What Kind of Disasters Lurk in the Dark During the Home Design Phase of a Project

I wrestled with what to title this post, the above
“What Can Happen When you Inadvertently Hire an Engineer or Idiot as Your Home Designer?”
“How We Helped Clients Avoid Building a Disastrous Home”
Home design can be an outright disaster especially in Costa Rica.  As you may have read this is the fundamental reason as to why there was a whole chapter in my book dedicated to “Beware of Professionals.”  I would prefer that I did not have such an abundance of stories to share with readers on this blog but they just keep a comin no matter what.  At times I feel like the boy with his finger in the dike.  I know we only run into a minute amount of what actually happens but all we can do is try to right the ship before it turns into a Titanic.
The following is a copy of an email I sent just this morning to one of our most recent clients with regards to the design phase and processes to creating their Tico Dream Home project.  The questions at hand brought this recent most real event into full perspective and I felt it would be helpful to demonstrate via a real story what real designers do and what REAL designers do NOT do.  Many people downplay the importance of the design phase however no matter how good a builder anyone is, not even the best of materials, methods and workers it is near impossible to fix such grave design errors during the construction phase.  The best you can hope for in such a situation is that it will only be very expensive rather than outright disastrous if you are trying to fix bad design during construction.
I am blessed to have a partner who is a gifted designer who as a matter of course eliminates such nonsense ever getting through the design consult phase with any client.  Michael is the artist on our team since I most certainly am not and can barely draw a stickman.  What I do instead is look after bringing his designs to reality with the practical hands on of construction and materials expediting.  Hence that is why we make a good team with the blend of our two talents.  That leads us into this interesting but sad story….
I know you are very busy so please bare with me as I am going to share with you a long story full of many lessons so that you and other readers and future clients can get clarity as to just how critical the right answer is to what may seem to be such an incidental question in the whole process.  Also so that you can get a better handle on what actually goes on behind the scenes and in our minds as to a thoughtful intelligent design process.
A bit over a month ago a Tica ran into my ad on Craig’s List for our MgO roofing so she contacted me to simply buy our roofing system.  She then sent us her plans which were already done and in the final stage of approval at the municipality for us to price her roof from.  We then got the plans that had been drawn by a Tico engineer.  That is when the shit royally hit the fan!!!
Upon a cursory review we found a home that would be best described as schizophrenic demonstrated by various things such as a shared master bath, closet in a bathroom (not a good idea in Arkansas but a bloody disaster brewing here in the tropics), an entry that had you coming into a crowded living room having to step around furniture meanwhile lots of wasted space, a low slope roof with a flat ceiling, the T shaped roof over the entry was positioned higher than the main roof which of course just cannot work visually plus being geometrically impossible without construction gymnastics that would lead to inevitable and perennial leaking problems.  This home in fact had no design what so ever.  I shared the design, dare I call it that, with our Tico partner architect, Oscar Villavicencio and here I quote his initial response,

This house is a horror!
No sense of spatial relationships, good try for a civil engineer though.”

Yet as bad as these were they later proved to be the best of the faults of this design, it got even worse as we moved forward!

Since we started out discussing just a roof I told her this kind of low slope roof first off is asking for leaking problems when the rain hangs around longer than desired in a tropical rain.  (Also why a chapter is dedicated to roofing problems)  More so though it makes for one hot home when the hot air has not place to escape hence forces a need for an air conditioned home versus why we always design with green initiatives hence direct clients away from such.  She immediately responded, “Oh I don’t want A/C in my home I have allergies that it aggravates.”  Hence a critical piece of information from an owner’s personal situation that had never been discussed with the home designer hence hardly taken into consideration nor did the client ever consider these facts as to just how critically important such would be for their long term enjoyment of their dream home.
We were also informed that the engineer had NEVER ever seen the lot so this is where we get into the meat of your question.  So we then met them at 6am on their lot prior to them heading off to work.  What did we find out on that teeny tiny visit you might ask???  The client had described her lot as flat!  Well as it turned out in a very mountainous country it was relatively flat but this house that was designed for a FLAT lot actually had in reality a 1.5 m (5′) difference from the high point to the low point of what would be the house plantel.  Woooow huge difference requiring either a shit load of fill demanding lots of compaction and a structural slab otherwise risking settling and cracking or cutting into the dirt bank (which later proved impossible) in order to lower the entire house.  This is a difference in construction costs of  $3,000 to $6,000 but more importantly this can seriously affect your whole construction methods and design plan.  Upon a glance I told the couple, her a computer program and he an accountant, that this house just will not work!  In fact after they would have spent all this extra money they would get as a reward a horrible concrete slab to spend their life walking on.  I told them that they should instead be considering elevating the home and using our wood floor that would be far more kind to their body and negate any fill or future settling problems plus do so at a lower cost.  In essence get a Mercedes at a Hyundai price. So you may think this was bad so far, well it gets even worse.
Okay lets now get to the punch line….
Along the side of their property is a babbling brook.  A babbling brook that runs along the high side of the property.  One that when it overflows would flow into their home as the low point of the home is 5′ below the bed of the brook.  Does that sound just a tad crazy?  Well it still gets worse, once Michael had the house plan and the lot plan in hand he plopped the house over the lot and found that the one corner of the home was actually over top of the brook.  They never realized this as the brilliant engineer had manipulated the house to be out of square to fit an irregular lot but when put back to square the corner of the kitchen would actually be in the brook.  Yah nice water feature!   Aside from improving the comfort of the home it needs to be done with an elevated design so that the floor of the home is above the level of babblong brook so that when a bad storm hits  causing the brook to overflow it would pass under the home across the lot and down to the street without causing any damage let alone an outright disaster as would have been the case.
The long and short of it is that the $2,850 dollars they sent to this engineer, who could not design anything if his life depended upon it, for plans that are now in the garbage can as we have had to start all over again from scratch.  It is quite common for someone to bring us plans that Michael tweaks to resolve small issues but as you can imagine this is not a case of a tweak.  This is not a horse you take to the vet it is one you take out and shoot.  Yes a bit of a long story to demonstrate a point but real stories better demonstrate the how’s and why’s of what can happen if you get started out on the wrong foot.
Now this is pretty much an obscene example of what can go wrong during the design stage but it clearly demonstrates just how important it can be for the designer to actually be on site to see what you or any layman may well miss.  This couple are not stupid people by any means but this is far from their zone of expertise hence they were in blind oblivion as to the horror story that was about to unfold on them unwittingly.  Normally a visit only results in a tweak of the client’s original plans/ideas however as demonstrated by this case it can be about easily avoiding an outright disaster.  Now for Elizabeth and Eduard this is not a pleasant situation as they are not rich people who won’t miss the pissed away $2,850 but as I told them as compared to building a nightmarish home where you would get to pay for this insanity everyday of the rest of your life, it is cheap.  To have avoided this disaster and fix the problems on paper is easy and cheap as compared to the alternatives.
To say the least the clients are most thankful that we intervened at a critical juncture even if it was brought about for totally different reasons than a design contract.  Yes we were the messengers delivering bad news but the two different results would be like comparing acne to a heart by pass surgery.  It also required that we not just price out a roof for a client and act as an order taker, which I am dam poor at by the way, but to analyze what it was that we were pricing hence avoiding a Kavorkian experience as well as to act as our client’s advocate.  There finally the end to a long answer for a short question.
The big picture lesson I have to share with the readers is this.  NEVER hire an engineer to do design work not only are they not qualified by way of actual training more importantly it is not in their skill set or aptitude.  Design is an artistic endeavour versus engineering is analytical number crunching, figure out how to make it work kind of  deal.   Both also happen to require either a right or left brain process to be effective, that is a physiological reality that no one can overcome.  Sadly some have no understanding of their true abilities and here they are not restricted by licensing from not crossing into the other one’s kitchen their only concern is about receiving fees not on the final results delivered to the client.
To show how certain I am of that a while back I told a perspective customer from Panama to go to hell (yes I do do that from time to time).  Why you might ask?  He was busy telling me how he wanted to build using our panels hence I asked him some technical questions to which he gave me gibberish Bullshit answers to.  He then informed me he knew more than I did since he was an engineer and an architect which only told me he was a pretender or an idiot or both neither of which I have a seconds patience with.  Hence I told him to take a flying leap and I would be supplying him with exactly zero panels.  I knew where this would go, deep into the land of nonsense, so I got of the train before I got more irritated than I already was.  I have been in the game more than long enough to know how a good client behaves and how a bad one does.  Since I am very open about what we do and how we do it I have found that this up front clarity sorts out those who fit our services/profile and those that simply do not.  I only wish more of this world would behave a bit more like this.
Nuf said.
Trevor Chilton

About Trevor

I have lived in Costa Rica for 14 years and have been active in real estate development over that period and construction in general. I am a qualified Journeyman carpenter and cabinetmaker from Canada. My current focus project is building custom green homes and housing packages all built out of Magnesium Oxide SIPs.

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