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May 24, 2016 10:46 AM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations for general contractors in Portland.

After several visits to the PDX Permit office, and all of the frustrating byzantine "unknown-unknowns" we're running into, my wife and I are tapping out of trying to DIY a couple projects around the house that require permitted work. We're not afraid of the actual construction stuff, but the permit and coding regulations are bit beyond our wheelhouse. So! We're looking for some legit general contractors to help us out.

Ideally, we're looking for personal recommendations from people. We've got two medium-sized projects (one of which was asked about here), and two smaller-sized projects that we'd like to get some quotes for and figure out what order we would like to execute. Accuracy in quoting is pretty important to us (although, we're both aware that things crop up in construction stuff...more accurate than not is ideal just for planning purposes).

Ultra-Mega-Bonus-Free-Game points for GC's who would be willing and able to draw up plans, pull permits and let us DIY off those plans (or would this be more under the purvey of architectural services? I have no idea...again, unknown-unknowns).

We're really not interested in cruising Angie's list. It's straight chaos on that site, with no real way to get a read on them. It's like trying to find a good restaurant on yelp.

Last I could find, we covered the topic back in 2010, but quite a bit has changed around town since then, and it appears most of the links are dead or no longer PDX relevant.
posted by furnace.heart to Home & Garden (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
We're just starting a project with Albina Construction, and so far they seem like they might meet your needs. Of the contractors we talked to, they had by far the most comprehensive and detailed estimate, and worked with us to make sure all the nuts and bolts were as we wanted them.

They were also fine with setting aside some aspects of the work for us to do, since we're technically "owner-builders," so we've pulled our own permits and done some site prep, and after they build the bulk of the house we'll paint, install cabinets, and do other finish work.

Ultra-Mega-Bonus-Free-Game points for GC's who would be willing and able to draw up plans, pull permits and let us DIY off those plans

Yep, that's an architect, not a contractor. Most contractors, including Albina, will do everything from receiving the plans onward - pulling permits, construction, scheduling inspections - but they don't draw up plans. Those contractors that draw plans are usually design-build firms that want to manage the entire process. Contractors generally won't let you do any of the work unless you pull the permits yourself. If they do it for you, then the permit is in their name and they're liable for the entire project. If an unlicensed, un-bonded amateur [like you or me] screws something up on the job site, they may still be responsible. If you want to do the work yourself, you'll probably have to pull the permit yourself - or have an architect do it in your name.

An architect will work with you on the design, draw plans that meet code, and (optionally) walk them through the permit process. After the plans are done they may be able to work up a specification book and bill of materials for you, so you can price out the project. They can also give you and/or your contractor advice about broad aspects of the construction work, but probably won't cover details like what nailing pattern is required by state code for mounting a stud to a sill plate.

Empowered Hands is a local contractor who specializes in collaborating with you on construction projects. We didn't pursue them because they were booked several months out when we called. There are also a handful of less marketing-oriented people on craigslist who will do the same sort of thing. They tend to bill at an hourly rate, though, and can provide only the roughest of estimates because for them, you're a huge unknown element - they have no way of accurately gauging how much assistance you'll need. Accuracy in quoting and homeowner-DIY are not very compatible.

There are some wonderful, super-helpful people at the PDX Bureau of Development Services but the bureaucracy is absolutely nuts. If you want to draw viable plans on your own you have to reference multiple sections of city and state code, and it'll still take a half-dozen trips to BDS to get all the details correct. Always take note of who at BDS gives you what advice and get them to email you code section references if possible, because if it turns out later that they were wrong, you'll want to have documentation that it was them who screwed up and misread the ambiguous language, not you. How do I know this? Eh heh heh...

MeMail me if you want a copy of my (incomplete) notes on various contractors and our interactions with them.

It will take forever and cost at least twice what you expect. That said, your garage conversion sounds like an awesome project! Consider DIYing one of the smaller projects first, though, to see how it goes.
posted by sibilatorix at 2:53 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Having been through self-permitted DIY renovations it can be frustrating dealing with the permitting folks, can I ask what you are running into as issues? your plans don't look like a big issue technically. I followed the guide here when I converted my basement and only had to visit the permit office twice.
posted by Dr. Twist at 3:01 PM on May 24, 2016

Ideally, we're looking for personal recommendations from people

We're really not interested in cruising Angie's list. It's straight chaos on that site, with no real way to get a read on them. It's like trying to find a good restaurant on yelp.

Nextdoor is problematic in lots of ways, but they're pretty good at giving recommendations, at least in my part of Portland. That's how we found our awesome contractor.
posted by aniola at 3:05 PM on May 24, 2016

Having been through self-permitted DIY renovations it can be frustrating dealing with the permitting folks, can I ask what you are running into as issues?

I actually have nothing but love for the people at the permit office; they've been really helpful and awesome and every visit was great, useful concise information...but it was often incomplete, or when we made revisions to our plans they were incorrect, etc. I don't have the knoweldge base to know what I should be asking in the permit office, and thats resulting in multiple trips.

We've got two projects that we'd like to really get going. The linked garage project is one, but we're also trying to build a simple cover for our patio. We were aiming for a tin-roof style patio like the one shown here. We're trying to do this one first, but its turning out to be kind of a nightmare, and I can only go to the permit office once a month or so. The problem with this is that there aren't super well defined criteria in the code books for what we're trying to do, other than, the heigh and the square footage it covers triggers the need for a permit. I've had some plans drafted up with the help of a friend, but the permit office is asking for calculations showing the structure is sound, and can support its own weight, along with it being safely attached to the house. In both cases, they've asked for information that I physically can't access; joists above doors, and other in-the-wall measurements.

When it comes to the design and permit process, I'm straight up in over my head, and am willing to pay someone to help out...I just wish there was a middle ground.
posted by furnace.heart at 3:31 PM on May 24, 2016

You'd probably talk to an engineer about calculations and if you end up using an architect, they'll probably have an engineer that they already work with. They do this for a living so they probably have an idea on how to get the measurements you need.

The first time you go talk to a skilled trades person, it's often free so that you can both sit down and figure out whether you're a good fit for each other.
posted by aniola at 5:30 PM on May 24, 2016

As aniola (my partner) says, you'll probably need an engineer's stamp if they're asking for calculations. An architect will know for sure. Basically, the architect will draw up a set of plans, send it off to the engineer, and get a "yep, you're good" or "no, build it stronger, consider these changes" in response.

The architect probably will (should?) come out and look at the site conditions before they start drawing anything more than concept sketches - probably even before they give you an estimate. They may be able to guess what's in the wall, but I think your best bet is to actually open up the wall and look. An architect can tell you what they expect, and maybe check with a studfinder or something, but if it turns out to be something entirely different when you go in to do the work... that won't be fun. Depending on the age of your house and whether it's been subject to permitted work recently (check portlandmaps.com) you might be able to track down old plans, too.

Call LOTS of architects and contractors before settling on one. With the current housing boom, it can be difficult to find folks who will work on a project of this scale. There are plenty of folks who simply won't return calls. Persevere until you've talked to several.
posted by sibilatorix at 5:42 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

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