Issan Steak with Bamboo Salad and Signed Contract

On the 29th of November, 2012 I sent an email to Yo Shimada in Japan. It read: “Hello, I am most impressed by your house in Rokko and was interested to know if you had ever done any projects in Australia. I live in Brisbane and I am looking for an architect to design something on a small lot with a similar aesthetic to your house in Rokko.”

To which Yo Shimada replied, “Dear Steve, thank you for your email. I am really happy to receive it from Brisbane because the “house in Rokko” was designed with reference to Queenslander architecture. Unfortunately, I have never done projects in Australia. But I think I can deal with it.”

Almost two years later to the day, I have finally signed a contract with my builder to commence the project that Yo Shimada and I spoke of in those first two emails.

On a humid Friday at a communal table in West End Coffee House, Cameron McDonald from MCD Construction and I signed our agreement to proceed, under the guiding eye of Paul Hotston and Yohei Omura from Phorm Architecture and Design. Then we ate Issan Steak w Bamboo Salad and Sticky Rice and drank Sapporo.

It was hot and sticky and also humid.

It was hot and sticky and also humid.

If you’ve ever signed a contract with a builder before, you’d know that it is indeed something worth celebrating. There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes of bringing a project to construction contract stage. There are weeks of construction drawings to agonise over, many, many forms to fill out and submissions to lodge. Much quoting. There’s a lot of angst too. And hand wringing. And soul-searching. During the inevitable struggle with Council you wonder whether it’s all worth it. Then you look at the design and fear that the tension between doing things differently and buying things off the shelf will tear a massive hole in your budget.

I have however, never lost faith in the notion that good things come to those who wait. As frustrated as I’ve been with the pace of the project, I’ve never seriously considered cutting it short because I’ve always been convinced that great work comes with decent preparation and planning. Everyone I’ve spoken to about building has told me it’s the variations that happen during the build that hurt you and they hurt you bad. To avoid these variations, you need to plan everything upfront.

So now that the preamble to the build is done and dusted and it’s time to spend the money I’ve set aside, let me now talk about the project budget.

Builder, Cameron McDonald (far right) with his trusty money man Tom (left) discuss the terms.

Builder, Cameron McDonald (far right) with his trusty money man Tom (left) discuss the terms of the contract with Paul and Yohei from Phorm.

The figure I set for the completion of the project two years ago has been, you won’t be surprised to hear, well exceeded. It’s a typical story. I got over excited, the architects got over excited, and now we’ve blown the budget. I have to confess however that my initial budget, the first figure I gave to the architect was a “false” one. It was a hopeful budget, in that I really hoped I could get away with a figure that low. However, my “real” budget was actually double that figure. I didn’t tell the architects that of course.

I set a false budget because I knew that the architects would inevitably blow it. I felt canny doing that. I felt realistic. I felt cynical too, but I also felt wise to the process of dreaming up a home with an architect. I expected to get over excited. I was also wary of the site, which I knew was a difficult one that would also challenge the budget (any budget).

I wasn’t quite as smart as I thought. Though I’d planned to blow the budget, the contract I signed with Cameron McDonald was for a figure that, when combined with all the other project costs would actually exceed even my “real” budget by about 30%. I’m devastated by this development of course. I thought I had planned well for the blowout. I’m still hoping to find some savings, but ultimately it will cost far more than I was hoping to pay.

In saying that, I don’t mean to cast doubt on the process of dealing with an architect. In defence of the architects, let me say this.

My original budget was for a basic house. Very basic. I recall telling the architect that I needed no more than one bedroom, one level, one bathroom and one deck. Not even a car space. In Yo Shimada’s original submission he presented one idea like that. But in addition, he presented the X-House which was two levels, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and four decks. There was also a fully enclosed garage. I couldn’t take my eyes off the X-House after the presentation and though I had given a much smaller budget to work to, I had in my mind double that figure so I gave them the go ahead on the larger house, thinking I still had it covered.

Meanwhile, the site that I chose delivered even more hurdles and obstacles than I imagined in my pre-project naiveté. I knew it had access issues, but I didn’t know it had geotechnical issues like the loose fill that needed to be dealt with and the weathered rock that would need to be engineered for. I didn’t know about this stuff. So the budget also had to accommodate that.

And then the seduction of the design process started with the temptation of unique window systems, and beautiful balustrades and Japanese construction techniques that conjured up magician like tricks for things like sliding doors and security screens and invisible downpipes and eaves that floated lightly over indoor/outdoor areas (and their required highly technical solutions to water proofing).

These things cost money. They all add up. And they all combine to create the house you eventually decide you need to build. It’s a stealthy seduction. You barely notice it’s happening, and when you do you hope it won’t keep happening. But you like the attention (to detail) and then you see the construction drawings come back in the form of a quote and you realise it’s now a “thing” and you’re now married to it. But you don’t care. You’ve been seduced. And so you accept that you’ve blown the budget. As I now have. And you sign a contract for more than even the backup figure you had in mind.

I don’t want to let everyone off the hook though in describing it as a seduction, which requires a level of consent. Even though these were ultimately my decisions to approve, the architects, the engineer and I, we’re all complicit in this blowout. We’re all aiming high. We’ve all been whipped into a frenzy by the vision of Yo Shimada to build a house that would look and feel different on Hamilton Hill. Unfortunately when everybody walks away at the end of the project, I’ll be the only one who is paying for it. I’m the one footing the bill and everyone else is getting paid.

Cheers to Steve!

Cheers to Steve!

That’s the thing about being a client. The buck stops with you and you have to know when to stop the bucks. So after I signed the contract and after our lunch of Issan Steak, Bamboo Shoot Salad, Sticky Rice and Sapporo, I let Cameron McDonald pick up the tab for that. The bucks stopped at lunch that day. It was a small win, but at this stage every dollar counts.