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The Architect’s Contribution to Small Projects

An attorney specializing in construction issues recently told me he finds that the average property owner does not fully appreciate the ways an architect can contribute to a project’s success. Thus, an owner with a small project asking himself, “Do I need an architect?”, may not be able to answer the question with certainty.

Architects provide the same types of owner assistance on small projects that they do on large ones, but in more focused ways and with more owner and builder contact about project details. The goal is the same — produce a project that (1) functions well, (2) can be built within a budget while using resources wisely, and (3) has a design freshness and distinction that reflect the owner’s values, the character of the site and any existing building, and the architect’s creativity.

The main service architects provide, of course, is the design of entire buildings and portions of them. Less well known is the assistance offered before any design work begins, and after building drawings have been completed and the construction is underway. The extent and quality of the services provided in these two periods frequently separate successful projects from the others. In my experience, the following types of assistance have the most project value, i.e., “bang for the owner’s buck.”

Before Design Begins

  • Assist the owner in developing a detailed, prioritized list of every item that should be considered when the design work starts.

    Most owners have a good general idea of the work they want to do. Seldom have they
    (a) documented their reasons for doing the project and articulated their goals, (b) listed the alternatives they have considered and rejected, (c) distinguished “needs” from “desires” and prioritized each, and (d) made a complete list of the types (and sizes) of furniture, furnishings, equipment, and artwork for which space must be provided.

    Collectively, this information is called a project “program.” It is the foundation for the design work, much as the design work is the foundation for the construction work. The architect critically reviews the program to identify conflicting or unclear requirements, and to spot items that may present both design opportunities and design limitations.

    When the information is thoroughly compiled, design work proceeds efficiently and costs less. When it is not, a steady stream of requests for clarification or additional detail slows the design effort. Program revisions made late in the design process are often difficult to seamlessly incorporate into a design that is nearly finished.

  • Evaluate site and existing building features with a design eye.

    There is no substitute for natural design talent molded by a rigorous education and refined through years of experience. A skilled architect will identify those site and building characteristics that have the most design potential upon which to base future decisions. He will also assess the impact that neighboring buildings may have on the project design, and it on them.

  • Offer an initial judgment about the project’s possible cost relative to the stated budget.

    Few owners have a realistic idea about the cost of renovation work. Experienced architects who deliberately research and discuss costs with contractors may have a better idea. But without specific project information, architects often guess badly, as my contractor friends will readily confirm. Previous projects that initially appear similar and of cost comparison value are often later discovered to vary in important respects.

    Contractors estimate construction work on a daily basis and know the cost of project work that they have already built. It is unrealistic, however, to expect them to accurately guess the cost of work that has yet to be designed. When asked to try, they must make assumptions about the eventual design and its construction details that usually differ from what the architect finally proposes. Further, even good contractors struggle to resist the tendency to provide lower, optimistic cost guesses that they know may entice an owner to proceed with a project.

    To try to overcome these problems, I ask owners to make preliminary choices for 27 project items. As a group, these choices reflect a project’s complexity and an owner’s desired quality level. Each quality level has an associated square foot cost range. Multiplying the limits of this range by the approximate floor area involved in the work can provide a relevant cost projection based on specific information the owner has provided via the choices he has made.

  • Examine key planning regulations, and discuss how they may affect the project design with the local planning department staff.

    A planning code describes the type, size, and location of a building that is permitted on a property. Each city’s planning requirements differ, as does the manner in which regulations are applied. Initially, the architect will review the most important code sections to (1) confirm that the project envisioned by the owner will be allowed and (2) determine the specific design review procedures that are to be followed. Meetings with planners can frequently be handled effectively by architects whom many planners consider professional design peers.

  • Provide management advice about the design and building process, in general, and discuss the different ways to contract for project work.

    An architect with experience in every phase of small project work, and with established working relationships with consultants and builders, can provide prudent advice on how a project should be managed to avoid common problems. He will present the pro’s and con’s of alternative methods of selecting and contracting for design services and for construction services. If requested, he can suggest appropriate design consultants and builders.

    A key topic that should be addressed is the benefit of selecting a builder to provide cost and construction consultation early in the project work. A builder’s perspective on project issues is usually different from that of an architect. An owner benefits by having both presented candidly.

  • Photograph and measure the existing construction to create “as-built” drawings.

    If there are no building drawings, a site plan, floor plans and wall elevation drawings must be produced to serve as base drawings for the future design work. There are companies that can provide these drawings after measuring and photographing a building. However, when the architect does this work, he becomes familiar with small site and building idiosyncrasies that need to be accommodated in the design. He can alert the builder about conditions that will require more attention during construction than might have been assumed looking at the drawings.

    When a building addition is planned, a property survey may be needed to determine the exact locations of property lines, existing buildings, and other site features. An architect will provide a surveyor with a specific list of information that he requires during design. It is most cost effective to have a surveyor collect all the information requested with the fewest site visits.

After Construction Drawings Have Been Completed

  • Assist the owner (or the contractor, if one has been selected) in securing formal planning approval at the start of the building permit application process.

    Obtaining planning approval is the first step in getting a building permit. Even when a project meets all the planning code requirements, there may be political issues that need to be addressed to gain approval. An architect can assist a planning staff by producing drawings and photos that help make a stronger case for approval. He can often take a more dispassionate approach than many owners can when working with neighbors to handle their concerns.

  • If an owner wishes to bid a project, develop the bid instructions that accompany the drawings and specifications, and evaluate the bids after they have been submitted.

    The bid instructions explain how prices are to be developed and formatted for ease of comparison, and where and when bids are due. Any clarifications made during the bid period in response to one bidder’s questions must be in written or drawing form and given to all the bidders. After the bids have been received, an architect will assist the owner in reviewing them, pointing out prices that appear suspect and should be questioned.

  • Review and comment on the provisions of the proposed construction contract or modify one of a number of standardized industry agreements for small construction projects.

    Many builders that do renovation work have developed their own construction contract rather than use a standard industry agreement form. Provisions are often included to handle past problems the builder has faced and to modify prevalent contract provisions he feels are unfair. An experienced architect can help an owner understand the construction reasoning behind the contract language. He can provide a personal opinion on how well the contract balances owner and builder responsibilities and concerns. For legal advice, an attorney’s help is still appropriate.

  • Provide a second set of eyes to those of the crew leader throughout the construction.

    This is one of the most important services an architect can provide if he has done almost all the project design and construction drawing work himself. Even the most vigilant construction crew leader will not remember every item that needs to be done all the time. He will usually appreciate being alerted about work items that might be overlooked or completed in a manner different from that shown on the drawings. An architect who has dealt with most aspects of a project throughout its design is in an excellent position to be of help to a crew leader.

  • Do design revisions that mesh well with the original design.

    During most projects, there are unforeseen site conditions, unexpected owner requests, and design adjustments that require revisions in the proposed work. Good builders are skilled at developing workable construction solutions for problems on site. These fixes, however, are often not well integrated visually into the overall design. An architect that gave the original design its particular character is more likely to propose modifications that retain or enhance it.

In coming years, an increased emphasis will be placed on obtaining high value for services rendered. In building work, the most effective way to do this is by thorough planning in advance of construction, and assiduous oversight after it begins. Experienced architects know they need to do more than a project’s design to give owners the best chance to get maximum value for their building dollar.

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