Questions to consider before remodeling

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September 24, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Michael Anschel
Michael Anschel

You are thinking about making some changes to your home; perhaps a second story for your growing family, perhaps updating that 70-year-old kitchen, or possibly some siding insulation and new windows to make winter a little less intrusive. Ideas percolate over morning coffee and soon you are thinking logistics: Do I need an architect? Do I need a permit? Will the city make me change my entire house? Suddenly your project goes from fun to fearsome.

At our firm we help folks navigate the labyrinth that comprises the design and construction industries, and while the answers are not always simple there is always a process and path for getting to the right answer. Here are some answers as well as some excerpts from my chapter in the soon to be released second edition of “No Regrets Remodeling” from “Home Energy Magazine” (noregretsremodeling.org). 

Do I need an architect?

No. There is no requirement for an architect’s involvement on residential dwellings of four units or less. 

What about structural concerns?

Engineers are the only ones licensed to take on structural solutions. Everyone, builders, contractors, architects and designers must use a licensed engineer. 

Do I really need a design professional? Can’t I just tell the contractor what 

I want?

The myriad of options are generally not understood. Even seemingly simple projects have a wide range of decisions to be made. Design-build firms have an advantage in most cases of having both design and construction in house and can advise you quickly on the best course of action.

Do I need a permit?

Probably. There are exceptions (painting your room, tiling your floor), but projects that touch the shell of your home, decks and any mechanical work (plumbing, electrical, etc) require permitting. 

Building codes exist to keep you safe. They may seem bothersome, but they are important. Most states have adopted a set of residential building codes known as the International Residential Code (IRC), often with additional regionally appropriate provisions. Ask your local building department which codes your remodeling project needs to meet.

Building codes represent the minimum standards for avoiding disaster. Whether you DIY or hire a contractor, it’s often desirable to exceed code requirements.

Everyone bemoans the building permit, but failing to pull a permit is breaking the law. If you’re caught doing unpermitted work, a fine will probably be added to the cost of your permit. If you are caught after the project is complete, you may be required to tear out work to allow inspection. 

Permits, like building codes, are there for your protection. Permits can be obtained only by licensed pros and homeowners. If a builder suggests that you obtain your own permit, that’s a red flag. If you get the permit, the warranty laws of your state fall on your shoulders, not the contractor’s. Bonding and state recovery funds apply only to permitted work by licensed contractors. Hiring an unlicensed contractor is illegal. Don’t do it.

Building inspectors are misunderstood and often vilified. In truth, inspectors are your friends. Their job is to check that your remodel is constructed according to building codes and the approved plans. On DIY projects, inspectors can provide a wealth of knowledge. Share the details of your project and solicit their input rather than trying to hide things. A happy inspector is a good ally.

When should I 

bring my project 

to the city?

A feasibility study is the first step in any remodeling project. A good design professional or contractor will make this an early step in the process. You should too. 

What about hazardous conditions? 

The construction industry uses a plethora of hazardous materials. Workers and homeowners come in contact with carcinogenic, corrosive, asthmatic and otherwise hazardous materials, often unknowingly. Protecting your family and your contractor should be your first priority. 

LEAD: Federal Law now mandates safe lead work practices. If your home was built before 1978 your contractor must test for lead and follow the RRP guidelines. 

RADON: The second leading cause of lung cancer. If you have 4PCL or more in your home you need to install a mitigation system. It will cost you $1600–2500, but that is a heckuva lot cheaper than cancer.

FLUE GAS: New siding, windows and insulation make your house nice and tight, but if you have a tank style water heater and turn on your range hood, there is a high probability that you are sucking flue gas into your home.

We have learned a great deal about how homes actually work over the last 30 years as systems and products have evolved to create highly complex assemblies with specific applications and limitations. Unfortunately the architecture and design community have virtually no understanding. Builders are not much better, but do have an annual education requirement in this area. 

Michael Anschel is a nationally recognized expert on green design, remodeling and building. He is the owner of Otogawa-Anschel 

Design-Build.