"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Photography studio in Orinda, California

Twenty Building Basics

In building and renovation work, there are few “rules” — cause-and-effect relationships that hold true all the time. There are a number of useful notions that lead to predictable outcomes most of the time. Unfortunately, many of these notions are forgotten when we concentrate on making an ideal decision at every single judgment point throughout a project, and lose sight of how a decision relates to the bigger project picture.

The following list of frequent observations may serve as a reminder of some common sense ideas that almost always have a positive impact on the success of a construction endeavor:


  • Building anything is an act of joy and optimism. It is also a learning experience. Anxiety is a normal part of the experience, but it must not be allowed to control the outcome of the work.

  • The only adversarial relationship that is productive on a building project is the one that everyone should have with the artistic, technical, and financial challenge that the work itself presents.

  • Excellent people make mistakes. Expect that they will continue to do so.

  • Constructing a building is not an industrial process. It is hand labor, at a site, involving dozens of components that must be modified to fit together as well as possible. Expectations of the quality of the work should match its nature.

Design Consultants and Builders

  • The first criterion for selecting someone with whom to work should be character; the second, competence; the third, dedication.

  • A client is in a difficult business position when dealing with people who know more about design and construction than he or she does. The best strategy, when one is vulnerable, begins with choosing people of unquestionable integrity.

  • To secure the greatest benefit from the knowledge that consultants and builders have, let them do their work in the manner that their training and experience have shown will be most effective.

  • The clients who receive the best service are those from whom trust is ample, enthusiasm is overt, information is complete, and payment is prompt.

Project Cost

  • Financial risk in building work is reduced by developing as much specific design information as possible before construction begins. Accurate cost estimates are based on facts; inaccurate estimates are due to guesses.

  • Cost comparisons between apparently similar projects often lead to more incorrect expectations than provide useful information.

  • "You get what you pay for!" — more often than not. Design and building quality take someone’s care, care takes time, and time costs money.

  • When a project’s cost exceeds its budget, it is usually because (1) the budget was optimistic, not realistic, (2) the changing cost of the evolving design was not monitored, and / or (3) the client’s needs and preferences were not fully articulated at the start of the work.

The Design and Building Process

  • There are three interconnected variables in every building project — quality, quantity, and cost. If any one of these variables is held constant while another is changed, the third must change as well.

  • The complexity of both design and construction work is commonly underestimated, as is the length of time required to complete each.

  • Many people believe that they know a good deal about architectural design. What they do not realize is how much more they need to know to do design well — with distinction, refinement, and grace.

  • Architects have the patience to plan. Builders have the savvy to improvise. Improvisation, however, is not a substitute for planning. The purpose of planning is to achieve predictable results. The purpose of improvising is to maintain work progress.

  • For construction to be done efficiently, most design decisions need to be made in advance of building. If made during construction, these decisions can interrupt the flow of the work and increase its cost. Late design decisions are also much more difficult to incorporate into the rest of the design work.

  • A construction project involves people with wide variations in skill, experience, intelligence, and desire. Effective project management optimizes the conditions within which each person can perform at her or his best.

  • Frequent and candid communication is vital to minimize problems during construction.

  • Good people care. The building result usually shows why.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767