Can't We All Just Get Along?

A good relationship between architect and contractor is key to a smooth renovation — and it can save you a bundle

Illustration by Tim Bower
1 ×

 

On a renovation, as in romance, compatibility is key — just ask any couple who's spent the night in separate beds after an argument over bathroom tile. But husbands and wives are not the only ones who need to see eye to eye when the blueprints come out and the walls come down. All too often the other principal players on a remodel — the architect and the contractor — are more at odds than in sync. Contractors say many architects don't understand modern materials or construction practices, resulting in costly, impractical designs. Architects complain that overscheduled contractors rush through jobs, making unauthorized changes and compromising craftsmanship. Guess who loses out when there's a conflict? That would be you.

Problems between architects and contractors not only cause delays, they can cost you big bucks. Conversely, a team that works well together can keep costs in check. Maine architect Eric Beckstrom cites the call he got from the supervisor on one of his renovation projects last year. Beckstrom's plan called for lowering the floor of a farmhouse to create a walkout patio off the kitchen, which meant jackhammering away five feet of solid granite ledge. But as the excavation crew got to work peeling away the stone, rubble began tumbling out from under the foundation of an adjoining barn.

The supervisor called off the crew — and called Beckstrom. "It turned out that the ground under the barn foundation had completely eroded," says the architect. Rather than let the contractor work out a complicated (and expensive) engineering scheme to hold the foundation in place, Beckstrom simply redesigned the space on two separate levels, leaving the ledge intact. "If they'd just forged ahead according to the plan," he says, "all hell would have broken loose" — and collapsed the barn. Instead, he says, "we worked together and saved the homeowner tens of thousands of dollars in repairs."

Like any good relationship, a strong contractor-architect alliance requires constant communication. Here's advice from experts on both sides to help ensure that any team you hire will work together without a hitch.

On a renovation, as in romance, compatibility is key — just ask any couple who's spent the night in separate beds after an argument over bathroom tile. But husbands and wives are not the only ones who need to see eye to eye when the blueprints come out and the walls come down. All too often the other principal players on a remodel — the architect and the contractor — are more at odds than in sync. Contractors say many architects don't understand modern materials or construction practices, resulting in costly, impractical designs. Architects complain that overscheduled contractors rush through jobs, making unauthorized changes and compromising craftsmanship. Guess who loses out when there's a conflict? That would be you.

Problems between architects and contractors not only cause delays, they can cost you big bucks. Conversely, a team that works well together can keep costs in check. Maine architect Eric Beckstrom cites the call he got from the supervisor on one of his renovation projects last year. Beckstrom's plan called for lowering the floor of a farmhouse to create a walkout patio off the kitchen, which meant jackhammering away five feet of solid granite ledge. But as the excavation crew got to work peeling away the stone, rubble began tumbling out from under the foundation of an adjoining barn.

The supervisor called off the crew — and called Beckstrom. "It turned out that the ground under the barn foundation had completely eroded," says the architect. Rather than let the contractor work out a complicated (and expensive) engineering scheme to hold the foundation in place, Beckstrom simply redesigned the space on two separate levels, leaving the ledge intact. "If they'd just forged ahead according to the plan," he says, "all hell would have broken loose" — and collapsed the barn. Instead, he says, "we worked together and saved the homeowner tens of thousands of dollars in repairs."

Like any good relationship, a strong contractor-architect alliance requires constant communication. Here's advice from experts on both sides to help ensure that any team you hire will work together without a hitch.

2 ×

1. Involve the Contractor From the Start

 

1. Involve the Contractor From the Start

Illustration by Tim Bower
"I preach this until I'm blue in the face," says contractor Wendell Harmer, of the Wills Company in Nashville. "You should hire a builder early in the design process. That way we can work with the architect at every turn — so when the cabinets go from paint-grade to cherry, we can say, 'You just upped the price by $5,000.'

This Old House general contractor Tom Silva puts it more bluntly: "Contractors are not designers, and in my opinion should not be designing houses. But architects are not builders; they can't possibly be on top of all the latest construction techniques and materials. When builders and architects share input from the beginning, houses are invariably better."

Contractor Steve Crawford, who worked on a TOH TV project in Santa Barbara a few years ago, recalls one renovation he did in Carpinteria, California, in which the architect had initially designed a redwood and plexiglass structure that would muffle nearby freeway noise. But Crawford worried about scratches on the plexiglass. So he went to the architect with a similarly priced alternative: extruded aluminum (commonly used in commercial construction) with tinted glass panels. The architect accepted the suggestion and adapted the plans, giving the homeowners a beautiful, low-maintenance facade that still reduced noise considerably.

3 ×

10. Put Down the Phone — And Schedule Regular Face Time

 

10. Put Down the Phone — And Schedule Regular Face Time

Once construction is underway, it's a good idea to organize weekly site meetings, with both the architect and the builder, to nip problems in the bud. When Jeremiah Eck stopped by the Carlisle job site one day last fall, Tom Silva grabbed him halfway through the front door. "We're ready to frame those ceilings in the dining room and bedroom," said Tom, referring to some unusual vaulted ceilings Eck had specified, "and we need to work out how they meet up with the dormers." In fact, Tom already had a solution, but he respected that Eck wore the design hat.

Likewise, Eck knew that if an experienced builder like Tom had an idea, it was definitely worth a listen. So while the complex geometry of the ceilings could have been sketched out at the drawing board, Eck instead said, "Show me what you're thinking." Minutes later, tape measures in hand, the pair had figured out a back-of-the-envelope plan. "I agreed completely with Tom's solution," says Eck.

It's that kind of teamwork that makes resolving the big issues a cinch. Now if only choosing bathroom tiles were as easy.

4 ×

Where to Find It

 

Where to Find It

Architects, designers, and contractors —

Eric Beckstrom:
Principal/Architect AIA
Beckstrom Architecture and Planning
Rockport, ME
207-594-3306
www.beckstromarchitecture.com

Wendall Harmer:
The Wills Company Inc.
Nashville, TN
615-352-1228
www.thewillscompany.com

Steve Crawford:
Crawford Green General Contractors
Carpinteria, CA
805-684-4105
www.crawfordgreen.com

Pat Qualey
NFD Construction
Los Angeles, CA
310-935-0852

Stephen Robert Holt AIA:
Manchester, MA
978-526-1281
www.holtaia.com

Duo Dickinson:
Madison, CT
203-245-0405

Alexa Hampton:
Mark Hampton Inc.
New York, NY
212-753-4110
www.markhampton.com

Jeremiah Eck:
Jeremiah Eck Architects Inc.
Boston, MA
617-367-9696
www.jearch.com

Allen Gallant:
Gallant Electric
Lexington, MA
781-862-4636

On-the-Job Training —
The Yale Building Project:
Yale School of Architecture
New Haven, CT
203-432-2288
www.architecture.yale.edu

Matthew Viederman:
Krsul & Viederman Architects, PLLC
New York, NY
212-255-0291
5 ×

2. Hire Pros Who Know — and Like — Each Other

 

2. Hire Pros Who Know — and Like — Each Other

Illustration by Tim Bower
All architects have contractors they've worked with frequently whom they have come to trust and would recommend. And there's no law against getting a contractor you trust to refer you to an architect. Los Angeles builder Pat Qualey, who worked as an architect's assistant for six years, says a pre-existing relationship can smooth out the construction process, even if there aren't any mind-bending problems. "A lot of architects have styles and details that they replicate on projects," he says. "If the contractor is familiar with what the architect wants, so much the better."

Tom Silva points to the ongoing relationship he has with Stephen Holt, an architect he first worked with in 2001 on TOH TV's project in Manchester, Massachusetts. Having done numerous jobs with Holt, Tom's mental files now contain a lot of details that the architect commonly uses in his designs. "I know that when he extends a windowsill beyond the casing, it should look a certain way," says Tom. "Or that he's partial to a particular crown molding." The two have developed a kind of design shorthand, which means Holt doesn't have to create intricately detailed drawings to explain his choices— saving the homeowner billable hours.

6 ×

3. Find Out Who's a Team Player

 

3. Find Out Who's a Team Player

Illustration by Tim Bower
If you can't get referrals directly from the contractor or architect, then at least check references carefully, asking how well each pro got on with the other team members. Did the architect listen to the contractor? When things went wrong, did he come up with solutions? Did the builder consult with the architect or just forge ahead when problems came up? Did he give the architect useful input?

Good communication on a project ultimately benefits the homeowner. When Tom first worked with Stephen Holt in Manchester, for instance, Holt had specified a traditional cedar roof for the Shingle-style house. Tom wanted to try a new pressure-treated pine that was half the price, said to weather like cedar, and warrantied to last longer. "Steve was concerned about the color," recalls Tom. "I said give it a year, and you won't know the difference. Give it 25 years, and you'll still have a roof." Because Holt trusted Tom, he agreed to the change; today the roof looks better than new, having weathered to a silvery gray.

7 ×

4. Consider a Design/Build Firm

 

4. Consider a Design/Build Firm

Illustration by Tim Bower
Design/build or design/remodeling firms are one-stop shops that offer both architectural design and construction services— pretty much guaranteeing good communication between the two sides of the job. Even if you prefer an independent architect, there can be a benefit to hiring a design/build firm to do the construction. "By definition, we pay close attention to how design affects cost," says Harmer, of the Wills Company, a design/build firm. In one job Harmer's currently involved in, the client is requesting things that will take the costs 20 percent over budget. To bring expenses down, Harmer and his team are going through the design bit by bit — from the broad strokes, like whether to build a finished basement or a crawl space, to the details, like whether to use paint or stain on the kitchen cabinets.



8 ×

5. Get More Detailed Bids

 

5. Get More Detailed Bids

The conventional contractor bidding process — getting lump-sum estimates based on a plan and (usually) going with the lowest one — doesn't make for great working relationships because the cheapest builder is often the one cutting corners on the architect's specs.

A bidding system called value analysis or value-engineered bidding calls for contractors to break down their estimates into detailed components — everything from the item-by-item cost of a new porch to the relative expense of wood floors versus carpet — then work with the architect to fit the design and materials to the budget. "It makes architects consider the cost of their designs," says Duo Dickinson, an architect in Connecticut and a TOH contributor. "It also makes builders open up the 'black box' of their bid." He cites a recent house he designed where the value analysis showed the homeowners they could save $15,000 by using high-grade vinyl siding instead of cedar. They chose the vinyl.

Because value analysis takes more effort, Dickinson says many contractors can't be bothered, especially in boom times. But that's changing as more homeowners, shocked by the high cost of materials and labor, scrutinize bids more carefully. "It's been the way commercial construction is bid out," he says, "and it's becoming the trend in residential work."

9 ×

6. Don't Leave Your Architect at the Altar

 

6. Don't Leave Your Architect at the Altar

Typically an architect is hired to oversee the entire building process as the construction administrator ("the CA," in trade lingo). This generally adds about 20 percent to the overall design fee, either in a flat rate or in extra hourly charges.

However, many homeowners try to save that fee by sending the architect packing once construction starts. That can be a false economy, though, especially if you need to call him back for changes. If the architect hasn't been present throughout construction, trying to schedule his time can stop work on a renovation while everyone waits for his calendar to clear. And for the architect, stepping in and picking up the reins is more difficult — and sometimes more time-consuming (i.e., costly) — than if he had been overseeing the project all along.

Architect Eric Beckstrom's role as CA paid off on one recent renovation in Portland, Maine, where code requirements limited stair access to a dramatic widow's walk that the homeowner cherished. Because he was on site regularly, he was able to quickly huddle with the construction supervisor and the homeowner to come up with a crafty system of traps and hinged banisters that satisfied code and still provided access. Meanwhile, work on the project continued without a hiccup.

10 ×

7. Don't Forget About the Inside Design

 

7. Don't Forget About the Inside Design

If your project will include the services of an interior designer, bring him or her in at the very beginning. Designers think about rooms differently from architects and builders and often notice problems that others might miss. TOH senior design consultant Alexa Hampton recalls a meeting with a prospective client who immediately laid out the architect's floor plans. "I took one look at the master bedroom and asked her what size bed she has," recalls Alexa. "When she said king, I told her that the way the plan was drawn, she'd only have room for one bedside table. She hired me on the spot." Designers can also help plan the best placement and number of electrical outlets, and determine if windows are positioned to allow enough room for curtains.



11 ×

8. Make Sure Everyone Knows His or Her Job

 

8. Make Sure Everyone Knows His or Her Job

One general contractor with over 30 years in the business remembers a project where the architect hadn't thought out his design, forcing the GC to make countless on-the-fly revisions. With each new change, the architect promptly redrew his plans to match the contractor's ideas— then billed the homeowner for "design changes." Eventually the homeowner fired the architect, which only delayed the job further.

Another architect who has designed dozens of houses in the past 17 years recalls the contractor he hired to build his own house. The architect says the contractor dutifully pored over his extremely detailed and organized drawings and listened attentively during walk-throughs — then proceeded to build the house his own way, ignoring the plans. Of course, the architect demanded the contractor fix his mistakes, adding months to the project.

Boston architect Jeremiah Eck, who is designing TOH TV's current project in Carlisle, Massachusetts, says breakdowns like these happen when people don't respect job descriptions. "The architect has a responsibility to produce the best set of drawings possible that reflect the owner's interest," says Eck. "The contractor has a responsibility to build what's on the plans, for the agreed-upon amount. Where it can all go sour is when somebody doesn't follow through on those obligations." When changes do happen, make sure the architect and the contractor are in agreement, then don't be afraid to ask who will be billing you — and for exactly what.

12 ×

9. Pick Up the Phone

 

9. Pick Up the Phone

As problems come up during construction, the homeowner usually hears about it from the contractor, who's on the front lines. When that happens, don't be afraid to ask him if the architect has been consulted. If the answer is no, call the architect yourself. Dealing with issues as they arise can save money in the long run.

Master electrician and TOH contributor Allen Gallant recently worked on a big project that called for 110 recessed lights. Looking over the plans, Allen noticed that the architect specified a 4-inch can that, in the style called for, would have been a custom order. Says Gallant: "I called the architect and pointed out you could get the same style in a 5-inch can that wasn't custom, at $54 less per light. That one phone call saved the homeowner $6,000."

 
 

TV Listings

Find TV Listing for This Old House and Ask This Old House in your area.