Lessons learned

Lessons learned

Now that we’re a few months into building and the actual layout of the house is taking shape, the kinds of surprises that lend drama to HGTV reality shows are starting to add a touch of drama to our little reality show.

The surprises have all been caused by misunderstandings around the specifications. There are so many details it’s hard to slow down and think about each one: for example, what’s a “ProFlo” faucet? I actually still don’t know because we simply chose a faucet we liked. Even though it’s a pain in the butt for all concerned, going through agonizing detail at the spec stage is much better than going through agonizing revision at the build stage.

In addition to the small details, I should have done an even more rigorous mental walkthrough of the spaces. We got most of this right, but I skimped on secondary rooms like closets and the laundry room so we could have larger living areas and bedrooms. I should have asked myself: are the rooms really big enough to hold all the stuff they need to? For example, what happens if we decide to put a freezer in the laundry room? Is the closet big enough to hold all my clothes and the armoire? Are the hallways and doorways wide enough to accommodate disabled access?

Some decisions have ripple effects: if you decide to buy a refrigerator without a freezer, as we did, then you need room for the freezer. While Fred was OK with putting the freezer in the garage, I wanted my ice and ice cream closer, so we had to wiggle stuff around to fit the freezer into the laundry room.

WELCOME TO THE REAL REALITY SHOW

It would be great if you could build a house the same way we build websites. If you don’t like something on a web page, you just change it. Often, it’s a matter of minutes or hours, and pretty affordable.

When you design a website, you think of the big stuff: How much content, how do you want people to find it, what do you want people to accomplish. The  details emerge and evolve as you build the site and the initial design specs are more like mockups–often just having boxes where art and copy will go.  Our bywords when we’d get stuck on a design were, “it’s the web, we can change it.” For example, I’ve rewritten this page more than a few times.

Imagine how crazy it would be to build a house the way I’m building this post. The Three Stooges come to mind. I mention this because I think “it’s the web, we can change it” impacted how carefully I read the specs–I didn’t stop to think of them as something that were the equivalent of printing a magazine article rather than a web page. Once the article is printed, it’s done. Likewise, once the concrete is poured, it’s done.

SO WHAT WENT WRONG?

Windows: you wanted grids?

First, I blew it on the windows I wanted, which were supposed to be classic craftsman with panes (they now call that grids). Turns out it’s probably better because we won’t have lines through our views. But I had a cottage firmly in mind so took a few days to get over this omission.

There weren’t grids on the blueprints but I didn’t say anything because I thought it was just a detail you take care of when you select windows. In our case, that wasn’t smart because you need to design the window locations with grids in mind so they all line up as you look at the house.

Shower curb? What curb?

In the master bathroom, we didn’t notice that there wasn’t a provision for a zero threshold shower so you could walk or roll in without stepping over something. Both my parents became disabled, and having an accessible shower would have made it easier to stay in their homes. I also didn’t do an imaginary walk through of the shower. All it’d take is to put tape on the floor, any floor, and pretend to walk around in it. Then I’d have realized it wasn’t as big as I thought. Both my parents became disabled, and having an accessible shower would have made it easier to stay in their homes. If I’d asked the builder specifically about the shower, they could have planned for it before pouring the concrete floor.

Our builder is age-in-place certified, and I remember talking about this, so I assumed we had the threshold/curb thing covered. We didn’t notice that the spec didn’t call out something about the threshold, and we had no way of knowing that the spec should have said something about it, so we didn’t realize the builder didn’t catch our request. This isn’t a fixable issue because we have in-floor heat and they can’t just hammer up the concrete to drop the shower floor. The good news is, we have a heated floor in the shower. I remember hearing that a zero threshold shower couldn’t include a heated floor, so we get an upside out of the mistake.

This curb thing is a great example of the unknown unknowns: we weren’t familiar with building specs so didn’t know what should or should not be in them.

 So, here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Document your requests and check them on the specs and drawings. Be very explicit

  • Ask lots of questions.

  • Experiment with layout choices with cardboard cutouts or tape outlines on the ground

The one thing we did get right

We  picked a really, really, really good builder. If you watch HGTV you may think contractors are always unreliable. But we’re learning that there are in fact people who get stuff done on time, with great quality, and hands-on support. We know because we found one. There’s a page on this site about them.

How they roll with the mistakes is as important as how we do. And so far, I’ve been pleased with the tact, grace, and matter-of-fact attitude. They dig into the stuff they can fix–for example they’ve taken a lot of time to try to adjust the windows and to enlarge the shower to make it more accessible.

In the end, I have to remind myself this is a custom home. Just like a website, there’s never been one like it before, and you can’t really know what it’ll look like until it’s finished. And, like a website, you may find things you don’t like. But unlike a website, you can’t change all of them. Which brings me to the overall lesson.

Be realistic: you have to roll with it

In the end, I have to remind myself this is a custom home. Just like a website, there’s never been one like it before, and you can’t really know what it’ll look like until it’s finished. And, like a website, you may find things you don’t like. But unlike a website, you can’t change all of them.

Which brings me to the overall lesson. Mistakes happen. No matter what. I tell myself: “If you can’t deal with the disappointments you need to rethink how you deal with life. Here’s a thought: Just pretend you bought a ready-built house. No doubt there would be things you’d change if you could. At least here, we’re getting something as perfect for us as is humanly possible.”

By the way, I’ve revised this page 22 times. So far.