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Bedroom and bathroom addition in San Francisco

Building Smarter with Middle-class Means

The best architects and contractors in the building industry continually seek ways to produce better buildings and provide better service for their clients. However, as the cost of construction increases, more middle-class owners struggle to afford the level of design and building assistance that professionals know is needed to get maximum long-term value from a construction investment.

For many small projects (under $200,000) and some larger ones, owners often respond to high building costs by:

  • attempting to eliminate steps in the design process that architects and builders use to consider design options, critique decisions, and discover problems in advance of construction, and

  • lowering the quality of the building assembly.

In my experience, owners commonly underestimate the number of design decisions involved in apparently simple projects. They assume that the average builder can “figure things out,” making thoughtful, integrated design decisions along the way while not impeding work progress. Even builders with exceptional construction skill are challenged by having to work this way if they have little architectural design skill or interest, limited planning and building code familiarity, and inadequate time to do their normal project management and cost updating tasks.

This approach to project work may lower one’s immediate out-of-pocket cost, but it usually carries a long-term price. It seldom leads to building work with the design distinction and construction quality needed to retain its value in tough economic times. Ongoing maintenance and repair costs increase rapidly when lower quality materials and fixtures are selected and, then, assembled quickly with minimal care and research into manufacturer recommendations. Poorly designed, cheaply built buildings deteriorate prematurely, losing functionality and shortening their useful life. It is disheartening to see missed design opportunities that could have added building value, pleasure, and longevity — and to sense that an owner’s money was poorly used.

Rather than minimize building assistance or cheapen the built product, it makes long-term sense for owners to do the opposite. Further, It is wise to reexamine perceived needs carefully to be certain that they cannot be met by making current space more efficient and flexible. Whether additional building area is needed or not, a useful mantra is: “Build less, but design and build better.”

There are several pragmatic steps an owner of middle-class means can take to achieve good building results while working with first-rate architects and well-managed, established builders:

  • Determine an initial project budget, and tell the architect and the builder what it is. Without a specific design on which to develop this budget, it may be based on the level of resources an owner thinks the project merits within the overall family or organization financial picture. If the architect and the builder do not know the owner’s budget, they can’t assess a project’s viability relative to the owner’s stated goals.

  • Place 15–20% of the project budget aside as a contingency that is to be used only for unexpected design and building work after the project is under construction. The smaller operating budget may encourage the architect and the builder to think more creatively when proposing design ideas and suggesting construction solutions early in the project.

  • Develop a detailed, prioritized list of project goals and items to be included in the work, and give it to the architect and the builder for review and comment. Be thorough now, not later.
    It is important to differentiate needs from desires, and to question whether building a large number of single-use rooms and storage space for seldom-needed possessions is a wise use of funds. Many owners decide that it is not and can lower the cost of their project.

  • If clever design solutions are needed to achieve project goals within a tight budget, retain an imaginative architect with a track record of producing thoughtful design. Creative ability and design intuition are valuable project assets. Utilize them fully. To achieve the desired design result, remember that the architect will need to work closely with the builder before and during construction, adjusting the design to keep it within budget.

  • Be open-minded when presented with design solutions that are very different from those you have considered. Because of their training, architects tend to see design potential in areas many people overlook. Some of the best ideas are often among the first intuitive responses an architect has as a reaction to stated project needs and limitations. Avoid rejecting these ideas prematurely.

  • Tight budgets frequently favor contemporary architectural forms with clean lines more than they do traditional styles stripped of the design detail that gives them much of their character. Simple geometric building shapes constructed with standard building techniques are less expensive to build. When enlivened by one or two bold design “twists,” they can become distinctive without breaking the budget. Contemporary styles also tend to be flexible because they accommodate the use of ordinary materials in unusual ways. However, refined contemporary detailing can be very expensive and is usually inappropriate for projects with tight budgets.

  • Retain a builder early in the design process as a paid cost and construction consultant. The builder gains valuable familiarity with the work and the reasoning behind design decisions while providing key cost information and construction advice. With background information about the design, the builder’s suggestions during construction are more useful.

  • Work closely with the builder to develop a transparent, mutually acceptable contract agreement that identifies where project costs are allocated and how they are to be managed. Although builders are hesitant to share detailed cost estimate information with owners, it makes sense for both parties to identify financially risky areas of a project. The owner and the builder can consider alternative contractual arrangements for this work, shifting some financial risk to the owner in exchange for lowering the price the builder would otherwise charge.

  • Divide the project into separate work phases that can be completed as funds become available. An overall design scheme must first be developed to show how the work in each phase is to mesh with previously completed work to minimize the need to redo any of it.

Build less, but design and build better. It makes good sense.

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