How to Begin a Happy and Successful House Project

A short description of the design process in phases from beginning to contractor selection


  1. Most of feasibility occurs in the first meeting and takes only an hour or so.
  2. Feasibility means different things to different people. For this article, feasibility means that we are creating value. That’s the short version but there are lots of ingredients.
  3. At this writing, a cost of $140 -200 / sq ft is typical for new construction. $90-140 / sq ft is typical for remodeling. Finishes and project scale are big factors in this cost range. Most infill projects are combinations of new and remodeling construction, but the same numbers apply in proportion to their area. Kitchens and baths can be more. If houses in your neighborhood are selling for at least $210-250 / sq ft, your project will create value beyond its cost if the zoning and design ideas work.
  4. Based on cost history of past projects, we can predict an approximate cost for your project if we know your sq ft. We can determine sq ft from a list of rooms you probably have in mind. The predicted cost will be very preliminary but for our purpose, it’s close enough to get us a typical price for a project with typical finishes.
  5. If you want something other than average, we can factor that in.
  6. Zoning is also a major determining factor. We should check it on the city website to be certain your project is allowable and that the setbacks and other restrictions fit your needs.
  7. After our feasibility meeting, we’ll email you a two-page proposal and, if you like what you see, sign the proposal and it becomes our design contract.
  8. A deposit is due when we begin. If we have a few other projects going at the time, we can’t begin immediately. The signed proposal will hold your place in line. There is usually a 3-6 week back log in early spring and much less as the winter holidays approach.


  1. Design time is dependent on responses by the owner, but historically with typical response time, it takes about 6-8 weeks. If your project is more than 4000 sq ft it could take longer. We will communicate often during this period.
  2. It varies with location and type but many projects need a boundary survey and sometimes a soil report. When you decide to proceed and it’s certain you need a survey, it’s a good idea to get that started as soon as possible. Surveyors are typically available within 2-3 weeks. Landmarkk has a list you can pick from. Although costs vary, $1200 is about right. If your project is an addition or an internal remodel, we need to measure the interior of the house and create an accurate existing plan. It’s inefficient to begin a project without a survey if it needs one because the relationship of the house to property line and outline of the house must be determined with surveying equipment. We can order the soil report if we need one, after the project starts. Soil report costs are less than surveys but they take longer.
  3. We will use the design process to tailor the project to fit your needs. Like any other process, our decisions begin with generalities and move toward specifics. Together we can talk about cost, house styles, siting, neighborhood influence, zoning requirements, and the benefits of different plan types. If you have a budget in mind, we can make preliminary adjustments to the house size and design to fit. If you have an unrestrained dream house in mind, we can do that too. Our goal is to create a preliminary design early enough so that we proceed with a clear understanding of your needs.
  4. Because it sets a direction for the project, accomplishing this first step is very important. The homework items below won’t all apply, but you’ll be surprised at how helpful they are.
    1. Most importantly, please create a detailed wish list of rooms. Add notes about usage or approximate size if that helps to explain. Email as soon as you can. We need this information to begin.
    2. Drive around the neighborhood and take pictures of some houses you like.
    3. You can also look at Houzz or Pinterest.
    4. We’ll discuss your wish list and Landmarkk will prepare a quick list of areas with the rooms.
  5. From the wish list, we can determine the total area of the project and some layout options.
    1. These drawing options will be a graphic representation of your wish list within the practical limits of good design, building code, zoning code, the existing site, and the budget.
    2. An approach that works well is to create alternative schemes which we can compare. This will spark a discussion about the pros and cons of each option and quickly lead you a preliminary idea of our best design. 3 to 6 options are pretty common, but not always.
    3. Sometimes, only one or two options are needed because the problem is very straight-forward.
    4. Even though these drawings are preliminary, there is lots of information we can infer. For instance, the building structure, mechanical, and electrical are directly related to areas we can take from the preliminary design. In this way, we can assign preliminary sq ft pricing to each scheme.
  6. Next, we’ll create more accurate plans and 3d options taken from the design so far.
    1. We’ll evaluate the plans for functionality and appropriateness to your life style. Refine the interior spaces, finishes, features, cost, and so on.
    2. In addition, we’ll evaluate the look of the house from the exterior.
    3. 3d drawings will help to visualize.
  7. After a few iterations of this process, we will have a preliminary design which shows how the house will look and work.
    1. Our goal is an exterior look which blends with the neighborhood and reflects your personal vision of what the house should look like. This normally involves exterior views of the house, and a few variations to get it right. See some of the attached example 3d and floor plan sketches.
    2. In the same way, we’ll refine the interior layout, and work on some of the details.
    3. Finishes can vary drastically. Let us know if our standard specification is ok. This can affect the price in a big way.
    4. If you have more specific ideas about windows, mechanical, or exterior, this is a great time to let us know.
    5. There are several examples and many types of house designs on the Landmarkk website. Please look it over if you haven’t already.
    6. Eventually we’ll hit a place where, after balancing all the needs, we are happy with the result. At this point in our progress, Landmarkk will ask you to provide an email approval of the design. With the completion of this design phase of the work, the next billing is due.
    7. Please don’t change your mind after we complete this phase of the work. If you do, it will cause a lot of additional work which is out of sequence and it’s probable that the design cost will increase.
  8. At the completion of design, or a little before, it helps to get contractors involved. That’s because, the construction market is going thru a lot of inflation right now and prices are very hard to predict. If we can sign a negotiated cost plus contract at this stage, your construction cost is reasonably predictable. If our project is not within your goals, we can adjust the scope of work until it is. If we can get two contractors involved, they will balance each other. See the discussion on contracts and contractors at the end of this article.


  1. The time it takes to provide the construction drawings is dependent on project size and cost. Large and complex projects have taken up to 12 weeks but 4-6 weeks is common. We’ll have to access the timing for your construction drawings on a case by case basis. Our communication during this phase of the work is weekly email to keep you informed and some detailed questions about finish selections and the like.
  2. After the design is resolved, you will need a set of architectural and structural construction drawings. The reasons for these drawings are itemized below:
    1. To exactly communicate all the construction details of your project to builders. This is much more extensive than you might imagine.
    2. If we are offering the project to more than one builder, it’s very important they give us a price quote on the same thing.
    3. To obtain a building permit.
  3. Additional Electrical / Mechanical engineering drawings are not required for residential permits (for most locations), but sometimes are needed to supplement the architectural drawings. Structural drawings are required. Most owners prefer to provide their own interior design but Landmarkk typically provides an interior theme which is consistent with the architectural style.
    1. Structural. Unless the house is structurally complicated, Landmarkk normally does this design work and includes it with the initial proposal. If an engineer becomes necessary because of a complication neither of us knew at the beginning, we can split this added cost.
    2. Electrical. For pricing and design compatibility, we can add lighting selections / locations to the drawings. Switching and outlet locations are another possibility. The need for this additional information varies for each project, so we should discuss it in the beginning. It’s possible for the contractor to base the electrical design on the building code and the owner can buy selected light fixtures separately. This will save coordination time but may not save money. Unless the electrical design is complicated, an electrical engineer is not required since electrical contractors can provide the cost of this information with their bid.
    3. Mechanical. For design and pricing purposes, these drawings are sometimes helpful but not required since most residential mechanical contractors provide services on a design/build basis. As part of the final scheme, we can discuss mechanical options. The most typical option is forced air but other choices are available. Landmarkk will design the project to allow space for mechanical equipment, ductwork and piping.
    4. An interior theme is part of preliminary design but is typically refined in the construction drawings. Such details as paint color and cabinet components are not included.
    5. Again there are examples of our construction drawings on the Landmarkk website.
    6. With the completion of the construction drawings and submitting the drawings to the building department, the remaining fee is due.


  1. There are two types of construction contract.
    1. Cost plus – This type of contract is favored by very good contractors and very experienced owners. It’s becoming more typical for first time owner-builders because of the reasons stated in “design” above. The cost of the project is determined by the total of the contractors’ invoices plus a percentage for management. In general, this contract produces higher quality construction at a slightly higher, but very predictable price. If we can select from two contractors who are interested enough to give us well considered pricing, then you have two opinions which is even better. To get this type of pricing, going forward, we will have to sign a contract with a contractor. If you are interested in this type of contract, we should discuss further because there are many variations.
    2. Bidding – This type of contract is much more typical in a slower construction environment. Contractors submit lump sum prices for construction described on the drawings. The total price is adjusted during the course of the project by owner changes and construction discoveries of existing conditions which were not visible at the time of bidding.
    3. Landmarkk includes a small amount of time in the design contract for bidding questions and drawing distribution. Landmarkk can also work as an advocate for the owner on such issues as bid evaluation, site visits during construction for surprises, change order mediation, shop drawing review, material selection, and pay application review. Whether a cost plus or a bid contract, the prices may not be in your comfort range. Working with the contractors, Landmarkk can offer ways to reduce or upgrade the cost of your project.
  2. More detail on the bidding process – While the drawings are being reviewed at the building department, we distribute them (in pdf format) to builders for bidding by sub-contractors.
    1. Landmarkk currently has a list of 12 or more general contractors who are interested in our projects. The reason there are so many is that not all are available at any given time. All are believed to be capable and honest, but things change over time and the owner is ultimately responsible for selecting the right fit by interviewing the qualified builders submitted by Landmarkk. If you have some contractors you would like to consider, then I am happy to add them to the list. I have several who have been added this way.
    2. During the permit review process, general contractors distribute the drawings to their favorite subcontractors for bidding of each trade. For instance, they will collect bids from subs for tile, drywall, wood framing, concrete forming and so on. It’s not unusual for contractors to have 20 different subcontractors for a house project. Some of the subs will be busy so the contractors need 2-3 subs in each category. So you can imagine that bidding takes a lot of work and a lot of time. In addition, contractors aren’t awarded every project they bid, so they are careful about how they spend their time.
    3. After they have collected all the bids and totaled all the prices, they submit the totals to us with category totals, or breakdowns. With the breakdowns, Landmarkk can analyze the bids and advise the contractors if they have left out anything or misunderstood something on the drawings.
    4. The time for building department review has varied with the expanding economy but as of this writing the review time is down to 4-6 weeks. Contractor bidding can easily take longer than this, but if you are in a hurry as most home owners are, bidding this way will save you and the contractors a lot of time. The traditional method is to bid the project, select a contractor, and then ask the contractor to process the permit.
  3. Of course, price is important but it isn’t the only consideration for selecting a builder. Some others are listed below:
    1. Construction efficiency. Efficiency is relative to other work in progress, available staff, and management style compatibility. Efficiency is also the major component of progress. Efficient progress translates to lower interest cost, convenience, predictability, and generally letting the owner(s) go about your lives as soon as possible.
    2. Construction quality. At the end of the project, quality shows. Everyone knows they want it, but it’s different for everyone. The expectation for level of quality must be clearly communicated when the contract is signed because it corresponds to cost. Landmarkks’ drawings and specification offer lots of clarification on this very important issue. When the time comes, read this over carefully.
  4. For additional detail, Landmarkk has a “typical schedule” which outlines the entire process from beginning to end. Please review it carefully because it shows a detailed view of responsibilities for the bank, the owner, the architect, the subcontractors, and of course, the contractor. Most contractors will create their own schedule too.
    1. Construction services, except for the 6 hours described above, are not included in Landmarkks’ design proposal. We have a list of these services and approximate costs if think you may want them. Many owners manage the construction themselves with hourly help from Landmarkk.
    2. Many banks provide some of these services to assure themselves that the contractor is providing the right work according to the drawings and the construction agreement.
    3. Building inspectors are a help too. At each stage of the construction, the project must pass an inspection which provides a written indication that building code requirements are satisfied.
  5. Please save this article and re-read it when we come to each phase of the work. It helps to understand the process and may reduce some of the stress.

Please let me know if you have any questions regarding the above.

Steve Culbertson