Avoiding Four Renovation Pitfalls

Recent experiences on renovation design projects have highlighted four renovation pitfalls that could inhibit the making of a successful project. All four can be managed by the design and owner teams. The four factors are:

1. Not seeing beyond an existing framework;

2. Overestimating the value of existing features;

3. Not evaluating design decisions based on program responsiveness and cost; and

4. Limiting the number of scheme iterations. This last one is the most important.

An Inability to let go of an Existing Framework

Renovation projects are by their nature improvements on existing conditions. In this neck of the woods, smaller non-profits frequently turn to the existing residences in their search for space. Houses make poor office buildings without improvements, life safety features being a primary, example. The bigger challenge is to re-imagine a single family dwelling as space for executive director offices, conference rooms, reception areas, and office support spaces. Guided by our human nature to take an existing condition and imagine a living room serving as a reception area, a bedroom as an office, and a kitchen as a conference or break room, we tend to be trapped by the persistence of the old framework as we search for the new framework.

A great way to respond to this trap is to ask, ‘what is it we are buying when we decide to buy a building that is currently wrong for our intended use?’ The organization will benefit from realizing that the excavation, the foundation, and the shell make up the entirety of the house that can be preserved, and that therefore has value going forward. Interior finishes, electrical and plumbing fixtures and infrastructure, and even most of the interior walls are probably in the wrong place. Those components should be seen as expendable.

Overestimating the Value of Existing Features

An organization may wonder about the value of an existing feature, whether it is a wall, a roof, or even floor finishes. Owners generally recognize load-bearing elements are more costly than non-load-bearing elements to remove or replace, but by how much? Which walls are actually load-bearing? Obviously it is less expensive to do less demolition and less construction than it is to do more demolition and more construction. The first renovation pitfall, the inability to let go of an existing framework is partly due to the legitimate desire to reign in what could be a costly renovation. Architects are also guilty of sometimes overestimating the value of an existing feature, particularly load-bearing ones. This is the second renovation pitfall. An aversion to removing structure can keep an architect from seeing a really great plan that would bring significant benefit to the owner. The owner may not choose that great plan because of the cost, but they will benefit from being given the chance to make the decision.

Thus, a conversation about the actual value of an existing building component can be fruitful in helping owners understand the appropriateness of a design decision. If a 100-square foot wall costs $50 to remove and $500 to rebuild, that $550 cost can be evaluated against the benefit it will bring to an owner’s operations.

Failing to Design to the Budget and Program

Architects draw professional satisfaction from creating great spaces in which to live and work. Owners want a lot from their renovation project, both in quantity and quality. What both need to remember is that buildings must be paid for, often out of a discrete amount of money, and that a building that does not work for its intended purpose is not worth very much money. With this third renovation pitfall, if there are two valid solutions to a design decision, and one is more expensive than the other, choosing the expensive option can be a recipe for disaster. The same is true for design decisions that cannot be defended by their programmatic necessity. Both decisions will end up on the value engineering chopping block.

How can one be sure a project is being designed to effectively meet the budget and program?  Right now, it’s mostly experience.  Balancing quality and quantity, budget and program, the owner’s wishes and the architect’s professional interests in creating great space, is difficult to do. Experience is currently the best teacher. After a dozen or so projects where an imbalance occurred, designers develop a feel for balance. Technology is offering to brighten the future here. Dynamic, parametric cost analysis using Building Information Modeling has the potential to remove much of the uncertainty in design-side cost estimating. We are not there yet.

Limiting the Number of Scheme Iterations

Architects are still writing contracts that expressly limit the number of schematic designs they will produce for a fixed fee. Maybe they limit the scheme count to three. After that, the time and materials clock starts ticking. Owners, focused on cost containment, shy away from authorizing more money for more sketching. This is the fourth renovation pitfall, and it is unwise.

Buildings are complicated. I have not met the architect who, after one meeting with an owner, can produce a superior design that cannot benefit from modification. On two recent projects, we have had the opportunity to design relatively small spaces over a period of months. We might spend five hours one week, have a meeting with the owner, then spend five hours the following week. The owner was not in a hurry. He had time to think about our work. We had time to think about the organization. One project hit the sketch jackpot after seven iterations. The other hit the jackpot after 12 iterations. That’s a lot of sketching.

Both projects have budgets in the $3-400,000 range. A typical design fee might be ten percent of the construction budget, or $30-40,000. Schematic design usually eats up 15 percent of the design fee. Spending twice the time (and money) on schematic design increases the project budget by 1.5 percent. This is peanuts for an assurance that the basic design is the right design.

It turns out by not limiting the number of schematic design options, owners and architects can avoid intentionally and unintentionally falling prey to the first three inhibitors. An extended schematic design can free architects from being trapped by existing frameworks. Owners can recognize the benefits that come with correctly valuing their existing building. Designs can be tested for their responsiveness to the budget, as well as the program.

We often tell clients the value of a good design is an example of the butterfly effect. In theory, a butterfly flapping its wings in South America could cause a cascade of events that lead to hurricanes in North America. A bad design will cost a project dearly, far in excess of the miniscule cost saved with a short schematic design process.

Interested in discussing how we can help you realize a great design? Contact Mike Sealander, AIA at 207.266.5822 or email me.

Follow Mike Sealander, Maine Licensed Architect:


Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.