In any major project, they say that the post mortem is just as important as the planning – but it’s also the bit that often gets left out in the project life cycle.

We’re not near the end of our building project yet, but I’m already putting together a growing list of things I’ve learnt from this round.

By no means comprehensive, and in no particular order, here’s a list of things we’re glad we did, and things we wish we understood better before we started.

Fixed-price contract

There are different kinds of building contracts in Australia, and we heard all about getting a fixed-price contract when building a house. That way, when something expensive happens – like when the builder starts excavation and ends up hitting rock – you’re not out of pocket. The general idea is that a lump sum is agreed upon prior to signing, to avoid nasty cost blow-outs.

This meant that most of our fittings and designs were sourced, quoted, and agreed upon prior to signing. Things like kitchen and bathroom designs. Tiles. Cabinetry. Lighting. Electrical plan. Appliances. That sort of thing.

Things we couldn’t budget for until the build was finished were things like landscaping, in which case we were given a modest allowance. More on that later.

True enough, the actual build of our house ended up more complicated and time consuming than the builder originally envisioned – mostly because of the moderate elevation of the block (15 degrees), and the slightly unconventional approach he took (filling in and building up, instead of digging in and recessing the house on street level). But because of our fixed-price contract, Tony and I didn’t get slapped with the extras. And for that, we are grateful and relieved.

Concrete

I really wished we understood how concrete (along with window coverings and landscaping) can be the mother of scope creep. I also wished we understood how concreters work, before we signed off on the concrete allowance of however much sqm of concrete we got given.

Long story short, we were assured that we had enough concrete to wrap a footpath around the circumference of the house. Except that because of the contouring of the block, we now have to put in at least one additional flight of stairs. We also didn’t think about concrete for our compulsory 4000l rainwater tank (maybe Tony did, but I didn’t.)

But most of all, we thought (because we were told) that we could make a fairly narrow footpath to stretch our allowance. It turns out, however, that the bulk of the labour is spent in laying out the formwork — and that the effort for formwork is the same regardless of the width of the footpath. So concreters – or at least this concreter we’re working with – insists that we have a minimum width of 1000mm for our footpath to make it worth his while.

We also moved the clothesline to a sunnier part of the backyard, so we needed a slightly longer footpath to that.

The driveway also turned out to be a lot bigger than what we made out in the plan drawings. And there were other spots and bothers that we didn’t think we’d need concrete for, which we ended up wanting to do.

Anyway. Concrete? It might annoy your builder, but ask for more specific measurements in your site drawing plan. And then take a ruler and pencil, and start measuring like a nerd. And then add 20%. Remember paths to clothes lines, rainwater tanks, air-conditioning units, spa pumps, cubby houses… Allow yourself something extra just in case you change your mind when you finally see how the actual block turns out. And if you’re on a slope, no matter how gentle the incline of your block is, quiz your builder about who pays for staircases and unforeseen retaining walls.

Landscaping

Some people have a separate contract for landscaping that sits outside the building contract. We didn’t. We had a modest allowance built in the contract so we could borrow from the bank. But the more we stare at the figures for materials alone, the more it’s obvious that we’d be able to source the materials and some sporadic professional labour… but not much else.

Doesn’t bother Tony and I that much, because we’re not avid gardeners and we don’t expect to win some kind of Chelsea Flower Show award. We just want a decent hedgerow for privacy from the street, and a good low-maintenance lawn at the back that the children can run around in. Maybe a tree or two, and some garden beds down the track to break it up a bit.

But if you’ve got your heart set on having a la-di-da designer garden by a landscaper, or astroturfing the lot… it’ll cost you. Including hardware like decks and pergolas, landscaping will cost upward of $150 per sqm. Easy.

The other thing to bear in mind is the seasons. Building projects, from what I’ve been told repeatedly by burnt home builders, rarely deliver on time. So you might think you’ll be done end of Winter in time to landscape in Spring, but find instead that you’re moving into your new home during the extreme seasons – Summer or Winter.

If you are building in a “normal” suburb that couldn’t care less if you’re living in a dustbowl until Spring, then great. Wait till you’re ready. But there are certain establishing suburbs in the ACT that require your landscaping to be done within a few months of getting your keys. So suddenly, trying to get a young lawn started in the Summer heat is going to cost more, or impact the kind of grass you’d like to lay. Or you’re facing Winter, and with it the joys of frost and rock-hard ground. Stuff like that.

We’ll be moving in the beginning of Summer, but thankfully our suburb doesn’t have time restrictions for landscaping. Even so, I expect we’ll be surrounded by clay for a few months before we can start to green up our surroundings.

Building schedule

Most builders will hand you a standard contract that they use with all their clients, and tweak the details inside them that pertain to your build. We went over the contract with our conveyancer, made all the changes she recommended to protect us better, the usual. And we left the stages of payment for the building schedule as outlined in the standard contract.

Ordinarily, that would have been fine. Except the build process of our house turned out to be more complex than initially anticipated, both by us and the builder. We were going to pay the first chunk with our own savings and then start drawing down on the bank loan, and the first draw-down of the loan would commence after the slab and the frames were up. But a combination of longer than usual inclement weather, bad project management, and the unforeseen complexities and resources-drain in the first stage of the build meant that we needed to get a couple of extensions on the building loan from the bank. We were also very distracted during those early stages because Atticus was born right around the time, so we were not keeping on top of the builder. Our bad.

The second time we extended the loan, all the banks had tightened their borrowing because of changes to government policy in the interim. And so even though our personal circumstances had remained exactly the same, our borrowing capacity had now been reduced. We were now out of pocket by a stonking $80,000.

Most people might be borrowing close to the full amount for the build — especially if this is a first home — so we were a little unique in this regard in not drawing down on the loan immediately. But it was a real lesson for us on how one could get caught out by sudden changes in banking policy, and how important an accurate payment schedule that is bespoke to our project is.

Ask the questions

I’m not a math person, and I’m not a design person, and I’m certainly no expert with gardens and DIY and any of that. So there is the temptation to trust the experts to do their job, and be reticent about quizzing the details.

And yet I have found mistakes made by these experts throughout the project. Doesn’t matter which trade or company – they ALL make mistakes. Because they’re human. The kitchen was especially painful; we had first gone with a kitchen design company, who made a complete hash of the measurements of the kitchen which I picked up on (they had given us a much bigger kitchen than the space we actually had). After the designs were finalised, we bought the designs and handed them over to another cabinetry company, only to have their designer pick up on more inconsistencies and oddities about the design we bought, such as inconsistent door panel sizes.

And then it was about seven rounds of correcting tiny but crucial mistakes after that.

BTW, version controlling is something that all trades I’ve encountered seem to struggle with. Some more than others.

Towards the end of the project, I was no longer trusting even the technical drawings. And then I found mistakes in those. Much of it was due to the lack of attention to detail – changed numbers in one technical drawing not following through the rest of the drawings, for instance. Things like cabinets not large enough to fit our new fridge because they read the fridge user manual wrong. Stuff like that.

I’m sure there are other things I’ve not picked up on, and I’m sure there is an element of self-correction that happens when builders get to the site and measure. But be meticulous – for your sakes, and for theirs.

Come prepared each time you brief a new company. Don’t just trust that the trades will talk to one another and do a good handover of your requirements from one stage to the next — cover your bottom too. Give each of them a brief in writing of what you’re trying to accomplish, and attach the item code and user/installation manual of every household appliance that could be impacted.

So for instance, with the kitchen and bathrooms I gave them the item code and/or installation manual for the refrigerator, the sinks, the dishwasher, the water filter tap, etc. With lights, powerpoints and data cabling, Tony and I gave the head electrician our own electrical plan and lighting plan. The latter includes a corresponding table of the lights we’ve purchased, their model numbers and descriptions, their locations, and how we want them grouped when we flick the switches on.


This has turned out to be a longer post than anticipated, and it’s by no means exhaustive. But if you’re thinking of building in Canberra and this is your first time, I hope this is a little useful.

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