"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Interior renovation detailing

Architect / Builder Collaboration

When asked about the key items that most often lead to excellent building results, right after “owner trust and support,” I place “the working relationship that exists between the architect and the builder,” especially on residential and small commercial projects.

Each party brings different strengths and points of view to the building process. Each is vital to produce an exceptional project.

The Design Perspective

The project design drives the construction process. It reflects the basis for undertaking the project in the first place — the stated needs, wishes, and preferences of the owner. However, the design is more than this. It is an artistic work that the owner and architect believe has merit. They want to see it built and enjoy it.

After construction drawings have been completed, the architect’s main goal is to make sure that the design is built as envisioned. Because he or she knows the reasons for each design decision, the architect tends to be the design’s most articulate advocate when changes are proposed that may compromise its strength or uniqueness. It is pointless to have given a project great design care during its development and, then, substantially diminish the value of that effort because of a few expedient, but ill-considered judgments just before and during construction.

The Construction Perspective

Builders provide a level of experience and knowledge about the pragmatic aspects of construction that architects can’t match. The builder focuses on the requirements and constraints of the building process and on the needs of the crew doing the work. Given a design, the builder seeks a way to implement it within the owner’s cost and time parameters — and hit a profit target for his or her company. Achieving both goals is important to builders.

Construction time and cost pressures favor decisions that make the building process easier, faster, and / or more predictable. These same pressures do not favor construction experimentation, unique or harder-to-build architectural details, or greater care when doing each construction task.

The Need to Collaborate

The perspectives of the architect and the builder are different, but they should be complementary. When they are, everyone benefits. By hearing well-supported design and construction reasoning by advocates in both areas, the owner has a broader range of unfiltered opinions to use making decisions. In addition, the architect and the builder increase their awareness of each other’s concerns and the opportunities to incorporate that awareness in their project recommendations. While there can be tension between designers and builders with strong viewpoints, if handled openly and intelligently by each party, that tension can lead to a better building result.

Effective Collaboration

In my experience, successful collaboration among the owner, the architect, and the builder almost always involves the following things:

  • Each fully understands and supports the overall project design, cost, and time goals, and knows that conflicting goals must be recognized and resolved early in the work.

  • Each communicates his or her concerns freely and clearly at all times, without hidden agendas.

  • Each is willing to change his position about what is best for the project when presented with an opposing point of view that makes more sense or has greater promise.

  • The owner decides what factor generally trumps other factors when making decisions, and conveys that preference at the start of the work.

  • Over the years, the architect has had sufficient interest in construction, and the builder in design, for each to have a good working understanding of the other’s needs and desires.

  • Everyone recognizes that architectural drawings are never as complete as desired, and that the architect will need to make design refinements and adjustments throughout construction.

  • When the builder requests information or a decision during construction, the owner and the architect have an obligation to respond in a timely way.

  • The owner periodically reminds the architect and the builder why they were chosen, and that their expertise is valued. In return, they make decisions with the owner’s interest foremost in mind.

Design-Build: A Good Approach?

More residential and small commercial projects have been completed recently by design-build construction companies. When design and construction services are offered by a single organization, project cost changes can be more easily monitored. Customers also get the convenience of dealing with only one party to whom responsibility for fixing all problems falls. These are appealing management advantages.

The builder-owners of several companies have told me that their reasons for choosing a design-build operation included (1) the need to retain more potential customers who had been lost after they were referred to an architect for design services, (2) a dislike of being placed in the position of having to tell owners that the project cost will be much higher than they had been led to believe, and (3) the desire to avoid arguments with designers about who was responsible for a problem. None of the builders claimed that the design-build approach favors particularly interesting design or better-crafted buildings. Most of the builder-controlled design-build projects I have seen tend to be functional, but unimaginative.

Many people continue to believe that the best building results are achieved when a talented, construction-savvy architect collaborates closely during the design process with an independent builder. The builder offers focused cost and construction comments about the various design ideas being considered. Using information directly presented by both parties, the owner can weigh the advantages and appeal of each design idea against its probable construction difficulty and cost. Informed decisions about how best to proceed can then be made.

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