All too often developers have a relentless urge to squeeze what is viewed as extraneous square footage out of projects during the planning stage in an attempt to stretch the almighty development dollar. It all seems to make sense late at night while brainstorming and penciling out a new pro forma. Let's see ... deduct land cost, fees, construction dollars. How does one hold the line on some of these negative numbers in an effort to pull up the bottom line? An old familiar mind-set begins to develop – call it a hold-the-line mind-set. "We'll make the seller 'hold the line,' the banker too, and while we're at it, let's be really sure those spendy design guys hold the line."

No matter the mode of operation, from small-scale speculative design-builder to big-bid-government-wheeler-dealer, the issues having to do with product cost, efficiency, and marketability are all equally as important. Every owner and design professional at one time or another has been guilty of squeezing plans down to the bare minimum in the name of savings, and it always seems like the right thing to do at the time. But is it?

"Holding-the-Line" Misperceptions Some would say that cutting off a few inches or an extra foot here or there is a no-brainer. Upon looking at the preliminary plans and numbers, it's quite common to speculate that extra footage is driving the projected price above the targeted price point. Cutting back the planned square footage appears to be the only rational course.

While it's especially true in a shifting economy that one must begin with reasonable assumptions about such matters as square foot cost and price points, it's also true that a unit with a little extra space in a key location can cost the same or even less than one that has been ratcheted down to the perfect minimum based on all of the cost models.

Let's examine some of the obvious and not so obvious pitfalls of holding the line on square footage costs.

The red lines illustrate areas on a typical floor plate often lost to belt tightening. Little in the way of actual savings are achieved. Hard dollars can be lost to waste, lack of ambience, and slow sales.
The red lines illustrate areas on a typical floor plate often lost to belt tightening. Little in the way of actual savings are achieved. Hard dollars can be lost to waste, lack of ambience, and slow sales.

Eliminate extraneous square footage. If the business plan requires a 550-square-foot studio, the common course is to just make it so. Perfectly good joists, plywood, sheathing, and finish materials are all trimmed off in the name of savings. It's hard to imagine that the pile of waste that just went by on its way to the landfill has generated savings. Next time, have a good contractor or savvy estimator look at the layout and dimensions before deciding to trim off good materials that were already paid for.

Also, minimizing gross square footage often means cinching up on the overall dimension string along a path of minimum clearances. Inevitably, as a result of such tightening, something is bound to go wrong in the field when even the smallest dimension must shift. An extra layer of structural sheathing, for example, can kill an exit clearance, drive costly tear-outs, and lead to expensive delays or worse. Consider saving money next time by keeping an extra few inches in the plans. This may be the cheapest insurance on the market.

The hatched areas illustrate spaces that are frequently subject to squeeze. Savings acheived, if any, are often traded for plumbing and mechanical conflicts, code clearance problems, and construction delays.
The hatched areas illustrate spaces that are frequently subject to squeeze. Savings acheived, if any, are often traded for plumbing and mechanical conflicts, code clearance problems, and construction delays.

The hatched areas illustrate spaces that are frequently subject to squeeze. Savings achieved, if any, are often traded for plumbing and mechanical conflicts, code clearance problems, and construction delays. Minimize clearances in kitchens and baths. While this sounds terrific, cutting kitchens and bathrooms down to minimum widths to give space back" to the living areas leads to trouble with a capital T. Trouble with unanticipated thick wall finishes around tubs and back splashes. Trouble with refrigerator doors not opening enough for shelving to slide out. Trouble with plumbing and mechanical work that won't fit after the reality of dimension creep sets in. Trouble with narrow cabinets. Big trouble with accessibility codes and clearance requirements. Think about whether anything is really saved when minimizing dimensions in spaces filled with mechanical, electrical, and a host of other trades.

Occasionally, it's true that footage simply must be reduced. In this case, a proficient developer will spend a little money up front to build a full-scale mock-up and flush out costly problems in advance of construction. A mock-up with finishes offers the added bonus of allowing early photography of the unit, a boon to pre-sales. By accommodating subs and tradesmen with a little forethought and a few extra inches here and there, actual savings will be realized during construction.