the first time; raising it later costs extra and it is avoidable cost.
However your sheetrocker also needs to know some details here, as well. Is this a guest bath for intermittent use, if so perhaps greenboard (marine-grade sheetrock) is adequate? For daily use, you may want to upgrade to tile backer board such as Hardie tile backer. You better specify this. And of course your tile layer needs to know; again if this bath is for intermittent use, perhaps mastic is good enough, for daily use I would want a thinset tile install. However if your tile layer likes to use the Schluter Kerdi system, then this really should be installed over sheetrock, and tile backer is an unnecessary expense for your sheetrocker. For more information here, just put any of these terms into the search tool at johnbridge.com and learn more. Your tile layer will also be interested in if this is primarily a bathtub, or primarily a shower, as they will install the soap dishes at different heights depending on primary use.
And lastly for a bathtub, I always like to assume that the bathroom will be later upgraded for handicap accessibility, and it is better to install backing for such things as grab bars now than try to tear out finished tile walls later – your framer needs to know this.
OK, all this just for a bathtub, let's move to the toilet. Do you have a specific toilet picked out? I ask because toilets come in three different depths; the center line of the drain in relation to the back wall can be 10”, 12”, or 14” depending on toilet model. Standard is 12”, but again different models come in different depths. Without additional information, your plumber will use a 12” because this gets him the greatest chance of success, as you can almost always find a 12” toilet that fits your aesthetic needs. Again this matters to the framers because you don’t want a floor joist or key piece of your engineered floor system directly where your toilet needs to be. Or maybe you have your heart set on some obscure toilet that comes in a 10” size only; your plumber needs to know. Alternatively, perhaps you want a wall-mount toilet to make it easier to mop the floor, a nice clean look that is much more prevalent in commercial work, but possible in residential work. Your plumber needs to know this, but your framer needs to know as well, because now you are putting a significant moment on that wall it was never intended to take and needs reinforcement to make sure the toilet doesn’t come off the wall while someone is using it (think about the extra weight on the wall, not to mention the torque). Also if your plumber is supplying the toilet, is this available locally or is it special order? My Toto Drakes were on-the-shelf, but my Toto Pacifica was eight-week lead time, your plumber will want to know what your expectations are. The Toto Pacifica is a smooth-apron toilet; these don't mount to the floor the standard way. The plumber will charge extra to mount it, as they take more time. (For the record, I did all of my finish plumbing, and I had the painter, the finish carpenter, the cabinet installer, and basically a handful of other trades at the house that day; all of us had replaced toilets at one time or another, and yet none of us could figure out how to mount that Toto Pacifica. We all looked at it completely dumbfounded. I figured it out eventually and I could mount another one fairly quickly, but it is still not as easy as a standard mount).
Alright, now we have a bathtub, shower, and toilet, let's move to the sink. Are you going to use a pedestal sink? You need to know this, because this affects your plumber. Normally when they run water lines, they run along a wall stud, but with a pedestal sink they like to tuck those lines in much closer to the center line of the sink so they are not visible once the pedestal is installed. This also affects your framer, because pedestal sinks hang from the wall. You need to have reinforcing backing in there to support the sink (the pedestal itself is purely decoration and serves no other purpose). What height is your pedestal sink? The reinforcing needs to be at the appropriate level.
Now to finish plumbing. Do you want the capability to shut your water off at the fixture in case you get a leak? Or do you want to run to the basement to shut off the water supply to the house to replace a leaky faucet? And what if your lifetime warranty faucet needs to go back to the factory for a six-week rebuild (this is why for lifetime-warranty faucets the warranty is useless, but I digress). I like vales at each faucet; your plumber needs to know this. And further if you want valves, do you want the normal righty-tighty, lefty-loosie crank valves, or do you want those trick little quarter-turn specialties? I like the quarter turn valves; I found them to be under $4/each from the big box (one of the few items cheaper at the big box than the plumbing supplier).
If you are going to use a vanity, do you have the room for a standard-size vanity you can purchase off-the-shelf from a big box? Or do you have a custom size that will need to be made by your cabinetmaker? I do not know what standard sizes are available, as I used all custom cabinetry in my house and didn’t worry about such details; further coupled by the fact that I found custom cabinetry was cheaper than off-the-shelf cabinetry, so I didn’t worry about it. However, if you are going custom, at what height do you want your finished vanity? Children’s vanities are normally 30” above finished floor, and adult vanities are anywhere from 32-34” above finished floor. Are you exceptionally tall? Perhaps you want a vanity that is 36” above finished floor? Maybe you are short; either way, I wouldn’t get to far out of the expected range, as someday you will sell your house and you don’t want a noticeable “defect.” Your cabinetmaker isn’t going to care; they just need to know your expectations, as once your cabinet is made, further opportunities for customization have disappeared. I will assume for the sake of simplicity that your cabinetmaker is also providing your sink (mine did not, but could have).
However let's think about some details you might like in your vanity. Some people like to have the top drawer hold their hair dryer and curling iron; among other power tools, women tend to use these more than men. It is a nice clean install if you have power in that drawer, you pull the drawer out, use your styling tool, and when finished you push the drawer back in; very nice detail. However, this little detail automatically eliminates your standard big-box cabinetry and mandates a custom unit (but if you are custom anyway, your cabinetmaker isn’t going to care, as they simply make the top drawer to lesser depth). Now then, a tricky little detail like this requires your electrician to understand your expectations, and your code official is going to want to look closely too. What happens when you leave your curling iron on, push the drawer in, and it builds up heat all day long while you are at work? I’ll tell you what happens, you come home to a burnt house, how much damage is directly related to how quickly one of your nice neighbors noticed your house was on fire. The outlet should not be energized when the drawer is closed, which is why your electrician needs to know about this little detail, and your code official will scrutinize this little detail closely. However, this little detail doesn’t add very much additional cost, as long as everyone knows your expectations up front. Also understand that you can’t plug your rechargeable razor into the drawer, as the outlet is not energized when the drawer is closed, this is a limitation you must understand you get to live with.
We are making progress here. The next question is how are you going to ventilate the bathroom, and which trade provides the vent fan? Again, let's go shopping at the big-box home-improvement store. Notice the base-level Broan bath fan is ~$12; this is what you are going to get. However, notice that you can easily spend a couple hundred dollars if you want more capacity, more quiet, a combination heat/vent fan, or any of the above. Or perhaps you want a remote ventilator to eliminate the noise almost completely. Depending on what region you are in dictates who buys the fan in the first place. I have seen it where the HVAC contractor buys and installs the fan, and the electrician wires it. I have also seen where the electrician buy and installs the fan, and the HVAC tech comes back later to run the ductwork. And speaking of ductwork, where is this nice fan going to vent to? HVAC techs like to take them close to your roof vent and let them vent directly into the attic, although if you have a cold attic without sufficient ventilation, this will lead to icicles forming along your ridge; not a good thing for many reasons. Do you want it vented through the roof, truly the proper venting location? If so, this mandates a hole in your roof, including proper flashings, which means now this simple bathroom has also impacted your roofers. I like to vent out the soffits, although this is less than ideal, any shortcomings can be overcome with powerful vent fans. For the record, I used Panasonic vent fans, sized at least double code requirements, vented through the soffits, and extra ventilation for clearing humidity from bathing is very nice.
Which now brings me to lighting and switches. Do you want your vent fan operated on a timer, so you can leave the fan on after you leave and not worry about leaving it on all day and sucking your nicely heated and/or conditioned air right out of your house all day? This is a nice little detail, and it fits in your standard switch box, but your electrician is unlikely to have one of these little units on their truck. It is an easy retrofit, if you have a neutral in your switch box, but there is more than one way to wire your bathroom and your electrician doesn’t have to install a neutral in your switch box to meet code requirements. Depending on their normal method for wiring, they need to know this minor detail. If this all sounds like a foreign language to you, go ahead and have the electrician put the timer in as part of the finish work.
Keeping this at switches, one of my pet peeves with custom-level housing is varying locations of switches in relation to doors. They will all be at the same height, but I like them all to be at the same location relative to the door. Normally the electrician will put the switch box based on where the framer put a wall stud, but if the framer knows you want your switches a certain distance from your door they can make sure a wall stud is always at that location. This way, it becomes second nature in your house where your switches are, especially nice as you are fumbling around in the dark trying to use the restroom. And for switches, do you want that standard cheapo stuff, or do you like the decorator switches? And maybe you really like the no-exposed-fastener covers; it is cheaper to identify this now than to change your mind later.
Which brings us to lighting. Do you want your lighting on top of your mirror, in the center? Or perhaps you want a smaller, more decorative mirror with wall sconces on both sides? Or perhaps you want something different entirely. The problem is, your electrician needs to know, because these lights all mount to boxes, and the boxes go in before the sheetrock goes up. If you don’t know, your electrician can leave a fairly long length of wire looped through the studs and use what is called an “old work box” and cut them in later. However this is also a tricky little detail, as sheetrockers don’t like to bury non-terminated wiring and will likely pull this wiring out near its termination, leaving it exposed where you don’t want it. If this happens, push it back in the wall before the finishers get there and they will tape and finish it properly without the Romex exposed.
However, we also have a couple of questions relating to your backsplash for your sink. Are you going to tile that backsplash? The reason the electrician needs to know is because they have to mount the boxes so they are flush with the finished wall, and a tile wall is thicker than a sheetrock wall, so this affects mounting depth of the boxes. And perhaps you want a big mirror, and an outlet actually in the mirror (I have this as well). Not a hard detail to do, but now you have to involve your glazer so that they can properly cut the mirror, as well as provide the mirrored cover for your outlet.
And speaking of walls, what are you going to put on them? Are you going to tile the walls? If so, perhaps you don’t need to pay your sheetrocker to make them paper smooth, thereby saving a bit of money. Are you going to paint them? Then you don’t want to use the standard flat paint you typically use throughout the rest of the house and you want to go to a satin paint. Well, satin paint shows more defects in sheetrock, so if you want smooth walls be sure to let your sheetrockers know you want level-five finish, paper smooth, so there will be no finish defects and the satin paint will look really good.
And this takes me to finish floor. What flooring are you intending to use in your bathroom, and what flooring is in the adjacent area leading to it? In a new house, another pet peeve of mine is differing floor depths from different flooring materials. Are you going to tile your bathroom? Well, this is a different depth of flooring than a sheet-vinyl floor would be. If the adjacent floor is carpet, your carpet installers can do this pretty easily. But if your hallway leading to your bathroom is hardwood floor, you want to make sure your flooring material choice in the bathroom ends up at the exact same height as the hardwood floor.
So here I have almost six pages of detail for one relatively small room; apparently that small bathroom is not quite as simple as it appeared!!! You can see how what appears to be a simple bathroom affects your engineered-floor-system designer, your framing crew, your plumber, your electrician, your roofer, your HVAC tech, your sheetrocker, your tile layer, your painter, and even the person laying flooring in the adjacent area, and I probably missed a couple here.
Now some other minor details you may wish to consider include where are your towel racks? Do you want your framer to put some blocking back there so you have solid mounting points for them? What about your toilet-paper holder?
So how do you get all of this down on a detailed spec sheet? I didn’t. I met each trade individually, I talked to them about my “story” like I just wrote above, for every room (for the record, the kitchen is your most complex room, so write this story last, followed by your master bathroom, so save this one for second to last). I asked them how I should coordinate with trades before and after them to ensure it all moved smoothly. I asked them if I missed anything (you do this every day, what details am I missing that you need to know about?). I basically facilitated the entire thing. Next time, I think I would build a storyboard for every room, 7/16” OSB was under $5/sheet the other day and you could build a board with a half sheet for every room. If you know your toilet and tub, include pictures and specs. If you know your pedestal sink, include pictures and specs. If you are buying your own material (I highly recommend this), include specs on all material you have bought or intend to buy. Laminate all of this information at your local Kinko's, and duct tape it directly to the board. If you have a picture you cut out of a magazine, laminate it and tape it to the board as well.
Now even with this level of detail, you will get caught off-guard on something. But compared to “normal” 20% +/- change orders on custom houses, my change order total was <2%, and this was actually based on an error in my architect’s plans and specs, so I could have perhaps recovered this cost from him in small claims court.
A book I heartily recommend to help you do this is Myron Ferguson’s Better Houses, Better Living. I read the old version, Build it Right, but I understand the new version is much improved (hard to believe; the old version was excellent). And while Mark isn’t paying me to publicize his site or the products he is selling, he has this book available in his bookstore at a better price than Amazon. I checked it our from the library first, but I had so many Post-It notes stuck to it I eventually had to buy my own copy, which not being entirely frugal, I purchased from Amazon.