16 ways to breeze through your renovation from Room to Improve's Lisa O'Brien
RTE’s new Room to Improve quantity surveyor Lisa O’Brien and architect Amanda Bone on how to breeze through your renovation.
Where should you spend and where should you save? How do you find your perfect architect? And how do you make your wish list a reality?
Get in the know
In January, quantity surveyor Lisa O’Brien made her first appearance on RTE’s Room to Improve. Her mission? To inject a jolt of reality into architect Dermot Bannon’s dream designs. “Quantity surveyors have a reputation for bursting bubbles and dreams,” says Lisa. “But we get designs and costs in line on a build because it’s a reality, it’s a lot of money, it’s a contract.”
Not surprisingly she has no time for those who don’t get acquainted with the nuts and bolts of what’s involved in renovations.
“Ignorance,” she says, “is no defence. Get in the know because it’s your money.” Your standard small extension built in compliance with regulations could cost €150,000-160,000. “That’s a big chunk of money,” she says. “There is enough information available for you to understand what you’re getting into. I get calls when the horse has bolted and I see contracts that are so open it’s hard to fight against rising costs.” It saves time, money and tears if you educate yourself about the process and pitfalls before you start.
Dublin-based architect Amanda Bone stresses the importance of doing your research too. “Find out what sort of interiors you like — use Open House [the annual architectural event that sees high-design homes and buildings open to the public], buy magazines and books and look at websites,” she says. And, if possible, visit any projects you like — that minimalist kitchen with gleaming surfaces might just be too clinical for your tastes in reality. “What you think you might want and what you might actually like can be different.”
Make a wish list
First on Lisa’s list when planning a renovation is to write down your wish list and then prioritise it. “There will be the wish list of things you’d love to have and then there are the things that you really need. Generally, you’re going to need a bigger space and a kitchen so it is really about prioritising the wish list — the top five that
you can’t live without — and then the 10 items you’d love to get in. The role of the quantity surveyor is to get the top five in and, if you can, three or four of the rest onto the list. To us, that’s a success.”
Sort out your differences
Often, where a couple is involved, there may be competing priorities. How does Lisa handle this? “I don’t like to generalise,” she says, “but typically the guy would love the tech stuff, the smart home, the gadgets... man caves — it’s either the garden room down the end of the garden, with piped heating and all mod cons, or a den. The ladies like their nice big kitchen, double oven, stone worktops — they love en suites everywhere and walk-in wardrobes.” This is where her role as dream crusher comes in. “You’re listening to this and going, all right, but at this point we can possibly get one en suite and a walk-in wardrobe in the master, and then you might be able to manipulate — so if there are two bedrooms upstairs, an en suite with doors into it from both bedrooms might work. You’re trying to find cost-effective solutions to getting as much of their wishlist in as possible.”
Research your architect
Check the RIAI website for their list of registered members as a starting point for tracking down an architect. “Contact architects whose work you like,” says Amanda. “Talk to a few. You need to ask for references, look at their projects. Talk to clients whose houses you like. Visit the architect’s office and meet their colleagues; you will get a good feel for how they work from what their office is like. But take your time.”
Once you’re happy that you’ve chosen the right architect for you, make sure you fully understand the type and level of service you’re getting. Will the architect oversee the whole process from beginning to end and deal with all the builder’s questions? Or will you project manage the build? In terms of fees, there are a few options, but most architects work on a percentage of overall construction costs, while some agree a lump sum, or a charge based on an hourly rate. There may also be expenses involved in travel, planning permissions and so on, so it is a good idea to discuss what will be included.
Choose a team you like
It’s a relationship — you have to work together for anything from six months to a year so you need to like the team, your architect, engineer, quantity surveyor, and builder. “The best projects are when there is fantastic communication with the client,” says Amanda. If you’re working with an architect and an interior designer, be upfront about who is to do what. Is the interior designer to help choose floors and finishes or is that up to the architect. The clearer your communication, the less room there is for costly misunderstandings.
Do you need A QS?
If the fees don’t allow you to employ a quantity surveyor throughout a job, when should you bring in their expertise? When you are looking at costs and budgets, says Lisa. “It reins everyone in, and that includes your architect and your engineer, and it brings that shock [of the cost of your build] straight up.”
Often people employ a quantity surveyor late in the day. “They’ve gone to an architect, they’ve got plans for the dream house and they’ve gone to planning and gone out to tender. That’s a six-month process and all the tenders have come back around €100,000 over budget and they are at the very start again. Time is money and people might have moved out and be renting and all of a sudden they’re back at the start of the process. So we would come in and we’d rip that tender apart and say, well, actually this is what you can afford.”
Be aware of how long it takes
… especially if you’re moving out during the build and renting. Researching your brief, finding an architect and getting to design can take anything from a few months to a year. Add in time for your quantity surveyor to assess costs, planning permission, if needed, which can take up to 16 weeks or longer if, for example, there are objections or changes. The longer the process, the more likelihood that costs will have risen by the time you turn a sod on site. On top of that, the good, small-scale builder is getting busy, says Lisa. He has learnt from the mistakes of the Celtic Tiger and is being more selective in what he takes on so you may find that competition between contractors for projects has shrunk. On average, calculate 12-14 weeks’ build time for a small extension.
Draw up your brief
There’s an old cliche that your design will only be as good as your brief and, like many clichés, it’s true. “Spend time thinking about your brief but be open and flexible about changing it,” advises Amanda Bone. “The architect will advise what’s best for your house and site. You’re not going to get everything on your brief but you’ll get most things — and maybe more than you planned.”
Don’t rush the design process
Allow yourself sufficient time to talk and plan. “People very often get horrified at how long it’s going to take,” says Amanda of the build process. “But once you start work they realise why.”
Set a realistic budget
“A realistic budget makes everyone aware of design constraints before you go to planning or out to tender,” says Lisa, “so you get a house you can afford.”
Educate yourself about budgets, recommends Amanda. “The cost for most new builds or extensions is €2,700-€3,000 ex VAT per square metre at the moment, assuming you have high quality floors and windows.” Keep in mind that contemporary detailing is more expensive than adding period details, as skirting boards and cornices can camouflage wires and plumbing. “The more minimalist and pared back the look, the more expensive,” says Amanda.
Lisa won’t quote for a cost per square metre, saying: “It all completely depends on the materials and the site — you could have a 40sqm extension with uPVC windows and PVC drainpipe, and it would come to €1,300-€1,400 per sqm. Upgrade that to a zinc drainpipe and Alu-clad windows with all the fine stuff and it could come to over €2,000 per sqm.”
Where to spend
“People don’t want to hear this,” says Lisa, “but spend on your insulation. It’s safeguarding you against regulation changes that may be coming down the line and it gives you a better energy rating on your house if you go on to sell.”
Second on Lisa’s spend list is sockets. It may not be sexy but she points out that if you want to put in additional electrical lighting later, it will cost you a lot more. Third? Your windows. “You’ll change your windows once in your lifetime. So I’d pump your money into triple glazing, Alu-clad, the higher tech windows. They also feed into your energy rating.” And finally, spend on your mechanical system, heating and plumbing. “It’s future proofing and it’s buildability,” says Lisa. “You can’t see it, but it will benefit you.”
Where to save
Don’t get suckered into having to have the latest interior trend. “It’s all grey tiles now,” says Lisa, “but 10 years ago when I was doing up my house cream polished porcelain tiles were the fashion. I look at it now — I have a dog with black hair and a five-year-old — and I wonder what I was thinking. I got sucked into the emotion of it. I should know better but I got sucked in.”
It’s an organic process, you will hit bumps on site, but try to be decisive and make the changes early so there’s no big knock-on effect or the builder isn’t undoing work that will cost you more. ”Every decision has a bottom-line effect,” says Lisa. “That might not always be adding on, it might be a saving, but I always find it’s swings and roundabouts — you save on one thing and spend on the other.”
Send out a detailed tender
Now that the construction industry is getting busy again and skills are in short supply, Lisa recommends putting a tender out to six builders. “You won’t get six back, you’ll get three or four and you’ll have a glimpse of the market.” Make the tender as detailed as possible, she says. “It’s important to decide on costs when you’re not in a contract with the builder and held over a barrel with the roof off. Really present as much detail as you can in a tender.” If you don’t give your builders a detailed design then each may interpret it differently and you will get back tenders that are spread over a huge range of rates and may well be unrealistic.
Include options, for example, for different sorts of tiling from mosaic to more expensive stone if you haven’t yet decided on materials. “The more information you have on design, the more certainty you have over costs. Then you can rein it in if necessary, rather than adding on if the budget is tight.” Keep in mind that inflation is having an impact on prices and you may need to add in an allowance.
The tenders are back and you’ve reached crunch point: the moment when dreams and reality collide. Lisa finds that clients often get a shock when the cost of their scope of works comes in. “You’re managing expectations,” she says. If they haven’t thought through what they want and how much they have to spend, they can be looking at a huge bill. But this is where the quantity surveyor is most helpful. She may advise swapping in a cheaper range of sanitary ware that could kit out a bathroom for €1,500 instead of the high-end version that costs €9,000.
Otherwise known as the emergency fund. It’s rare that a job doesn’t run over budget, either because you change your mind as you go along, causing delays and incurring extra costs, or because you hit a problem: dry rot, drainage issues... “There’s a period of cost uncertainty,” says Lisa, “until the builder gets out of the ground and has opened up the works in case there’s an unforeseen problem. Once you’re safely over that, your QS may be more comfortable about reallocating your contingency to finishes.” Lisa recommends thinking in terms of 20pc for an old house, 5pc on a greenfield site if there is nothing in the neighbourhood, and, if you’re extending onto an existing build, 5-10pc. “Banks look for a minimum of 10pc on contingency on building costs,” she points out.
Lisa O’Brien will run a Building Workshop on Saturday, 25 February, in Dublin. Tickets €150; €200 for couples; obqs.ie for details.