Monday House, part v, soft costs, planning work


Renovating a house includes the hard costs of buying the house, gutting it, fixing it up. It also includes soft costs, like lawyers, planning permissions,  and engineering drawings and building plans.

When buying a new house, the soft costs can easily be 1/3 of the final purchase price. Much less so when renovating an older house, but there are still costs.

During the last week the project coordinator was pushing paperwork through the permitting process and the home owner was busy trying to lay out electrical drawings.

MP elect 1st draft main floor

Putting the markings on the plan for plugs is straight forward. (shown on the plan as a circle with two vertical bars through it, like a dollar sign has). If you don’t plan, you get what the contractor or the electrician on site thinks you should get. Which can easily leave out that perfect spot where you pictured the Christmas Tree.

The owner in this case knows where he wants the kitchen counters and appliances, but we don’t see those on the drawing, so the counter plugs plan does not make much sense to us.

It’s easier for the living and dining rooms. Picture some furniture, and add plugs. While they aren’t free, it is definitely easier and cheaper to put in a few more now than to try to add them later.

You can see they are debating which way the front door should swing, and have planned a CL – ceiling light for the front entry; and a line of PL – pot lights, for the hallway.  At this point it is enough to decide roughly where the stuff goes.

The kitchen right now hasn’t any light fixtures at all, but they will come, and have to be planned with the counters and appliances in mind. Also yet to come is the idea of layering light, ie having a subdued lighting in a room if not in active use but preventing it from being a dark void. The light switch locations have to be decided, by imagining walking through the spaces and living in them at different seasons. Some fixtures will have two switches, for eg at the each end of the hall. Dimmers are affordable and need to be identified too. What of little luxuries like light switches that glow so you can find them at the front entry or when entering a room. Will there be plugs for vacuums? For a stove hood & fan, for a driveway light separate from the front and back doors? The dishwasher? A hot water dispenser? A coffee station? The modem and router? Lights for artwork or impact walls? Wall washers? Electronics for burglar alarms or security cameras on the outside corners of the house are cheap now … install wiring for them or ignore it?

It is best to do this in sequential passes, identifying the plugs, then the switches, then figuring out where the dimmer goes. Generally, one doesn’t install more than 3 switches in a row, as they become too hard to remember which is which and take up too much wall space. Related to that, recall that in this old house the door trim will be about 6″ wide, so on some of those short walls in the living and hall areas there has to be enough room for the switch to fit.

It’s also useful to know if there will be any bulkheads or wall chases for ductwork and drain pipes. If so, these influence shadows and are themselves opportunities for interesting lighting effects.

the list of possibilities quickly becomes endless. New ideas emerge at 3 am to ruin a night’s sleep. The 2 pm meeting at work is no longer just boring, it’s frustrating when one could revising the dimmer switch plans. What sounds like fun becomes work, revision, work, and discoveries one cannot do what was planned. Oops, the ductwork took up all the space. What thermostat?

Decision fatigue starts to sound like a concept, but it ain’t here yet.

MP elec first draft second floor

These drawings are still at the first draft stage.

The 600 sq ft or so of second floor space looks like enough space for the adults and a few kids. And there is a third floor above that is usable but is a future project for renovation. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering about previous generations that lived in these typical centretown house layouts. My grandfather’s house was very similar. He had seven children (6 girls, one boy) plus the parents plus an elderly widow to fit into a similar space. Two girls fit in each bed, three if they are young. My father, as a boy, got to sleep on a cot in the hall at the top of the stairs. I don’t know where the dog slept. For the first 20 years, there was no running hot water upstairs or in the kitchen. Hot water was heated on a pot bellied wood stove in the kitchen and carried upstairs. The coal furnace had to be fed thrice daily, etc. They didn’t fuss about slow broadband.

It’s now starting to look like a lot of space per person in 2016.

During the week, the project made a huge transition from old stuff going OUT to the first new stuff coming IN.


The first pile of new lumber, screws, plastic sheeting …



Notice the old blankets cushioning the window sill. These windows were replaced 20 years back, and have life left in them yet, and are worth protecting.


Just in case you haven’t seen one of these one-person lumber trailers, the driver parks the forks of the forklift into slots on the back of the truck, then lifts the forklift up to parking position:



As a last step, he folds the third wheel flush with the trailer and clips on a safety chain:




6 thoughts on “Monday House, part v, soft costs, planning work

  1. Enjoying this series very much, but it leaves me wondering about the gut job / renos that don’t bother with the soft cost of planning engineers or city permits. It is entirely possible that the weekend variety renovations (changing layout of walls, gutting rooms, removing century plaster, updating kitchens, baths, plumbing and electrical are being done correctly and to code, but how would a prospective owner know? If the city has not issued required permits and has no record of the work, should a buyer walk away? Or would the city even be able to provide past records?

  2. I am not an expert at what is covered, but the codes are looking for safety and correct economic / class composition for each area. I dont think removing the plaster and redoing it in drywall requires a permit, but I may be wrong. Nor does changing your kitchen cabinets or hooking up a new sink.

    what scares me most are quick flip renos that update SOME wiring, SOME plumbing, and leave the difficult or expensive stuff buried in the walls. I’ve seen some cosmetic renos where decora light switches and plugs were put onto old — maybe even two strand — wiring with no ground. I’ve spotted new steel posts in the basement sitting on brittle concrete with no footing, etc etc.

    Anyone buying a house should find a clause in the contract requiring a listing of all changes and permits made by the current owner. This of course hides the stuff done by the previous previous owner.

    I’m a bit dubious of standard house inspections that go by a check list, often spotting only the obvious or visible changes and not probing deeply at all. Just watch a few episodes of Holmes on Homes on HGTV to see the horrors lurking behind new and old walls.

    1. Thanks, I know what you mean, an uncapped live wire with no apparent purpose was found hanging between joists inside our bathroom wall when we were updating. It must have been there 20+ years. No one could have seen it, least of all the inspector we hired at purchase time. Structural changes to the interior require permits according to the city, but we have also paid for electrical permits when so advised by an electrician.

    1. A > B show where, on another drawings, there is a cut through illustration showing the foundation, floor, and upper floors, as if one sliced the house in half with a knife.

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