BUILDING IN NEW YORK CITY:
THE CONSTRUCTION PROCESS
I have written this to help you gain realistic expectations for your project and to understand the services that an architect can provide. Most people will never hire an architect. Only about twenty five percent use the services of an architect for small to medium size renovation or new construction projects. Only two percent repeatedly use the services of an architect. This small group refines their understanding through their on going relationship with an architect. This outline addresses the purchaser of services who may only once or twice retain an architect.
Over the years it has come to my attention that many folks who have retained the services of an architect were left disappointed. In questioning my past clients, business associates, friends and relatives a trend emerged. It appeared that most people lacked an understanding of the construction process and the basic role that the design professional performed in the process. I found people did not value the talent and wholistic understanding that an architect brings to the project. Most think of "blue prints" (these are just large copies of the construction drawings) and sealing the plans for the contractor. Many saw the architect as an unnecessary evil thought and they could do it all with the contractor.
How to start the construction ball rolling.
All construction projects start with an idea and a need. Then grand visions develop on how the completed structure may appear. Lastly, reality sets in and one thinks about how much will it cost. Most people don't think that an architect can be retained for a few hours to help refine the project's scope and cost. Most architects will, at their hourly billing rate, provide a design consultation at your property. This meeting may be the best use of your time and money. In a few hours, depending on the scope of the contemplated project, you and an architect can evaluate an existing building, walk a vacant site, discuss the "Program", (a list of spaces and the desired relationship among them), size up whether your goals are achievable within the budget or what should be your budget be to achieve these goals.
You will gain valuable information for a very small cost. Paying for a few hours of professional time may save you considerable money in the long run. It is not necessary for you to become a construction expert, just to have the ability to hire the best suited professionals to complete the project. Most importantly, he or she should be able to explain to you the architect - owner - contractor relationship. Afterwards, you should ask for an explanation of professional services he or she is able to provide. You then should be able to tell if you can work harmoniously with this particular architect. The two of you will be joined at the hip for the length of the project, so interview two or more candidates before you make a final selection. Both the client and the architect do themselves a disservice by failing at the onset of their first meeting to discuss the project's expectations and how the architect can assist the owner in reaching their desired results.
Some people will first jump to seek a contractor. This may be a mistake. Always remember, a general contractor is a builder who sells his or her work based upon a set of construction documents and specifications. Contractors are better builders than designers. Do not be mistaken by the above statement, they play a very important in the construction process.
A key concern of everyone involved in the construction process is the budget. It is very important that you decide from the onset how much money you are willing to spend. Why is this so important? If you don't have a realistic amount allocated, the architect will not be able to guide you correctly and more than likely disputes will arise during the design as well as the construction phase. Experienced architects know the cost range of construction based on project types that they design, and what local contractors charge for their work. Trying to hide your real budgetary intent in an attempt to lower the architect's fee, will lead most times to having to make many costly changes to the drawings as well as change orders during construction. By clearly stating the budget amount from the beginning many creative design decisions can be implemented early in the process. Therefore a complete bid and construction document set can be produced the first time around.
How do you arrive at a budget? Speak to your family members, business associates and friends who have completed projects recently in your area. Question them on their "Scope," (the extent of the work either by room name or square footage) of their project. Did they renovate or build new, with or without foundations, and most importantly: To what level of quality did they build? Once they relate the scope and cost, ask the amount of square feet involved in the work and divide by the cost given. You will arrive at the cost per square foot. Cost estimating books are available from companies like McGraw Hill and The Sweets Group. Remember your quality level may be greater or less, so adjust the price range accordingly. For reference, costs in the NYC area for small to mid scale residential and light commercial project the range per square foot from $ 75 to $150.
How do you find the right architect?
When we think construction, the person called first in the USA is the contractor. Sometimes you are referred to a contractor who is knowledgeable and willing to explain the complete process. If a contractor is worth his or her reputation they will refer you to an architect in whom they have confidence. However, it is best to find an architect who is not connected with the contractor, unless the references you check say that the team worked well together and within budget. You need to trust in the architects' ability to lead the project team and communicate your design ideas through drawings and written specifications to the general contractor. Otherwise, when starting your search it is advisable to contact your local building inspector, local architects society, business associate, neighbor or trusted friends and ask for the names of some local architects who have worked on similar projects as yours.
Once you have the names of three or four professionals, speak with them by phone. Ask them questions relating to their past design and construction experience. Get a list of past clients with phone numbers. Always check the opinions of these references.
Are other tests or services required?
Your architect is best equipped to advise you of other professionals or tests that may be required to complete the project. These persons may include, land surveyors, boring contractors, structural and mechanical engineers, interior, kitchen or landscape designers, testing laboratories and specialized general or remodeling contractors. Each of these people bring specific talent and expertise which may be needed for your project.
Selecting the proper team will determine the delivery schedule and the achievable quality of your project. Whether you are selecting an engineer, cabinet supplier, testing lab or contractor, their references should be checked thoroughly. Do not be afraid to ask questions. This will help you understand the process and costs. The manner in which your questions are answered will determine if these professionals can communicate well and work together on your team.
Who do you trust?
Trust of the people working for you is the first key to a successful project. Will the architect look after your project as if it was his or her own money being spent? Does the architect ask you questions to determine and clarify your design intent? As the scope is refined and sketches become floor plans, does he or she help you refine and arrive at a realistic project budget? Has he or she worked well with the references given and what were their experiences? Does the fee being presented make sense for the amount and expertise of services being provided? These are some of the questions that should be asked in interviewing professionals. If any person interviewed agrees that with an insufficient budget you can build grand ideas it is best to beware. If a low fee is charged and covers too many services be prepared that at some point they will ask for extra money or walk off the job.
As the owner, the dollar is in your purse. Money is the second key. Do not advance money to professionals or contractors after the first retainer payment unless it is based on performance of services or work. This is extremely important. Always stay ahead or at par in regards to payment. Reliable construction professionals will understand this and agree to its fairness. If even weekly or monthly amounts are asked for, be on your guard. I cannot emphasize this enough: money controls the construction process. From the smallest to the largest projects, you must stay in control of your purse until you receive all of the final sign-off papers and all punch list items are satisfactorily completed. Only then do you release final payments to both professionals and contractors
Similar concerns found in all types of construction projects?
Whether you are planning to renovate or build a new, residential or commercial projects the basics are similar. You will need to interview architects to determine which will best suit your needs. You may need to perform soil or environmental tests. Have surveys or existing condition drawings made of the property and existing structures. You will need to decide upon the budget so your architect's design and selection of materials keep within the given amount. You need to refine your design ideas and create a set of documents that the contractor will be able to build from at an agreed upon price. You will need to bid out the project with various capable local contractors familiar with the project type. You will most likely need to file applications with your local department of buildings for a permit. You will need inspections performed and contractor payment requests reviewed during the construction phase. You will need final inspections by the local building inspector and a through walk thorough with your architect to examine if the work has been completed according to the plans.
The right contractor is important.
No matter how psychologically attached you may get to the person controlling the physical construction, the contractor remains only one party to the process. The most successful construction projects are when the synergy of the owner, architect and contractor blend to create a result where the owner achieves their stated objectives within the allocated time and budget. To arrive at this result is not magic. The two main ingredients that control the pace of the work are: the contractor's management ability and the owner's management of the purse. Do not be mislead by requests for even weekly or month payment requests. Only pay upon performance of the work, based upon the percentage of completion and actual materials stored on site.
For proper management of the construction phase, the architect is the professional to be relied upon. The architect is less emotionally tied to the project, and therefore more even handed in judging the contractor's performance and percentage of completed work. I can not emphasize this enough: proper and careful management of the payments during construction by the architect is more than worth the fee in aggravation saved. It will also cause the contractor to operate on a more professional level knowing they are being monitored by the party who produced the construction documents from which the project design is based.
Construction is not an exact science.
Most projects are only built one time. We don't get a chance to refine the product in the next model year. To get the results you have in mind, your architect may need any of the following in order to explain the design to you: floor plans, section drawings, elevations, sketches or renderings, study models and if the budget allows 3D computer models. Depending on how well you conceive of spatial relationships, one or more of these methods will assist you in picturing the built structure. However, the best 3D presentations will not equal the actual ability to walk within the space desired to be created and view it in the daylight. This leads us to an important idea: Don't to afraid to make changes during construction. Always allow 10 to 15 percent above your decided budget to improve the project design by making changes during construction.
Making changes during construction to improve the design is part of the refining process. Most people have difficulty envisioning what the space will be like until actually being there. This is not a shortcoming. Architects spend their careers refining their ability to convey design ideas to their clients.
A word of caution: Always discuss with your contractor the entire cost of a change order. Most change orders require additional time to be added to the contracted schedule. Run it by your architect to see if the cost and time is reasonable as you cannot bid it out with others to determine if the proposed cost is reasonable and the change is consistent with the overall design. intent. Lastly, never be afraid to express you personal style in your home or business.
Money and emotions don't mix.
Most people get too emotionally involved in their projects or the ones they manage. They fail to distance themselves in order to remain objective when reviewing contractor payment requests. Always refer to the construction contract as the guideline for making progress payments. Whether large or small, all project's scope of work should be agreed upon in writing. The construction drawings produced by your architect should always be part of this contract. The construction contract should be prepared by the architect who is an expert in this process. As a side note: It is important in the selection of the architect to determine that he or she has the required experience to administer the construction phase of the project.
With this in mind, the most likely person to determine whether the amounts requested for work completed, based on the terms of the contract, is the architect. You have selected the contractor based upon their proven ability and good reputation. It only helps a project to have the design professional monitor the progress, be available to answer questions, keep things on track, and advise you of the project's progress as compared with the schedule set forth in the construction contract. As with all contracts it is advisable to have legal counsel review the owner - contractor agreement before placing your signature to the document.
This is a very subjective term. It will differ between new construction and renovation, And will again differ in renovation between remodeling and restoration. The National Association of Home Builders produces a guide book. This outlines standards for its members. It is important to discuss your expectations and budget with the architect from the project's start. In this manner you can be advised if the available budget may meet or exceed your quality expectations. Most clients would like their renovation to look like new but are unrealistic about the cost and time involved to achieve this level of quality in most existing older structures. If the project is a restoration of a structure having a certain style or historic period significance those details and specifications should clearly be defined in both the construction documents and the contract for construction in order to communicate your intent to the contractor. By having clear construction documents you can eliminate some costly change orders. Clarify your quality objectives to all the parties involved including the architect, landscaper, cabinet manufacturer, and the general contractor. When everyone involved is reaching for the same goal it can be achieved. To quote a major manufacturer, "Make quality, job number one."
A short word about what happens after you are delivered the completed structure. o keep up the "Like New" quality and appearance you must maintain the property. Your architect or contractor can assist you in making recommendations for the development of an on going maintenance program.
Don't forget the paper work.
The process for obtaining permits and certificates of occupancy differ by location. However, there are some general rules that apply to most states. For very limited size residential projects, some states do not require the preparation and sealing of drawings by an architect. This should not limit the value that the design professional brings to the project. For almost all other types of projects the construction drawings and specifications must be prepared, sealed and signed by a state licensed architect or engineer. The contractor, who in some states must also be licensed (check with your local building department), is required to have proper insurance and can after municipal approval take out the work permit and begin the actual construction. During the work there are required inspections that will have to be performed by the architect or the local building inspector depending upon the type of work. Upon completion of the construction a final inspection will have to be performed by the building department inspector if the local department requires a certificate of occupancy. Most departments require for new construction that final surveys of the completed structure be submitted to compare with the original approved documents.
The contractor prior to receiving their final payment needs to provide you with some paperwork as well as complete the unfinished items on the, "Punch List." This list is compiled during the final walk through of the project with your architect and contractor. It details all items which need completion, if any items were damaged during construction that need repair and if all systems (some may required specific testing and adjustment) are functioning as specified. Once satisfied, the contractor shall provide the owner with the written warrantee as set forth in the contract. Lastly, release of lien documents shall be executed by the contractor and any appropriate trades or suppliers to ascertain that the owner will not be liable for any outstanding bills to the project and property.
Construction involves many risks. Yet, growth is an inevitable process of life. We need to enlarge or build new homes, create buildings which contain our businesses and hold our social functions. The process has been going on forever since man emerged from the cave. With a little common sense, capable professionals, and a reliable contractor your project should be completed with few disruptions and give you many years of use and pleasure.
~Hal A. Dorfman, Architect