Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Some delays to expect when building in Palo Alto & the best strategy for reducing stress

McKayla is not impressed with our sad little empty lot.

After setting a world record for fastest deconstruction ever, I was expecting to fly through the next stage of construction. Our building permits were approved and our foundation guy, Carl was perched on the sidelines raring to go. It looked like we had timed the handoff perfectly. Or had we?

Rookie Lesson #1: "Your permits have been approved" does not mean you're good to go. 
It actually means, congratulations we're going to let you start as soon as we figure out how much you owe us and if there's anything else we need from you. How long it takes to calculate your permit fees appears to be inversely correlated to how desperate you are to move forward--8 days in our case.

Watching the tumbleweeds blow by our empty lot while waiting for the city to do their fancy math is downright painful. After seven months of planning, an extra week may not seem like much, but there's a new sense of urgency that hits once you have a sad plot of dirt itching for some action. And by urgency, I mean stress for everyone around me.

Rookie Lesson #2: Plan for things to not go as planned.
Harvard Business Review recently ran an article entitled, The Best Strategy for Reducing Stress. The article says that the underlying source of stress usually boils down to frustrated expectations. Stress occurs when there is a gap between what you expected to happen and what is actually happening. In our case, the city had told us it would take four weeks for the departments to review and make changes to our building plans and two weeks for any re-checks. It would take us one week to incorporate changes so we figured we'd have our permits seven weeks after submitting them and planned to start digging that day.  It seemed so simple, what could go wrong?

The problem with doing something for the first time is you don't know what you don't know. Getting permits in Palo Alto is just one of many steps that you have to take to be ready to build. When you pick up your permits, the city hands you a 360 page "document" called, Residential Inspection Guidelines that outlines all the building codes and rules you have to abide by. It's unfortunate that they don't give you this before the permits are approved because you can actually get a head start on many of the items. The document lists a slew of things that you have to do before you can start construction, many of them require additional wait time (especially in the summer time when everyone goes on vacation).

The best strategy for managing stress
So what to do about the stress and frustration? HBR says you have two choices: Either change the reality around you or change your expectations. Since trying to change reality often creates additional stress, HBR says that the best strategy for reducing stress is to change your expectations. Indeed, every time I encounter a new delay, I complain to my builder friend, James Witt and ask if there's a workaround.  His favorite response is a chipper: Welcome to James' World!

Red tape and bureaucracy is the reality of building a house in Palo Alto. While I've come to expect delays, I'm also trying to minimize the surprises by learning as much as I can in advance. Our general contractor, Jeff has mapped out a rough timeline for the next ten months and we intend to meet every week to discuss progress and problems. Builder James has also started schooling me on some of the "grenades" that the city inspectors like to throw your way. While experience may be the best teacher, having a heads up on what to expect definitely helps keep the stress level down. I've also mentally scheduled in an extra two months into our building plans for unanticipated delays. Hopefully that is enough, otherwise plan for me to be pretty stressed out this time next year.

Delays to expect before getting your permits
Below are a few of the delays that we learned about the hard way.  In our case, these delays added an extra 5 weeks to our schedule. If you plan ahead, you can probably cut this time in half. (Note: the links are current as of August 2012 but may change).
  • Plan an extra 2-3 weeks for approval delays and administrative stuff.  Your permits are reviewed by half a dozen departments and can take longer in the summer since people go on vacation. Many of the other items on this list can be done while you're waiting for approvals. 
  • Plan to spend at least 2-3 weeks getting through the Pre-Demolition checklist requirements. Keep a copy of all fees that you pay, forms that you fill out, and approvals that you receive. There are so many different departments in Palo Alto that the paperwork often gets lost in the shuffle and not recorded when it should. Having a copy on hand will expedite the process if there are ever any questions.
  • Palo Alto School Impact Fees are due before you can collect your permits. Plan to spend at least one day going back and forth between the offices. They are calculated at the Building Department (285 Hamilton Ave).  They'll give you a form that you have to take to the PAUSD office (25 Churchill Ave) to pay. You must then return the stamped form to the building department.  
  • A Green Building Application is required if you're going to do a deconstruction. Have your deconstruction specialist fill it out and plan for it to take a couple of days for the city to process it.
  • The Utility Disconnection process is a biach. You cannot start this process until the property is vacant (if you have tenants, they have to be moved out). Plan to spend 1-2 days running around to the departments to submit forms and pay fees then a couple more days for the departments to process these. Once you're in the queue, it takes up to 10 business days for the shut-offs to occur.
  • Request your Temporary Electric Service early. It took us 23 days to get temporary electric service turned on. Having a generator during the deconstruction kept this from slowing us down.
  • You need a J-number from Bay Area Air Quality Management District before you can get a demolition permit. It requires a payment of $69 and an official asbestos survey report ensuring that asbestos will not be released in the air. Once you submit your application it takes 10 days for them to mail you a J-number. For an extra $476 they'll expedite it to 72 hours. In our case, our awesome deconstruction guy, Rod drove to their SF office and picked one up the same day for no extra charge. Not sure if anyone can do it, (he's on a first name basis with them,) so call ahead and ask nicely. Plan time for the survey if you don't already have one.
  • Tree protection is a serious matter in Palo Alto (not surprising for a city named after a tree). If you have a protected tree, plan to spend 1-2 weeks to set up your tree protection and get it signed off by the city arborist. Add a few extra days to that if you don't do it right the first time. (Guilty.)
I hope this list helps other rookie builders out there. Despite the stress, it's been an incredibly fun experience. There's nothing like the joy of learning something new everyday. Having said that, if this all sounds like a headache not worth having, do yourself a favor and go buy one of James Witt's amazing dream homes.

We got a big fat F for our first attempt at tree protection.
To pass you need to fence off the entire tree canopy (in our case, the whole front yard).


  1. Kay, who would be doing all this "running around between offices" typically? If you weren't on sabbatical and were instead working at a high stress full time job, would you need to hire someone extra to project manage all of this, or would it be borne by your builder and his team? Or is this the inherent reason why people always complain of timeline overruns on big projects like this-- that given its own time constant the pace is glacial?

    At least we live in a place with nice weather so you don't need to worry too much about rain as another reality vs. expectation stress inducer. ;-)

    Finally, we learned the hard way about tree protection and canopy-footprint is key. We killed a beautiful, 50-year old willow tree at our old house by needing to do some plumbing work which cut some roots within that footprint... alas, not knowing any better we didn't scale the tree itself back to proportion and the tree died. Now I pay a lot more attention-- lately have been nursing our big magnolia back to health and spreading fertilizer all around the canopy footprint!

  2. Elaine, typically all the running around would be done by your general contractor. In our case we tag-teamed since I took responsibility for managing the deconstruction. There are definitely a lot of places where delays can creep in, especially if you're naive about all the steps you have to take and you tackle one issue at a time (at times I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt finishing one task before moving on to the next). We seem to be on track now and I'm riding my bike to the site everyday, which also helps reduce stress. As for the trees, they're a lot more delicate than they look! Our neighbor's magnolia is in bad shape and they had an arborist check it out. Turns out their lawn sprinkler has been hitting the trunk and gave it a fungal disease.

  3. Dude, I'm not sure I like knowing how the sausage is made. But your detailed posts will definitely save people valuable time. The HBR stress definition is pretty spot on. At least for me. The Good Doctor was all, "No. When I'm at work things are going great, but I'm still stressed by what could happen." To which I replied, "Sucks to be you." Kidding. But I'm managing my expectations all the time because I can't manage reality. Apparently. I digress. I love the fail photo. I need to learn photoshop. I'd be pasting that fail button all over all kinds of people's faces.