Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Like moths to a flame...

Contractors are an interesting bunch. After all of the reading I did recently on contractors, how to interview them, how to bid out your project, how to draw up a contract, and how to deal with contractors on the job site, I feel much more educated on the way a contractor thinks (and why) and how they approach a project. It's too much to go into in one post, but suffice it to say, unless you have a particularly benevolent contractor, once you sign a contract and construction begins, you and the general contractor are adversaries. Contractors have incentives to cut corners and try to slip a few things past you (if you are not careful) because they can make a higher profit that way. And in many ways it's simply part of the contractor culture to do this, and it's rationalized in a myriad of ways (e.g. "The homeowners have no idea how much extra work I'm doing for them, I'm more than justified in recouping some cost by doing only one coat of paint instead of two"). So assuming your contractor is a really nice guy and would never doing anything like cut a few corners is a naive assumption. There are two options: 1) you can try to find a contractor that, as his references will attest, actually is interested in doing a quality job despite the opportunity for extra profit, and puts his ideals above his profit, 2) and/or you can educate yourself and be proactive and firm so that the contractor understands you are fully prepared to check his work and hold him accountable. We're going with BOTH options 1 and 2, as we hope to inform you in the future (the contractor we are most interested in is bidding our project right now, and we'd probably wait until a contract is signed to introduce him).

So far we've interviewed three potential general contractors; all three very nice men. But one can see from talking to contractors why there is a historical dislike of contractors for architects, and vice versa. Show a contractor an architecturally designed home, and many of them will wonder why it isn't more "normal" and just like everyone else's. For instance, take this pic of the model of our home design:
One contractor , that we weren't particularly impressed with, said, "Why don't you just swing the half of the home on the right over behind the other half so everything's connected?" Weeelllll, that's not the design, and that's not what we would want, and there's reasons why the home is designed the way it is. He went on, "Why is brick running up the wall on the side of home here? Why don't you move the brick over to the other half of the home so it faces the street?" Ummm, I don't think you'd understand. "You're going to have a really different looking home you know." Hmmm, I guess that's part of the point. "You know, sometimes architects do things that really can't be built that way." Got it, understood. Next!

I will say, one of the benefits of talking to contractors at this stage is that they can catch things that really are problems with the design. Like moths to a flame, all three we interviewed pointed to the exact same things when we asked, "So do you see any major issues or causes of concern in the design." Here they are:
It took each contractor roughly 5 seconds to point to both of those areas. The concern: moisture damage and snow accumulation. These are real concerns that require an actual design solution. For the intersection of the two main volumes of the home, the main concern is rain runoff going straight into the side of the brick and down into who knows what cracks and crevices. Fortunately, all of my reading paid off again, as I knew a solution: a gutter that is set into the edge of the roof. Here's a similar looking home, and notice that there are no exposed gutters. That's because they are set into the edge of the roof itself, as I show in the second pic below (see item 1).
This is workable with most contractors, the only unknown is cost. We'd like to do these gutters everywhere (not just the problem area noted above) because they hide what is one of the most unsightly features of the American suburban home: exposed gutters. But it's too early to tell without a cost estimate.

As far as the double-peak garage, this is more of an issue. Not only is there the question of moisture collection between the peaks and drainage, but a bigger issue is snow collecting between the peaks in the winter and the substantial load that would put on the garage roof. That load would have to be estimated in order to determine if extra supports would have to be put in place, or if special truss designs would have to be used. This was a very big issue with two of the contractors, while the third thought it was an issue but was confident it could be resolved by the truss designers he works with regularly, and without too much extra cost. We're looking at a few design changes for drainage though, such as what you see below, where the trough between the two peaks is actually sloped slightly from back to front (click to enlarge).
Ah, the joys of getting into the details. One thing's for sure, much money is saved by getting into the details this far in advance and drawing up a contract with the general contractor that includes a nearly flawless design. Most homeowners charge right into construction without having fully developed the design, and many dreaded "change orders" ensue, with each change order costs lots of money and lots of construction time (especially if work has to be re-done).


Joe Clarke said...

I was thinking about those roof line issues and an issue with our roof line came to mind that makes me question whether the drainage solution is enough. While your gutter solution seems like it could probably be worked out to handle the rain, the snow accumulation may be a different story.

On our house we have a small valley that runs next to the chimney and what is basically a dormer. Over time, the pressure from the snow has pushed on the side of the house or chimney and ultimately caused damage to the siding. Had this not been addressed recently (by fixing the siding so it's ready to take another beating) there could have larger leakage problems in the long run. None the less, it's a design issue that I have to look at each year to see how the past winter affected the siding.

Your situation is a little different in that the roof slopes directly to the other section of the house, so the pressure would likely be greater, though you also have brick on that side of the house, which I'm sure could withstand the pressure better.

I know part of the design was to incorporate standard trusses, but, I wonder if the roof line needs to be modified in this area to not slope toward the house to address the snow accumulation issue, which even with the brick could put alot of force at the base of that slope. Just a thought.

Also, for a while I've wanted to ask what your rationale is for the two peaked garage as opposed to a single truss. Of the two issues, this is probably the easier one for the builder to handle, but, I'm just curious about the choice for this look.

Brendan Koop said...

Hi Joe, thanks for the comment! It's always good to get a comment like that from a fellow engineer. That's great information about your own home, I'm sure I'll discuss this with our potential contractor. The issue with deviating from the standard truss design in that area is primarily aesthetic, as you lose something in the intersection of those two areas if you add a pitch to the intersection. But the inset gutter would take care of the rain, and I'm guessing the sloping of that area of the roof wouldn't help the snow issue. Even with a slope there we'd still have accumulation of snow, which wouldn't slide off the roof (or deflect the load) unless there was a very severe slope. Hopefully the brick will prove to be more durable than standard siding for the snow, but I'm also going to think of other potential solutions. If worse comes to worse, I suppose I could get up on a ladder every once in a while and pull the snow off that area with one of those snow removal tools for roofs.

As far as the garage, again the reason is primarily aesthetic. The double peaks echo the fact that there are multiple volumes of the home. More importantly, and I've tried this in my computer model, if you were to make the garage just one big peak it dominates the look of the home. A single peak makes the garage look so huge (using the same gable pitch as the rest of the roof surfaces) that it's the first thing you'd look at with the home. It also would appear taller than all the rest of the home from the street. It really looks bad. Once I saw that on the computer model I came to appreciate my brother's design more, as the double peaks fit with the rest of the home design AND don't compete size-wise with any other part of the home (i.e. the garage looks much less tall).

Joe Clarke said...

One other thought for you on the gutter idea.

If you use this idea where the gutters are basically built into the wall, you should also consider one of those heating lines placed in the gutter. This relatively low cost addition (a few hundred dollars) would ensure in the spring that the freeze and thaw cycles would not create ice damming issues for your shingles in the spot where the roof of one volume slopes to the other. It would also prevent ice buildup in the all gutters around the house, which will be all the more important since they'll be inside the wall, yet, not far enough inside for them to be warm all the time during Minnesota winters.

Jenny C. said...

Is it obvious we've had to play with this a little ourselves? Gotta love Minnesota!

Brendan Koop said...

Yep, we have those heating wires in our gutters in our current home. I actually told my brother about those because he expressed the same concern (ice building up inside the gutters).

Molly Koop said...

Perhaps the four of us should just get together and chat one of these days--instead of typing to each other and reading each other's comments all day. :) I could have sat and blabbed with Jenny for several more hours on Monday (maybe she was glad I had to go to Adoration).

Jenny C. said...

Sounds like fun!