Measure twice, cut once. The carpenter's adage has become so clichéd that it's lost much of its resonance. But it's still sound advice where productivity and efficiency are concerned. Building snafus that require mid-course remediation before the house is even finished can add weeks or months to cycle time. And while some jokingly refer to this pervasive practice as “renovation during construction,” it's not funny when it cuts into profit margins. We asked a handful of architects to reflect on their own experiences and to discuss how to avoid some of the most common mistakes.
THINK 3-D Disregard for the third dimension is often the culprit in framing fiascos. And framing errors can be deadly in that they have a cascade effect on every step that follows. “I'd say 80 percent of problems happen in the vertical realm,” says Duo Dickinson, an architect in Madison, Conn. “A vast number of builders have a blind spot when it comes to cross sections. We are all programmed like robots to go straight from plans to elevations before we think about floor heights. Unless you know the relationship between the doors, windows, floors, and walls in cross section before you build, you'll spend literally weeks undoing errors.”
Dickinson recommends setting a benchmark for all vertical measurements before framing starts. “Have a surveyor come out to set a baseline zero point relative to the grade. It's a reality check that sets the starting point for the height of everything in the house. Without it, you may end up having to backfill or having to apply for a variance because you're over the height limit. In the worst case, you may have to chop out an entire section of concrete that's already been poured.”
WATCH YOUR STEPS Another area prone to pitfalls: stairs. “I recommend never accepting an architect's drawing interpretation of what a stair can do. All too often, the framing plan has nothing to do with the reality of the stair system,” says Dickinson. Have the building codes governing acceptable rise-to-run ratios changed? Has the vertical plan taken into account that the entry hall will have ¾-inch tile over ½ inch of Durarock and ¼ inch of Laticrete? If those incremental measurements aren't factored into the overall height of the staircase and it ends up being off by an inch (or even less), there will be trouble when the inspector comes calling.
“Three quarters of an inch is a big enough differential in a riser in a stair platform that it will cause people to trip and literally die in a fire situation, so building officials are totally intolerant of that kind of discrepancy,” Dickinson says. “We've had more than a few staircases become kindling because they couldn't be fixed. If you're operating on a tight profit margin, you can literally lose all your profit if you make one mistake like that.”
OPEN WIDE With today's infinite choices in window shapes and sizes, views often come with a price. Even a seemingly minor change in a window schedule can wreak havoc on a framing job and throw the schedule out of whack.
Perhaps you've found a comparable window product for faster delivery at a lower cost? Before you make the swap, make sure the new glazing will jibe with the space. One way to prevent window misfits, Dickinson says, is to up-set the header and hold off on framing the sills until the product arrives, in case the sizes are a little off. Another preventive option: Preorder all windows before construction starts so you can set the headers with product in hand.
TEST DRIVE MATERIALS Stucco in South Beach? Shingles on Cape Cod? No sweat. But specify nonindigenous or experimental materials, and you're likely to run into trouble with trades. Unfamiliarity with a product translates into time delays. “If you use wood siding all day in Colorado, it's a no-brainer. But introduce stucco here and it'll take you all day to get the labor lined up to do it,” says Rick New, director of residential architecture for DTJ Design in Boulder, Colo. “Alot has to do with the region and the knowledge of your subcontractor base.”
One practice DTJ and its clients use to ensure proper execution of cladding materials—particularly in large-scale developments—is to create a 4-foot prototype wall at the outset of every project. The sample wall serves as a model for elements such as mortar joints, siding, masonry, grout joint depth, roofing details, and colors. “That way, when they start building hundreds of feet of it, they have a direct reference for the type of coursing we want,” New says. “You see this done on custom homes a lot because the client and the architect want to see how the materials interact, but it also has applications on the production side before they start burning time on actual units.”
A prototype wall has the added benefit of protecting the builder from liability if mistakes are made. “The super should coordinate [the building of the sample wall] when bids are coming in,” New recommends. “That way, the subs can't say they didn't have a model to work from.”