This week I want to tell you what’s going on with the specifications for the major subcontractors for my house. But wait... Should we start right off with a pop quiz? Hmmm yeah, let’s do that Pop Quiz: Do you remember what specifications are? We’ve talked about specifications in several episodes, including episode 119 called Understanding the Bidding Process.
So do you remember what the specifications are? Well, specifications or specs, describe what materials will be used to build a house and how those materials should be installed. While house plans are a visual, diagrammatic representation of your house, specs are like the written description.
I’ve told you previously that you or your builder should be as detailed as possible with your specifications in order to make sure your house is built to the level of quality and beauty that’s acceptable to you. And it’s typically a builder or architect that can help owner builders with the specifications.
But when I asked my architect about helping me with my specs he seemed pretty uncomfortable. Remember I told you that he’s been designing mostly commercial buildings for the last several years, so maybe that had something to do with his discomfort. So I asked Jose, one of the builders I've been consulting, about helping me with specs. And he said “yeah, no problem.” He wasn’t hesitant at all.
I met him one Saturday morning at Starbucks with my house plans and notebook in hand, ready to take copious notes. But once we got into the conversation, what he told me surprised me, and frankly, gave me a sense of relief.
Jose told me that most builders don’t give their subs super detailed specifications about technical materials and installation methods because the tradespeople usually have more knowledge about their materials and methods as compared to general contractors, which makes sense.
Jose suggested I do my specs the way he does his. He recommended that for the bidding process I submit my house plans to each sub along with a specification sheet that details everything that I know I want for the house and let the tradespeople, the experts, spec out the rest. In other words, I’ll list all the detail that I possibly can, then leave the rest of the details to the expert opinion of the sub. If we choose reputable subs that guarantee their work, we just have to trust that they will install good quality materials. Now occasionally builders might have had a very good or very bad experience with specific materials or installation methods and, in those cases, the builder might request that the subcontractor either use or avoid those materials. But most of the time, the builder leaves the technical choices to the tradesperson, so I’m told.
I talked to my architect about that strategy of detailing the spec sheet as much as I could and leaving the rest to the sub and he agreed that it seemed like the best course of action. He said at some point we just have to trust the people working for us. And I agree. More often than not, reputable subs are reputable for good reason.
What I’ve realized is that neither builders nor architects typically have the expertise to do comprehensive specs for every trade. They can’t list every size and type of every wire that an electrician should use or every pipe diameter or plumbing connection that a plumber should install. That level of knowledge is almost always limited to the tradesperson.
Although the advice that I’ve read to be as detailed as possible with specifications still holds true, the operative words are “as possible.” Be as detailed as you possibly can with the knowledge that you have. We gotta stay in our own lane. We can’t know it all. We as owners, with the help of a builder and/or architect, should give as much detail about what we know we want and leave the super technical detail about the materials and installation to the tradespeople. With the added stipulation in the specs that all materials should be “installed according to the manufacturers written instructions.”
With that plan in mind, Jose and I talked about the specs for the major trades— plumbing, electrical and mechanical (remember the mechanical sub takes care of the HVAC, the heating, cooling and air conditioning system).
For these major trades Jose advised me to let the subcontractors give a quote for all materials and labor except for fixtures. Fixtures are those pieces that are visible in the house and are fixed in place. Fixtures include things like faucets, tubs, sinks, appliances, lighting fixtures, things like that. The plan is that I will pick out and purchase all the fixtures and the subs will pick out and purchase all other materials, the materials that are hidden behind walls, like wiring and pipes. Remember also to indicate you want included in your bid the cost of installing the fixtures that you purchase.
I think it makes a lot of sense for homeowners to purchase their own materials so we have possession of those materials if we have to part ways with a sub and so we can shop for the best prices without fear of contractor markups. But this arrangement of me purchasing the fixtures and the subs purchasing everything else seems to be a good compromise. It allows the subs to choose the materials that I have no knowledge of and it allows me to do the fun part of picking out fixtures that suit my taste, my standards of quality and my budget.
Since I’ll be choosing the fixtures, I can shop around for the best prices both locally and online. When I’ve found what I think are the best prices for different items, I can go to my subcontractor to ask if he can get identical or similar fixtures for a better price at his supply warehouse. Sometimes the subcontractors can and will get you a better price with their subcontractors’ discount, but sometimes not. For the materials needed by subs that are not fixtures, Jose assures me that the subcontractors can get a better price than I could.
Now let’s talk about each of the major trades and how Jose suggested the specifications be outlined for each trade.
For electrical, there are lots of lighting fixtures that will need to purchased, but the electrician will purchase the wiring and electrical boxes and other technical, hidden materials. Jose said we won’t have to decide on the exact lighting fixtures we want in our houses before submitting the specs for the bidding process, but it’s best if we indicate on our house plans where we want lighting fixtures to go. And if possible, what type of fixture, whether that’s a chandelier, wall scones, under cabinet lighting, ceiling fans, etc.
We’ll also need to indicate where we want recessed can lights, what size and style cans we want, if possible, plus whether we prefer LED or some other type of bulb. If Energy Star compliant cans and fittings are important to you, indicate that too. If you know exactly what brand of recessed lights you want, by all means, include that, but that’s something you might leave to the electrician to choose. If you need a refresher lesson on lighting basics, take a listen to episode 103 called Lighting 101.
Jose suggested that the electrician purchase the can lights too, but said I could get him to quote the price for the cans then see if I am able to find a better deal.
What else? We should indicate on our house plan where we want electrical outlets and light switches, realizing that there are certain building code requirements that the electrician has to meet. Also think about USB ports and charging stations and where they should go.
Not only will we have to let the electrician know about the interior lighting, but we will also need to tell him about any outdoor lighting and electrical outlets we want, including uplighting and downlighting of the house and landscape, soffit outlets for holiday lights, and porch or deck lighting.
Finally we’ll need to tell the electrician about any special electrical features we want such as electric radiate floor heating, maybe in the master bathroom, or a standby generator. FYI, if you want a generator, you’ll also need to let your plumber know since most standby generators run on natural or propane gas. Plumbers typically install gas lines.
You might also inform your electrician in the electrical specifications of any Ethernet computer connections, security camera and home theater equipment you want installed. Sometimes the electrician will tackle those jobs and other times they will want an audio visual specialist or communications technician to do that work. But just let them know what your plans are.
There’s so much to think about with a electrical wiring plan, we’ll probably have to revisit this subject in more detail in a later episode.
One last thing which I’ve heard we should tell the electrician, especially if we plan to do a lot of entertaining. Tell him that you want your house wired so that you don’t have any problems, shortages or blown fuses even if you have a party on a hot summer day with the air conditioning on full blast and all of your appliances running at once. In other words, you want enough power so your house will run without issue even on occasions when most of your electrical appliances are running all at once.
Ok, now let’s talk about what type of information you need to supply the plumbers so they can give you a good solid bid. Just like with the electrician, you can ask the plumber to give you a bid on materials and labor for everything except fixtures. Let them purchase the pipes and the hidden technical materials and you can purchase your toilets, sinks, faucets, shower heads, tubs and other fixtures.
If you like, you can tell them whether you prefer copper or so called “plastic pipes,” which include PEX or PVC pipes. If you want cast iron waste pipes for quiet toilet flushes, you should request that too.
If you’re not exactly sure whether you want copper or plastic pipes, Jose said you can ask the plumbers to give you 2 bids, one for copper and one for plastic pipes. Then you can compare prices to see whether you think the extra money for copper is worth it to you or not.
I didn’t realize we could ask the subs to give us prices on more than one option.
You’ll also want to tell plumbers about any gas appliances, gas water heaters, gas HVAC equipment and fireplaces, and whether you want a gas standby generators— again, because plumbers usually install gas lines.
Jose suggested that we indicate on the house plan and the specifications how large our tubs will be. Plus we should outline what appliances will need water lines like a steam oven or fridge with water dispenser or ice maker.
Note if you want a conventional or tankless water heater and if a recirculating system is important to you. Remember a recirculating pump gives you almost instant hot water. If you prefer one brand of water heater over another, include that in the specs. You can ask the plumber to give you bids for a conventional water heater versus a tankless system so you can compare prices.
You might want the plumber to purchase the water heater, or you could see if you can find one with a better price than the price on the bid. To learn more about water heaters, take a listen to episode 32.
Finally, let’s talk about the mechanical subcontractor. He will install your heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. You could purchase the system on your own, but most folks end up buying the HVAC system from the dealer, who is usually the mechanical sub. Remember to insist on a Manual J calculation so your system is sized properly. If you work with a home energy rater, they may be able to provide that calculation.
You’ll have to decide what type of HVAC system you want, for example, a furnace or boiler plus air conditioner or an all-in-one heat pump. If you have a preference of brand, you can indicate that on the specs. Jose says that most of the well-known brand names are pretty good quality and he usually chooses a system based on which brand is offering the best warranty.
Here’s another time where it's ok to ask the subcontractor to give you bids for several different systems so you can compare prices. Make sure you indicate that you are looking for Energy Star certified systems, if that’s important to you.
Since most of us will be building houses with a tight building envelope, it’s important that we also have a ventilation system included in our mechanical bid. And you might also mention exhaust fans and your range hood, although I’m not positive whether those fall under the job duties of the mechanical sub.
Think about where you want want your vents and returns and mark those on your house plan.
If you’re planning on getting your house energy rated and having a blower door test performed to test for air and duct leakage, you may want to talk to your mechanical subs about that since that will necessitate that they are very careful about sealing and insulating air ducts and installing the mechanical equipment much more thoughtfully than they typically would for a home that is built to meet only the minimal building code requirements.
In summary, to get bids from the major subs, we’ll need to give them a house plan marked with where we want what, both inside and outside, and indicate that we want a bid on materials and labor for everything except fixtures. You’ll want the bid to include the cost of installing the fixtures that you’ve purchased.
Now of course you don’t have to do it this way, but this is the way I’m going about it. I think it’s a good compromise between giving the experts a level of control and keeping a bit of control myself.
Well that’s all I have for you this week. I hope you learned as much as I did and I hope you'll join me next time for Build Your House Yourself University-- BYHYU.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete and it’s subject to change, so it may not apply to your project. In addition, building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.