Building and renovating: avoiding the pitfalls

An A-frame house showing half renovated, half unrenovated.

Building or renovating a home is on many people’s bucket list. But how can you help the process run smoothly?

Towards the end of their renovation Fay and Peter asked their builder for a new fence. They assumed the fence would be made from sustainable timbers like the rest of their renovation. Thinking he was doing the right thing to save costs, the builder used a cheap imported timber for the fence. Unfortunately he chose a non-sustainable rainforest timber that the client would never have agreed to. While this appears to be a relatively small glitch, the result was a disappointed and annoyed client at the end of what had been an otherwise smooth project. So what could have been done differently?

This week Victoria Law Foundation explores how to keep your building project on track in a Q&A with Melbourne architect Antony DiMase.

How do building projects commonly go off the rails?

The main way projects go off the rails is through poor planning and not investing in good processes to ensure a positive outcome. A simple rule of thumb is that it takes the same amount of time to plan a project as it does to build a project. So, if a building project takes six months to build then you should allow six months to plan.

Only use experienced professionals on any given project and ensure important aspects of any building project are communicated clearly to key personnel. Remember an over-qualified professional may not be in your interests either. The professional you need is one whose practice and experience is the right fit for your project and location.

What is a variation to a contract?

A variation occurs when something happens during the construction phase that isn’t explicitly (or implicitly) covered in the agreement. For example if a client wants to install four light fittings in a room instead of three as given in the contract, then the supply and installation of that additional light fitting, plus the builder’s costs, constitutes a variation to the contract. Again, this is a relatively minor example, but variations can be significant depending on the circumstances.

Having a complete set of working drawings will keep variations to a minimum and never assume something is in the contract.

The main ways variations occur?

Variations generally occur in one of three ways.

  • Unforeseen circumstances that couldn’t be reasonably anticipated during the design phase. An example which is often cited is ‘hitting rock’. Such an event can’t be foreseen and the cost of its removal is a variation to the contract.
  • As a result of documentation error or ambiguity. Despite the best intentions by everyone involved – errors can occur – and these can result in a variation to the contract. For example one set of drawings could show a window as openable, and another might show that it’s not. If the builder installs an unopening window and the client wanted it to open, then that’s a variation. This is not something a client likes to hear - but it is nearly impossible to have a perfect set of working drawings, and that is the reason why a client should allow for such events in their budget. Taking a hard line on these kinds of issues is not in a client’s interests. It is better to have an open and transparent discussion.
  • When a client requests changes to the scope of the project. For example a client may see the need for an extra window or door and request this change to the building work. This is usually the most straightforward variation and less likely to cause grief - however, before any change is made - we recommend getting a quotation and both parties agreeing to the total cost of the variation before doing the work. Do not rely on a guesstimate or a verbal agreement!

Antony’s top tips on how to make your building project run smoothly

1. Employ a qualified architect – they have five years higher education and at least two years professional training before registration. Architects are independent and work to ensure they deliver the client the best outcome for their budget. Buildings are complex entities and the provision of services by a trained professional is the best way to avoid problems.

2. Employ a highly skilled builder. Their primary role is to oversee and organise the site. Builders who work well with architects make the world of difference. Builders need to be organised, good communicators and dedicated to delivering good outcomes for their clients.

3. Communicate clearly and be flexible in your approach. Drawings need to come to life, and they don’t build themselves. At the end of the day people need to work together to create well designed buildings for people.

4. Enjoy the process. There is something special about seeing a building project being planned and built. It is not something you do every day so the opportunity to build something that will probably outlive you is special. To achieve something worthwhile we should invest in good quality design that will be sustainable in the long-term.

5. Don’t underestimate the value of design professionals, and invest wisely in consultants who can bring expertise to your project. It might just save you time and money in helping avoid too many variations to the contract. At first their independence and experience might seem over the top - but in my experience the value architects and engineers bring to projects makes the experience very worthwhile as a long-term investment.

For more information about the relevant law in Victoria see our recent factsheet on building and renovating

This page was last updated on October 09, 2017