The Makings of a Secret Lair: Creating a design-build superhero hideout

By Stephen Carr | Oct 15, 2021




I was eating a salad (I really do like a big salad with a lot of protein) when my grandson appeared at my elbow as “Silent,” his superhero persona. He is called Silent because no one ever hears him coming. He asked me to create an electrical estimate for the new secret lair he wanted to build. I asked him if he had plans, and he said no. Obviously, this was to be a design-build project. I asked him for the design parameters, and he asked, “What are those”? I told him I needed a list of the things that require electricity to work.

The first item on Silent’s list was a supercomputer to help him design new superhero gadgets. He also needed the computer to run high-end games with no lag, because he has another persona as the super-gamer called “Chill.” Of course, supercomputers draw quite a bit of power to run, and need even more power to keep them cooled. I could already tell we were going to need a big service. He also wanted a waterfall to conceal the entrance to his lair. (Where have I seen that before?) His list continued with an indoor pool, a 200-inch flat-screen TV, an automatic retrieval system for his massive library of video games, the latest electric gaming chair, air conditioning that never fails and a secret elevator from his bedroom to the lair.

Then Silent told me he is also a dragon trainer and needed a cavern for his dragon to live in, an automatic feeding system and a training arena. I was starting to feel he was going to be one of those customers that keeps adding things even after the design is finished. He told me his dad is a programmer and I had to hire him to do all the work on the supercomputer.

I advised my grandson that he would also need the services of several other specialists, including HVAC, plumbing, structural, mechanical, excavation, lighting design and an architect. I also advised him that a general contractor or a construction management firm would be needed to coordinate the design work and oversee the construction. Of course, this was very complex for an 8-year-old, even one as smart as my grandson. He simply asked me to take care of “all that stuff.”

Let’s forget about “all that stuff” and concentrate on the electrical estimate I was asked to prepare. The first task required working with my electrical engineer on the design. I also assisted the engineer in coordinating with other trade engineers. We scheduled a meeting every Monday for coordination and to iron out any problems.

A great example of a major problem that had to be solved is when the mechanical engineer decided to “sell” the client on major cost savings by switching the fire pump from diesel to electric. That engineer neglected to tell the client that the cost savings would be more than used up by the added electrical costs, including upsizing the generator and switchgear.

The client was at every meeting. My grandson needed to be there for every decision that changed the design or the cost. Those can be tough decisions for any client, much less an 8-year-old. We had major arguments with the lighting designer over costs because it seemed like they loved the most expensive fixtures ever made. The electrical engineer assisted in the process of finding less-expensive fixtures that would do the job.

When the design was finally complete, the estimating could start. Since we had a finished design, this would be a standard line-item level estimate with no guesswork or allowances. It was difficult, however, because the space was very irregular with many different elevations.

Since this secret lair could conceivably be attacked, all installations and materials had to be of the highest quality available. It took me several weeks to get pricing for the items that needed quotes, such as switchgear and lighting. I completed the estimate, adding a reasonable markup for an electrical contractor, and turned in my proposal to the construction manager. We had a meeting with the client the following Monday. After reviewing the costs, he informed us he could not afford to construct this project because he only had $15.

While this scenario is completely fictional, it does describe one possible way a design-build project might happen. Before taking on work like this, be sure to understand all of the requirements and have a construction lawyer review the contract before signing it. I also advise actually taking the advice you get from the lawyer.

About The Author

CARR has been in the electrical construction business since 1971. He started Carr Consulting Services—which provides electrical estimating and educational services—in 1994. Contact him at 805.523.1575 or [email protected], and read his blog at

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