It’s one thing to design a house, and it’s another thing entirely to turn that design into a physical reality. In this episode, we kick back with an autumn cocktail (the Northern Spy) and talk about the process of bringing on a builder and the challenges of keeping relationships, quality, cost, and expectations managed along the way.
Hey, do you want to talk about wall sections? Too bad. Jesse joins us for our “What’s Bothering Jesse?” segment, and he lets us know that he’s a little tired of all the attention that walls command from the green community. So, we’ll talk about that instead.
The Northern Spy: Fresh apple cider makes this is a great cocktail for the fall season. It also makes a great beverage for toasting one of the great creators of our time, Steve Jobs, who passed away on October 5th. Here’s to you, Steve, without whom we would likely not even have a podcast. Also, I failed to mention in the podcast that this is a fairly modern drink, and as such, credit can and should be given to its creator Josey Packard of Alembic in San Fransisco.
What defines a successful project? A happy client, to be sure, but also a happy architect and a happy builder.
The architect’s public relations problem. We discuss how the architect is widely perceived by the public and builders.
What’s the process? You could go out to bid, but we think a team approach is better.
Bringing the builder in early? Here are the pros and cons. Pro: You get some cost control and input on methodology, but this must come with some understandings. Con: Did you lose your competitive advantage? What assurance do you have that you are getting the best bang for your buck?
Have and set clear expectations. Like a good marriage, good communication is critical.
What’s bothering Jesse? Walls! (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)
Don’t forget to check back in later for Part 2, where we play “Three Questions” with three prominent green builders and get their input on this subject. Also, we tip our hats to some fellow Mainers for the work they’ve done, and of course Phil finishes with a song you should be listening to while you design.
Thanks for listening. Cheers.
Chris Briley: Hey everybody, welcome to the Green Architects’ Lounge podcast. I’m your host, Chris Briley.
Phil Kaplan: And I’m your host, Phil Kaplan. How’re you doing, Chris?
Chris: I’m doing absolutely great, Phil. Yourself?
Phil: Excellent! I’m doing great. I noticed it was nice and chilly for the first time last night. Did you see frost?
Chris: I don’t know if I saw frost, but dude, I felt it. I woke up and took the kids out to the bus and went “Whoa!” Went out in a T-shirt and was like “This bus better hurry up!”
Phil: Welcome to fall. It’s all downhill from here.
Chris: So they say. Fall season brings what?
Phil: It brings apples — Am I right?
Chris: Let’s go right to the cocktails. Not only is it fall, but we got the news that Steve Jobs passed away. Our cocktail is in honor of Steve Jobs and also fall. It’s called the Northern Spy.
Phil: Man, it’s hot.
[The guys share the recipe.]
Phil: It’s getting a little chillier. Aren’t we glad we live in warm homes, Chris?
Chris: Yes, we are. Energy-efficient one.
Phil: And we’re glad we’re building them and designing them…
Chris: That’s right. The title of this podcast says that we’ve designed you a great house; now we have to make it a reality. There’s the challenge of bringing in a builder, controlling the budget and schedule, and making this thing happen. Not the easiest thing in the world to do…
Phil: And then there’s the inconvenience of having a client involved… I mean, someone’s gotta pay for it. No, really, we love our clients — especially when we have a great team. Spectacular things happen — intense joy and creation. One of the things we can talk about is what defines success.
Chris: So, what’s a successful project?
Phil: The number one thing is a happy client. If the client is happy and they’re going to recommend you after the fact, and they’re going to live in this house…
Chris: You’ll sleep at night if you know the client is happy.
Phil: It also helps if the architect is happy and likes the design.
Chris: If it’s one you’re passionate about and excited to show your friends, then that is special.
Phil: Things come together, and the client shares your goals and believes in your vision. It also helps if you make a little money on it. And the builder has to have great satisfaction — he’s out there all the time. He also has to make money on it.
Chris: And be proud of what he’s done. The ultimate successful project, then, is happy client, happy architect, happy builder.
Phil: We can get there. It’s been done. Does it happen most of the time? I’d say not. We’re in a tricky profession. We’re here to try to resolve some of these issues. And in Part 2, we’ll talk directly with some builders to figure out what we need to do to come together as teams and make it work better.
Chris: Clients want to understand the process. Lots of times they come to us and say they’ve never hired an architect before. And they’ve never built anything before, never hired a builder before. Part of the architect’s job is to demystify the process. It’s not a magical thing that happens behind some green curtain. There are real, tangible people involved who care about the whole process.
Phil: It’s true. They come to us because we’re good at what we do. We see things in a different way because that’s how we’re trained. But, my little tangent is this: I personally think architects have a PR problem. People think our egos and their dreams are going to be exceeded and cost them a lot of money, and they’re not going to be in control of the process. That’s sad. Our goal is to be a trusted advisor.
Chris: As architects, we’re a different profession than we were 20 years ago.
Phil: Absolutely. The idea of a master builder is nice, but we need a team to do all these things.
Chris: So, let’s talk about that. The team member we’re going to talk about most right now is the builder. In the old days, Phil, you’d hire this master builder/architect who’d draw your plans, write your specs, hand them to you, and say, “This is the house you want.” And you’d take all that to every builder in town to get their budgets, and then you’d pick one. It’s called “going out to bid.”
And commercially that still happens; the stakes are higher and you need that level of control. But with a house, the problem with that is the client is going to be paying the architect to protect them. If you have a good builder who’s on board and part of the team, though, you don’t need protection. The times have changed.
Phil: Especially when we talk about sustainable homes.
Chris: Speaking of green, I’d like to not introduce Dan Morrison. He was going to travel here.
Phil: Dan is the executive editor of Fine Homebuilding and GreenBuildingAdvisor. We are very excited to almost have had him as a guest.
Now that we’re doing these green homes…
Chris: They take a higher level of focus, and not just from the builder. It’s even more important that the builder gets this stuff right. So choose the builder ahead of time.
Phil: In integrated design, we get the builder on board early rather than go out to bid. We need a team to make the sure the details we’re drawing are going to be built properly. And also, it’s a check for us. We’re architects; we don’t swing hammers. If we’re not careful and screw this stuff up, it’s a huge risk for green building in general.
I’ll tell you how we bring a builder in. Typically, there’s a schematic design, and then there is design development when pricing is set. It’s certainly before construction drawings; we don’t go out to bid. We advocate getting the drawings done to a certain level to get the builder to set a price within 10 to 15 percent. We just ask for an estimate. Then we ask the client to hire that builder, and then we form a team.
We’ve had issues with bringing builders in really early in the process, having to do with cost control. They offer an estimate based on sketches; they’re hired, and then we do the construction drawings. The building costs then go way out of control.
Chris: Clients listening to this say, “That’s other people, not me.” Well, it is you. It would be me, if I were building my house. There’s a compulsion for everyone to hear what they want to hear. Let’s say the builder quotes a house between $250,000 and $400,000. That’s a massive range; if they quote you that, it practically means nothing. The client walks away thinking, “All right, if we do everything the architect says, we’ll be at the low end of that range.”
Phil: If we bring builders on too early, the client thinks they’ve lost the competitive advantage. They have a little bit of regret.
Chris: So, what do you do? On a recent project, in the design development phase, we hired two builders and paid them to come up with a ballpark price, within 15 percent. We got plans, elevations and a good wall section for a real complicated project, but we had to make allowances. We got two prices back, but you’re not choosing based just on numbers, but on a relationship. We hired one of the builders and said “sorry” to the other one, but at least they got paid a little.
We’re afraid of builders offering up numbers too soon that are not based on enough information — we need plans, elevations, a good wall section, maybe schedules.
Phil: Sometimes we push it to structural information — framing plans — to get more accurate bidding. In Part 2, we’ll talk to a few prominent builders to get their point of view.
Chris: And we’ll make fun of them.
Phil: It’ll be really interesting to see what kind of alignment there is between our thoughts and their thoughts. If we’re not completely aligned, then we need to work on that.
Chris: It’s all about managing expectations. It’s all about being clear with the client and the builder.
Phil: We can’t reiterate enough about clarity at the outset for program and scope, schedule, and budget. Have them written down somewhere. Be honest every step along the way.
Chris: It’s like the key to a successful marriage — communication. Of course, really, it’s sex and money. Which is not the same with building and design; I’ve not had that project yet.
Let’s leave it here. In Part 2, we’ll play “Three Questions” with the builders.
Sheila, let’s bring in Jesse to play “What’s Bothering Jesse Thompson?” With us now is architect Jesse Thompson.
Jesse Thompson: Why do we spend so much time talking about walls? With each other, with clients, with builders, probably code officials.… Yeah, there are more walls than roof in a house. Maybe they are important.
Phil: I get it. When you’re talking to a colleague about a house, they say “It’s got R-40 walls.” We always begin with the walls. What did you get in the walls? I’ll judge you from there.
Jesse: In Passivhaus consultant training, we talk about moisture profiles in walls. We get clients with detailed lists of technical aspects they want in their buildings. Well, let’s go back and talk about the house first, then about what’s the right thing to do. We get clients who are as quality obsessed about the guts of their building as they are about …
Phil: It’s a paradigm shift.
Jesse: Well, they’re coming fast. They sit up all night reading GreenBuildingAdvisor before they talk to anyone. It’s playing defense on their part; they realize there are good buildings and crappy buildings.
Phil: Remember when low-e first became a big thing? People didn’t understand it. They just thought they were getting crappy windows if they weren’t low-e. Now they want more insulation in the walls.
Jesse: If someone wants a SIP house, we can talk about 10 different ways of doing the walls. We don’t spend as much time talking with clients about the roof or the basement or the foundation in the same way. Let’s talk about the whole building, not just obsess about the walls. The framing is 25 percent of the cost. We still have 75 percent of the house to talk about — like nontoxic materials. There are other things going on here, to try to get a building ready.
Chris: Jesse, this segment’s starting to bother me. See you next time.
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