What to Expect when You’re Expecting…A Building

As a new mom, I’m a little jealous of the confidence and calmness that experienced moms seem to have.  During pregnancy and as I care for my newborn I frequently wonder “is this [feeling, behavior, experience] normal?” It strikes me that a new client might similarly wonder what is normal to expect on their first project.

Mothers who have “been there” just seem to know what’s worth worrying about and what isn’t.  They gained this experience not only by living it, but also by reading and consulting with others.  Just as every child is different, every project will have its unique challenges.  But, creating realistic expectations from the beginning can go a long way to reducing a client’s stress throughout the project.  Here are my top 5 tips for new clients as they “parent” their first project:

  1. Thoroughly Read Contracts – The AIA contracts truly spell out what you can expect from your architect during design or contractor during construction. (Clients are sometimes surprised to find out, for instance, that drawings are not expected to be perfect!). A reasonable architect will be happy to answer any questions and would much prefer to discuss how the contract treats different issues BEFORE they arise.
  2. Thoroughly Review Drawings and Meeting Minutes – On a large project this is no small task, but the project’s success depends on the feedback an architect receives from their client. Unless a client brings up an issue, the architect will proceed with developing the design as drawn. Conversely, an architect that neglects to follow an owner’s documented direction should make corrections at no cost to the owner.
  3. Be Prepared for Changes – During both design and construction, changes are inevitable and can be due to things like those listed below. The best preparation for any change is to include an appropriate contingency in the construction budget and allow a sufficient timeline for both design and construction.
    Unforeseen Conditions – Sometimes situations arise that no one could have anticipated.  Excavation might reveal bedrock in places that boring tests didn’t hit. A flooring manufacturer may have stopped making the tile that was specified. Rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters (i.e. hurricanes) in one part of the country can affect the cost and availability of materials in other parts of the country.
    Delegated Design – For some building components, like a complicated stair, the details of the design are “delegated” to the subcontractor that is awarded the job.  The architect’s drawings and specifications allow for subtle variations in the design.  This allows for more competitive bids, thus saving the client money, but can also increase the probability of changes during construction when all the details are finally worked out.

    Errors & Omissions – Because drawings are not perfect (see tip #1), an owner may incur costs to correct mistakes or items left out of the drawings.  Studies suggest it is reasonable to expect the cost of construction to be increased by 2-3% (or more on complex projects) because of errors or omissions. Keep in mind that omissions (items left out of the drawings) would have increased the original bid had they been included in the original drawings.  So, the cost to add items that were originally omitted is the client’s responsibility. If the cost of errors starts to exceed that percent, it might be an indication of a poor coordination between disciplines, incomplete documents or poor project management and cause for concern.
    Owners Changing their Mind – Sometimes an owner will rethink a decision made during the design phase and request a change.  Different people have varying abilities to visualize a design while it is lines on paper.  During construction, when a client sees something in built form, it may be different than what they had visualized it in their mind.  Because an architect cannot predict or account for this, they then charge “additional services” when revised drawings are necessitated (an owner who thoroughly reviews drawings is less likely to make changes down the road – see tip #2).  It is advisable for owners to have a separate contingency fund for such changes.

  4. Talk to Other Building Owners – Calling an architect or contractor’s references is a great way to get a first-hand account of that company’s strengths or weaknesses. It can arm a client with good questions to ask during interviews.  In addition, reading articles by facility managers (experienced client representatives on large construction projects) can help a client know what is typical for the industry.
  5. Know your Options in a Crisis – It is unlikely that an experienced architect or contractor would grossly mismanage a project. A good professional will make sacrifices, if warranted, to see a project through to a successful completion (after all, we want satisfied clients and good recommendations!).  Verifying that a designer or builder is appropriately insured before signing a contract (see tip #1) is an important precaution, should an egregious problem arise.  Finally, terminating a contract is an option if a professional severely neglects their obligations.  However, switching architects or contractors mid-stream is almost guaranteed to cost a project both time and money.

    As I am finding out, becoming a parent is a marvelous experience. The more experience and education I get, and elbow-rubbing I do with other parents, the less stressed I am.  The same may be true for clients.  At SOA, we understand designing and constructing a building is a significant investment of time, energy and money for an owner.  Our goal is that the process, and not just the product, is an enjoyable one.

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