Working with architects
How often do you pass a residential construction project in your town and think, "Now that's a good design. That really looks nice."? On the other hand, how often do you pass a project and just shake your head in disbelief? Or, almost worse, pass a site and not even look twice at what's going on, it's so bland and generic?
If your experience is like mine, you'll agree that the quality of residential design in America is not high. In my opinion, our generation of contractors is not leaving a legacy to be very proud of. And though both professions are responsible, the blame does belong more with contractors than with architects. For the most part, when prospective clients want some residential construction work done, they call a contractor and not an architect.
It's therefore incumbent on the contractor to make sure the client gets appropriately thorough and professional design work. For a variety of reasons — involving subtle perceived class distinctions, outdated training, a self-limiting interpretation of fiduciary responsibility, broad-based lack of appreciation of the architect's role by the general public — architects as a group have not been well positioned to take the lead on this issue as is.
I don't want to sound too bleak, though, because I do see evidence of a steady increase in design awareness among contractors. That progress, however, is chronically hamstrung by our historic and still prevalent reluctance about working with architects. Those of us who overcome this mistrust and learn to collaborate effectively with good design professionals will not only provide a better service to our clients but also gain an almost insurmountable competitive advantage over those who don't.
That means, like it or not, it's up to us contractors to engineer the transformation.
An awful lot of the design-build I see, however, is not being done by an architect-contractor team. Instead, the design work is done by the contractor or salesperson (via CAD software like Chief Architect), or some other self-trained or marginally trained individual working on behalf of the contractor. I think this short-changes the client and undermines the integrity or design-build.
Architects who argue against design-build or negotiated contracts (as opposed to competitive bid) often argue that they need to protect the financial interests of the clients. The only way they can imagine getting maximum value for their clients is via competitive bid.
What the client sees (we hope) is steady, seamless progress towards the targeted construction start, not a wild scramble to get a project under control after the bids have come in.
I don't want to take on competitive bidding in this article; I've already done that previously. I do, however, want to make a case for some of the built-in cost controls of design-build.
One primary cost control comes from the discipline required to design to a budget. Our current strategy is to do enough design work (2-30 hours, depending on the project) to be able to have some tangible documentation on which to base a budget. I then compare that project with past similar projects — both in the aggregate (this kitchen is a lot like the Cruickshank kitchen and the Coleman kitchen) and in its component parts (the plumbing for this bathroom is really very similar to that for the Wheatley project; the tile is a lot like the Schulte job). This gives me a pretty solid starting budget, based on recent real-world experience. I share this budget with the homeowner. As the design develops, we do budget updates, always in the form of comparisons with this initial budget.
My cost database includes typical ratios, established over time. I know, for instance, that in about 80% of the kitchens we've done, electrical costs average 7% to 10% of the total production budget. These hold true largely independent of subcontractor.
So as I do my budget comparisons over the course of the design process, I'm doing very thorough value engineering. Is the electrical for this kitchen coming in at 15% of the production budget — $5,000 over the initial budget of $10,000? Then we have to look hard at that component. Did we over-design the lighting? Did the client fall in love with some particularly expensive alabaster fixture? Do we have the wrong electrician looking at the job? (We try to be three deep in each sub-trade so we can have an ongoing reality check for various subcontract costs.)
Once we've identified the likely reason we're over budget, we can respond appropriately. We get another electrician to look at the plans, we simplify the electrical design, we simplify the design for another component (with client approval, specify copper baseboard rather than radiant floor heat), or the homeowner agrees to fund the extra costs.
Keep in mind this value engineering happens during the design process — in fact, it's an essential ongoing component of the design process. What the client sees (we hope) is steady, seamless progress towards the targeted construction start, not a wild scramble to get a project under control after the bids have come in, with the baby due in 3 months, the short-term rental already started, and the bidding contractors quickly losing interest once they've seen the difference between expectations and reality.
The value engineering during the design process has also dropped our change orders as a percent of total revenues from the low teens to the single digits (from averages over the years of 10% to 15% to current averages for design-build work of less than 4%). This translates to improved schedule control, higher crew morale, and greater client satisfaction.
Strategies for working with architects.
The ultimate collaboration: Design-Build
I think it's a mistake for the business owner to be the principal designer. Establish project parameters, definitely; encourage a style or a look or a design direction yes; be primarily responsible for producing and trouble-shooting that design on paper, almost certainly not. View yourself rather as the managing partner, if you must. But remember it's the nature of the role of president or owner not to have time to do much in the way of tangible work except in very small companies. The owner as principal designer, in design-build firms, often means late hours, slow progress, and reduced effectiveness in other areas of the business.
The architect on your staff needs to have ultimate authority over design issues — total veto power.
The historic tension between architect and contractor needs to be maintained, not eliminated. Properly managed, this tension works to the clients' benefit. A good collaboration requires dialogue and disagreement, advocacy and compromise.
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