Ask the Architect

About those estimates


Q. We’re concerned about the cost of our upcoming job. We got estimates that are all over the place, and we want to get the best bang for our buck before we lock and load, if you get my meaning. What do we look for in a builder’s price? A few seem to be giving F.U. numbers because they’re so busy, but how do we know?

A. First, let’s settle the debate about “lock and load.” Coined by Marion Morrison, a.k.a. John Wayne (even he knew his given name was wimpy) in a 1947 war movie, “lock and load” sounds great, like rock ’n’ roll, but is backward. Anyone who handles weaponry knows you actually load first, then lock. Inserting ammunition and then securing is universal, so let’s understand that the phrase sounds good but is wrong.

Speaking of backward, that’s also the way most people get an estimate. I admire contractors who refuse to estimate without detailed — not partially or preliminarily prepared — plans. There’s a lot of guessing in estimating if thorough plans aren’t used.

You can use a basic $175-per-square-foot number to start with, but there are many additional parts that alter the base price from there. For example, insulation is now required to be of much greater proportion than even a few months ago. The latest energy code will require roof rafters and ceiling joists to be larger just to accommodate the deeper insulation. To get the R-38 to R-49 values that have been raised from the previous R-19, foam insulation, which is three times the price of fiberglass, may be necessary just to fit the space provided in most construction, increasing the base price of any home construction project.

Don’t expect great bang for your buck (another ammo term) or a magic bullet without carefully laid-out plans and careful consideration of what is necessary to be legal and correctly built. Having been fired at by a machine gun in a war zone, I’m not a big fan of the arbitrary use of guns, but it seems to have worked its way into our vocabulary, and I equate not having thorough plans to being sent into action with an empty weapon. Without proper armaments, you’re vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

Do your homework by choosing very specific items for your project — plumbing fixtures, molding, siding, flooring, etc. — that can all be seen on the internet. Anything you leave out will be assumed. Construction usually just keeps going, so whatever you don’t communicate or decide will be chosen for you, leaving you to wonder whether you got stuck with something inferior in quality or whether you could have done better — hence the term “bang for your buck.” Remember, “The bitterness of low quality lingers long after the happiness of low cost has been forgotten.” Be careful before pulling the trigger.

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.