Can’t let your idea for an aquarium center island go, even though your architect’s told you it would take six months and six figures to fabricate? Are your frugal tendencies keeping you in front of your computer sourcing house parts for beyond super-cheap? Oregon Home asked two architects and two designers for a blueprint for better homeowner-design pro relations.
[1. YIELD TO YOUR ARCHITECT’S PROFESSIONAL OPINION WHEN SHE TELLS YOU THAT YOUR OVER-THE-TOP DESIGN IDEA WILL BE THE BIGGEST TIME AND MONEY SUCK OF THE CENTURY.]
Got a fantastic idea for a saltwater aquarium center island to give a shout-out to your Florida roots? Well, you may have been waiting since you were building houses with blocks as a child to build the house of your dreams, but, unfortunately, most of our wallets can’t accommodate everything we want in our houses. “I try to talk with my clients about their budget right away,” says architect Kristina Clark of Kristina Clark AIA in Portland. “I try to give them what I think is a realistic budget, which, for something that doesn’t include super-high-end finishes, is about $200 a square foot. We start out talking in those ranges and, as we go along, my clients can make decisions about design upgrades and what they’d cost. You really should be up front with your architect about your budget. It’s disappointing for everybody to get to the construction documents and have the clients realize that what they want costs too much.”
[2. REMEMBER THAT GETTING TO GOOD DESIGN IS A PROCESS, RATHER THAN A PRODUCT.]
Even before your design drawings are done, in your mind’s eye, you’re probably already standing on the deck of your new home with a stunning view of Mt. Hood. What you’re likely not thinking of is what it’ll take to get to that point. To get along with your design team, you need to understand how you get from empty lot to fantabulous end result. “What I like to see at the beginning of a project is a potential client who is interested in the process or at least understands that there is a process,” says Alex Zimmer, a senior interior designer at LRS Architects in Portland. “People sometimes think a renovation or an addition or a new home is a product, as if they could say, ‘I’ll take that one.’ In fact, the process is lengthy and can be painful. Intelligence, interest in the process and an eagerness to learn are all important qualities for a client to have.”
[3. BE OPEN TO YOUR ARCHITECT’S SUGGESTIONS.]
An architect often will come up with an innovative way you hadn’t even thought of to solve your design problem. “Someone might call me about an over-the-garage master bedroom remodel, but they don’t know what to do about the rooflines,” says Clark. “If the client can step back and allow me to look at the whole project and assess their long-term needs, I may discover that they don’t actually need that room or that over the garage isn’t the best place for it. Maybe what they need to do is rearrange the spaces they have. An architect’s expertise is really looking at the big picture and the master planning of the project, even if it’s just for a single- room addition. It all needs to tie in to the overall plan of the house and how it functions for the family living in it.”
[4. AFTER YOU’VE VERIFIED AN ARCHITECT’S DESIGN AND TECHNICAL EXPERTISE AND VERIFIED THAT HE OR SHE HAS THE APPROPRIATE BUSINESS EXPERIENCE, HIRE AN ARCHITECT WHO YOU UNDERSTAND AND WHO UNDERSTANDS YOU.]
Since a construction project can last several months, you need to feel comfortable calling your architect when problems occur or when you decide you want changes made to the project. “The connection is incredibly important because you’re building a relationship and during a period of time, you need to be able to communicate very, very well,” says Sean Cho of Bolighus, an architectural design studio in Portland. “If you don’t have a connection, then it doesn’t matter how talented the design group is.”
Cho believes that one of the most critical skills to pay attention to as you select a design group is their ability to listen and discern information. “If the design group runs over you to do their own thing, then it’s like a patronage instead of a relationship,” he says. “The biggest thing is the establishment of trust coupled with being able to work through a process together. Home construction is often one of the biggest projects most people will do, and it’s critically important that you feel like you’re engaged in the process.”
[5. E-MAIL IS A GOOD WAY TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR ARCHITECT FOR DAY-TO-DAY ISSUES, BUT IF YOU HAVE A MISUNDERSTANDING OR YOU NEED TO DISCUSS BIG ISSUES, MEET IN PERSON.]
E-mail can be a great way to keep track of all the information passing through the members of your design team. “It’s not convenient for everybody to have to fax things around,” says Zimmer. “Communicating by e-mail is ideal for scheduling meetings or for doing meeting notes and sending them out to make sure everybody’s on the same page. Proposals can also circulate through e-mail so that you have a record of it.”
But design professionals say to drop your mouse and pick up your phone when something goes wrong such as your flooring contractor lays oak instead of fir. When SNAFUS happen, a meeting is the best way to resolve the issue so you can move on.
“The first thing to do is to get face to face with each other,” says Cho. “That’s old-school thinking, but I still think the best way to communicate when something has happened is face each other and talk about it. So much of what goes on is nonverbal and meeting that way makes it easier to resolve the problem.”
[6. UNDERSTAND ALL THE COSTS THAT SHOULD BE IN A BUDGET.]
Very often, when you first think of how much you want to spend on a custom home or a remodel, you often forget to budget for all the costs. After all the costs are presented, you may either need to scale down the project or be willing to spend a larger sum of money. “If your total budget is $100,000, you’ve got to realize that you aren’t going to get $100,000 worth of construction,” says Zimmer. “On that amount, a minimum sort of architectural fee for complete drawings would probably be about 15 percent of the cost, so you’re already at $115,000 with the soft costs. And that doesn’t include any engineering that might need to be done. If your total budget is truly $100,000, what you’ll really get is $60,000 to $70,000 worth of construction.”
However, that doesn’t mean you have to abandon your project. “You can do a masterplan and break out the project into parts and phases,” says Zimmer. “You decide what the most important part is, start with that work with an amount of money you can afford, and then shut down the project until you can afford to start again.”
[7. KNOW THAT MOST ARCHITECTS DO AS MUCH CLIENT SCREENING AS HOMEOWNERS DO ARCHITECT SHOPPING.]
While you’re out there interviewing prospective architects and designers, and interviewing their former clients, your potential architect is thinking about whether or not you’re a good candidate to become his or her work partner for the next few months.
“I look for clients who are really clear about what they want and clear about their needs, yet they seem as if they’d give me leeway as far as how I’d solve their design problems,” says Clark. “Those are the people who have the time and are willing to put the effort into a custom residential project, which requires a lot of time and effort. A good sense of humor always helps.”
So what makes for a Client From Hell? “The negative situations often occur when clients have unrealistic expectations,” says Clark. “For example, if they own a site that will be difficult to build on or they want a house that won’t fit their site or they don’t allow enough of a budget and are unclear about what they want done.”
[8. BE CLEAR WITH YOUR ARCHITECT ABOUT HOW YOU INTEND TO USE A NEW SPACE.]
To get the best possible design, let your architect know what you want and what you plan to do in a space. It’s not enough to tell your architect that you’d like a mountain cabin: The architect needs to know if you plan to use it for a cozy getaway or for weekend-long house parties. “I think what’s important is to understand how you plan on using the house,” says architect Paul McKean of Paul McKean Architecture in Portland. “Do you socialize? Is it going to be a place for families to meet at the beach? Most times people have specific ideas about how they want the project to be and the architect needs to know what those uses are.”
If you can, think about how you’ll use the space over time and make the design fit those needs as well. “Even if it’s only a one-time remodel of a kitchen, think long- term,” says Clark. “Family dynamics are always changing. Do you have little kids or are you about to become an empty-nester who could get away with less space?”
[9. DON’T COME DOWN WITH THE DISEASE THAT SOME ARCHITECTS DUB “PARALYSIS BY OVER-ANALYSIS.”]
Are you the kind of person who has to paint 20 swatches of baby blues on your wall to get to the perfect hue? Are you shopping the lighting showrooms on a weekly basis because you can’t commit to one of three chandeliers you adore?
Renovating an old home or building a new one requires that you make a myriad of large and small decisions, which can sometimes seem overwhelming. After all, you don’t want to choose a fixture or finish you end up hating and then have to look at every day for the next 25 years! However, you need to make those decisions in as timely a manner as possible so that your project can move forward.
“I try to be as objective as possible with my clients,” says McKean. “If they can’t decide whether they want wood floors or concrete floors, that’s a real problem because that affects stair design and the drawings. So what I do is try to let them know what each of those indecisions is costing the project and apply a dollar amount to that. If the contractor has to wait two weeks for decisions, there are often cost escalations.”
[10. VISUALLY CONVEY YOUR DESIGN IDEAS TO YOUR ARCHITECT.]
No matter how articulate you are, the best way to explain what you want the final of design of something to look like is to provide your architect with images. “If you’ve done any kind of drawing at all, you should give it to me,” says Clark. “Pictures of rooms with notes about what you like about it are very helpful. Architects are very visual, and I can gain a lot insight into what you want from seeing pictures and photos that speak to you.”
Even if it seems as if you and your design team are in sync about what you want for furniture and finishes, showing visual images will ensure that you get what you want—not an interpretation of what they think you want. “The best way to communicate with your designer is to show him or her what’s in your head,” says Zimmer. “You can say that you want a blue sofa that looks like Jean Michel Frank designed it, and I can give you that, but we’ll still be looking at two different sofas. You need to say, ‘This is what’s in my head.’”
[11. UNLESS YOUR BUSINESS CARD INCLUDES THE TITLE ARCHITECT OR DESIGNER, DON’T MORPH INTO MS. “I CAN SOURCE ANY HOUSE PART ON THE WEB FOR CHEAP!”]
Want to drive your architect crazy? Try to save money by sourcing products yourself and then expect your architect to deal with any problems your purchases bring about. While it can be fun to discover the perfect faucet for your kitchen, make sure you know exactly what you need to purchase to make sure your project proceeds smoothly.
“I get a lot of e-mail from clients who ask about products—and I really think it’s great that they’re willing to do the research—but it can be a delicate situation,” says McKean. “For example, if they order a plumbing fixture, they may order the toilet but they may not know that they have to order the flange as well. So all of a sudden the contractor doesn’t have what he needs, and there’s a delay. I can’t oversee clients ordering material, so things definitely need to be coordinated.”
[12. FIND YOUR ARCHITECT THROUGH A COMBINATION OF REFERRALS AND RESEARCH.]
Find your architect through a combination of referrals and research. As with most things, the best way to find a professional that meets your needs is to start by asking family and friends for names. “Typically, how most people find us is probably primarily through referral or word-of-mouth, but we also receive a tremendous amount of traffic through our website,” says Cho. “If you’ve already picked your contractors, ask them for referrals because, ultimately, it’s about a team structure.”
Once you’ve picked some possible architects, make sure they do the type of work you’re interested in. “You should also check websites,” says Zimmer. “The value of a website is that, if you have a specific style you know you want to work in, you’ll be able to tell from project photos whether or not a firm is one you’d be interested in approaching about your project.”
[13. FIND OUT WHAT YOUR ARCHITECT’S STRENGTHS AND SKILLS ARE AND TAP INTO THEM.]
One of the reasons you hired an architect in the first place was to take advantage of his or her skill and experience, so make sure you do. “During the construction process, I think it’s important to have a very strong ‘construction administration,’ which is the oversight of the actual construction where the design group is working as your agent to help make decisions that have design, constructability and longevity impacts,” says Cho. “Sometimes, a contractor will go to a client and say, ‘We want to do this kind of detail on the window.’ How is the client going to make a discerning decision on that if they have no idea what they’re answering to? Most homeowners have never dealt with some of the issues that could have strong impacts on the final result, and that’s where a lot of challenges occur. That’s one of the reasons you hire an architect: You’re relying on that expertise to help you make important design decisions.”
[14. IF YOU’RE HALF OF A COUPLE, PRESENT A UNITED FRONT TO YOUR ARCHITECT AND BE WILLING TO WORK OUT DESIGN DISAGREMENTS THAT MAY OCCUR BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR PARTNER OR SPOUSE AS THE PROCESS GOES ON.]
If you and your spouse—or partner—are planning a remodel, make sure you agree on the basic parameters of what you want and what you can afford before you have that first meeting with the architect. “A common problem when a couple is involved is that they often don’t know how different their programs are until they try to put the project together,” says Zimmer. “I encourage couples to sit down together before they even talk to an architect and agree on what it is they want. Present a united front in terms of your program—and your budget. It can change, of course, but you need to come into the room in agreement with each other and say, ‘This is what we think we want to do and this is the amount of money we think we want to spend on the project.’”
As you get into the design process, you may discover that the two of you have to solve unexpected design issues that crop up. “In custom residential work, you need to be ready to do a certain amount of handholding,” says Zimmer. “It’s just a very personally intense process. People will often find out what’s important to them during the process. Maybe the woman in the couple didn’t know she wanted the laundry in the kitchen until the man of the house said he didn’t want the laundry in the kitchen. It’s just an intense process, and there will be disagreements, so you need to be fair and not take sides. But the opinion of the person who’s in charge of the operation of the household—when there is such a person—should be weighted a little more heavily.”
[15. BELIEVE WHAT YOUR ARCHITECT IS TELLING YOU ABOUT COMPLETION DATES OFTEN COMING AND GOING.]
Don’t plan a huge dinner party for the evening your remodel is scheduled to be complete. While there is always hope that projects will be completed on time, things can—and do—happen. Any change made to a decision or a missed decision date can push back project completion.
While there are no absolute guarantees, there are steps you can take to increase the odds that you’re enjoying your new space on the original completion date. “Careful documentation on the part of the homeowner and contractor can help with this during construction,” says Zimmer. “Set a timetable and as things change, communicate with each other about what changes are happening and how it may push back the project.”
[16. DON’T LEAVE BIG DECISIONS TO BE DECIDED WHEN YOUR CONTRACTOR IS IN FRONT OF YOU, TAPEMEASURE IN YOUR HAND.]
While some things can wait to be decided during construction, don’t leave the big ones hanging. Especially if finishing a project on time is important to you. “I try to have construction and permit drawings be the final design,” says McKean. “Often, if there are details outstanding, they’re usually things that don’t affect the schedule; it’s what the profile of the trim is or something that may happen later in the project. When I do need to push back a schedule, I’ve found that most people are understanding of how that affects schedules.”
[17. BRING IN OTHER PROS EARLY IN THE PROCESS AND OUTLINE THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES TO AVOID CONFUSION.]
Once you hire an architect, usually hiring a contractor and other craftspeople to work on your house is not far behind. “I really think it’s helpful to interview contractors after we have a design established,” says Clark. “While I’m working on construction documents, the clients can start interviewing contractors to find one they feel comfortable with. Then that contractor can be involved while I’m working on the construction drawings, and the contractor can come in and review them and make comments and suggestions and give the homeowner some choices. The handoff to the contractor is much easier because we’ve already worked as a team on developing the design, so there aren’t a lot of holes.”
Once you’ve hired all of the members of the design team, it’s important to delineate roles, set up communication channels and determine who’s in charge of what—and by when.
“The design group is really responsible for developing the tenor of the team and obviously that comes from the relationship with the client,” says Cho. “If there’s a good dynamic between the client and the design group, there will usually be a strong dynamic between client, design group and contractor. It’s important for the design group to identify the roles and spell out how information gets shared in a very dynamic construction environment. There’s a protocol you need to establish for how information gets transferred.”
[18. DON’T FORGET TO SAY THANK YOU TO THE DESIGN PROFESSIONALS WHO BIRTHED YOUR LIVING SPACES!]
Just as your mother always taught you, mind your manners and say thank you to the team that turned your dream home into a reality. While “after” photographs of the space for your designers to add to their portfolios and websites, and referrals to your friends and family members are always appreciated, one of the best ways to thank them is to let them see how you use the space. “A wonderful thing for us is to experience the space we helped design,” says Cho. “If we do a kitchen remodel, for example, invite us over to have dinner in it so we can see how that space really works—and how you enjoy it.”