Working with Building Professionals (i.e., Contractors, Builders, Construction Companies)

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Our construction company in New England was a design-build firm that specialized in remodeling. Sunworks Construction was intended to be a solar construction company, but by the mid-eighties solar had faded and we became a full service company specializing in large upper-end additions.

We also built a “million” basement remodels and quite a few kitchens. By designing what we built, we found that we could streamline the process and avoid many of the pitfalls that occur when the design-construction process is linear.

For a typical remodeling job, the homeowner works with an architect or contractor who draws up a set of plans or blueprints.

The architect then hands the plans off to an engineer, an interior designer, and a landscape architect who each contribute their respective insights. The plans are then put out to bid to three to ten remodeling contractors who dissect the plans into various trades for bid prices, including carpentry, roofing, insulation, plumbing, and electrical. The contractor puts his “head scratching” time into the plans and comes up with a bid. This whole procedure occurs in a vacuum with no interaction between the trades. When the bids come in, the homeowner looks at all the apples and oranges proposals with numbers everywhere and has to make an existential decision on which stranger to cohabit with for the next three to nine months. It can be a bit like throwing darts at a dart board to come up with a decision.

“We seek spaces that satisfy not only the basic requirements of size and function, but also our beliefs and philosophy. You, your architect, and your builders will define those beliefs in tangible terms that can be made real with wood, steel, glass, and stone. In other words, you have dreams for your home, your architect informs those dreams, and your builders materialize the in formed dreams. However, the process is rarely this linear and straightforward. For example, those who build, including carpenters, masons, electricians, and plumbers, are an incredible resource for ideas. Builders can significantly improve the look, feel, and efficiency of your home, especially when their ideas are considered early in the design process. Moreover, by including the builders from the start, you can create a team with a common understanding of the history of the project. This proves extremely helpful when a construction problem needs to be resolved along the way.”

- California “Green”-buildings Architect

All too often the worst of all possible outcomes emerges: the homeowner chooses the lowest bid! Would you choose the cheapest heart surgeon? Probably not. Unfortunately, the conventional bidding process wastes time and costs more due to change orders and hidden costs. All too often, it doesn’t accomplish the intention of building a great team to manifest your dream home, and is eventually brought to a close in a court of law — not what anyone ever intended.

A better outcome occurs when remodeling professionals collaborate as a design team from the first sales meeting. My architect, myself (as contractor), and often an interior designer would meet with our prospective client and brain storm solutions to their design needs. The interaction was often stimulating and the clients loved it. Not only did these meetings help clarify the dreams of the customers, but all of us were able to ask questions at the beginning to further clarify the desires of the prospective client. It was much easier to get the client’s ideas on paper with the designers present up front.

Once we got the job, we would all work iteratively on the design — costing different design solutions along the way, improving the design based on past experience — and come up with a better overall solution than any one of us would have developed on our own. By knowing the cost of construction we usually met the client’s budget the first time out.

Today, the team approach, or collaborative design, is still an anomaly. The remodeling process is fraught with difficult decisions, conflicting information, and challenges right up to the very end. After years of remodeling we learned to prioritize client-architect-contractor relations. Ask yourselves, “Can we work with this re-modeler? Does the architect share our values and worldview of what is important? Can we have deep discussions about our dreams and feel heard? Will the construction company protect our twenty thousand dollar landscaping? How will we solve problems and come to mutual understanding?” If you treat your relationships in the home remodeling process with the same care and consideration that you treat your friends and neighbors, the outcome is often much better than any contract can ensure.

Given the collaborative nature of remodeling a home, we thought it would be most informative to let you hear from the architects, contractors, and homeowners themselves. Together, our stories will help you find and work with the best professionals to remodel your dream home.

Working with an Architect

Architectural Remodeling Phases:





Programming and Pre-design

• Establish project constraints

• Sketch measured set of drawings

• Identify owner’s list of requirements and requests


Schematic Design

Produce series of schemes that the owner chooses to pursue


Design Development

• Chosen design developed

• More views of design

• Materials list

• Preliminary work for consultants

• Planning Department applications


Construction Documents

• Final construction drawings and specifications

• Architect applies for building permit


Bidding and Negotiation

• Contractors provide final bid



Architect visits site and reviews course of work

One of the most important relationships you will establish when remodeling is with your architect. He or she will capture your dreams and ideas and translate them into a language that the contractors can understand. We can’t emphasize the importance of this process enough. Your architect helps you see what all the talk means on paper so that you can visualize the project before it starts and avoid disappointment later. It is a lot easier and less expensive to erase a line than to tear down a wall. For some, hiring an architect may seem like an unnecessary expense because you already have a design or plan in mind. However, even if you know the outcome you desire, an architect is like a lawyer who will help you write the brief that will lead to that outcome more smoothly than if you attempt a remodel design on your own. Hire an architect — your dream home is worth it!

Expert Advice from an Architect

An excellent explanation about the nuances of working with an architect during the remodeling process comes from a Design and Architecture firm from Orinda, California:

What kind of projects need a green architect?

That depends on how one defines “need.” For some projects, depending on their size and the requirements of the local jurisdiction, an architect is required to prepare the plans. For other projects an architect is not required by the local building department to prepare the plans. Basically, if there are design decisions to be made and drawn, you should strongly consider hiring an architect. Architects are the most broadly trained of the design professionals, and they look at a building in terms of its aesthetic qualities, the functionality of its spatial layout, and relationship between rooms, the building and planning code implications, construction feasibility (though contractors may dispute the architect’s expertise here), and the compatibility of a design idea with the existing architecture. Investing dollars in the construction of a remodeling project without investing the careful attention that an architect brings to a design problem seems like a big risk to take. That said, some projects are simple in terms of construction and design — these projects could benefit from a simple set of permit drawings, which can often be produced by the contractor.

What do green architects do in a remodeling project?

An architect designs buildings, and this overall activity encompasses a series of smaller activities. An architect is also the legal agent of the owner as well as a “neutral arbiter” of disputes that might arise between the owner and the builder. The architect does not decide the result of the dispute but is the first mediator. The architect traditionally has been the lead in the process and one of three in the triangle of architect-owner-builder. In this capacity, the architect acts not only as a musician in the orchestra but also as the conductor, coordinating the work of consultants into the design, assisting the owner in choosing a contractor and in getting construction prices, applying for the building permit, and visiting the job site during construction to see that the results align with the design intent.

An architect can be involved once the owner has decided to remodel or add onto their house. The first tasks start during the “programming and pre-design” phase and include establishing project constraints, drawing up a measured set of drawings of the existing building (called “as built” drawings), and identifying the owner’s list of requirements and requests. This is the time to establish your list of green goals and expectations.

The second phase is referred to as the “schematic design” phase. This is akin to a brainstorming process. Your architect produces a series of schemes that the owner chooses to pursue. Actually, the accepted scheme often results from the combination of a series of schemes. The chosen design is expanded during the “design development” phase, resulting in more views of the design, material lists, and the preliminary work for consultants like the structural engineer or green consultant. If required by law, the architect then applies for design review or other planning department applications and navigates through that process. Sometimes redesign is required by the planning department. Once the design is well described and developed, the final construction drawings and specifications are prepared during the “construction documents” phase. At that point, it is time for the architect to apply for the building permit and for the contractor(s) to provide their final bid price during the “bidding / negotiation” phase. Finally, it’s time for construction, and the architect is available to visit the site and review the course of the work.

There is a sense of disconnect in the way that most of us live. It is very unsustainable and fairly toxic to the environment, generally speaking. If you want to live in a house that is less toxic and if you want to leave something for our great grandchildren, build green. Building green is exciting. and it is a challenge too. Anyone can build a house. But can you build a green house?

What kind of experience do green architects have?

Since the job of an architect is technical, artistic, communicative, and regulatory; the education and training of an architect typically contains these elements as well.

The formal education of an architect, whether it takes place during undergraduate or graduate coursework (or both) varies between schools. Some schools emphasize theory and aesthetics, others construction technology, etc. At a minimum an architectural student will study the preparation of architectural drawings, architectural design, architectural history, structural design, and often calculus and physics (though in architectural practice these are rarely if ever used). Ideally, the architectural student will also study freehand drawing, color, sculpture, the sociology of design, construction methods, environmentally sustainable building practices, design theory, and professional practice.

The architectural profession is regulated by each state and so the architect must meet the requirements of that state. Each state requires that an architect perform a certain number of years working for a licensed architect as an intern.

Following the internship period are the licensing exams. The exams are extensive and cover the areas of architectural, structural, mechanical, building technology; construction administration, site planning and design, architectural layout and design, and professional practice. They are rigorous exams and in some states there is the additional requirement of an oral exam.

Builders often criticize an architect’s training because it rarely includes doing construction or spending many hours on a construction site. This is a drawback and it’s up to the architect to spend as much time on job sites as possible. It is a great question to ask your architect, “How much actual hands-on construction experience have you had?”

Lastly, an architect is always learning. Given the complexity of the profession there is no way to know it all. Just choosing to grow and learn in the aesthetic area is the work of a lifetime. Some architects continue their growth solely on their own, and others take part in continuing education courses offered by trade groups such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

How do I find the right architect for my project?

‘While interviewing architects, it makes sense to use some of the typical interviewing guidelines: check their references, meet the architect and see examples of their work (often just photos work, but you can visit the buildings as well), get a feeling for the rapport between you and the architect.

When looking at the work of the architect, keep in mind that an architect is the servant of the homeowner to a large extent, and must translate their goals and aesthetic rather than providing their own aesthetic. So if you don’t see the style you are looking for in their portfolio, do not decide too quickly that it is not a fit. Instead, look for well executed examples of the style they are working in and for interesting ideas (aesthetically or practically) that show a creative spirit. The other element to look for is the architect’s ability to listen to you and to communicate clearly, since so much of the process will involve listening to your ideas and concerns and translating them into the project design.

When Selecting a Green Architect, ask yourself:

• What do the owner and architect each want to accomplish with the project?

• What would the owner and architect each need from the experience to feel successful?

• Are there any fears about the project?

• Are the owner’s goals for their home and the philosophy of design that informs the architect’s practice consistent? (e.g., if the owner wants to build their project green, is sustainability a foundation of the architect’s practice?) If so, can they go beyond a systems approach to environmental building based on resource conservation to weave in ideas of lifestyle, quality of light and space, and relationship to the landscape?

• How will decisions be made as you progress through the design process?

• Are there others that will round out the design team, including the builder, landscape architects, structural engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, financiers?

In general, is there a fit between the owner and the architect?

The answer is part intellectual (what can be understood quantitatively) and part emotional (what can only be felt intuitively).

What is the best way to work with a green architect?


Although the architectural design process can be tedious, and it involves large sums of money (both in terms of design fee and construction costs), it can also be relaxing, even fun. After all, you are investing in making your home reflect your life and dreams, and the things and experiences that bring you pleasure. Also, it’s a chance to learn about what may be an entirely new area — that of design.

Keep an open mind...

Hiring an architect means that you should end up with ideas that are better than the ones you’ve arrived at on your own. So the first rule of thumb is to let the architect look at your project with fresh eyes; do not dictate how you want the design to turn out. Instead, let him/her know what things you want to accomplish (and this can be very specific: I want a master bedroom of about 14 by 15 feet which extends off of the back of the house). It’s fine to let him or her know what solutions you’ve thought of so far, and it could be that it is the best solution. But the architect needs to get their head around the problem before arriving at that conclusion. Ideally you’ll get at least three design solutions, even it some or them don’t contain all me items on you’re your list and if some are completely different than you discussed or expected.

During the design process some owners typically become clearer about the details of what they care about. At the beginning or the project, its difficult — if not impossible — for the homeowner to put in writing all the likes and dislikes they experience in their home. It is while reviewing the schematic designs that the architect and the homeowner refine their under— standing of each other and of the project requirements. It may not be until one of the schemes does not allow a view of the neighbor’s canary island date palm that the owner realizes the importance of that view, and should be included.

Expose/familiarize yourself to architectural and interior design...

Expand your view of what’s possible in home design in terms of room types, spaces, and materials. Go on home tours, check out books from the library on both domestic and international design, subscribe to design magazines, and start to notice buildings around you. The more exposure you have to interiors, buildings, and gardens the easier the design process will be, because you will have a context in which to place the design ideas that your architect is proposing. Most schools in the United States have a dismal record of educating students in visual and aesthetic literacy, and so the gap between the training of an architect and that of a typical homeowner is often great.

Communicate what you like and don’t like to the architect ...

At the start of the project it’s important to communicate as best you can your design preferences. The best way, since an architect is a visual person, is to show pictures and tour local buildings together that strike your fancy.

Architectural Wisdom:

Design is iterative. It’s the architect’s task to create a working record of the process of design influenced by the opportunities and constraints brought to the project over time. It is the owner’s responsibility to engage in the discussion inspired by the drawings and models created in order for the architect to evolve the design in the next set of drawings and models.

If you don’t understanding the drawings, get help from the architect. It’s not uncommon for a homeowner to have difficulty understanding the plans, and it’s also not uncommon for the architect to forget that this happens. The architect has become so accustomed to speaking the language of lines within an architectural project that he/she forgets that the owner does not speak this language. Add the fact that often one of the most used drawings is a floor plan, which by its nature is abstract (rather than an illustrated perspective drawing), and the opportunity for homeowner confusion is great. Ask the architect for an “acting out” of the idea. Get out the tape measure together and map out where things will go, using masking tape to mark important spots on the floor or wall. Use stakes or sticks at the exterior to map out the extent of an addition. You can also ask for perspective sketches or additional drawings to illustrate an idea.

The other part of this is — pay attention during the design process. All too often an owner will coast along during the design process and wake up during construction deciding that they in fact want something different. Changes made during construction are expensive, and can cause frustration for all parties involved.

Get cost estimates at each design phase ...

One of the biggest complaints about architects is that they don’t meet construction budgets. The fact is, architects are not cost estimators and can't guarantee what price a contractor will be willing to work within. The architect can refer to both square foot figures and recent projects as a benchmark, but the nuts and bolts of an estimate should be left to those who produce them all the time; namely, a cost estimator or a general contractor. It is both possible and wise to ask a contractor to perform this service from the schematic design phase onward. If you make your selection early enough, your contractor can become part of your design team, estimating costs and recommending practical construction details through the rest of the design process.

In turn, the architect faces the challenge of gently curbing the owner’s enthusiasm for things they may not be able to afford. It can be difficult to dissuade a homeowner from an element or space that their heart desires until there are some cold hard facts (the cost estimate) to review and process.

Lastly, a good architect will be naturally excited about design and materials and all that is possible, and can get carried away. The key is that the architect responds to cost information and scales back the plan in an attempt to meet the budget.

How do I manage construction costs?

No matter how much cost estimating is done or how carefully it is done, there will always be changes and unexpected conditions that result in cost increases. There are many factors influencing the design and construction of a project; additionally, remodeling involves the integration of a new project into or attached onto an existing structure. The foibles and intricacies of the old structure are not entirely visible even during the demolition stage. Homeowners change their mind and want a different material. Architects come up with a new idea that is wonderful but costs more. Surprises keep happening. Instead of being totally shocked, the better strategy is to plan to be surprised and set aside at least s percent of the estimated construction cost as a contingency amount. This means that if your budget is, for example, $90,000, then you’ll want to actually aim for a construction cost of $80,000 so that you have $10,000 set aside.

What are the architectural design fees?

There are several ways that architects charge for their services. Hourly, fixed fee, a fixed fee based on a percentage of the cost of construction, and /or hourly for some phases with fixed fees for others. Reimbursable expenses are added to the fee (printing costs, etc.). Consultant costs are either included or charged for separately.

What products does the architect produce for this fee?

After all of the design phases are complete, the architect provides the owner with a set of architectural plans and often a written specification of products and materials to be used on the project. These “contract documents” form the basis of the contract between the owner and the builder. The builder’s contract with the owner to provide construction services references the architect’s name and the’ date of the plans and specifications. Note that often there are different “editions” of the design, with the first set often being that used to obtain the building permit. It is crucial to the success of the project that everyone uses the same dated prints and that old versions are thrown away.

It’s tempting for some homeowners to try to save architectural fees during construction by not having the architect visit the site or by diminishing the services during construction. Unfortunately, the end result almost always suffers. The design continues to evolve during construction, with a number of factors influencing the project’s design at this stage: unexpected conditions popping up and having design ramifications, code issues that the site inspector interprets differently than the plan checker did during the review process, and new ideas about how to handle something now that the plans are in three dimensions. In general, having the skills of an architect through only part of the process short changes your dream home; imagine using the skills of a surgeon for only part of the surgery!

Too many choices?!

The number or choices to make during the process can be staggering. It’s important to start looking at materials, finishes, appliances, hardware, and so on as early on as possible, so that you aren’t faced with a huge list at the end.

In fact, the architect typically does at least a preliminary selection of most of these, since they are integral to the design, but at some point the owner must at least review and approve or disapprove the suggestions. Many times the architect leaves specific decisions up to the contractor. Unless you pay attention, you may get substitutions that compromise the integrity of your green design. Another way choices are presented to an owner is as “allowances.” The builder has set aside a budget for items that the homeowner must select. Be careful that the allowance reflects the true cost of items you may want. An allowance for $12 per yard of carpet may be a builder price but you probably wouldn’t want to live with carpet that cheap.

Remember:There are so many resources that go into new houses and so much of it is built without thinking about it carefully. The house is going to be there for a long time don’t let it be a missed opportunity.

How do I collaborate with my architect and builder?

Traditionally an architect worked on the design and the drawings and then provided them to the contractors during the bidding process. The problem with this model is that beautiful buildings were designed in somewhat of a cost vacuum, and all the effort and money and falling in love with the design were wasted once it was discovered that the project exceeded the budget. Working with a contractor during construction for cost estimating is the first step in collaboration, and the other is to have the contractor present during design (whether at part of the architect/client meetings or just with the architect) to suggest efficient construction details, bring up possible conflicts with other parts of the building such as the plumbing system, and in general bring their extensive experience in construction to bear on the project. Typically contractors need to be paid for these services, just as any project consultant is paid. Some contractors are willing to credit some of these fees if they are hired to do the job.

Another benefit to working with a contractor during design is that it gives the homeowner a chance to get to know a contractor before working with one. and working with one contractor during design does not preclude the homeowner from working with another during construction, although it is often best to maintain continuity if the relationship goes smoothly.

In general, an architectural project has so many bits of information to manage that no architect will do it perfectly. It’s everyone’s job to manage the flow of information and it’s advisable for at least one person to prepare meeting notes and distribute them. At the very least, the homeowner should keep their own dated notes of meetings and decisions and review them with the architect on a regular basis. The same habit should extend to the homeowner’s communication with the builder.

Working with Remodeling Contractors

How to Find the Perfect Re-modeler

Here are some simple steps to take to find the right re-modeler for your home:

• Drive around your neighborhood. Most remodelers will post signs promoting their services in front of homes they are working on. Knock on the door and speak with the homeowner. I know of no better source of high-quality referrals than a happy homeowner, so the better re-modeler will work hard to leave a legacy of satisfied customers. and you’ll find that visiting remodeling projects is an excellent source of design ideas.

• Talk to friends, or friends of friends. Be bold. The more people you ask, including colleagues at work, clubs, professional organizations, charities, or service organizations, the more names you’ll be able to gather. Be sure the people have personal experience with the re-modeler they recommend. Six to twelve months after a job has been completed on their home is the best time to ask questions. During that interval their remodelers will have responded to some warranty item claims — an excellent test of their reliability and professionalism. Many folks are overflowing with information from this once-in-a-lifetime experience and are full of stories they want to share.

• Yellow Pages. You can use the phone book, but are you willing to spend thousands of dollars based on a random lead you get?

• Contact the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Remodelers Council. The NAHB has published three consumer information brochures in a series: Remodeling Your Home: How to Find a Professional Remodeler; Understanding Your Remodeling Agreement; and How to Live With Your Remodeling Project. These can all be purchased from the NAHB bookstore for $3 each. The purpose of NAHB is to promote professionalism and image within the remodeling industry, therefore association members are more reliable than remodelers who are not members.

• Call the local National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), 800-611-NARI (6274) or e-mail info@ Ask for the most recent NARI Home Remodeling Guide that will list industry members in your area. Like NAHB, this association can provide you with more dependable, qualified “green” remodelers than the Yellow Pages; in fact, NARJ members must attend a training seminar a pass a final exam to qualif as a NARI-certified green builder.

• Get a copy of Green Spec, If you live in a remote community, you may have difficulty finding a green building remodeler. However, this book details specifications for building green, like using only certified wood, using solar energy, or recycling at least o to 8o percent of construction waste. Include in the contract that renovation plans will adhere to these specifications.

Now you know where to begin — but, before you sign that remodeling contract, learn the difference between a good remodeler and the telltale signs of a bad remodeler!

Good Remodelers and Contractors vs. Bad ones:



After calling the Better Business Bureau and your local consumer affairs office to check the company for consumer complaints, you determine the remodelers are honest advertisers and sellers with few complaints. If your favorite remodeler has a complaint, it was addressed quickly and to the clients satisfaction — a sign of professionalism.

Complaints recorded by the Better Business Bureau and local consumer affairs office. Keep in mind unreasonable homeowners also exist, so if your favorite candidate has a complaint, ask for information about its resolution.

Committed to fulfilling your desires.

Does not seem to prioritize your concerns.

The homeowners he or she has worked for in the past testify this remodeler provided excellent value and delivered high quality work.

Past homeowners fail to praise the remodeler’s craftsmanship.

Provides a contract price you can afford. Remodeling team making an effort to keep prices down by “engineering” certain features in your home in a cost-effective way.

Does not provide price checks and value engineering to help you stay within your preliminary design budget. This suggests a remodeler may not be interested in keeping you within budget.

Provides peace of mind and security.

Makes you stressed.

Progress on design.

Lack of progress on design.

Design-revisions contain the exact changes you asked for, and the revisions come back to you within a time frame the remodeler agrees to.

Shows general inattentiveness and lack of attention to detail.

Communication clear and easy, like when you’re talking with a good friend.

Difficult or uncomfortable discussions. Dismissive.

Contractor comments, “This is your house, we do it the way you say.”

Contractor comments, “Lady, I’ve been building 25 years, don’t tell me how to build.”

When you ask if he is a green builder, contractor replies, “Why yes! If it’s not VOC-free, it was not meant to be!”

When you ask if he is a green builder, contractor replies, “What do you mean by that?”

Returns your first or second calls.

Does not return your second call. They might just be too popular, but imagine how stressful that could be after work on your house begins.

Shows up promptly at your first meeting.

Fails to show up to your first meeting and does not call to reschedule.

A well-organized work site with workers moving like they know what they are doing.

A messy and chaotic work site.

A licensed, bonded, or registered business, when law requires it.*

An unlawful business.

Proof of insurance. The remodeler supplies you with a certificate of insurance indicating the company has sufficient general liability and workers’ compensation insurance. The remodeler also has coverage against theft of any materials delivered to the jobsite but not yet installed.

No insurance.

A business address to confirm their performance. It could be an office, or, as often is the case, a home office.

Works out of the back of a truck.

Does not mind you asking for a credit report, that you can obtain easily from your local banker.

Does not want to give you their name, address, and social security number to secure a credit report.

After contacting a list of suppliers and trade contractors the remodeler has worked with, you determine he or she manages business responsibly, pays trade contractors and suppliers on time, and that the business has a good reputation in the building community.

Poor reputation in the community increasing the risk that you might get a construction lien placed on your property by an unpaid trade contractor or supplier.

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