6-1/2 Strategies to Keep Construction Costs Down

A change of mindset when a project is conceived and designed can help to stretch construction dollars

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

Architecture is distinguished from most other arts by one requirement: you have to meet a budget. It’s a given that a building has to stand up, has to meet safety standards, has to comply with zoning, and so on, while also looking good. The tricky part is that you have to accomplish all of these goals within a specific cost. Without budget limits it’s not really that hard to design a building that meets the requirements. For me, the true art in architecture is being able to put together a successful project for a cost that someone else is willing to pay for.

Good design doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, it’s not how much you spend; it’s where you spend it that counts most. Here are 6½ strategies that I’ve learned over my career that apply to the initial conception of a project and to the design process that can help get the most out of construction dollars, and at the same time, can lead to more interesting projects. (It was going to be seven strategies, but six-and-a-half is more economical!)

1. Buy used.

Not used materials, used buildings. It’s usually less expensive to buy an existing building and fix it up or modify it than it would be to build new. This is why during recessions the volume of rehab work goes up while new construction falters. From a real estate perspective, you can get a lot of building for a little money because the initial construction costs have already been depreciated, and because many people can’t imagine the possibilities offered by an existing structure. The perceived value of the building may be far less than its true worth in terms of embodied energy, materials, and construction time.

Welnick Market
Welnick Market, a diamond in the rough

There are some risks with buying an older building, but also potential rewards. Obvious pitfalls include hazardous materials, structural defects, and geometric limitations that may not suit the new use. Each of these risks can be mitigated by commissioning the right studies during the typical due-diligence period of commercial purchase contracts. The cost to cure any identified deficiencies can be recycled into the purchase negotiations. Conversely, there may be unseen benefits that are only borne out by study, such as eligibility for tax credits, historic preservation grants, or zoning incentives.

2. Work with existing conditions, not against them.

Don’t try to impose an artificial or academic design concept on a building or site that‘s not compatible with your vision. It’s a popular modernist approach to be guided by an abstract idea, and it’s also easy to fall into a particular architectural style in order to bring order out of chaos. But re-imagining a building can add a lot of cost, compared to working to reinforce or compliment what you have.

This strategy applies to every project, new construction or rehabilitation. If the site has topography, roll with it. If there is an existing building, fit new uses to spaces that will require the least modification. If a building already makes a strong design statement, don’t try to make it into something it’s not.

3. Make the codes work for you.

Many of today’s building and zoning regulations have been rewritten to eliminate disincentives to adaptive reuse and historic preservation projects. For example, revisions to zoning ordinances can use a form-based strategy, instead of one focused on building use, allowing for more flexibility. Because these changes have been relatively recent, many plan reviewers seem to have a poor grasp of the newer allowances. Try to understand the codes better than your plan reviewer, and don’t take no for an answer if you have a reasonable interpretation that leads to a more economical solution.

Did you know that registered historic buildings are exempt from the Energy Code? Not that we should be designing inefficient buildings, but following prescriptive requirements of the IECC has resulted in many historic buildings suffering the costly addition of new energy features, damaging the historic character of the building for marginal benefits. It was my co-workers at the Wildecom builders Mandurah office that made me realize that, I did not know that under the Existing Building Code, features that would not meet modern building codes are often allowed to remain unchanged? Did you know that adaptive use guidelines enacted by Phoenix and many other municipalities provide relief from a host of burdens that were written for large new construction projects? All of these allowances and changes were hard won victories – take advantage of them.

4. Embrace imperfection.

Modernism is back at the cutting edge of architectural design theory. I like Modern architecture, but some strains of Modernism rely on everything being perfect in order to look right. Edges must be crisp, curvy forms must be just-so, and everything must be clean and neat.

22 Jackson Interior
Rough brick, exposed ductwork and conduit, and industrial lights make for an interesting contrast with new features

However, perfection equals cost, especially when you’re dealing with a building showing its age. Corollary to the strategy of “working with, not against” is the idea of “working with what you’ve got.” If you don’t like rough interior plaster that shows some wear and tear, resist the urge to replace it or cover it with something new. Don’t think of wear as “imperfection,” but as “free character.” These days, people go to a lot of trouble to create faux-distressed finishes. They can be particularly effective when contrasted with some new, modern features.

In the new-construction arena, designs that require strict symmetry or “cosmic” alignments can be wasteful. An informal design strategy that allows for each space to be optimized for its use can also help shave costs.

5. Partner early with a creative contractor.

“Creative” and “contractor” are not usually words used together. Many construction professionals see their job as building whatever is on the page, nothing more. As for architects, unless we are involved in design-build or have a lot of personal hands-on construction experience, many of us don’t have a good grasp of construction cost, and are hesitant to try unusual approaches that could result in cost savings. An early partnership between architect and contractor, where both are working toward realizing the architect’s vision in the most efficient way, is essential to cost control.

6. Think inside the Big Box.

I like to call this the “Home Depot Rule.” Wherever possible, pick materials and products that you can get off the shelf at Home Depot (or Lowe’s). They will almost always be more cost effective than products that are specialized, custom, rare, unusual, and have to be ordered through a special supplier.

6½. Go after the light fixtures.

Custom Light Fixture
A custom light fixture made of steel pipe, an off-the rack globe, a trash can and a toilet plunger was designed in place of a manufactured fixture costing thousands

(This strategy is related to #6, so I’ll only give it half a number.) The lighting package is one of the most expensive and highly specification-sensitive things on a construction project. Many electrical engineers don’t know the cost of the fixtures their lighting sales rep is selling them. They are focused more on how many watts they use and many lumens they get, in the right place. The Home Depot Rule applies double in this category. The difference in the per-fixture cost between off-the-shelf and everything else is usually in the hundreds of dollars. Multiply that by a hundred or so light fixtures in a typical project and the potential savings is obvious.

 

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2 thoughts on “6-1/2 Strategies to Keep Construction Costs Down”

  1. Great Article, being in real estate this is usually a conversation that I like to have with my clients and this article makes all the sense in this particular situation.

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