Ask the Architect

Can a contractor make changes?

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Q. We did plans for our house, and the architect told us there was “wiggle room” to make some changes if we needed to when the job starts. We’re planning a lot of renovations and two additions, to our second floor and a rear family room/mudroom and deck with pool. Is it true that the contractor can make the changes we’re discussing without any other paperwork or permits? The contractor plans to figure it out on the job.

A. Bad, bad, bad idea. Did I say bad? Yes, and you may ask why, as if you hadn’t already. Remember, “Those who fail to plan should plan to fail.” Or maybe you can recall the old saying, “A stitch in time, saves nine.”

Your architect may mean well, but it was bad advice. Changes during construction, unless intended to move toward legal, structural or technical solutions, which are also apt to have consequences, are rarely a good move. There’s a book called “Why Buildings Fall Down” that addresses, in some failures, minor adjustments that caused chain reactions of deadly events. Your kind of changes may not be deadly, but they may cause you more grief and aggravation than you expected, especially if one slight alteration of the idea leads to the domino effect.

Everything is connected, literally and figuratively. That’s why professionals should study the change, even if it takes a moment or two, before it’s implemented. The most common field changes that lead to problems have to do with either structural, water or legal ramifications. More specifically, you move a wall because one room can be a little smaller without inconveniencing you and the structure load path changes, causing floors to dip and cracks to form because the load paths are critical. I often see, especially in older homes, where the floors drop near walls and door frames were purposely trimmed out with angle-cut moldings because the structure adjusted itself the day the alteration took place, not over many years, as some might guess.

And therein lies the problem; people guess, they assume, they take a stab that the change will be harmless. Many people also treat the architect as a formality necessary only to get the paperwork for a permit, as if it were like getting a driver’s license. They also assume that the contractor knows all the laws, he can handle structural alteration and will err on the side of caution. I’m not saying all contractors guess, because I appreciate the calls on my projects from those who sincerely know when they don’t know and bother to ask first. Those plans and that matching permit are a legal verification of the work, and to deviate from them also has legal consequences, from the extra expense to resubmit plans to the possibility of redoing the work. Don’t put off thoughts until the construction begins. Communicate and carefully weigh the problems before the plans are complete, not after. You won’t be sorry.

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