Residential Construction costs in the Denver Market

As an architect and parent to an ever-growing family, I thought it would be an easy exercise to design and construct an addition to our home in Evergreen, Colorado.  The task would also provide exposure to what our clients experience when they endeavor to build a house or addition of their own.

Our house in the Hiwan neighborhood of Evergreen is a typical four-bedroom, three bath house built in the early 1980’s.  Being representative of its kind and to borrow its MLS listing description: it features original 2×4 wood framed walls with period correct insulative properties, single pane windows throughout and soaring 8’ ceilings.

With a baby on the way (our fourth), I set out in May of last year to draw up a couple more bedrooms and a bathroom to keep the family at peace as well as to have a larger garage to store our compounding bike/scooter/stroller collection.

Being mindful of our budget (low) and in keeping with the dimensions of the existing kids’ bedrooms (must treat each kid as equal) I drew two new 12’ x 13’ rooms with one additional bathroom on the upper floor and one guest room below for our non-existent guests who might show up one day.

Easy enough for an architect.  This task took about two months due to my other demands of actual work.  Once complete, it was off to the Jefferson County permit office for a brief 8-week turnaround for my 753 square foot addition.  No worry, in the meantime I went searching for a contractor because I certainly did not want to build the thing myself and paying someone else to do it seemed like the conventionally accepted route.

I called one of my contractor friends in the business, Larry.  He came to look at my house and studied my drawings.  In about two weeks I got his estimate: $80,000.  Not bad, I thought, but upon reading the bid, I noticed that he was missing several key trades and most of the materials.

Calling him to inquire, I learned that most of his crew had recently been poached by a rival GC and he couldn’t start on the project until October.  He further voiced concern that he didn’t want to encroach into the due date of our baby which was January 1.  So in the end he passed.

Still ok, it was only the end of August so I turned to a neighbor’s recommendations as well as the local “handyman” section of our newspaper.

It turned out the local tradesmen were game for the project, but were either so swamped with other work that could not start the project until January or were so swamped with other work that they felt compelled to charge me $200/square foot – a king’s ransom I felt.

So with our baby’s third trimester approaching, I decided to follow the course any normal person would do in this situation: build it myself.  With the savings of the GC fee (10%) and the architect’s fee (paltry) I would be able to plow the difference into the project.

With the permit in hand ($1,694), I appealed to my neighbor, himself a GC, to provide a few names of subcontractors for me to get started.

First up was the excavator.  If you never hired an excavator, you to brace yourself for their fee/time quotient.  The excavator showed up with a “skid” – a Bobcat type machine made for moving small amounts of dirt – and proceeded to dig down to roughly frost depth.  He did this for a mere $8,720.  We had no “export” – dirt that needed to be hauled away – so his fee was low he insisted.  He left after one day of working believing he had completed his task.  In fact, he did not dig down to frost depth, but rather 3” above frost depth.  I was compelled to manually excavate the additional 3” by hand (pick axe and shovel) at 3am to be ready for the morning arrival of the foundation crew – back breaking work due to soil compaction at 42” below grade.  I thought I saw my neighbor peering out her window thinking I was burying someone.

The foundation crew indeed arrived at 8 am but only stayed long enough to erect the form-work to create the foundation footings.  The concrete truck was scheduled to come to the remote mountain community of Evergreen the next week.

Meanwhile I needed to order the lumber package including roof trusses.  I decided to shop the truss package around to bargain hunt.  I was surprised to learn that three truss shops all came within $3.58 of each other.  Putting aside my thoughts of collusion, I chose the company that also could provide the framing and siding material I would eventually need.  The lumber package and roof trusses came to a tidy $20,861.  Wow, I thought.  I did opt for the thicker Hardie Siding after all, but still it seemed like a lot to pay for 2x6s and OSB.

With the foundation in, the concrete man handed me his bill: $10,730.  As he did so, I noticed he was eyeing my 14-year-old Ford F-150.  Having bought the 2wd truck new in California long before I had any desire of moving to where it snowed, I had begun to accept its uselessness in the mountains and I decided to broker a deal with the concrete man to shave $4500 off his bill.  On the one hand this helped our budget, but on the other I now needed to haul anything I needed to buy at Home Depot with my wife’s Toyota Sequoia.

Framing ($13,800) was next and for any project it is truly the star of the show.  Rapid progress combined with the ability to finally walk through your creation is one of the best parts of the process.  The end of October was here and we (the house and I) were looking good in the eyes of my wife and the kids.  Yet the fear of a snow storm was constantly on my mind especially since the roof trusses were late and you never know…
Snow was due the next week and the trusses arrived on Friday.  The framers asked me if I could rent a crane (a what?) to lift the roof trusses up to the second floor.  What they asked for wasn’t so bad as the way they had asked.  A proper GC should have known they would ask for a crane and I needed to step up and procure a crane on the spot.

Up the trusses went along with the sheathing.   With the snow still approaching, it dawned on me that having the roof on is one thing, having it water tight is another.  I panicked and scrambled.  I called in an enormous favor from a client who owned a roofing company.   “Please have your crew roll on the roofing underlayment tomorrow”, I pleaded.  When snow is coming, roofers become popular as all the other roofing projects going up also need to be dried in before it snows.  Asking a roofer to send over a small crew to address something that was not on the schedule is like asking a drowning man for assistance with your pool equipment.   He acquiesced and saved the day.  I felt grateful and decided not to complain about the roofing bill ($15,676).

While this was going on, more pedestrian events were occurring – ordering the windows, overhead doors, getting mechanical, electrical, plumbing bids were proceeding apace.  All of the costs and trades were higher than one would think and I started to learn the pattern to the proceedings:

  • Contractor: Here is the estimate, sir.
  • I feign shock and reply that it is twice what I was expecting.
  • They sit stone faced and wait for me to relent.
  • I sit stone faced and allow the awkward silence to abet in overcoming their insecurities of price gouging.
  • The first one to speak will always lose.
  • The generally speak first since they traveled all the way out to Evergreen and want to make something for their efforts.
  • We agree on something where we both can approve the correct value.

Mechanical ($2,600), Electrical ($9,750), Plumbing ($2,200), Insulation ($3,500) all went without a hitch.  Drywall ($10,500) and interior paint ($2,500) was next and as the timing turned out it was also Christmas Eve.  The baby was born a week early.  Beautiful and healthy, the baby and mom and I returned from the birthing center to a nearly finished house the night before Christmas.

With the kids were still all living in the open loft and the baby settling in to his sleeping/waking/ crying/eating cycle, the house was nearly done save for siding installation ($4,500), tile/carpet/flooring ($5,500) and paying off my miscellaneous charge on my Home Depot charge card ($3,500).

All told for our 753 square foot piece of domestic bliss where each kids gets his own room and mom and dad can bask in the knowledge that the architect in the household can design and oversee the construction of a small addition, we came in at $198.72/square foot just under the king’s ransom of $200/square foot.

For anyone contemplating an addition built in keeping with standard methodologies, materials and design, the estimate of the seasoned professional whom I wanted to throw into Evergreen Lake was right all along: $200/foot.  I might have paid more than I would have down the hill in Denver, but I can’t believe it was so much more.  I did learn a lot about being a GC – knowing when to complain, when not to, knowing how to negotiate (or not) and knowing what goes into to building the drawings that we architects dream up.  It has given me a profound understanding of the repercussions of the lines we sketch on the page and what goes into making those lines the reality that families can enjoy.