Remodeling Magazine
September 2007

Relationship by Design
Depending on the state in which a project is being done, rules about architect services vary. But in general, job sizes, cost, and client wishes will dictate architect participation.

The usual scenario: A homeowner goes to an architect to design a project. At some point, before, during, or after schematic drawings, a few contractors are called in to bid the job. One is chosen and the project moves forward. Occasionally, a homeowner will contact a remodeler before finding an architect.

No matter the size of your company or the project, it's important to treat the other like a professional, say Denver architect Doug Walter (left) and Old Greenwich Builders owner Cress Carter (right), who collaborate on projects from sketch design through

punch list.  The first critical juncture - a likely spot to butt heads - is with estimating and budgeting. One complaint among remodelers is that architects don't know the real costs of constructing their designs. But the best architects read remodeling and building trade journals, and spend time at trade and professional shows such as the Remodeling Show, International Builder's Show, and Kitchen/Bath Industry Show.

"I spend an enormous amount of time researching projects and looking at new products," says architect Doug Walter,

who works with about 20 remodelers on a fairly regular basis doing mostly high-end residential work in the Denver area. Walter believes in team building and a collaborative relationship with the remodelers he works with. He is hands-on with his designs and stays with a project from drawing to punch list.  For their part, the remodeler can and should be on hand to educate the architect and help develop the budget. But, there is a right and a wrong way to go about it. "A lot of remodelers will come in like Superman and say, 'I can save you 25% on this thing,' and then change all the specs."

It's better to "gently help the budgeting process without trying to grandstand and take complete control," Walter says.  "We work with the architect at the beginning to cost-engineer," says Fred Ahlert, owner of Consolidated Construction Management in Denver, who often partners with Walter.  "We come in at the start of the project. They'll do the schematic and ballpark, and we'll look at the plans as they're being compelted." On a recent project, Ahlert says, "the engineer called for a cut roof, framed on site. We were able to have our crew do it with trusses and save quite

a bit of money."  Ahlert is involved in two types of bidding. In the first type, the client gets the completed plans, along with a spec sheet, and puts it out to bid to two or three contractors. Everyone is bidding on the same thing and the client usually selects the remodeler with the lowest price.  "The other process, which we prefer," Ahlert says, "is where the client interviews three or four contractors and picks the one they will get along best with for the next six months. It's not just about price."

Collins, too, works with Walter, and gets involved from the

"very onset of design," he says. His company does few projects in which a client turns up with a completed design. "We're usually under contract before we know what the budget is. As the project progresses, we'll give the owner and architect a couple of points of references as to where the budget is and where it's headed so design and budget can evolve together in a way that doesn't create unpleasantness at the end of the design phase."

Unlike many remodelers, Collins offers full disclosure to his clients, including markup. "This puts everyone on the

same page trying to accomplish the same goals," he says. "We regard ourselves as an asset manager for the homeowner. It's important for them to have clarity on where the money is going. It takes a degree of stress out of the project."

Early budgeting pays off in dollars as well. Before participating in the process, Collins has a signed contract and a non-refundable deposit based on the project's size and complexity.

Allowances can throw off anyone's estimate. Up-front




planning involving all parties can smooth out the bumps. Communication is key. Remodelers may butt heads with an architect when certain assumptions are made, Ahlert says. "we may assume a finish is a medium-grade finish and we may put porcelain tile in our budget when the clients are figuring stone." During the bidding process, Ahlert meets with clients and gets a feel for what they want based on the existing products in the home and whether they're looking to upgrade. Doing so helps target his ballpark figure. Of course, it's inevitable there will be changes.

One way to avoid a slew of change orders is by using a quality-assurance checklist, says Cress Carter, who developed such a list with Chris Withers, his co-owner at Old Greenwich Builders in Denver. "Chris will spend a whole day going through the architect's final set of plans.  That will generate two to five pages of questions for the architect," Carter says, stressing the importance of going back to the architect and not to the homeowner.  It doesn't do anyone any good to bad-mouth the architect to the client (or vice versa on the architect's part). "The architects really appreciate it.

We're a third set of eyes."


The best relationships are ones in which control is shared or, more likely, passed back and forth. "In the design phase it's 85% to 15% with the architect in control," Walter says. "And during construction its 85% to 15% with the contractor in control. That 15% is to help troubleshoot to make things happen in the field the way they were supposed to happen on paper."

This assumes everyone puts his or her ego aside. If either party has trouble sharing

control, you won't work well together.   Good remodelers and architects know when to take a back seat. Carter, who works with 10 or 12 architects regularly, has no expectations meeting with the architect, "We ask them five things they love and five things they hate about their favorite or least favorite remodelers," he says. "We discuss how they might handle a problem. We're happy to go by whatever they want to do. If we run into [an ego-driven] architect, we disarm [him or her] by asking how they want things done. We've never had a tense situation."

Carter says he has four basic rules for working with architects.

* Ask how they want to work; what their expectations are.

* Defer design decisions to the architect. Let the homeowner know that you, the remodeler, are in charge of means and methods of construction.

* Build what the architect designs.

* If there are issues or differences of opinion, go back to the architect, don't play this out in front of the homeowner.

Letting go of control is easier, of course, if both parties trust each other as professionals and have respect for each other's work. "We see the architect as having a high value to the client early on," says Carter, whose company now does about $6 million in business. Yet, he says, even when the company was doing smaller jobs, that attitude toward professionalism and collaboration is "what helped architects reward us. It's been a growth driver for us."

And it works both ways. "Architects see clients as theirs since they [usually] come to them first.

They want their clients to be happy with construction. It reflects well on them," Carter says. "If you're an architect [you want to] have a builder with a track record of making the clients happy. That's true whether it's a $300,000 project or a $1 million project."


This discussion has focused on the traditional method of separate design and construction entities. But there's a gray area, a type of design/build delivery system in which the remodeler is in control of the project and uses outside architects who are not

employees.  These remodelers still deal with the same issues as those in the traditional architect-builder relationship, but they feel more in control of the process. They - maybe more so - still need to find and work with architects who will share control and be willing to collaborate from start to finish.

The best collaboration between architect and remodeler essentially is design/build, but it's independent. Walters says, It has its occasional glitches, but the "system of checks and balances in the traditional system - builder, architect, homeowner - is a good thing."