Do I Need an Architect During Construction?
In construction of large buildings, it’s unheard of to not involve an architect during construction, but it is common practice on residential projects (and some small commercial projects) to avoid the additional cost. We certainly understand why this is not a priority for a client with a small budget, but we want to make our case for some of the benefits of including construction phase services in your contract, even on the smallest of projects.
You may be wondering, “what does an architect even have to do during construction?” The answer is “quite a lot!” Beyond fielding questions and troubleshooting issues with the contractor, we also:
– Make design decisions. Construction drawings aren’t perfect. Though we have a rigorous review process in place and we spend many, many hours perfecting our drawings, the nature of a “custom design” means that each design is a unique endeavor. There are design challenges that can only be discovered in construction but still benefit from our input. There are also instances where the design is purposefully not finished before construction begins. Especially on our custom residential projects, it is common for clients to have one specific area of the design that they are not set on. For instance, a custom kitchen island. In an effort to keep the project moving along, we will include a basic design of the kitchen island as a placeholder and finish the rest of the drawings. When construction begins, we will meet with the millwork subcontractor and the owner to develop the design further. The subcontractor is often able to provide valuable input that improves the design and may even save money.
– Participate in construction meetings. These are regular (typically weekly or twice a month) meetings set by the contractor. They typically take place on-site and are attended by all interested parties–the owner or owner’s representative, architect, consultants, and subcontractors. These meetings provide an opportunity for everyone to review the project status and the progress made. It’s also useful for the architect to be there to answer questions, provide clarity on any misinterpretations of the plans and collaborate with the rest of the team.
– Review submittals. A submittal is information, samples, or drawings for a specific product or material that the contractor must submit for review by the architect. This may be anything from a set of roofing samples showing the different colors available to a document proving the fire resistance rating of a particular material. These submittal requirements, as well as the specifics of each product and material, are laid out in the specifications, a written book that accompanies the construction drawings. We always do our best to select quality materials and finishes that also fit within the client’s budget, but from time-to-time, the contractor finds that those selections are too expensive or take too long to get. For that reason, we provide some leeway in the specifications that allow a contractor to provide an alternate material as long as it meets similar standards. In that case, we have to carefully review the submittal on the alternate material to ensure it still meets the building codes, industry standards, and general design intent.
If we are not involved in construction phase services, clients often just go with whatever product the contractor recommends because they just don’t have the time or resources to educate themselves on what would be best for their project in the long-run or if it meets the the same standards. On one of our custom home projects we specified a certain type of siding, but after visiting the site, we noticed that they were installing a different product with significantly different material characteristics and qualities. Since we weren’t hired to review submittals, we weren’t notified of this change, and we suspect that the client didn’t understand the difference between the two products.
– Respond to Requests for Information. RFI’s are just an official way for a contractor to ask a question or request additional detail. It is good practice to minimize the number of RFI’s by providing plenty of detail in the construction documents and by managing questions during construction meetings, but some RFI’s are inevitable, especially those that require revisions to the drawings. During a recent monthly construction meeting for the Oakland School, the general contractor, site superintendent, historic preservation consultant, project inspector, and I were able to discuss in detail the allowable options for repairing an existing parapet cap. After our discussion, I came back to the office and drew a detail of the agreed-upon parapet cap condition. I provided the drawing to the construction crew in an RFI response so that they could continue with the project.
– Review Change Orders. A Change Order is a formal change (typically an increase) in the contract sum or contract time, requested by the contractor. Most commonly a change order is submitted because the owner decides to make a change part-way through construction. Sometimes, though, change orders are due to the contractor missing something in the design when preparing the original bid, or due to the architect not including enough information in the construction documents. With money and time at stake, managing change orders and the relationships involved is a delicate process–one that an architect is uniquely equipped to handle.
Recently, while we were acting as a third party inspector for a project, a change order was brought up at the monthly construction meeting that subtracted amounts for materials that the client could provide rather than the contractor. We were there to review the change order in detail and oversee the work completed so that the client had a clear understanding of why the contract amount was changing and assurance that the finances were being allotted correctly between the two parties. In this case, the change order actually saved the client money.
– Review Applications for Payment. Requests for Payment or “pay apps” list out what the general contractor has already paid for and requests a certain portion of the total contract sum be paid to them. During construction meetings, the architect reviews this list as well as the construction schedule. While at the site we are also able to observe the work in person and ask the contractor questions to verify that all of the work listed on the pay app is completed. If everything checks out, the architect signs the document, certifying that those items have, in fact, been completed and that the contractor should be paid. This is good practice for all types of projects so that owner is protected financially and has assurance that their project is on-time, on-budget, and being completed according to the design intent.
– Observe and inspect* for construction quality and code violations. Throughout the project (most often on the same day as the construction meetings), the architect will observe the work to bring up any inconsistencies with the design, code violations, and quality issues. Towards the end of the project the architect will formally inspect the work, alongside the contractor, to help develop a very detailed list of items still left to finish. These “checks” on the construction help ensure that costly and time-consuming corrections don’t have to be made after the fact.
As all of these examples indicate, the most important role of the architect during construction is that of the owner’s agent–someone who can help them navigate the relationships and big decisions behind what is often the largest financial investment of their lives.