What is the Best Way to Work with an Architect?

greenbuildingKnowledge Base

Have fun!

Although the architectural design process can be tedious, and it involves large sums of money (both in terms of design fee and construction costs), it can also be fun. After all, you are investing in making your home reflect your lie and dreams, and the things and experiences that bring you pleasure. Also, it’s a chance to learn about what may be an entirely new area — that of design.

Keep an Open Mind

Hiring an architect means that you should end up with ideas that are better than the one you’ve arrived at on your own. So the first rule of thumb is to let the architect look at your project  with fresh eyes; do not dictate how you want the design to turn out. Instead, let him/her know what things you want to accomplish (and this can be very specific: I want a master bedroom of about 14 by 15 feet which extends off the back of the house). It’s fine to let him or her know what solutions you’ve thought so far, and it could be that it is the best solution. But the architect needs to get their head around the problem before arriving at that conclusion.

Ideally you’ll get at least three design solutions, even if some of them don’t contain all the items on your list and if some are completely different than you discussed or expected.

During the design process homeowners typically become clearer about the details of what they care about. At the beginning of the project, it’s difficult — if not impossible — for the homeowner to put in writing all the likes and dislikes they experience in their home. It is while reviewing the schematic designs that the architect and the homeowner refine their understanding of each other  and of the project requirements. It may not be until one of the schemes does not allow a view of the neighbor’s canary island date palm that the owner realizes the importance of that view, and should be included.

Expose Yourself to Architectural and Interior Design

Expand your view of what’s possible in home design in terms of room types, spaces, and materials. Go on home tours, check out books from the library on both domestic and international design, subscribe to design magazines, and start to notice buildings around you. The more exposure you have to interiors, buildings, and gardens the easier the design process will be, because you will have context in which to place the design ideas that your architect is proposing. Most schools in the United States have a dismal record of educating students in visual and aesthetic literacy, and so the gap between the training of an architect and that of a typical homeowner is often great.

Communicate What You Like and Don’t Like to the Architect

At the start of the project it’s important to communicate as best you can your design preferences. The best way, since an architect is a visual person, is to show pictures and tour local buildings together that strike your fancy.

If You Don’t Understand the Drawings, Get Help from the Architect

It’s not uncommon for a homeowner to have difficulty understanding the plans, and it’s also not uncommon for the architect to forget this happens. The architect has become so accustomed to speaking the language of lines within an architectural project that he/she forgets that the owner does not speak this language. Add the fact  that often one of the most used drawings is a floor plan, which by its nature is abstract (rather than illustrated perspective drawing), and the opportunity  for homeowner confusion is great. Ask the architect for an “acting out” of the idea. Get out the tape measure together and map out where things will go, using masking tape to mark important  spots on the floor or wall. Use stakes or sticks at the exterior to map out the extent of an addition. You can also ask for perspective sketches or additional drawings to illustrate an idea.

The other part of this is — pay attention during the design process. All too often an owner will coast along during the design process and wake up during construction deciding that they in fact want something different. Changes made during construction are expensive, and can cause frustration for all parties involved.

Get Cost Estimates at Each Design Phase

One of the biggest complaints about architects is that they don’t meet construction budgets. The fact is, architects are not cost estimators and cannot guarantee what price a contractor will be willing to work within. The architect can refer to both square foot figures and recent projects as a benchmark, but the nuts and bolts of an estimate should be left to those who produce them all the time; namely, a cost estimator or a general contractor.  It is both possible and wise to ask a contractor to perform this service from the schematic design phase onward. If you make your selection early enough, your contractor can become part of your design team, estimating costs and recommending practical construction details through the rest of the design process.

In turn, the architect faces the challenge of gently curbing the owner’s enthusiasm for things they may not be able to afford. It can be difficult to dissuade a homeowner from an element or space that their heart desires there are some cold hard facts (the cost estimate)  to review and process.

Lastly, a good architect will be naturally excited about design and materials and all that is possible, and can get carried away. The key is that the architect responds to cost information and scales back the plan in an attempt to meet the budget.

How Do I Manage Construction Costs?

No matter hos much cost estimating is done or how carefully it is done, there will always be changes and unexpected conditions that result in cost increases. There are many factors influencing the design and construction of a project; additionally, remodeling involves integration of a new project into or attached onto an existing structure. The foibles and intricacies of the old structure are not entirely visible during the demolition stage. Homeowners change their mind and want a different material. Architects come up with a new idea that is wonderful but costs more. Surprise keep happening. Instead of being totally shocked, the better strategy  is to plan to be surprised and set aside at least 15% of the estimated construction costs as a contingency amount. This means that if your budget is, for example $100,000, then you’ll want to actually for a construction costs of $85,000, so that you have $15,000 set aside.

What Are The Architectural Design Fees?

There are several ways that architects charge for their services. Hourly, fixed fee, a fixed fee based on a percentage of the cost of construction, and/or hourly  for some phases with fixed fees for others. Reimbursable expenses are added to the fee (printing costs, etc.). Consultant costs are either included or charged for separately.

What Products Does the Architect Produce for this Fee?

After all of the design phases are complete, the architect provides the owner with a set of architectural plans and often a written specification of products and materials to be used on the project. These “contract documents” form the basis of the contract between the owner and the builder. The builder’s contract with the owner to provide construction services references the architect’s name and the date of the plans and specifications. Note that often there are different “editions” of the design, with the first set often being used to obtain the building permit.

Note: It is crucial to the success of project  that everyone uses the same dated prints and that old versions are not thrown away.

It’s tempting for some homeowners to try to save architectural fees during construction by not having the architect visit the site or by diminishing diminishing the services during construction. Unfortunately, the end result almost always suffers. The design continues to evolve during construction, with a number of factors influencing the project’s design at this stage: unexpected conditions popping up and having design ramifications, code issues that the site inspector interprets differently than the plan checker did during the review process, and new ideas about how to handle something now that the plans are in three dimensions. In general, having the skills of an architect through only part of the process short changes your dream home; imagine using the skills of a surgeon for only part of the surgery!

Material and Product Choices

The number of choices to make during the process can be staggering. It’s important to start looking at materials, finishes, appliances, hardware, and so on as early on as possible, so that you aren’t faced with a huge list at the end. In fact, the architect typically does at least preliminary selection of most of these, since they are integral to the design, but at some point the owner must at least review and approve or disapprove the suggestions. Many times the architect leaves specific decisions up to the contractor. Unless you pay attention, you may get substitutions that compromise the integrity of your green design. Another way choices are presented to an owner is as “allowances.” The builder has set aside a budget for items that the homeowner must select. Be careful that the allowance reflects the true cost of items you want. An allowance for $12.00 per yard of carpet may be a builder price but you probably wouldn’t want to live with carpet that cheap.

How Do I Collaborate with My Architect and Builder

Traditionally an architect worked on the design and the drawings and then provided them to contractors during the bidding process. The problem with this model is that beautiful buildings were designed in somewhat of a cost vacuum, and all the effort and money and falling in love with the design were wasted once it was discovered  that the project exceeded the budget. Working with a contractor during construction  for cost estimating is the first step in collaboration, and the other is to have the contractor present during design (whether at part of the architect/client meetings or just with the architect) to suggest efficient construction details, bring up possible conflicts with other parts of the building such as the plumbing systems, and in general bring their extensive experience in construction to bear on the project. Typically contractors need to be paid for these services, just as any project consultant is paid. Some contractors are willing to credit some of these fees if they are hired to do the job.

Another benefit to working with a contractor during design is that it gives the homeowner a chance to get to know a contractor before working with one. And working with one contractor during the design does not preclude the homeowner from working with another during construction, although it is often best to maintain continuity if the relationship goes smoothly.

In general, an architectural project has so many bits of information to manage that no architect will do it perfectly. It’s everyone’s job to manage the flow of information and it’s advisable for at least one person to prepare meeting notes and distribute them.

Note: At the very least the homeowner should keep their own dated notes of meetings and decisions and review them with the architect on a regular basis. The same habit should extend to the homeowner’s communication with the builder.

Questions to Consider When Choosing an Architect

In general, you are trying to create a fit between the owner and architect. The answer is part intellectual, what can be understood quantitatively) and part emotional (what can only be felt intuitively).

What do the owner and architect each want to accomplish with the project?

What would the owner and architect each need from the experience to feel successful?

Are there any fears about the project?

Are the owner’s goals for their home and the philosophy of design that informs the architect’s practice consistent? (e.g. If the owner wants to build their project green, is sustainability a foundation of the architect’s practice?) If so, can they go beyond systems approach to environmental building based on resource conservation to weave in ideas of lifestyle, quality of light and space, and relationship to the landscape?

How will decisions be made as you progress through the design process?

Are there others that will round out the design team, including the builder, landscape architects, structural engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, financiers?