The traditional relationship between architects and contractors has long been regarded by many as being adversarial in nature. Though both may no longer understand how or why this is so, it is an encumbrance on countless projects that inhibits the cooperation needed to build a healthy project. Some architects will be reluctant to back down from a standoffish attitude, which can make for a rough-ride. Frequent dissatisfactions with builders in their past have made them gun-shy. This was not always the case. Architects really didn’t become involved with home building until about the 1850’s. Owners and builders got along just fine without them. Some of the perceived shortcomings of these early architects are still sensed by today’s builders:
Architecture was not practiced as a business but was considered an art, and it was carried out by gentlemen, not by journeymen, and more often than not by skilled but untrained amateurs – dilettantes.
Even some of today’s trained architects; and especially interior designers, bear a striking resemblance to the nineteenth century dilettante.
Houses were built one at a time, and since the architect was not a contractor, he was not in a position to introduce substantive innovation to the building process.
There were not established precedents or standards for architects to follow: every project was one-off, and the builder was calling the shots, as he was the expert. Even with standards at architect’s disposal, contractors will always be at odds with architects who imply or detail means and methods to their designs’ i.e., tell the contractor how to do his job.
Unlike the cabinetmaker, who controlled all aspects of production, from building to marketing, the architect was primarily a draftsman who prepared drawings for work carried out by others.
This reductive view of an architect’s purpose they are since forever trying to live down: that they have no place in the building process, and are frequently met with resentment should they voice their opinion.
As a result he developed theoretical knowledge that was based not on construction, but on a study of history and historical precedents. In any case, architects were then, as they are now, interested more in the appearance of buildings than in their functioning. They were not prepared, by either training or inclination, to involve themselves in such mechanical matters as plumbing and heating
And still today, degree wielding architects seem to be taught little in the way of building practicum: which they regard as the stuff of engineering, of which few architects pay attention to. Nevertheless, they continue to detail engineering work for which they are seldom qualified or licensed to do. The tacit understanding of an architect is that in order to master his craft he should, in fact, be literate in building means and methods. Without such knowledge, there is a tendency for him to be perceived as the mid-nineteenth century artsy sideman.
Architects in the residential sector are a minority. Despite the growth of expenditures in the residential sector, only 5% of architectural firm revenue is from the design of single family residences, and only 11% of these billings were from private individuals, who largely comprise residential construction revenue. It is interesting that such a small group of architectural firms can generate such considerable consumer spending figures.
Having positive relationships with the project architect and architects in general is a critical requirement for the longevity of your company, for architects and designers are invariably the source of most of your work. Once a general contractor gets in an architect’s good graces, the architect will likely become very loyal to him, because dependable contractors are rare. The architect will offer him his best work, and negotiated contracts whenever possible. You should hope to build a repertoire of architects with whom you have established working relationships, for repeat work, and referrals. Not everyone subscribes to this dictum, and resultantly, architect/contractor relationships can be extremely strained, especially when there is no incentive to get along, which there often is not: self-interest being the inhibition. Because of a predisposition to adversity the majority of architect/contractor relationships result in divorce after the first project.
Generally, your first experience with an architect will be on a project that you were awarded by either referral, or as competitive bidder. Whatever the case, there will be a feeling out phase, and subsequently a relationship that will continue for at least the remainder of the project. For architects whom you would like to get repeat work from, you will make extra efforts to satisfy. For others, you may just want to make it through the project. Finally, there will be architects whom you may find no common ground with, such that you may want to terminate a contract. Your relationship with the architect on a project will tend to vacillate. In the beginning of a project, most architects seem reserved, or reluctant to be optimistic. An architect’s level of contentment is relative to how much he is getting his way; some of which is reasonable – build the project in a timely and workmanlike manner, and some unreasonable. Apart from that, they tend to be malcontent: ultimately dissatisfied and discontent with the industry as a whole. This is the chip which they carry on their shoulder. The formation of this distinction isn’t always under your control, but there are things you can do to influence either sentiment. It helps to understand your architect’s position in relation to you and the client before you begin to negotiate, or become familiar. Typically, the architect is the client’s agent, and in that capacity he might be conflicted in terms of behaving graciously toward someone who he is expected by the client to control, so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t appear too chummy in your early interactions with him, and especially in subsequent negotiating.
Care should be taken in your dealings with your architect, especially when the client is present, such as at job meetings as they often are. At such times, both contractor and architect, whether consciously or not, may engage in garnering the client’s favor, often at the expense of the other team member, so to gain negotiating advantage. For instance, it is common for an architect and contractor to argue over whether or not a change order is legitimate, with the expected outcome likely to leave one of the parties blameful of negligence. Such discussions can quickly become malevolent. The discussion may be necessary, but it need not take place before the client, unless it is mutually irresolvable: airing out dirty laundry, as it were. Unpleasant discussions should be undertaken with discretion. You should endeavor to have any change order approved by the project architect before it is presented to the client, because there are few architects who will approve a change order upon first sight. Otherwise, you run the risk of a possibly embarrassing negotiation process in front of the client. There will be revisions. If there is disagreement, it should be handled in private. Once a change order is negotiated, it can then be presented to the client by the architect. Only as a last resort should the client sit in judgment of the validity and accountability of a change order: this is not his bailiwick. Besides, more often than not, he will side with his architect who is programmed to represent his best interests, even if it means being wrong-headed.
In short, you want to be on as good terms as possible with the architect or designer; whether you like him or not, or whether or not you desire future work from him. Do what you can to keep him happy without compromising your own interests. Find out what his likes and dislikes are and use this information to your advantage. You will find many architects aren’t receptive, or simply aren’t interested in nurturing a relationship with you. This is typical, and no cause for alarm. A last word: one can’t underestimate the advantage of being well liked by the architect. This mere condition can set the stage for future interactions and negotiations to your benefit. A lot of it has to do with luck and chemistry, but it can’t hurt to try.
A close relative of the architect, but certainly not a replacement for him, is the interior designer. It is very common for an interior designer to detail a project, using an architect of record in order to make the job legal. This is often done so to keep the design budget to a minimum. Except for a few seasoned firms, these projects invariably betray the fact that the architect of record did not or will not:
a) Detail the architectural components of the work.
b) Detail the MEPs (often done without an engineer).
c) Monitor the construction of the work.
d) Manage quality control and code issues.
e) Administrate the contract in a general sense.
Nevertheless, they continue to prosper, and are a fact of life for the building industry. This arrangement is an area of concern for general contractors because:
§ Inferior design documents will translate to losses of time and money.
§ A non-licensed detailer can put the builder and owner at risk.
§ Interior designers who detail architectural component typically do not have an architect’s degree, license, or expertise, thus doing the industry, architects especially, a disservice.
Therefore; builders must take the necessary precautions when constructing projects with only an architect of record. If interior designers actually did involve the architect of record in the design and construction process, perhaps there would be less incidence of project failure. Because design fees are so competitive, the architect of record is summoned only as a last resort. Naturally, if clients didn’t skimp on design budgets, they would have an architect design the project, leaving the designer to his business of aesthetics.