Initial Steps – Starting the Process
1. Get a survey of the lot
2. Get the existing plans which are on microfilm at your local building department
Sometimes there are no existing plans. In that case, take photos of your house to take to the meeting, both interior and exterior shots.
3. Find out if you are on city water or well-water and whether you are on septic tank or sewer. (If you know this upfront, you can keep your project from getting stuck during the permitting process leter.)
4. Gather photos and magazine articles of items you would like in your home.
5. Take all the information you have gathered above to your meeting with the architect you would
like to interview.
6. After the meeting weigh carefully if you think this is somebody with whom you could work.
Request information on the Fees
Architects normally charge in one of 4 ways:
A. By lump sum
B. By percentage of construction cost (this percentage depends on the experience and talent of the architect, the complexity of the projects, and the size of the project)
C. On an hourly basis
D. By square footage
Some architects include the engineering in their fees and some have you pay the engineers separately. Make sure to clarify whether the fees include engineering or not. Most of the time architect will have a favorite mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineer with whom he/she will work. Generally, all projects include mechanical, electrical, and plumbing. Civil engineering and landscape architecture are generally not part of the basic fee structure. Civil engineering is often not required for a residential project.
1. There are several standard contracts prepared by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) which can be obtained for use in regards to a residential project. Some architects use more informal letters of agreement prepared by the architect.
2. The architects will generally prepare the contract with the terms and ideas included which were previously discussed with the client.
3. Do not sign anything you do not understand as these terms are legally binding.
4. Sign a contract with the architect you have selected. Sometimes you may sign a partial contract for the work, such as for a zoning study or a preliminary design only, so that you know whether or not you can do what you are contemplating. Sometimes the setbacks and maximum lot coverage or footprint are such that you may not be able build everything that you want. You may want to find this out prior to committing to an entire project.
The Phases of the Work
B. Design Development
C. 50% Construction Documents
D. 100% Construction Documents
E. Construction Observation
Each of these phases builds on the previous phase. You and your architect should not proceed to the following phase until you, the client, is sure that this is what you want. Proceeding to a new phase and having to come back and make changes will most likely cause you to waste time and will cost you additional fees. Once the fourth phase, 100% Construction Documents, is completed, the plans will be ready for submission to the Building Department.
Submitting the Plans for Review to the Building Department and Getting a Permit
1. Make sure to include firm allowances for all items that have yet to be selected.
These could be lighting fixtures, hardware, floor finishes. This will enable you to compare fixed prices between contractors, and to give you a pretty firm idea of what will be the final cost of the project.
2. Once you submit the plans to the Building Department for review, start
interviewing contractors who will bid your project. It is best if you are looking for the best price to have 3 to 4 contractors bid your project in a formal bid process. If you are looking for the best quality, a negotiated bid with a contractor who is highly recommended is usually the best process for selecting a contractor.
3. Once all the Building Department sections have commented on the plans, take the comments to your architect. Have him correct the plans as per the comments. This work is included in the original contract unless your contract is on an hourly basis.
4. Once your plans are approved, and after all changes have been made to the plans, sign a contract with your contractor. Make sure all changes are included before signing the contract with your contractor. If not, this could quickly become a change order.
5. I like to have my clients sign a standard AIA (American Institute of Architects) contract. This contract is designed to protect everyone’s interests and not just the contractor’s. For projects of small scope, there is a special short form. You can pick up standard AIA forms at any local office of the AIA. Look them up in the phone book or online. Or, if you hire the architect for services during construction, then the architect will prepare the contract for you.
6. Once you have a contract and a price and the plans have passed the review by the Building Department, the contractor can pull the building permit for the project. Make sure the contractor pulls the permit and has the required liability insurance for the job. Make sure he has workmen’s compensation even if it is not required for him. This last item is very important. If a worker or a subcontractor gets hurt on your property without the contractor having this insurance, you could be held liable for his hospital bills and/or any permanent injuries.
Building the Project
1. Never give the contractor large deposits. A maximum of 10% to start the job is recommended. Larger contractors do not even ask for deposits up front.
2. At the very beginning of the job, ask your contractor for a breakdown of the different trades and a schedule for the work. Look carefully at the breakdown and make sure it is not front loaded. Front loading is a practice of requesting more money on the front end of the work for work that is valued at much less than it is worth. This allows the contractor to play with your money and could cause you a real problem later as the work proceeds. If you have a problem with your contractor and have to terminate him, through front loading he will have already collected most of your money, without finishing the job. If the residential project is large, in the $700,000 and up range, you may want to get the contractor to get a performance and payment bond for the project. This will ensure that your project is completed for the amount for which you contracted. However, bonding companies charge a fee for this (1% to 5% of the construction cost) and the cost is usually passed on to the owner of the project.
3. If you are going to do your own construction observation, then you must make sure throughout the entire contract that the contractor has enough money left in the contract to finish the work. Contractors generally bill monthly. If the contractor uses the AIA standard requisitions for payment, it is usually easier to keep track of the payments and the portions of the work done. Again, you can pick up standard AIA forms at any local office of the AIA.
4. It is often wise for the client to hire the architect to review the monthly requisitions and to review any change orders that may come up. It is recommended that he/she track the progress of the work and to see the construction as it is being installed. Architects usually bill these services on an hourly basis.
5. Make sure that after the first payment to the general contractor and prior to the second payment, you receive partial releases of liens from the subcontractors that participated in the work and the materialmen that sent products to your jobsite. In Florida, where I live, as in many other states, if the contractor does not pay his subs, even though you paid everything according your contract to the general contractor, the subcontractors can lien your property and by law, you have to pay them. In other words, you may have to pay for your project twice.
6. Make sure the contractor gets all the inspections required. Make sure that the building permit that is posted at the site has a record of all the inspections.
Closing out the Project
If the work is completed as per plans, then the project should end just as the client and architect envisioned it and designed it. Make sure that the contractor gets a final C.O. (Certificate of Occupancy) or C.C (Certificate of Completion) from the municipality where he got the permit. Make sure that you get final releases of liens from all subcontractors and materialmen at the end of the work.
Although the architect is not responsible for the contractor’s work, a competent and seasoned architect can often help you to navigate the sometimes difficult passages of a construction project. See my other article on how an architect can help the client during the construction phase of a project.