It seemed like a great idea…
It was December of 2013. My colleague and friend AJ Hochhalter called me… “You’ve got to see this space…I think you could put your studio in it.” I had been looking for a space for about a year, so I drove into historic downtown Lexington Kentucky and explored the building with him. Before us was a one-story brick building originally constructed in the 1800s…and it was in utter disrepair.
Within a week I had signed a lease and commenced plans to clean, construct and build something new. In case you were wondering, that’s a terrible idea. If you look up the definition of the word impulsive, my face is right next to the definition. Signing that lease came back to haunt me in a variety of ways…enough to write a series of posts about (of which this is the first). The studio is now complete, but I want to re-live parts of it with you in hopes that I can pass on the wisdom I’ve been beat over the head with as this 11 month trip to hell and back has come to a close.
Feel free to skip around in sections. I like photos, and what I write about will often be accompanied by photos from my phone or photographer friend which detail four phases of the build:
- Preparation & Architectural Floor Plan
- Design & Styling
I had never built anything in my life, and in addition, I had little to no familiarity with the construction world. With those two incredible facts combined, I made just about every mistake you could make - and that’s why I decided to share my experience. My hope is that as you read this series, you’ll learn from my failure.
Phase 1 | Preparation & Floor Plan
What I did: I signed a lease without having my attorney or friends review it.
Yes, I am foolish. And impulsive. And many other things. But more than anything, I just didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed the lease. My landlord sold me the typical story…”You know, a lot of people are interested in this spot…you better move quick so we can sign this thing…” and I fell for it. I didn’t see anything inherently wrong with the terms of the lease - but I did not take the time to review the specifics of it…and the ambiguity of a lease is always in the landlord’s favor…not the tenant. In simple terms, I agreed to pay $1 per square foot per month (which is cheap because I live in Kentucky) in rent on top of all renovations, all flooring, all doors and windows, and anything else I wanted to add to the structure (including the removal of debris).
When I signed that lease I was also agreeing to pay for all labor, all contracting fees, all incidentals and all damages which might occur by fire, water and anything else. What does this mean? This means that I agreed to pay full cost for rent in addition to paying for the entire studio build…a build which was about to cost me quite a bit! And as of now, my landlord still owns the building - not me.
In essence, I should have negotiated new terms. Perhaps $0.50 per square foot of space per month in rent if I paid for all renovations. I own my equipment…but not the building it’s in. In full transparency, I spent $125,000 on renovations that are permanently attached to the building…and my landlord does not lose sleep over that - he probably sleeps amazing at night! He knows he took advantage of an impulsive young guy… and he also knows that he now owns a well-built studio which he paid nothing for. It has been 11 months and I have come to terms with the reality of my impulsivity - and we are in the process of re-negotiating a lease.
What You Should Do: Never sign a lease without having legal counsel and friends who know the real estate industry look it over and make changes.
Your friends and attorney will probably destroy the lease you are offered and send it back to the landlord with 20-30 revisions minimum. This will lead to a back and forth for some time until you finally agree to the terms…but if you sign the lease you are offered on the first day, you will be taken advantage of as bad as I was if not worse. Slow down, take a breath and sleep for a day…or a week…on it. Fight for lower rent each month if you’re paying for all renovations, and get specifics of how the building is insured from water and fire. I'd also find out upfront how much it would cost to buy the building outright - maybe its cheaper than a 5 year lease.
LAYOUT & FLOOR PLAN
What I Did: I laid out the floor plan and dimensions of my entire space without consulting any of my friends who actually build things for a living.
After signing my lease, I sketched a mockup of the space and penciled in where I wanted each room to be and how I wanted it to look, but I did not measure specifics in the physical space. I also didn’t ask about where important things like water heaters, HVAC central command, breaker boxes and gas lines were located (and knowing where those are located is critical...it changes where you're allowed to place different rooms). In my impulsivity, I made a plan hoping it would all just work out. I didn’t even know who I’d hire to get each phase of it built…I assumed that some of my basic measurements and preferences wouldn’t take all that much to bring to life.
I thought “If I can just make some sketches and hand them to somebody on this project they’ll just make it happen...” I thought “What could be so difficult about all of this?” The reality is that I could have saved 3 months of time and $55,000 in labor that had to be re-done if I’d spent just week running my floor plan and design ideas with friends in town (who would have helped me for free). They could have told me the basics of where you can and cannot put certain rooms and devices in a build.
Lastly, I did not call professionals in the HVAC, gas, plumbing and electrical world to come in and look over the space in order to give me estimates on which systems were stable and which needed to be replaced. Instead, I moved forward without including the very people who could have helped me save both time and money. Ultimately I met with an interior designer in town who helped me build a floor plan that worked in our favor, but not before shooting myself in the foot.
What You Should Do: Meet with a few trusted professionals before starting any sort of deconstruction, construction or building.
Once you’ve selected a space, meet with somebody who knows the schedule of how things are built. Perhaps a General Contractor (I’ll explain that in a moment), an Architect or a Designer. You will need to bring each of them there separately (never together at first since they will all argue their preference), and walk through the space with them. Let them find out how your heating and air conditioning system is working. Let them decide if the plumbing is in good shape. Let them decide if the walls, ceilings and flooring is clean of mold and mildew. They need to inspect every square inch of dirt, tile, dust, glass, metal, brick, concrete and wood to see what sort of shape it’s in. Let them inspect every detail of the space, no matter how bad it looks at the time, and let them give you their advisement on what they would do.
Sometimes there are things that you’d never guess that need to be re-built, destroyed, revamped and relocated. Rennovating a space is as expensive as building something new. I’m talking about water pipes, gas lines, electrical hubs, doorways, hallways, lighting systems…you need professionals to walk through all of it with you before you build. . Once these people have signed off, then you can sit with one of them (given all of the information you’ve collected) and begin to map it out and get quotes - and you’ll want to budget an additional 20% privately on top of what they tell you since everything that can go wrong will go wrong. I have attached my official floor plan - and yours should look similar in terms of accuracy. We executed this down to the inch.
What I Did: I didn't listen. Instead, I began building without spending significant time (perhaps a day) in the physical location. This should have involved bringing microphones to test for ambient noise in the electrical system at varying times of the day. I should have done this for common sense reasons…if you’re going to be recording audio in a quiet environment, you need to know the details of the noise level of the space. Both acoustically and electrically.
What You Should Do: Spend an entire weekday (and also a weekend day) near the location. Also check in on an evening night - especially a night where people are partying (if that sort of thing happens close to you). You will need to check for what microphones pick up in the space in terms of electrical noise and external noise (traffic, airplanes, generators, compressors, air conditioning units, footsteps, etc).
Then you need to sit in quiet for extended time listening for sirens, vehicle noise, and things that happen outside of your walls. What is the garbage pickup schedule (if you’re not in a high rise) - how many people are going to want to knock on the window mistaking it for a public business? What’s the mail and delivery schedule with USPS, FedEx, UPS and other carriers? These are all noise-based interruptions and the last thing you want is to beat yourself up after you’ve built because you didn’t check the noise variables in the building.
FIND AN INCREDIBLE GENERAL CONTRACTOR
A general contractor (or GC) is going to be your best friend and biggest asset in this entire process. If a single nail gets hammered or drill fires up in the entire building process, your general contractor is the person scheduling it, overseeing it and following up on it to make sure it was done correctly. Think of them as a boss that works for you and with you every step of the way. They’ve got knowledge and connections with the construction and building industry. They know which electricians suck and which can be trusted. They know what it means for something to meet code. They know the best glass cutters and appliance vendors. Most of all, they hold each person stepping foot inside your job site accountable in word, deed and dollar amount. Your GC is your protector…and you cannot get the job done without them.
You will be paying the general contractor either a fixed flat fee or an hourly rate, thereby he or she is incentivized to get each detail of the build done with precision. Now, you’ll also pay each laborer that your GC brings in to do their own detailed work…but your GC isn’t the one doing all the work - they’re simply the ones overseeing that everyone involved stays on time, on budget and focused. You and your general contractor will become very close during this process. When you have a problem, a need or a revision, they’re the one you call. They’re the general over your army. They’re your closest ally and friend.
What I Did: I allowed my landlord to act as a GC for the first few months of the build. Why? Well, because he offered to do it for free. Why did he offer to do it for free? Two reasons - first, leverage. If he did work for me for free, there’s a sense of “you owe me something” hanging in the air. You do NOT want that in a relationship with a landlord or property owner. Second, my property owner offered to run GC for free out of goodwill…to genuinely help me. The only problem with that is that my property owner is cheap! I’ll get into the details on the next post, but he hired terrible people to do terrible work because he's cheap! Fast and good do not coexist in the building world. It wasn’t until 3 months in that I realized my scattered landlord was destroying and botching the plan (unintentionally). He was just too distracted to be fully present and fully attentive to all the details flying around.
I eventually hired my friend Matt Oatley here in Lexington to run the build for the remaining 6 months and Matt killed it. On every level. He is hands down the highest quality and most professional man I have worked with in the business. Incredible work ethic, attention to detail and follow through. Matt saved the build and brought us out of a nosedive. However, the job would have never pitched into a nosedive to begin with had I listened to wise council and brought a GC (like Matt) into the conversation before I started building and planning.
In total, I had to spend $55,000 fixing bad electrical, drywall and plumbing that my landlord hired out to his friends while he was allowed to act as GC. Once Matt came on the scene, he inspected all my landlord’s poor work and commissioned it all to be re-done to meet code. Had I brought Matt in sooner, everything would have been different. And better. From the start.
What You Should Do: Ask around and investigate varying applicants who’d like to run your worksite as GC. Have clear conversations upfront about money, time and boundaries. How much will they be paid? What if the work they commission sucks? What if they work overtime? What if they leave in the middle of the build and you’re left all on your own? How do they prefer to be reached and correspond throughout the day? What are the hours of their availability during the weeks? The weekends? Do they actually know what they’re doing - like have you physically seen jobs they’ve run? Get all of this down into an agreement, and abide by it.
A good agreement defines cost, timeframe and an exit clause should you need one. A good agreement ought to set boundaries that will allow you to walk out of the build as friends and allies rather than enemies. Pay your GC well, and be very clear and very patient - this person will be your biggest asset in this entire process.