Questions and Answers
about the Building Process

  1. Who are the players in the building process?
  2. What is a typical building process?
  3. How much time is needed?
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I.  Who are the players in the building process, and how do they relate to each other?

Although this question is getting harder to answer in the day of construction managers, "design-build", and in-house design departments, there are some relationships and guidelines which I have found to be relatively constant in my experience for projects of the type enumerated in my Experience Profile. The Architect is the professional who guides the Owner through the building process, including feasibility, programming, design, documentation, bidding, and construction administration. Depending on the Contracting method, the bidding process can be eliminated and a negotiating process can take place, sometimes while the documents are being prepared. The Architect is also required by standard AIA Construction Contracts to be fair to both Owner and Contractor, and resolves disputes if they arise.

The General Contractor is the person given overall responsibility for the construction itself. In many cases a license is required by the municipality, but regulation is largely by voluntary associations some contractors join. The General Contractor may have his own workforce, or may subcontract out most of the work. There are outstanding construction professionals who take pride in their work, keep schedules, and work with the Owner to bring a high level of satisfaction. It is imperative to avoid those who use the name but who are not responsive and quality- conscious. The choice of subcontractors is also crucial, not only in terms of qualification and licensing, but also in terms of work habits and customer attitude, since the Owner will see subcontractors on the site as well as the General Contractor himself. For smaller jobs, a carpenter-builder is often a good choice, since much of the work is often carpentry. Having the carpenter-owner do work himself and have active control over other subs can result in better quality and a smoother process. Finding the right General Contractor or carpenter-builder cannot be overemphasized, and the decision should not be made simply on initial price. While there are exceptions, a very low initial price usually is an indicator that some major work was omitted, material changes will be pursued, or that a lower quality level is being priced.

Sometimes Owners act as their own General Contractor, but this is recommended only when the Owner has a lot of time available, is readily reachable, and truly understands contracts and the complexities of construction. While the General Contractor adds markups, he(she) also coordinates the work and the subcontracts for that money, and is in a better position to get lower bids from his/her regular subcontractors and material suppliers. Disputes that arise between subcontractors are settled by the General Contractor, and are covered within the lump sum of the contract unless changes from the documents are requested or required. When the work is relatively straightforward, and the Owner is skilled in this area, it can make sense for him or her to act as the General Contractor, and perhaps to do portions of the work with his(her) own labor.

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II. What is a typical building process?

The Owner typically finds that they have a space need, or a real estate opportunity has arisen, or they need to expand in order to better meet their needs. The Owner may or may not have an idea of how much space is needed to accommodate what they want, and the finances required to design and build the project.

Ideally, the Owner should speak to an Architect of good reputation who frequently (not occasionally) performs residential work of the type contemplated and get professional advice as to the feasibility of what he has in mind. Whether evaluating the suitability of another home, or a piece of land, or an existing home being adapted or added to, there are a multitude of factors which must be considered in order to make properly-guided decisions.

Once the feasibility has been determined, detailed plans and estimates can be made. The Owner should decide whether he(she) wishes to act as his(her) own General Contractor, whether the Owner will do any of the work him(her)self, and whether the project should be bid or not. There are many contractors who function well on certain types of projects who might not be the best choice for another type of project. The Architect can help you evaluate the capabilities and strengths of contractors you wish to consider. Choosing the wrong contractor for a project can be catastrophic and should be strenuously avoided.

If the Owner knows and wants to negotiate with a particular contractor, the architect can work with the contractor early on to exploit the types of services that contractor is best equipped to offer at advantageous prices. The level of drawing documentation can be less with this type of arrangement, since different contractors are not interpreting the documents. Written summaries of agreements can be added to drawings required for permit purposes. We have found that this process, whereby the Owner selects the Architect he/she wants and the Contractor he/she wants can offer the smoothest process with the best quality for the money. First, the personalities and chemistry have already been approved, and secondly, references and client satisfaction with each are known. If either cannot meet reasonable project criteria, new entities can be found before much money is spent. When the Owner has selected multiple candidates, they are rarely comparable. We will deal with this in terms of architects in the next chapter, but will deal with this in terms of contractors now.

When we performed work for a major charity, their process was to have five or so prequalified bidders, with all financials, references, and projects pre-checked, any of whom would be acceptable, with the decision based upon price alone. Yet, even in this highly controlled situation, only one contractor put out a truly great effort putting his price together, and thankfully, he won the contract. We recently responded to a client request by asking three contractors for preliminary pricing, one of our selection and two of which were known by the Client. Only one put out extensive effort to nail down the costs and the issues. That was probably the best and busiest of the three, and the one I would have chosen to negotiate with in the first place. The second gave a single line price without any alternate pricing or substantiation. It was apparently done out of a cost book and was slightly higher than the first. The third said he didn?t have time to prepare a price, but he "could save us money". He quoted dollars per square foot lower than average, but with no detail on what was included or if he had any suggestions to "value engineer" the drawings, so it was impossible to tell whether he would have been the least or most expensive. We have found over the years that if a contractor will not put out a reasonable time commitment before the Client commits the construction to him, he will seldom put out a good effort afterwards, and that contractor should be precluded from consideration.

In the conventional bid process, the lowest bidder is often not the best for the project. In Europe, you cannot selected the lowest bidder, since it is assumed he forgot something. From the first day, the architect, Owner, and Contractor are put in an adversarial position as the Contractor seeks to make up what he "left on the table" (the difference between his bid and the next lowest bid). Any flaw in the drawings (and ALL drawings have some flaws) is magnified and the client often ends up paying the same as he would in a negotiated contract with the contractor he really wanted and would have a much less acrimonious process as a bonus.

"Design-build" contractors emphasize these issues which is the right analysis, but then seek to sell the Owner on simply hiring a contractor who will coordinate the design with "his own" architect. Most of these entities are not legal in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, and are known in the industry to charge more for what you get than any other method. Those that are legally set up follow the state's requirements of equal ownership by the design professional and the contractor. The Architect who works for a contractor is loyal to the Contractor, not seeking the best results for the Owner, and Architectural Services are minimized. The Contractor usually profits on the services in these arrangements here, so you are paying for profit in lieu of services, which never makes sense, and for unique projects, design is usually poor and non-responsive to the Owner's specific needs. Further, the Owner has no one to offer objective evaluations in the field during construction, and it is recommended by those in the Design-build industry that the Owner hire a representative. This representative is not a familiar with the drawings as the Architect, and complicates the project without having the leverage needed or the legal accountability.

If the Owner wishes to bid the project, which is becoming less popular for the reasons notes above, it is usually suggested to have about three or four bidders, and present them with the identical bidding materials. If there are too many bidders, none may feel there is enough of a chance to get the job to solicit a good response. Some will submit a price to make a Client happy, but it is useless if it is not competitively prepared. It is not advantageous to just take each Contractor on a tour and point out what you want, because there are wide differences in assumptions, material quality, and actual scope of work, which will make fair price comparisons impossible. Some contractors will estimate low and pack the price later, while others make agood estimate based upon realistic assumptions which may be higher and cause him to lose the project even though his price may actually be the best in the end.

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III. How much time is needed?

There is a wide variation of time needed based upon the variables of location, time of year, and complexity of the project. Most Owner assumptions of time are much lower than is actually needed. In any project, the following must be allowed for, either sequentially or, when needed and where possible, overlapped:

  • Design Time - include the Architect's time plus your time to evaluate and approve stages of the design (days to months depending on size of project)
  • Approval Time - permit processes vary from over the counter to 2 months depending on location, complexity, and backlog. Zoning and sometimes historical board review can take additional time.
  • Bidding Time - days to three weeks depending on dollar value
  • Construction - weeks to six months depending on time of year project is begun, whether new or renovation, whether the area is being kept in use during construction, and project type and construction method.
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