Inspiring Success in Architecture for Small Firms and Sole Proprietor Architects

Construction Administration is NOT an Option

small__4605284988One of the most popular topics over at the Entrepreneur Architect Linkedin Group (almost 2,000 members strong) is the role of the architect during the construction phase. I am often surprised by the number of firms providing architectural design services and forfeiting the final phase of the process, Construction Administration.

Here is a recent comment from the group;

“I need to get better at selling my clients on construction administration. Most think they do not need it and refuse it when offered. I had a recent client back out on (the service) because my drawings were essentially too well done. Once they saw the final drawings, they decided the contractor could handle it without my involvement.”

This is a common problem; architects offering Construction Administration and their clients opting out.

During the past few years, we’ve begun to discuss, as a profession, “taking back” the process, regaining control of our projects and working to be viewed, once again, as the leaders of the construction industry. To make this happen, we must literally take control of our projects and lead the process from beginning to end.

Construction Administration is NOT an option, to be offered as an additional service. It is an integral part of the architectural process.

Imagine a surgeon diagnosing her patient, preparing for surgery, making the first incision, then handing the actual procedure off to the anesthesiologist. Imagine an attorney researching the case, spending six months preparing her prosecution, selecting a jury, presenting to the court, then heading back to the office to prepare for the next case on the day before final arguments.

It is no different for an architect. We spend months preparing a design, working our way through three levels of increasingly detailed development and documenting exactly how a structure is to be constructed. We are responsible for the health, safety and welfare of the users of our creations and are legally liable for what is ultimately built. It is our responsibility, as licensed professionals, to observe the construction of our designs and ensure that they are built as documented.

At Fivecat Studio, we provide Construction Administration on every project. It matters not if the project is a storage shed or a whole house renovation; we work for the client from the beginning to the very end.

Here’s how we do it:

We present Fivecat Studio as a “full service” architecture firm; from helping them organize their initial ideas for the project, all the way through to the end of construction. Most clients have no idea how our process actually works and if we offer Construction Administration as an “option”, they will most certainly view it as such.

We propose one fee (flat or %) and include Construction Administration as part of that fee. Some clients ask me if we will work without Construction Administration. I tell them, for us, that is not an option. I explain the benefits they will receive from having us involved and describe the services we provide;

1) We lead a weekly project meeting and review the progress of construction.

2) We confirm that the contractor is executing the project as per the design and specifications. I tell the client that we want to confirm that the contractor is building her project as per our construction documents, “which she paid all that money for us to prepare”.

3) We are available to quickly resolve unexpected issues and unforeseen conditions, so construction progress is not delayed.

4) We review the contractor’s payments, so we have more leverage during construction. This leverage allows us to protect the client’s interest and confirm that they are only paying for what is appropriate at that stage of the project.

5) We review shop drawings and submittals. Again, to confirm that the client is getting what she is paying for.

6) We assist with preparing and confirming the completion of the punchlist and that the Certificate of Occupancy is issued.

7) We are legally responsible for their health, safety and welfare and must confirm that all building and environmental codes are being observed, and

8) As licensed professionals, it is our firm’s policy to be involved in the the construction of every project, for among the many reasons described above and to protect our firm’s legal exposure in terms of liability.

On projects where we waived the Construction Administration Phase (in the early days of Fivecat and before we knew better), we lost our ability to resolve issues quickly. Small issues became large problems and when the architect is not involved, guess who gets the blame… the architect. That only happened once or twice before we felt the burn and learned that we needed to be involved through to the end of every project.

From a business point of view, we are ultimately working for our clients’ complete satisfaction. If we are absent during construction, it is extremely difficult to manage expectations, to quickly resolve conflicts and keep our clients happy. It is their experience during construction that clients will remember most when others ask for their referral.

We must be involved. The success of our firm depends on it.

At Fivecat Studio, we have an excellent reputation for designing beautiful buildings, but because we hold our clients’ hands throughout the entire process, people also talk about our support, care and personal touch during construction. It sets us apart from the other firms where clients fend for themselves at this most critical point of the process. When a client fully understands that our role during construction is to protect them and keep them comfortable during construction, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Construction Administration is NOT an option. It is part of the full service we should all be providing. If we choose not to… our work will suffer, our clients will suffer and in the end, our firms will suffer.

Please share your thoughts on Construction Administration by leaving a comment below. As professionals, is it our responsibility to provide Construction Administration services… whether our clients want it or not?

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photo credit: jp1958 via photopin cc

Comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I am really starting to rethink the services i provide and my responsibility to the client, to the project, to the profession, and to my firm. I have always thought of the CA phase as the least important, so thank you for helping me to rethink this.

  2. Rowland Whittet says:

    I agree that Contract administration is absolutely necessary but in practice it can be compared to getting a bill through Congress. Too often you can be dead dead right, but just as dead right as if you were dead dead wrong. When you have to correct a contractors performance too often at the expense of delaying the completion while he rips out the non conforming work that makes you look bad. The owner want’s to know why did you ever choose this guy?

    Building material salesmen and unions play the role of lobbyists and with continuing education luncheons, catalog updates, samples, and downloadable cad details attempt to influence the Contractor, Owner and Architect. In some cases substantial roadblocks arise from bad advice about what you can and can’t do causing the wrong choices very early in the program. You may have chosen your contractor based on your lobbyists recommendations only to find that this job is one where they have been promoted to their level of incompetence and the window salesman spoke well of them because they promised to recommend his product in return.

    Imagine the Contractor in the role of the Senate, somewhat knowledgeable about procedures in the same way the Senate is knowledgeable about Parliamentary procedures but glacially slow. Conceive of the subcontractors as the herd of cats we call out as the House, coming up with ever more disappointing performance as regards doing what is right and proper and incapable of doing anything on time and on budget without throwing in a lot of expensive substitutions that aren’t what you wanted and cost more.

    Think about the contract administration when you are writing the spec the contractors will be trying to shred. Subsurface conditions are often treated as an unknown and carried as an add alternate with the bid price on which the evaluation is made separate from the unit price. I have seen jobs where what lay under the ground were boulders the size of houses, and the proximity to natural gas pipelines, highways, utility easements or other buildings or the disruption of service in places like airport terminals, subways or hospitals made blasting impossible.

    I have also seen what’s under the ground look like soil but change to soup if it gets wet. Getting the site properly investigated is where the contract administration that takes place months or years later will succeed or fail when the contract administrator is trying to work with the city to negotiate all the cubic yards of soil that need to be removed to repair the crumbling brick under the new city hall stairs with a unit cost of $1000/cu yard for removal .

    Taken together the Congress of the contractor and subcontractors is responsible to execute the work. Their cost estimators and bidders will read your spec as well as your drawings very carefully. Whats on the drawings had better be in the spec. If there is any possible confusion about who furnishes and who installs and when those subs who would like to just do their job are held up by those who don’t show up, fail to perform, and are trying to make a dollar after being ground down to nothing so the contractor can keep his bid lower than the competition

    Contractors might break even according to their bids which are generally competitive, but after they have been awarded the bid there is an effort to change the rules. They begin with requests for information (RFI’s) that attempt to find places where the specifications and drawings don’t agree, or where there is a question about a specified material that is unavailable, a specified procedure that is unworkable, or can be done differently more cheaply. This is sometimes called value engineering. It results in requests for specification clarifications, proposal requests, change orders, items that don’t get picked up in the contractors shop drawing review, or get picked up but are submitted
    as equals. Gradually your drawings and specs get reduced in the weekly job meetings to the solution on the back of your engineers envelope.

    The Architect acts as the President, responsible to decide whether the performance has been as designed and what is making the owners change their minds about what they want so often. Weekly meetings, site visits after the meeting,
    and paperwork in the office to include shop drawing review, sketches, review of RFI’s, specification clarifications, proposal requests, change orders and resultant schedule changes can be handled by clerks of the works along with the requisitions. The Architects approval of change orders and requisitions is a lot like the Presidents approval of Executive Orders and the thought of the next negotiation being influenced by the decision is ever present.

    Whether or not the Contractor, Owner and Architect are happy may depend of whether the Building Inspector, Engineers, Code Officers, various government agencies operating at the State and Federal level; collectively all the authorities having jurisdiction are happy. They are the equivalent of the Supreme Court. Codes and regulations trump everything else in contract administration and while you may think you already know everything you need to know about them you probably don’t.

    Every time Contractors suggest a change in order to save the owner money there will be revisions to the drawings, addenda which cost the architect a fortune. After the contract is awarded the proposal requests will continue; in some cases the local authorities or building inspector will throw a monkey wrench in the works, and it may be just because in the bidding process you or the contractor didn’t choose the guy the authority preferred to have do the work, or it may be because there is a utility easement where you need to make grading changes, or a local bylaw you didn’t know about. If you are doing religious facilities in Boston you may need to know that you require a separate septic system for emptying the holy water in the baptismal.

    We the People are the owners tasked with paying. We watch the costs go up and the time to see anything useful done drag on and we routinely freak out about it. Sometimes there is a very slippery slope. As an example in the core, the amount of space allowed for chases abutting stairways and elevators and the size of columns, sprinkler pipes, HVAC ducts, plumbing utilities and electrical conduits may look great on paper but not allow enough space for human beings to get in there and work after the previous trade has been there. The insulation, flashing, caulking, vapor resistant barriers, fireproofing, and fasteners eat up the inches.

    Sooner or later someone will put in a sprinkler pipe in that intrudes 1″ into your code requirements for egress. The contract administrator may have to override the contractor, the owner, the Fire Marshall and the building inspector who are all willing to let it go to save the time and incidentally the cost of replacing it because if somebody dies as a result of the egress narrowing the architect will be liable. You can’t take that liability, your insurance company won’t let you.

  3. I’m an emerging professional and have to look outside my current employer to find examples of good business practices. I’ve been hearing a lot about how clients don’t want to pay for CA and even though it’s simple, I didn’t even think about saying it wasn’t an option. (My current employer makes it an option) Either they hire you as a full-service firm or they don’t. I think that’s a much better way to go. Many clients (commercial or residential) don’t have the experience of building multiple projects and will not usually understand the thousands of things that might go wrong that we may have been able to avoid. I’m glad I read today’s post and appreicate you writing it!

  4. Edward Shannon says:

    The firm I work for does a lot of work for builder clients. CA is not even on their radar! They want a good, thorough, but cheap set of drawings delivered in a timely manner. If we don’t provide that for them, there are plenty of other architects who will.

    • There are clearly some projects that may not be appropriate for CA services, but we do have a choice as to with whom we contract. If we choose to work for developers or builders directly, we proceed without CA knowing that there is inherent risk in doing so.

  5. Kyle McAdams, AIA says:

    Great post Mark. I agree completely.

    Something else to consider is that clients are looking for an expert guide in this very complex process (that they typically do not understand). To provide value, we must provide “project leadership”, not merely “design services”.

    In our repositioning research here at AIA National, surveys and dialogues with the public (clients and potential clients) we find the greatest value an Architect provides is not the design, but rather “the ability to lead the project team in making the client’s vision a reality”. When we position Construction Administration as optional, we are undermining our perceived value. To an average, non-experienced client, the construction phase IS the project, and if the Architect does not engage in that phase, we essentially leave the question in the client’s mind, “What good is an architect?” We essentially leave the Contractor in the position of the “leader of the project” and the “creator of value” in the client’s mind.

    • Kyle, I think you have hit the nail on the head here with the perception of value.

      Mark, I do agree with this point. It then also becomes a clear point of difference from other building design services that simply does not offer this service. However there is a big leap when communicating this value of your service now as it seam about 3-4 time the cost of the cheapest services out there (of cause not offering CA)

      • Kyle McAdams, AIA says:

        David, therein lies our challenge…how we as marketers can frame this “value-added” expertise as one component of a much larger expense. I think it is really about financial structure. If we can develop financial products that include our fees in the larger loan somehow, our expense becomes a drop in the bucket. YOu don’t hear complaints about Contractor fees because they are buried in a monthly payment. This is one of my “holy grail” wishes that I will continue to seek financial partners for…but it ain’t easy! Before i came to AIA Marketing, I did it for Capital One, and developing new financial products takes tons of devoted data and resources (human and otherwise) that we at the AIA are not built for presently…but I’ll contiinue to lobby.

        • Kyle, I hear you on this. This topic comes up on many of the LinkedIn groups, especially the ones centered around residential design. I would argue that the other thing banks need to take into consideration (if there’s data out there, that is) is the increased value of an architect-designed home. I’m working on a new rowhouse in my neighborhood in Philadelphia, but the banks are only willing to offer my clients money based on comps. This is an up-and-coming neighborhood generally filled with run-down 80-year-old houses, so you can imagine how hard it is to build new for those dollars.

  6. Kyle: Excellent point; “Project Leadership” vs. “Design Services”.

  7. This is a great discussion. Thanks for the post Mark!

    We approach every project with the goal of “leading the process.” Sometimes this means assembling an entire team from real estate professional, to lender, to architects and engineers, to construction professionals. Sometimes this means that we’re ‘just’ designing the project. Sometimes this means that we’re going beyond construction administration to acting as the construction manager.

    The basis of our goal is that our clients have made an investment in great design. They’re paying what some would say is a lot of money to hire an architect to design their project. In many cases, they don’t technically need us. They could hire a homebuilder or buy a plan out of a planbook. In many cases they could hire an engineer. They could even go the route of having someone “draw up” their plans and then finding someone to stamp those plans. By hiring us, they are making an investment. We see it as our job to protect our clients’ investment.

    We don’t feel that we’re responsibly serving our client, protecting that investment, if we walk away after the CD phase and wash our hands of a project.

  8. I always include CA in my contracts; it’s not broken out as a line item, or offered as an “additional” service. I do what Mark does–just include it in the scope, and price the whole job as a flat fee or percentage. I actually use the CA part of the project as one of the major selling points during initial client meetings. I have the advantage of being in Philadelphia where contractors, as a profession, have a bad reputation. I let clients know that I’ll be with them from beginning to end, to act as their advocate during construction. Many homeowners are intimidated by contractors, and like the idea of having someone looking out for them, who will be willing to bring things up and get yelled at so they don’t have to.

    I often tell people the story my father tells about when they built their home in the early 1980′s. The architect asked my father if he wanted him to do CA. He asked the guy how much it would cost, and he said $2k. My father said ok, why not. Later, when the masons were laying stone on the exterior of the garage, my father went out and saw it. It looked different than the way he remembered it was supposed to (they were laying the stone vertically, rather than flat, in order to use less stone and get done faster). He called the contractor, who told him it would cost $2,500 more to do it the way he wanted. Next, he called the architect, who said yes, you’re right, that’s not what they’re supposed to do. My father asked if he should send the mason a check, and the architect said “it’s not your problem, I’ll take care of it”. And with that, CA was paid for.

  9. Ian, that is a good story. I’m going to tell that one to my clients.

    Also, although I have worked for other firms where we positioned ourselves as the “leader of the project” when I went out on my own to do residential work, it seemed simpler, as a sole practitioner, to just focus on design and let the contractor do the building. After a couple years of business I’m seeing that I’m only just shooting myself in the foot and limiting the kinds of projects and clients I’m able to get. Liability is one aspect of the importance of CA, and a really key one at that, but really I’m seeing CA as a way to insure a happy client and a great product. I’m turning around on this issue.

    • That’s what I love most about this site. I love that we can share, interact and become better architects. This profession will be strengthened one architect at a time. We are sitting upon the edge of a revolution in architecture. It’s a very exciting time Jill. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Carl Maletic, Architec says:

    Excellent!
    There was the time I was lax one a steep slope project in earthquake country. The contractor was going to leave out the steel tube knee braces from the columns on piles to the glu-lam floor beams; citing they were too costly. After on-site inspection, I insisted to the owner that the braces be placed.

    One month after installation, a 5.4 earthquake epi-center hit directly below the structure. The contractor was on the roof at the time . . . and found a new reason to pray. But, had I not had construction administration this small $140,000 accessory guest house would have ended up hundreds of feet lower in the steep valley.

  11. Mark: I completely agree as well. And I’ve learned a lot from the discussions – thanks for the post!

  12. Great discussion. But I think there is another very important aspect of CA that has not been mentioned: Professional Development. Seeing first hand what happens with our construction drawings in the field is an amazing education. As architects, we create an instruction manual for making a building, but how do we know these instructions will be followed if we don’t show up to check? When I’m on site, I constantly ask the question of subs and contractors : What do the drawings indicate? I am surprised at how often I hear them say they don’t know, or they aren’t aware of any drawings. After a while they start asking me tougher questions- things that can’t be found in the drawings. I always make a special point to thank them for those tough questions. Then I tell them I have to do my homework and get back to them. They seem to appreciate the deliberate response, and I usually learn something new. The next time I do a set of CD’s, I make sure to cover those issues in a way that will work out smoothly in the field. This trial-and-error process ultimately makes me better at my job of producing instructions. Doing CA and learning first hand in the field makes me a better architect.

    • That is an excellent point Marcus. I agree. Every time I step on to a job site, I have the opportunity to learn and improve on the next project.

  13. It is good to read these responses, I agree with the arguements for requiring CA as part of the services. One way I have been able to pose the reasoning to a client is that, unlike everything you can buy in a store, architecture is most often constructing a prototype (and not a commodity). It is not something that has been perfected and simply built to order by a machiner, rather it needs tweaking as it is being bulit, because it is still a prototype. This arguement works well for computer software engineers as with many other professionals.

    • Kyle McAdams, AIA says:

      Marcus, such a great insight.

      Although I only do marketing now, back in the day when I was practicing, the greatest learning experience I had as a designer was working in a small firm, for an architect who was a practicing contractor and carpenter before he went to Architecture School. We had to defend the viability of constructing every detail in a construction drawing set to him step by step before he would allow us to include it in design. I frankly think design becomes better, both aesthetically and functionally, when you design as if you are constructing.

      If either of my sons wants to become an architect, I will make a strong plea that they work construction first, then go get an architeture degree.

  14. Someone asked (maybe in the LinkedIn comment on this topic) about the AIA’s position on CA. What about the Practice Acts of the various States? For example, in Georgia, if we’re not providing CA, we must notify the local building officials of this fact in writing or place a note on our construction documents, but there is no specific mandate that we provide these services on a given project. I understand that some state laws mandate various services. What is the law in your state for providing Contract Administration during the Construction Phase?

    • In New York there is no requirement for architects to provide CA services. Although, in many local municipalities, we are beginning to see a requirement for architects to sign-off on the final project, as well as the final cost of the project. There are no specific requirements for an architect to observe the construction, but indirectly by requiring sign-off, architects are being required to observe the construction.

  15. consider as well that in some states/jurisdictions it is in fact legally REQUIRED that the architect observe construction. here in hawaii for example: http://hawaii.gov/dcca/pvl/boards/engineer/application_publications/pvl_pamphlet2.pdf

  16. @Paul – I’m moving to Hawaii. @Mark – I like the part about reminding the client about all the money they spent to get the drawings done. A good way to turn the conversation back to one of “value provided” not “cost or price”.

  17. Gary Nicholson says:

    We have a lot of clients that are non-profits operating on a limited budget, so they are looking for every possible savings on their project. Inevitably the topic of CA comes up and we explain that it is not an option, for various reasons discussed elsewhere in this stream. In the most limited budgets we have offered as a savings to do what we term “limited CA”. In these cases we reduce the fee slightly (up to 10% of fee) by reducing the number of site visits during construction. By limiting the visits, we reduce our expenses but still maintain our role in the project as we review shop drawings, requests for payment, etc. If the number of visits is exhausted and an issues emerges that requires our presence, we do the visit as an additional service. At least this way we are in the loop so we aware when issues arise that require our attention without holding unnecessary meetings and the expense associated with them.

    We still do full CA on a majority of projects, but this has proved to be a valuable offering to have in our quiver of services for certain trusted clients. Not doing CA at all is never an option.

  18. Great article. I have worked on the CM side for about 20 years and know how important CA is via the CM/GC environment. The coordination between the CM/GC and Architectural/Engineering firm is crucial in many different aspects of the Construction Coordination of a project. We all play a significant role in completing the puzzle. Now, I work for an Architectural/Engineering firm and find myself deeply expressing my views on how important Construction Administration services are. I have been asked to start an educational program on this topic and was wondering if anyone has any recommendations on entities to reach out to that might be interested in providing some in house informational session on CA (I am in Connecticut). Thanks for your feedback.

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