"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Hardwood flooring highlights an addition / renovation

Getting Building Advice at the Right Time

The most valuable advice property owners can get about a building project may be best obtained months in advance of the start of the work.

When an owner seeks early answers to questions about how a project will be designed and managed, information and suggestions provided by design professionals and builders are less likely to be influenced by an immediate desire to “get the job.” This is especially common in a slow economy when consultants and contractors often focus more on “sales volume” than on “quality volume.”

Obtaining project information early gives an owner time to fully consider the impact that the work will have on household activities and finances. Steps can then be taken to better assure an orderly and efficient building process with less disruption to daily routines.

Increasingly, I am asked to consult with owners making a concerted effort to learn more about the design and building process well in advance of their project start. While each owner has particular items she or he wishes to discuss, the following questions should be addressed to make a consultation especially useful:

  • What are the general needs or problems that prompt you to embark on a building or renovation project, and can they be addressed in another way that will yield a satisfactory result?

    A construction project is a complex, expensive endeavor, and should not be undertaken unless one is reasonably certain that the effort will produce a result worth the personal resources (money, time, and energy) expended. An owner’s commitment to a building endeavor must be steady and strong.

  • Have you compiled a written list of specific project requirements?

    Before the design process begins, the architect needs to know the items and features you want to incorporate in the project design and their relative importance. This list should include: (1) desired rooms and outdoor spaces, and their approximate sizes, (2) major furniture, equipment, and objects (e.g., artwork) for which space will be needed, and (3) a sense of the quality level you seek. Purposeful reflection is required to develop this information thoroughly.

  • How important is the project’s architectural design to you?

    Some owners are very design-sensitive; others are much less so. The need for good design in one’s surroundings is influenced by the kind of artistic, cultural, and educational background to which a person has been exposed. Because it takes considerable time and skill to craft striking architectural design, it is wise to be candid with your architect about the importance you tend to place on good design in other lifestyle decisions. The thoroughness given the design work through construction should reflect that level of importance.

  • Do you have adequate resources to build a project that satisfies your needs and requirements (quantitative and qualitative)?

    As might be expected, this is the most common question during a consultation. There is no benefit to anyone — owner, architect, or contractor — to proceed with a project that is underfunded. A general idea of what the work might cost is needed.

    Although some claim otherwise, most experienced architects and builders have great difficulty accurately forecasting the cost of custom-designed work based solely on an owner’s general comments about its scope and quality. Preliminary design drawings and specifications can substantially increase the accuracy of cost projections, but initial figures often prove to be low after details are fully developed and the effort needed to build them becomes clear.

    At the end of a consultation you should have an idea about the broad range of construction costs within which your project may fall. Without specific design information, however, architects and builders are only guessing. These early guesses tack toward being optimistic and can give you a more favorable project picture than may be merited.

  • Are you familiar with the normal steps in the building process and why they are taken?

    The care with which a project is designed and managed will impact its success. During your meeting, the building process should be described and the roles and responsibilities of you, the architect, and the general contractor highlighted. It is beneficial to review the selection methods for design consultants and contractors, and the advantages and disadvantages of various contractual arrangements with them.

    When you are aware of time-tested procedures and professional relationships that are common in building projects, if you feel a need to change them, a consultant should alert you to the possible unintended consequences and added risk that may accompany those changes.

  • How is project communication handled?

    The basis for most building problems is the failure to communicate information fully, accurately, promptly, and / or candidly. Even small projects involve hundreds of communications — notes, letters, drawings, phone calls, e-mails, and meetings. Successful building projects incorporate a disciplined, structured approach to documenting, transmitting, and acting upon information. It may be wise to discuss your own communication strengths and shortcomings and assess their possible influence on your project’s management structure.

  • Do you need to occupy your property while the construction is underway and, if so, how might your presence affect the project work and its cost?

    When building crews are asked to work around areas of a property occupied by an owner’s family, employees, or tenants, project logistics become more complicated. The pace of the work can slow and its cost can increase when work areas can’t be accessed directly, a significant concern if crews need to go to and from these areas many times during a day. Some rooms or yards will be needed to store building materials and construction equipment and will no longer be available for the owner’s use. If neighborhood street parking and delivery space is very limited, garage and driveway areas are likely to be commandeered by contractors.

Two or three hours of consultation may cost $300–400. The benefit of the information received from an experienced architect or builder can be considerable as you try to gain a better understanding of what is involved to execute your project — and whether it is feasible. When the lure of an imminent start to the work is absent, the information you receive is likely to be more objective and the advice better focused.

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