Sustainable/ green architects in Concord, CA

Gerard Lee Architects-Residential Design Guide: Other Considerations

Please read the other FAQs/ guides in this series:

Some of these issues have been dealt with by the AIA as noted in the FAQ for residential clients. However we will list some issues that we have experienced in the past.

How much will my new home/ remodel, addition/ renovation construction cost?
Again there are many factors that govern what drives the costs of construction. Obviously the type of construction or building materials used, play a significant role. You may have a budget for stucco but yearn for Italian marble. Market factors can affect the cost of your project. Supposing your home will be built using traditional wood stud construction but a sudden demand for wood because of emergency reconstruction in another part of the country drives prices up. Well suddenly, your project budget went out the door. Some costs can be anticipated but natural disasters and other factors can throw a wrench in the works.

Your architect will work with you to maintain your project on course and on budget as long as you know what your budget is and make it clear to the design team. Nobody can design to a moving target. Other factors are the number of floors in your building, the difficulty or complexity of the site (on a steep hill, forested lot with tree restrictions, high water table but needs a basement, neighborhood or region (urban vs. rural), special needs or equipment, mechanical systems (radiant heat floors, whole house vacuums, air conditioning), types and number of doors and windows, etc, etc. In addition a custom home is not a builder or tract house. If you wanted one of those, you would never consider a custom home. Just as you should be careful of an architect/ designer who qoutes you a fee without knowing much about your project or site, you should be wary of a contractor who qoutes you a construction price without ever seeing the site, design or drawings.
There are many ways of staying on budget and your architect can outline the procedures for you. Some of these involve working together with a contractor of your choice or one recommended by your architect to ensure the project is on track. Obtaining cost estimates from cost estimators or from reputable contractors.
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How long will the design process take?
Again, this depends on the project's complexity. An architect can prepare a project schedule that shows a timeline for submittals throughout the design process. It also depends on your schedule and the reviewing agency (planning/ building department) process. You may have a lengthy design review process in your community or your local building department may send all drawings to a third party reviewer to review the drawings. Remember that you play a large part in the design process. Consider the different phases as noted in the Residential Client FAQ. The client has to review the drawings at the end of each phase and make timely decisions (approve the design or make changes) so that the architect can keep progressing on the design. Otherwise they have to wait before moving forward.
If you are considering a custom home beware the architect/ designer who throws out a timeline for a project based on a preliminary description from you. If a home is meant to be custom fitted to you, and if the program has not really been worked out, how could they know how long it would take? It's a process and they haven't even taken the time to really understand what your needs are. A preliminary schedule can be provided once a few factors that have been listed in other sections of this FAQ are understood. But it is important to be flexible on both the architect and the client's part.
That being said, sometimes there will be situations where a client has a set schedule by which to complete a project. In situations like those, the architect will attempt to do so unless in their opinion it isn't possible or would result in substandard performance.
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Computer Aided Design/ CAD?
Another common and widely held misconception is that all the work is done by computers. Computers cannot design for the architect. They are just another tool we use. Just imagine your typical word processing software that you have on your computer. If you started up the program and left it alone for a few hours, days, weeks or years, there would be nothing typed on the screen. No "War and Peace" created by the computer. Nothing gets created until somebody inputs information into the computer. The same applies to computer aided design. Unfortunately the term given to programs that help us draft or layout our designs implies that the computer aids us in the design. That somehow it is helping generate the design. Well, if you turn on a CAD program and left it on the same as you did your word processor, you will end up with the exact same results. Nada, zilch, nothing.
We use computers to help us generate drawings, plots on paper, we use it for research and we sometimes model the buildings 3 dimensionally and create animations or renderings. Nothing gets done unless we input the information into the computer and tell it what to do.

Using computers to get the work done is just part and parcel of today's world. Doing it right, creating proper standards and ensuring a higher level of quality and coordination is a difficult task and not all architects do so. Gerard Lee Architects has a proven track record over the years and we have a set of mature and well developed standards that we share with all our consultants on a project. It is available to our design teams from our secure project web sites and in hardcopy which we distribute during coordination meetings.
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The Design team:
What is the design team? Depending on the complexity of your project, it could require the services of other design professionals like structural engineers (required for the most part), electrical engineers, mechanical engineers(for HVAC systems- heating ventilation air conditioning), civil engineers, geo-technical engineers, surveyors, landscape architects, pool/ spa designers, kitchen designers and interior architects/ designers. Today's technocentric world occasionally requires technology/ networking, multimedia consultants, acoustic engineers and theater designers.

In most residential projects, a lot of the work is "design-build". In other words, it isn't designed and engineered during the design phases but during construction by the general contractor's sub contractors.

Where to begin?
The first thing is to find a good architect you can work with. If you have a project program and or budget, that would be a bonus but an architect can help you program your home and or come up with a reasonable budget.
The project needs to be designed prior to construction. It should be site specific, that is designed to fit the site it sits on, and should fit the needs and desires of the owner. The design process takes everything into account before construction. It's not about trying to figure things out after you build it. Trying to save on design fees normally ends up costing the owner more during construction. It's best to do it right the first time around.
While some residences are exempt, it's a good idea to check if your architect is licensed in the state (or is able to obtain reciprocity) and that the license is current.

Look over their portfolio of projects. Different architects bring a different set of skills and experiences to a job. There is a vast difference between an architect who works mainly on small projects and one who has designed a variety of finely crafted buildings. In some cases their fees are an end product of their expertise but this is usually offset by what they bring to the table and the value they create and save during construction. Make sure you know who you will be working with during the design process. In some large residential design firms, you may get bounced around different employees. At Gerard Lee Architects, you always get hands on involvement from the principal in charge of your project.
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Architects always drive costs up!!!
The mantra of the contractor and the unlicensed practitioner/ residential designer. The generalization that for the most part has very little basis in fact but if you scream it out loudly and as much as possible, will somehow stick.
Architects have to design to a budget agreed to and approved by the client.
Changes usually have to be requested by the client and obviously a change that comes along after a project has been bid based on completed drawings will have an added cost. Which is why communication is important between the client and the architect throughout the course of a project. Residential designers also like to tout that their services are as good if not better than an architect's but their fees are far more reasonable. To which the adage,"You get what you pay for", almost always holds true.
It is difficult to compare services or no services provided base on fee alone.

Let's look at two hypothetical scenarios below.
(values provided are for the basis of comparison and no reflection of real market values)
Scenario 1:
A client wants a 1,500sf house on a sloping site. After shopping around, he decides on the residential designer willing to do the job for $2/ square feet. So approximately $3,000 in design fees. The designer slaps out a design in record time. The owner gets a set of drawings consisting of design plans with some dimensions, four elevations and a building section that is cut perpendicular to the slope (in other words it does not show what the slope is doing). What do you expect for $3,000?
The owner now has to go through the building department to obtain the necessary permits and then interview contractors to obtain a bid. A friend of a friend recommends a contractor and he manages to obtain a bid. The contractor who bids the job, has seen a rudimentary set of drawings and realizes he has to figure a number of things out in the field. He also notices that there are barely any notes on the drawings. He thinks $480,000 might do the job but marks it up 20% because he knows there are risks inherent with drawings like these. Total bid is $576,000.00
Owner accepts because there is nothing to compare to. Besides he saved a ton of money not using an architect. The residential designer told him that architects drive costs up.
During construction the owner realizes he has to deal with the contractor. The residential designer tells him that the fee does not include any kind of construction administration. He could do it for an hourly fee but the owner is probably in good hands. The contractor initially said (not in contract) the project would take 6-8 months. During the course of the construction, the contractor comes back with various change orders because as he can point out, the drawings don't tell a lot. So since he has to figure things out, it means additional costs to him which he passes on to the owner. At one point, the contractor hires an architect to help him deal with the slope and bills this to the owner. The same thing occurs when he realizes that he needs a structural engineer to design some tall retaining walls and this spills over to hiring a geotech engineer. A neighbor complains about the project and that's when everyone realizes that there were no approvals given by the design review board. A meeting is set up and during the board approval process, the design has to be modified by lowering the roof (which has already been framed in). By the time the project is over, the schedule has been pushed out 6 more months and the change orders amount to an additional 25-35%% of the original bid. The owner still thinks he had a good deal because his call to the designer assures him of this.
The End.

Scenario 2:
A client wants a 1,500sf house on a sloping site. After shopping around, checking references and looking over the portfolios of both residential designers and architects, he selects an architect whose design work he likes. The architect has done only a few houses but plenty of complex commercial/ public projects. He is most impressed by the design quality. The architect qoutes him a fee in the neighborhood of 10% of estimated construction costs (much higher than the residential designers). Using current market values, the architect believes that construction costs will run approximately $320-340/ square feet (because of the slope site). The estimated budget is $480,000. The architect tells the owner to provide a contingency fund of 10% for added costs during construction and to be prepared for the fees the building department would charge for permits. The architects fee is about $40,000, an additional $5,000 is assigned to a structural engineer and $2,000 is spent obtaining a soils report from a geotechnical engineer.
The architect meets with the client and his family, to hear what their wants and needs are (and also to understand the family dynamic). They hold a meeting at the site too and he/she walks the family through different scenarios at the site.
After which they obtain a conceptual/ schematic design package. They choose one of the options provided.
The architect then develops the design further and they are happy with it. The architect manages to maximixe the design with the slope, finding additional square footage by balancing the cut and fill on the sloping site. The design is presented to the design review board and some minor changes are requested by concerned neighbors. The architect takes it in stride and works with everyone to finalize the design. The design is approved by the board,
The architect then generates a set of comprehensive construction documents that details the plans, elevations, has several sections, includes large wall sections for complicated portions of the building and followed up with extensive sheet notes, sheet specifications and many intricate details. The set is then reviewed by the building department which issues the permit.
The architect bids the drawings to a minimum of 3 contractors that have good reputations. All bids come in and around the estimated construction costs.
The architect holds a pre construction meeting and develops a working relationship with the contractor. Various schedules are required of the contractor, including construction time and a bill of materials schedule. Request for material substitutions are reviewed carefully by the architect.
Change orders are reviewed carefully and client generated changes are dealt with effectively.
Applications for payment by the contractor are reviewed by the architect as it corresponds to what has been built and installed.
The project is built on schedule, the design quality is kept and change orders are kept to less than 3% of the project budget.
The owner is happy with the outcome and knows he saved more from hiring a good architect with the necessary experience.
The End.

Which scenario above actually saved the owner money?
It is always difficult to compare services offered by competent architects against those of unlicensed practitioners since it is never an apples to apples comparison. The same applies to the type of experience an architect holds.
The more varied and complex experience an architect has, usually translates into the ability and flexibility to deal with most types of building designs.
Choose carefully. It's not like buying a car.

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Published 06/15/09-last updated October 7,2009