Working on your own house sucks

September 17, 2012 — 39 Comments

As an architect I am here to tell you that designing and preparing drawings for work on your own house is a drag. This isn’t news to most architects and it’s a topic that I have covered here on Life of an Architect before. The difference between then and now is that I am finally going to be doing a small renovation to my home and I had to spend my evenings and all weekend preparing drawings for permit and for the contractor.


The Playroom

This is the room that we are going to renovate … we currently call it the playroom but there’s no playing that goes on here. We should really call it the “this is where all the miscellaneous stuff we don’t know where to put goes” room. You can probably guess that my daughter LOVED this room as it was because it was mostly her stuff.

My wife and I decided that we wanted to add a dining room/ sitting room off the Den and open up the wall so we could get more light into the interior of the house – which was #1 on my list of things that needed to get changed. So this is the kickoff post for this project … and it starts with my complaining about how terrible it is to be your own client and have to prepare your own drawings.

Again … ugh.


Existing Furr Down

I will concede that everyone who has the slightest amount of architectural or design training can come into my house and “get it.” My house was designed by an architect in 1967 and it is very modern in the construction techniques and how the materials are expressed. All the things that make my house awesome make it suck to renovate. Everything is exposed and designed on a grid. It makes change difficult and despite how simple everything appears, renovation work has to approached like surgery

Michelle (my wife): “No it doesn’t, you make everything more difficult.”

That’s not true but I do tend to approach things like this with a “big picture” mentality – you know … I can’t change this without changingย that. So in order to get started, I had to start with some exploratory demolition to know what I had to work with and what I could change. The picture above is a furr-down between the playroom and the Den. The white thing at the top of the picture is the main duct that runs the entire length of my house. It’s not going anywhere and I have no choice but to work around it.


closeup of rafters

This picture is a closeup view of the exterior wall where the new window unit will be going. The playroom was originally an exterior patio but at some point it was enclosed and turned into a bonus room. As a result, the floor is about 3″ lower than the surrounding interior rooms and the floor is completely made up with dry fit brick pavers. I removed the cedar board and battens on the interior side of the exterior wall so I could take a look at the rafters (you can see the nails that were left behind in the removal process). If you look at the dark wood rafter in the middle of the picture, you can see where the rafter was cut and replaced as it passes through the wall due to rot on the exterior portion of the beam. It rotted out before and was replace and it’s rotted out again and now I have to replace them – lucky me.

That means more complications (i.e. $$$)


cleaning the interior of the wall

Yes, once the wall was opened up, I couldn’t help but pull out the shop van and remove cobwebs, dust and other things that have been in there since 1967. The boards I pulled off are leaning up against the glass.


Ceiling with rafters and tongue & groove boards

I know I am probably belaboring the point but this picture gives you an idea of just how exposed and interconnected everything is in this room. There also isn’t any gypsum board in this room – really in the whole house. That makes “patching” things difficult because if it’s here, it’s serving a dual purpose – structural AND aesthetic.


Ceiling at Interior Wall

This is a picture taken from the playroom looking back at is the wall separating this space from the Den. This wall was originally the exterior wall of the house. Recognize the Lamps of Lost Souls?


materials coming together at the floor

Exterior door frame, true masonry stucco, concrete grade beam, and brick pavers ….

The doors are coming out, so is the stucco wall – which will be rebuilt with and all new stucco wall because there would be no way to patch in the new portion of the wall and match the texture of the existing. This is called “practicing what you preach.”


Ritzy my helper ... not helping

… not helping. Some contractors have job site dogs which I always thought were cool – Ritzy is not one of those dogs


existing drawings for the Borson house

Part of what is making the process of documenting existing conditions a little easier is that I have the original architectural drawings for my house. THings were built a little differently back in the 60’s and these drawings give me a good idea of what was done and how it was built (without having to rip everything open).


Borson Drawing Set A2

So here is part of how I spent my weekend – preparing a full set of drawings so that I can use to pull a permit on my project. This is just one of the sheets I had to prepare to explain what has to happen. There are loads of demo drawings with specific instructions on what needs to be removed, how and where (again … because itย IS like surgery).

What kept going through my head all weekend as I sat in front of my computer was how much preparing the process of preparing these drawings was draining my life force – why is that? I do drawings like this all the time and I generally like doing it but for some reason, having to do it for yourself is terrible. Someone suggested that part of the reason it’s so bad is because this is what I do for a living and in this regard I’m not getting paid. I’m not sure that I can agree with that because the flip side is that I’m also not having to pay someone with my skill level to do it for me. This is a little project – I wouldn’t say it’s simple but the scope is pretty simple to define. What do the people who can’t prepare their own drawings do? Who helps those people? If I paid myself to do this hourly it would have cost me approximately ย $3,500 (assuming I wouldn’t give myself a break on the fee) to create electronic as-builts and then prepare the documents suitable for pulling a permit.

At any rate, I got them completed and dropped off at the contractors house (talk about service!) so he can get them in for permitting. I will keep you updated on my progress which also includes re-finishing all the concrete floors in my house.

And I need to have it all completed by Thanksgiving.

Now I really do sound like one of my clients …






Print Friendly

even better stuff from Life of an Architect

  • Pingback: What's an architects day like? | Life of an Architect()

  • Richard

    Here’s the problem Bob. Because we are in the biz and have all this fancy software to draw hundreds of elevations to ensure what the wife wants, she gets, and we have ALL the reference materials and code books to get the job done, there is no limits to how many revisions your spouse can ask for. In general, a house plan that you and I can usually have firmed up in 6 months takes at least a year for your own home. In my case, we started design phase three year ago. Last month we completed final working plans. On Tuesday my wife suggested we move/exchange the bathroom and laundry room because of the drier exhaust run……No limits to the revisions…or insanity!

  • Pingback: A day in the life of an architect | The WorkZine()

  • Liz O’Sullivan

    I hate to bring this up, but I’m pretty sure the construction observation part will be more torturous for you than the construction documentation part. I’ll be looking for construction updates!

  • Why is Ritzy not cool?

    • Ritzy the dog is very cool (they are an awesome breed by the way), I’m just suggesting that she is not very helpful on the job site. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Alycia Wicker

    First off, Lamps of Lost Souls… I’d love those! They are awesome. Second. I’m glad I got the plans for our house from the county so when we ever do anything here (or I get Alzheimers) we know what we’re dealing with. (I wish that plans came with every house.) So you’re lucky there! Third. I don’t envy you. Doing anything for myself seems like such a chore. I don’t want to make drawings. I just want someone to read my mind and do. And them to babysit contractors in my own house, I’d rather hang out with a Kardashian.

    • what’s a Kardashian?

      • Joe

        I’m sorry, I had to reply.. They are an alien race from Star Trek…although commonly misspelled here on earth….

  • G Khalsa

    My house is under constant renovation since we moved in 5 years ago! I have this feeling that when we finally finish we will get bored, sell it and buy another one that needs tons of work. Ahhh… the life of a designer. In my experience the reason it is so horrible to work on your own drawings set is two fold:

    1) For some reason when it’s my own project I have so much more trouble making decisions. This is exacerbated by the fact that my husband is also in the industry… we both think we know what is best!

    2) I hate spending all day drawing houses and then have to come home and spend all evening and weekend doing the same. Even though it is mine and I have some enthusiasm for it it feels like non stop work.

    In a way the drawings are the worst of it though. Back in the day when my husband and did all the work on our house that was definitely not true, we have cut our do-it-yourself teeth on most of the projects in our house. Now, no matter how long construction takes it seems like a breeze!

    • I would also think that there is some guilt involved. Despite coming into the office an hour early every day, I feel like I can’t spend time coordinating or communicating with people on company time since this isn’t a company project.

      That would also explain the nights and weekends part of this ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Rae

    Hi! I really like reading your posts. I am a freshman in college and I’m majoring in architecture. The only thing scaring me is, not passing the examination to be a licsensed architect. I don’t know why but i have a fear of failure. What happens if u fail?
    Thanks again for your posts!

  • Rae

    Hi! I really like reading your posts. I am a freshman in college and I’m majoring in architecture. The only thing scaring me is, not passing the examination to be a licsensed architect. I don’t know why but i have a fear of failure. What happens if u fail?
    Thanks again for your posts!

    • If you fail, study again and retake the exam. The tests aren’t terribly difficult but they will require your attention and dedication in preparing for them. If you need more study time than others, then put in the time and you’ll be just fine.


      • Rae

        Thank you so much! That made made me feel better.
        Thanks you!!!

  • Tara P

    does your fee of $3500 include design? if not, how much would the total project fee be, including design and CA?

    • I don’t want to think about it …
      If I did the design hourly (and let’s see, I did 800 versions because I am an architect and this is my own house …)

      see? I shouldn’t have thought about it

      If this was for someone else the timing would have been different and I would do the entire project hourly. Chances are the entire thing would have cost someone between $3,000 – $3,500 in fee (approx 6-10% of the total construction cost)

  • Megan Musgrove

    Wow! I totally feel better after reading this (and many of your posts). I should seriously make my husband read. We just finished building a new “old” home. Almost 2 1/2 years of battling between him just wanting to get it finished and me wanting to “get it just right”. Somehow we managed to finish enough to close and move in and I am finally working out of my new office in the basement. Which many folks come over and say should be used as a master bedroom instead (b/c it’s so big). I seriously haven’t figured out why some folks think it’s appropriate to come into the architect’s new home and make suggestions as to how something should have been done?? lol I agree with whoever posted you’ve really gotten the hardest part out of the way. And being up front with your contractor that you’re going to roll with the punches is very wise indeed! Good luck . . .I look forward to seeing how it progresses. . .and the continual confirmation that I’m not the only one out there incapable of “just fixing this”, b/c if I fix this, I must fix that, etc, etc, etc . . . ; )

    • luckily nobody has offered their opinions just yet …

      This house is a mutha the renovate and walking my wife through some of the issues this time I think has finally helped the light bulb go off as to why I am always saying “everything is connected”. Now if this was a sheet rock builder special, things would be a whole lot simpler (but where’s the fun in that?) Oh yeah, I could not spend as much money and go on vacation – that’s where the fun is.


      • Megan Musgrove

        I understand, we have had a few lessons in why everything is connected ourselves. : )

  • Does that old drawing really say, “Exposed ass?”

    • a quick glance would tell you “yes” but upon closer inspection, it is actually “agg” – short for aggregate.

      There is a lot of exposing that goes on in that room though –

  • Pursuit99

    Good luck with the reno. I suspect your are suffering, in large part, because as an architect you see so many alternatives and having to commit to one is agony. When you work with a client, you know their budget, offer them a couple of options and move on. I suspect, too, you are experiencing the nagging worry there might be a better (read: less costly) option which you’ve overlooked but you don’t want to have to ask anyone else to have a look at it. Cheer up – the worst part of this reno for you is probably already over!

    • While everything you say is most likely true, laziness probably figures into to somewhere – working all week and then coming in to the office to draw something for yourself requires that you forgo doing other things (like spending time with the family, etc.) Once people show up to begin work, I imagine some excitement will begin – I do love construction.

  • Looks like you are planning batt insulation at the unvented (?) roof…I guess rigid polyiso would bust the budget? I’ve got a similar roof condition and am waiting for the roof to fail so that I can pull everything off and insulate it…right now I think that the original builder in the 50s put about 1.5″ of homosote up there for insulation. Anyhow I’m not looking forward to that bill coming due. Are you spec-ing anything special for the bond between the old concrete floor beneath the pavers and the new concrete?

    • I have an understanding with the contractor working with me on this job that we will be making adjustments as things are discovered. The existing drawings showed that batt insulation was installed and most likely I will match that (until I replace the entire roof and replace all the insulation with something with a higher performance level).

      As far as the concrete goes, I am adding enough thickness that I can do a mechanical connection but in case that turns out to not be the case, there are plenty of chemical bonding adhesive products out there that will work just fine.

  • Oh, I am with you every step of the way here. Since I am “under-employed” this year… I’ve been spending my time doing small improvements to our homeowner-built, ex-summer-house, wet-basement-ed hillside mansion.

    The hubby has already told me he feels I “wasted too much time” doing a proper set of drawings for permit – since we’ll be doing most of the work ourselves. (“What do we need detailed drawings for? I know how to do this..” – Hubby)

    I have already discovered the following AWESOME things about our house:
    1. The Master Bath is built on an old porch addition – hence – no foundation.
    2. The main electric panel has three unidentifiable breakers (no label AND nothing appears to turn off in the house when I kill them… Can you say “whole new electrical system”?)
    3. While the solid wood t&g paneling (floor to ceiling) is one of the things we LOVE about the house, it just makes EVERYTHING miserable (and EVERY electrical box needs an extension piece). (And, while the paneling LOOKS lovely, it has been nailed multiple times – through the face of the panel – to the seemingly randomly spaced studs beyond.)

    Oh god. Do I feel your pain.

  • Cool project. Our house is in permanent renovation mode (hope my wife doesn’t read this). We started with the Kitchen, and I have no doubt that once we’re done with everything else, it will be time to redo that. Currently working on the basement, but stuck in pre-demo purge mode. The biggest challenge I find is removing the architect from the equation. What the architect (me) wants to do is often not what the homeowner (me) should do, but then my house is not the least bit architecturally significant.

    • at the very least, I think doing the work yourself will give you an insight into the construction process that will probably benefit you over the course of your career.

      How’s that for finding the silver lining?

  • Shoemaker’s shoes, I guess. But, I know you’ll do a great job and may find that the project is more fun once you have permit in hand. It is always interesting dealing with pre-built problems as opposed to starting from scratch. Looking forward to seeing. Trust me, I’ve thought a number of times that it’d be easier to demo our house in sections and rebuild than retro and fit insulation and proper air barriers into a plaster and lathe house from the 1930’s. But…I’m not rich and famous and can’t afford that.

    • your not suggesting that I’m famous are you? If so, then it’s completely overrated.

      This will be the first renovation project I have done for myself since becoming a residential architect so I suppose I am a bit excited just to be doing anything that will improve my “personal billboard.”


  • You know I am reminded of a quote about lawyers, but I just can’t put my finger on it… : )
    Dittos to Allison’s points (though I think you know about all that) & wait a sec… he didn’t say anything about the duct line
    In all seriousness, congrats on getting your project moving forward & here’s to a nice new dining room / finding room for all those toys

    • yes – but I am the best I can afford ๐Ÿ™‚

      The two things I am most interested in seeing as changes is the large window (and how much additional light we should get) and the polished concrete floors (never know what you will find once the grinder goes to work).

      Fingers crossed!

      • Great reply, love it…
        Garth did make a good catch as FG is about the worse thing you can use there & is against codes in many areas. I would recommend a spray foam or foam boards fitted in that area
        Look forward to seeing the progress updates, especially the polished concrete

        • I considered foam or polyiso but this is a patch and wouldn’t really address a large – far more systemic issue. I think I am just going to have to wait on a large hail storm so I can replace my roof and do it properly.

  • architectrunnerguy

    This is going to be a cool project to follow. Thanks for sharing!

    • unless something goes terribly wrong, then it won’t be cool but at least it would make for (someone else’s) amusement.

  • EnergyVanguard

    I know exactly what you mean, Bob. I have a leaky, inefficient condo, and although I know what i’d like to do with it to make it better, I don’t have the money to do the full gut-rehab so I mostly just live with it as it is. Well, that’s not entirely true. We did just replace the ceiling in the laundry room, but that was my wife’s doing really.

    When you get going on this project, one thing you ought to do is fix the air barrier. That third photo shows a lot of light coming through where you should have a continuous air barrier. That may be related to your rafter rot problems, though I imagine there may be some bulk water issues at the transition as well.

    Have fun!

    • That wall where you see light coming through doesn’t even any sheathing on it – I don’t know what they were thinking when it was added. The entire wall is coming out and being rebuilt as a proper assembly.

      yay ๐Ÿ™ glad I get to do that…