Sustainable/ green architects in Concord, CA

Gerard Lee Architects-Residential Design FAQ's- Guide:

Please read the other FAQs/ guides in this series:

At Gerard Lee Architects, we believe that educating our clients results in a better project experience for everyone involved. While a developer, public or educational entity may have experience in having buildings built or renovated, for many residential clients, it's uncharted territory.
In light of that, these pages have been created to provide an overview of the design process. It is not comprehensive and in no way complete. It's just a guide, that attempts to give the residential client an idea of what to expect, and is intended for the custom single family residential client or a homeowner planning on remodeling or adding to their existing home.


For many people, remodeling a home or having an addition put in, let alone a new custom designed residence is probably the biggest financial undertaking of their lives (apart from buying the home). It is a scary proposition to take on if you have very little or no prior experience.

First things
First thing to consider is why you have decided to do it at all. A home is a big investment and in some cases, buying another home may not be in the cards. If the school district and the neighborhood are great, you may not want to move. The family may have grown, adult children or parents may have moved in and more space is necessary. It could be about updating features or creating spaces for relaxation and entertaining. If the existing house has great bones but missing elements you would like to see, then remodeling maybe your answer. Sometimes it helps to create a list of reason to stay or move. These usually become the same reasons why you decide to remodel.
When remodeling does not make sense and you can't find that right house to buy, then a custom single family residence maybe the answer. You may own an empty lot or decide that you want to start from scratch over your existing home or it could be as simple as a desire to have a signature home that is designed around your needs, has personality, is a one of a kind and reflects your vision of what a home should be. Lists your reasons and know why you are doing it. Having a clear idea of what you want will help the project move forward.

Starting the project
Once you know why you want to embark on this project, you probably have tons of questions as to how to get to the finish product. You may choose to work with an architect, designer or contractor to fulfill your dreams. We won't discuss the pros and cons of choosing any of the above to design your project. It depends on what your preferences are and is entirely your choice. The American Institute of Architects ( has a guide on how to select an architect and how to work with them. So we will avoid repeating the same information as much as possible, although we do have an FAQ covering that.

For us at Gerard Lee Architects, we feel that developing long term relationships is more important that any short term profit that maybe gained by taking on projects where the client does not have a firm grasp of all the facts. Even if it means losing a client or project because they may not like what they hear, we think it's better to have all our cards on the table, be honest and provide a reality check whenever a situation calls for it. A well educated client tends to be a happy client and for the most part a repeat client.
In this current economy with tight credit, you as the client need to have a clear understanding of how you will finance your project. You need a realistic budget base on current market conditions and not false claims that are designed to entice you to sign on the dotted line.
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The Design process
So, what should you expect out of a project?
Well for the most part, a design project is normally broken into different design phases. Designing a building takes time and a lot of careful planning. These phases are listed below.

Depending on the size and complexity of the project, in some cases (smaller projects) these phases tend to be rolled together or because of time limitations, be shortened into one design phase. So it's probably a good idea to be aware of these phases but be flexible in it's implementation.

Conceptual Design is where the architect listens to the client, works with their program and develops one or more initial designs. Probably as sketches, drawings or simple models. Not everyone works the same way, so work with an architect who can help you visualize the design. This is where the needs of the client are translated into designs. Where ideas and concepts are bounced around.

Schematic Design (SD):
Based on client on the feedback, these initial ideas will be further developed during schematic design. Normally the best ideas are combined into a single schematic design. Initial drawings are created and can consist of floor plans, elevations and sections. Imagine a floor plan as somebody coming along and ripping off the roof of your house, exposing the walls and looking down on it. Elevations are what the outside of your home looks like and sections are what your home looks like if it was sliced vertically. Physical models or computer generated models are sometimes used to help the client "see" the design.

In general if you make changes to or design a new house expect the local jurisdictions to require a design or planning department review. Zoning, planning, design review and plan review should be factored into your schedule and budget. A rule of thumb is; if it affects structure, plumbing or mechanical (HVAC -heating ventilation airconditioning), it will probably need a permit and the associated fees.

You can find out by checking a city's requirements on the web, or calling the planning/ building department. The architect can research the requirements for clients who would prefer not to have to do it themselves. It's probably a good idea to at least talk to a building official before too much work is done. Based on their comments, the architect may have to change scope, materials, design elements etc. Any difficulties experienced during this process will vary depending on the city/ jurisdiction you have to work with. The adage that "forewarned is forearmed", has significance.

Design Development (DD):
After the schematic design (SD) is approved by the client, typically the next stage is design development. This is where the architect takes the time to fully flesh out a design, to consider different materials and to understand how to put the building together. Especially important if the client is going after an advant garde or cutting edge design. During this phase, an architect may develop what are called Wall sections. Literally a section through a wall assembly to help them understand how all the materials will be installed. It also serves as an avenue to reasearch and cartoon out the construction details that are needed. A color/ materials board is sometimes put together for the client to help them understand the finishes in the building. Preliminary, material, finish, door and window schedules are created. Some initial details will be generated. At this point, it's a good idea to obtain cost estimates or on smaller projects, preliminary numbers from a contractor. This helps everyone in the design process understand where the project stands in relation to it's budget. If an unrealistic budget was set in the beginning, expect some major surprises. It's best to make any changes in a building's design before the start of construction documents. Once design development ends, it becomes very difficult to incorporate changes. Think of it as going to a restaurant and ordering a meal. You place an order and the chefs start preparing the ingredients. While it's best to tell them ahead of time what you want, changing your mind in some restaurants is permissible as long as they haven't started cooking yet. Once all those ingredients are in the pan, you can be sure the restaurant will charge you for it. Adding or changing anything in that meal, as you can see will be difficult. It's not impossible and a good chef can adjust for it. But since it's not in the menu, they will charge for the extras as well as the original meal. That analogy to a restaurant would be similar to an architect's extra services once changes are made after design development has been approved.
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Construction Documents (CD):
Completion of design development (DD) means the begining of construction documents. These are where the details of how everything goes together is drawn. Window and door penetrations, roof details etc. Depending on the type and complexity of the project, this normally drives the amount of documentation needed. Some jurisdictions may require that a permit set of drawings be issued for review prior to construction. They will review the set for building code and structural requirments. During the start of the project or as it progresses, the architect will typically tell the client which additional consultants maybe needed on the project. I.e structural, mechanical, plumbing, civil, electrical, landscaping. Not all projects will need these services (Size and complexity are driving factors). I.e. a desire for a home theater will likely require an acoustic consultant and home theater specialist.

Once construction documents (CDs) are complete or close to completion, the architect can help the client bid the project with contractors. Some clients may have a contractor they wish to work with or will prefer to bid the project on their own. The purpose of the bid is to obtain pricing on the scope of the project. Some clients will base the winning bid on the lowest bid or purely on a perception that a good working relationship can be obtained with a particular bidder. At times an architect may make recommendations. Regardless of the bid process, the architect will need to prepare a "Bid Set" of documents. A bid set is not necessarily 100% CDs (it can be). 100% CDs is what are normally refered to as the final drawings. These are what the contractor will use to build and the final building permit will be based on.

Construction Administration (CA):
is a process whereby the architect can help the client administer the construction contract. Many residential clients tend to forgo the architects services during this process to save money. However it should be noted that the architect works for the client to maintain the quality of the project and to ensure what is built is true to the design and documentation. After all the architect acts as an agent for the client and is not a vendor, which a contractor technically is. The architect has worked with you on the design and would very much like to see that it is built according to the intent of the design. If a contractor suggest that a material be substituted for another, how would the client know if the product is equal, has a cost savings to them or if it maybe totally disastrous for the design or vice versa?

What we have describe above is a brief snapshot of a residential design project. Obviously no two projects are the same and different architects may choose to deliver a project differently. Most times it depends on the project budget and what a client expects.
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Things to consider

When it comes to procuring the building permit itself, many clients understand that term and may have had one for a new gas line/ windows etc. Again depending on the local jurisdiction, either the homeowner/client or contractor can obtain the construction permit. This usually requires a plan check of a comprehensive set of architectural, structural drawings and calculations. A permit is usually required before construction can start. Again it depends on the situation and the local jurisdiction. Note that during construction a city inspector will normally have to sign off on various portions of the project. Prepare yourself as much as possible or let your design professional walk you through the process. It all depends on what you want or prefer to do on your project.
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Published 10/10/05-last updated July 2,2009