Design Process — FAQ

How do I get my project started?

To help navigate the unknown waters of a construction project, hiring an Architect early on the process is a wise first step. Some of your most critical decisions are made at the very beginning of the process. Listed below are the key issues to consider and address at the start of any construction project.

  1. Select design and construction team members: architect, contractor, structural engineer, civil engineer, land surveyor, interior designer, landscape architect, land use attorney and others. Not all projects require each of these team members, but an Architect can help in the selection process as well as when they will need to join the project.
  2. Identify spatial program requirements, particular needs, scope of work and design wish list.
  3. Establish project budget including design team fees, construction costs, contingencies and other soft costs. Identify source of project financing.
  4. Define project schedule and identify target milestones.
  5. Property Issues & Constraints:
    1. Prepare an A2 land survey, identify deed restrictions and easements
    2. Analyze existing or new septic system capacity
    3. Identify and map wetlands and watercourses
    4. Identify flood hazard zones
    5. Review local zoning regulations, identify any non-conformities
    6. Investigate outstanding open permits
    7. Identify Historic Districts
  6. Identify specific project expectations where:
    1. Unique health/physical requirements exist
    2. Owner on-site availability is limited
    3. Time schedule is accelerated
    4. Absolute budget limits exist
    5. Unorthodox project delivery is employed
    6. Specialized construction methods and components are utilized
    7. "Green" or sustainable design is a goal
    8. Owner's construction experience is limited

Why Hire an Architect?

An Architect can be your best ally throughout the design and construction processes, resulting in a successful building project. Architects are uniquely qualified to fulfill your needs, goals and dreams from project start to finish. While the Owner might naturally be focusing on only a few specific desires, an Architect will keep the big picture in mind so as to create a master plan for both the buildings and the property.

Architects appreciate the financial, emotional and time investments that the Owner will ultimately make for their projects. Therefore, an Architect's services are goal oriented: to design rewarding, client specific, aesthetically appealing, functional, appropriate buildings and places; prepare detailed drawings and documents to turn the designs into reality; protect the Owner's interests during construction; and find ways to maximize the project value.

Construction projects continue to become more and more complex due to detailed building codes, cloudy zoning laws and other regulations, and lack of qualified construction workers. Architects have professional experience in each of these areas making their services a key component of a successful building project.

How do I find and hire an Architect?

Consult with those you know and trust who have worked with an Architect before. You might seek out valuable opinions and experiences from neighbors, contractors, realtors, friends or family to help assemble a list of possible candidates. Lists of local licensed Architects can be obtained from your state agency that licenses professionals or through the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Interviewing a few Architects will aid in deciding which Architect or firm to hire. Allocate enough time to adequately investigate the credentials of each candidate and to determine if there is a "fit" between you and the Architect. When hiring an Architect, determine and consider a number of selection criteria such as professional qualifications, experience with your building type, temperament, references, firm size, design philosophy, fee structure, and availability.

How can I establish a project budget early on and minimize cost overruns?

Cost overruns are often the culprit if a construction project becomes strained. The project budget should be one of the first items addressed when beginning a project, so that you can begin to predict where that final construction cost might end up. Consider these questions; 1. What are your physical needs? 2. How much capital is available to spend on those needs? 3. How much value will the new construction add to the property?

The first two questions can usually be answered by the Owner. Architects can provide some insight with answering the third question. An Architect has a good handle on the pulse of the construction market in your area and can share experiences from previous neighboring projects.

It can also be helpful to solicit the opinion of a local Realtor regarding both the current market value of your residence or building and the projected value after the construction. Having some idea of the market values and architectural characteristics in your area will help shape your project budget.

Once the scope of work and the project budget have been established, an Architect can begin to develop design concepts and sketches accordingly. This design information will prove helpful in testing the original project budget allocation. Pre-qualified contractors or, if necessary, a cost estimator can analyze the initial designs and submit estimates of anticipated costs. If they will be given consideration to bid on the final design, contractors are typically willing to share their professional cost insights throughout the design process. Architects and contractors alike will tell you to carry a contingency of about 10% to 20% of your project budget for unexpected changes and items that you may add during construction.

With the project design finalized, an Architect will prepare drawings, specifications and other related documents that can be used for competitive bidding by contractors. The more detailed and comprehensive these documents are, the less likely you will incur change orders and extra costs during construction. If the bid documents define what you ultimately want and need for the project, then there will be fewer changes during the actual construction – a time when you will likely pay a premium to add to or make changes to the project.

During construction, stay on top of the decision making process. You will have presumably made many design decisions already, by virtue of having completed the drawings and specifications with your architect, but there may still be questions to answer, especially if you are renovating or altering an existing building. Without a doubt, "time is money" in construction so be prepared to make timely decisions on matters that might delay the project and, as a result, add to the cost.

Avoid the "while we're at it" syndrome, which is the owner's tendency to increase the project scope during construction because these extra costs can be rationalized while they are already in the midst of construction. Also, watch out for the small amount items that you may choose to add to the project. They can quickly add up to a big cost.

Lastly, remember that you are establishing a budget and, ultimately, a cost for the complete project. Therefore, make sure to include necessary items such as furniture, landscaping/sitework, permits, rentals for temporary accommodations and storage units, moving costs, and professional fees.

What is my role as the Owner/Client?

In general, take as active a role as possible in the development and execution of the project. The more that you can be dialed in to the process and the meaningful details of the project, the more likely that your expectations will be fulfilled. Share any and all expectations for the project with your Architect, even if they might seem insignificant. Like the actual construction of a building, each element of the project builds upon the previous element and if a client's initial expectations are not addressed, that might compromise the essence of the entire project.

Provide as much detailed information about your needs, the budget and the scope of the project to the Architect early on in the process. A primary goal of the Architect is to capture the design and construction goals of the project by means of detailed drawings, specifications and other related documents. The more that this information can be tailored to your project and representative of your vision, the less likely that you will experience cost overruns, change orders and schedule delays.

During construction, maintain a key position with the project team, which also includes the Architect and contractor. Continue to communicate your needs and expectations for the project to the other team members. Be available to meet at the jobsite with the Architect and contractor to address issues as they arise. You will be required to respond to a myriad of questions and issues. Your decisiveness and timeliness will help to keep the project on schedule. Attempt to stay calm and reasonable during the challenges of a construction project, keeping in mind that the final results will have made it all worthwhile.

How do I select a contractor?

Like hiring an Architect, consult with those who have been through construction projects to obtain their recommendations, and even their negative feedback, on contractors. Ask neighbors, friends, family, realtors, lumberyards and building inspectors to help to establish a list of candidates. Referrals from end users can be invaluable in selecting a contractor. Architects can also share their experiences to suggest contractors that might be appropriate for your particular project. You can begin with a brief telephone interview to gauge a contractor's interest and availability for your project and to determine what kind of projects they might specialize in. With those who qualify, set up face-to-face interviews at your project site or at one of their jobsites. Listed below are some suggested questions and points of discussion to address during an interview with a prospective contractor.

  1. Request a list of references from projects with similar scopes of work, so that you can ask previous customers a few critical questions.
  2. How long has the contractor been in business locally? Request a copy of their license.
  3. Request an escorted visit to one of their current jobsites to assess issues like safety, neatness, organization, worker's behavior, etc.
  4. How many projects does the contractor work on at any given time?
  5. Will there be a project superintendent on site daily and for how many hours?
  6. Who will be the contractor's contact person and how can that person be reached?
  7. What kind of project schedule will the contractor prepare and how often is it updated? How successful are they sticking to the original schedule?
  8. Can the contractor meet with the clients on site on Saturdays or even a Sunday or after normal business hours to discuss progress and other issues?
  9. Has the contractor previously worked on a project where an Architect was involved?
  10. Have they used industry standard contractor/owner contracts before? You will want to establish the relationship in writing.
  11. How often do their projects come in over budget and by what percentage of the original bid? Extra costs are to be itemized and approved before they are executed.
  12. Daily job site cleanup and a thorough final cleanup will be required. How will the contractor protect portions of the existing building that will remain and the new construction as it is completed?
  13. Construction material samples and mock-ups of certain features (stone veneer, interior mouldings, roof trim, shingle siding, etc.) will be expected from the contractor.
  14. How will the contractor control the safety of the construction site for workers, visitors and the general public? Who will have access to the site and how is access controlled?
  15. Confirm that they have both worker's compensation and liability insurance.
  16. A list of all contractor employees and subcontractors will be required.
  17. Job site logistics such as work hours and overtime; worker parking; no smoking, drugs or alcohol on site; music; and storage and protection of construction materials.

The interview process should help you establish which contractors are best suited to competitively bid on the project. Rate each company based upon their responses to the questions. Your Architect can help you with reviewing the contractors' bids. While price and timing may be significant determining factors, strongly consider the contractor's reputation and expertise, your comfort level with their personnel and their attention to the details when making the final selection.

Who supervises the construction?

The Contractor or the builder supervises the construction and manages the building site. They are also responsible for safety measures, schedules, and payments to all of the various subcontractors and suppliers. The Architect's primary role during construction is to advise, consult with and represent the Owner with regard to the work and in dealings with the Contractor. Architect's basic duties during construction include: review of the construction to determine if the work is proceeding in accordance with the drawings and other construction documents; review of Contractor's payment requests; review of submittals such as shop drawings, product data and samples; and to aid in resolving claims, disputes and other matters between the Owner and Contractor.

Is an Architect necessary during construction?

Based upon national studies and from professional experience with the pitfalls of construction, an Architect's services during the construction phase are the Owner's best defense against problems during and after construction. Construction projects are inherently complex, involving numerous trades and suppliers. Despite every effort to avoid them, problems will occur during construction. Because no one can understand as much about the intent of the design as the Architect, no one is in as good a position as the Architect to answer the Contractor's questions, to anticipate and spot small problems before they grow, and to respond quickly to unforeseen conditions and developments. An Architect's services are ultimately a wise investment, especially during construction to help an owner reach their goals.

How can I keep my project from becoming the next construction-related horror story?

One of the biggest keys to a successful construction project is a good building team. The Owner, Architect and Contractor working together can assemble a great building. When this team is not in place, or the communication lines are fractured, projects are more likely to fail. It is also important for team members to share their expectations with each other as they each have additional motivations beyond constructing a great building.

Construction projects are still typically not mass-produced. Most buildings are unique in design and tailored to a specific building site. In many cases, they are still built one piece at a time. The construction of a building involves a host of subcontractors, suppliers and craftsmen each with their own motivations and priorities. With so many unique parties to orchestrate, and then add in the unexpected delays due to weather conditions, missed delivery dates, human error and indecision, it is no surprise that construction projects can go bad.

Be realistic about your expectations. The least expensive contractor may not provide the same level of quality and craftsmanship, the project schedule will likely go off course, and there will be surprises and changes that will add to the cost. It is simply wishful thinking to believe that your project is completely immune to what most other projects experience.

Stay as close to your original budget as possible. Monitor your spending throughout the construction while keeping in mind the total project cost. Cost overruns are notorious for delaying a project and even stopping it.

Are construction projects a wise investment?

For residential projects, experts caution that construction improvements should not be considered investments. While real estate values have historically increased over time and profits from a future sale are possible, there are no guarantees that you will recoup your construction costs when you sell your home. Prudent decisions during the design phase are critical to improving the possibility of getting back the most money from your construction project.

Consider how long you expect to live in your home prior to making any improvements. The longer that you remain in the same location, the greater the likelihood that property values will increase and that you could cover the cost of improvements. Being in the home longer also allows for more time to enjoy the improvements and reap the rewards of the new construction.

Focus on improving the obvious weaknesses and needs of the house. Those parts of the house that negatively affect everyday life are likely to be the same areas that future owners would choose to improve. Case studies typically show that kitchen and bathroom renovations, bathroom additions, family room additions, mudrooms and master bedroom suites have a better chance of paying for themselves at resale time. Ultimately, the decision to renovate or make additions to a home should also be based upon what you feel will enhance your own particular daily needs, use and enjoyment of the house and property.

Avoid pricing your improved home out of the local real estate market when consider the project budget. Consult with a local realtor to determine the current market value of your residence and the projected value after the planned construction. In addition to market value, the designs should generally be comparable to the scale, the style and the amenities of other homes in the neighborhood. Architects have the design skills to achieve these desired results.

Consult "You and Your Architect" by the American Institute of Architects for further information on these and other related topics.

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