by Terence P Ward
If you’ve got ideas about how to improve your home this spring and summer—knocking down a wall to open up some space, or maybe adding a floor or a sun room off the back—and you aren’t in the building trades yourself, you’re probably going to need a professional to walk you through the process. Most home construction needs the blessing of local building inspectors to make sure everything is done according to the latest building code, and some projects will also have to be scrutinized by the municipal planning board as well.
During a planning board meeting, one will typically see three kinds of professionals briefing the board: architects, surveyors and engineers, all of whom take point in planning and executing home renovation and expansion projects. Picking the right professional to manage a particular project depends a lot on what you’d like to do. Here’s the broad strokes: architects focus first on what a building is going to look like, land surveyors are mindful of where it sits on the property, and structural engineers are concerned with ensuring that the structure will stay standing. There is some overlap, and it may be necessary to retain more than one pro for complex jobs, but that’s the layman’s overview.
Converting existing space into something new, such as adding a bathroom or knocking down a wall, is a good time to consult with an engineer first. He or she will be able to prepare diagrams showing where the electrical and plumbing will be rerouted, and calculate whether that wall is bearing the load of the building or not. The letters “PE” after one’s name stand for “professional engineer,” the mark of someone with the schooling and license necessary to do this kind of work. While structural engineering is the most common need for home remodels, many communities in the Hudson Valley are designated MS4 (for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System), meaning that after new rooftops and pavement are added, not one drop of additional stormwater runoff is allowed to leave the property. Complying with those rules means knowing how to calculate how much water will be displaced, and designing systems like rain gardens to capture water so it doesn’t end up flowing across the neighbor’s yard into a nearby stream. Ask prospective engineers if your project will need a stormwater pollution prevention plan (SWPPP, pronounced “swip”), and if they know how to prepare it.
Expanding a home or significantly redesigning it inside is the kind of work that architects are trained for. Their work is based not only on aesthetics, but also ergonomics. An architect should ask a lot of questions about how you live, and how you intend on using the space once the dust settles. That information goes into designs that fit both taste and lifestyle. An engineer’s input may not be necessary for all designs, particularly if you aren’t going to change the foundation, roofing, walls, plumbing, or electrical systems. Your local building department staff will advise if engineering work is necessary. Your architect may have an engineer in the office if it’s a larger firm, or have a relationship with one that he or she can consult with.
Surveying is the third profession that local officials want to see preparing and standing behind plans. A lot of survey work is about subdividing land, but surveyors may also be called upon to prepare site plans. This becomes especially relevant when the new construction expands the footprint of the home, to show that it won’t intrude upon the setbacks. Knowing where the property lines are can mean the difference between a project sailing through the approval process and being delayed as you try to get a variance (exception) from the local zoning board of appeals.
Building inspectors can often advise what kind of professional is needed just from a description of what you intend to do, and many planning boards provide pre-application hearings for a modest fee, if needed. While some kind of a drawing is helpful at this point, just using a ruler and a pen could give these volunteers enough to catch your vision. You’ll still need someone to prepare detailed plans, but you’ll be prepared to select the right kind of professional to walk you through the process.