I couldn’t sit still. I paced around the Yurt as my mind raced. We had anticipated this moment for over a year and it was finally happening. Drew, the builder
, was about to arrive with his estimate for what the new house might cost. This was the number
, the one piece of data that had the potential to change our direction. It could help us kick off the project in a matter of weeks, or be a setback with the potential to ruin our plans.
In preparing for this moment, we had completed a few basic calculations in our heads. Often, construction estimates come down to cost per square foot, and are highly dependent on location. The conventional wisdom is that it can cost up to 20% more to build on the island, in part, because of transportation costs.
Based on the square footage in our plans, we had a number in our heads. Our architect, John, also had a number that was higher than ours, but not by much.
We met at 1pm on a Tuesday and I could feel the pressure build as the meeting got closer. In the best case scenario, we could build the new house with the funds from selling our house in Seattle
. It would be like trading one for the other.
Drew arrived and immediately got down to business. He handed out copies of his estimate in the form of a multi-page document full of line item details for nearly every part of the project. In the weeks leading up to this moment, Drew had shared the building plans with his sub-contractors and their estimates were now rolled up into his overall document. There were specific numbers for framing, electrical, fireplace, labor and everything else.
As soon as the document slid into my view, I hesitated. I wondered to myself if it would be rude to immediately turn to the final page and view the bottom line. In my mind, everything else was details. I asked, “Is it OK if we go ahead and take a look at the bottom line?” Drew said, “Sure…” and I pulled back the final page. There at the bottom was the number we had anticipated for over a year. And I couldn’t believe my eyes. I tried to play it cool and laid the closed document on the table and picked it up again, like some kind of analog reboot. Surely, I had looked at the wrong page. Maybe I missed a decimal place. I looked again. Nope, the same number was there and it was orders of magnitude more than we expected.
As I tried to stay composed, my heart raced and sank at the same time. It felt like the dream was suddenly dead and I was looking at the culprit on the page in front of me. Any thoughts of trading homes were squashed and we were now in “is this even possible?” territory.
I looked over to Sachi who appeared calm and collected, as always. In her mind, the number was bigger than expected, but made of individual parts that all had their own numbers. Her first reaction was to study the estimate, line-by-line and try to figure out what caused the number to be so high.
Leading up to the meeting, we had brainstormed questions for Drew and I had them on my phone. After taking a cursory look at the estimate, Sachi prompted me to go through the questions and my immediate reaction was to look at the questions and think to myself, “It’s all moot. None of these questions matter anymore. This is a waste of time.” In my mind, that list of questions about the project might as well have been a lunch order. Until we addressed the bottom line staring us all in the face, nothing else mattered.
For the first time, we were confronted with the reality that we’d spent over a year planning a project that we might never see happen. None of us expected to see such a big number, including Drew, and we all felt the shock. It was heartbreaking.
Eventually, I asked the obvious question: “If you were in our shoes, what would you change to bring down costs?” Drew was prepared for this question and had a list of the most costly parts of the design. As a group, we went through his list and documented a handful of other items that could be changed or delayed. For example, solar panels could wait. We could use a heat pump instead of expensive in-floor hydronic heating.
A big part of the cost was in the design. We had designed the best house we could imagine and those choices, from a high level, were more expensive than we understood. These were things integrated into every part of the house, like insulation, concrete, and steel. Reducing them wasn’t as easy as choosing a different building material. Making the house more affordable could mean rethinking and possibly reducing the entire design.
For example, we imagined having a roof that hung over the deck without obstructing the view. To make this work, the roof overhang was designed to be a cantilever that didn’t need supporting posts. On paper, it was obviously the best way to design the west side of the house.