The Process: How We Work Together on Your Home

Homeowners generally find me online or through former clients. Often there are several touch points: my name comes up in more than one referral, and then on Linked­In or someplace else we have people in common. Often, a family that is outgrowing an old house will respond to the relaxed modernism of my past projects. They may sense a fit. Design is as emotional as it is rational. If the initial feeling is strong, the more likely we’ll end up working together.

kitchen with natural light
Elegant stair with formal room

First call

Our first conversation will touch on schedule, budget, and program. Indeed, these subjects need to be addressed at every meeting. An architectural ‘program’ is a statement of project goals, often in the form of a list of functional requirements. I give a quick synopsis of the process, dollars per square foot, financing, resale value. I ask potential clients to list their needs, wants and dreams; this will evolve into a program. If the numbers don’t shock too badly, we’ll schedule a face-to-face meeting.

Pre-contract meeting

All stake-holders must be present at the first meeting. My contract is with the owners of the property, so anyone on the title should be there and be heard. Someone not on board in the first hour could upset plans down the road, and implementation will never happen unless all participate from the start. In this first meeting with the owners of the property, before a contract has been signed, we discuss again schedule, budget, and program. I encourage everyone to keep all their goals in their growing lists of needs, wants and dreams – even goals that seem to be in conflict. Conflicting goals may inspire a novel design. I discourage people from walking in with their own solutions.

I describe the processes of designing, permitting, engineering, bidding, and building. Then we brainstorm solutions. Quite often I’ll give them the big idea at this point, for free. It’s mind­ blowing. Re­-arranging uses and walls, connecting to the site, opening up to views and sun, envisioning what’s best for the house and for them.

The Magic of a First Impression

The design process in this first meeting can be magical. This is very much my calling, my vocation. I’ve been at it my whole life. There is something psychic about it…archetypal images come to my mind that then resonate with unspoken images the clients have had. I read the clients, the landscape, the geometry of the room layout, the proportions at work, the movement of the sun and wind… and after a lifetime of resolving this muddle I pull theses facets together in an instant. The first taste is free. Later we might revolutionize the scheme again and again, but the first time the impact is the most stunning.

Getting down to business

If the first meeting goes well, I submit an AIA Standard Owner-Architect Agreement. Clients sign the agreement and pay a deposit which is credited to the last invoice, and we can begin.

Sometimes years go by between our phone call and first meeting, or between the meeting and initiating the agreement. They hear the financial context, they step back and prepare, and they come back, initiate the agreement, and then we’re off and running.

bedroom with a view

Consensual Decisions

Sometimes couples carve out areas of complementary authority: he manages the money, she manages the aesthetics. This might continue to work on one level, but on a more practical level this needs to be dispelled. Not all decisions need everyone to be 100% on board…but architectural decisions of all kinds will affect the schedule, budget, construction, and artistic effect. When explaining the decision factors at each turning point I might make a special effort to frame choices in terms most relevant to each decision maker, but in fact all of the decisions have multiple facets and multiple impacts so everyone needs to be on board for all the critical decisions as they evolve.

There are said to be 30,000 decisions in the process of designing a house. They are very much organized in a tree structure. As the design moves from preliminary notions to the completion of construction there are many forks in structure, and vast areas of options are carefully selected, or discarded, along the way. I try to characterize outcomes down various limbs as they appear.

deep soaking tub

A Unique Program

Almost everyone is looking for an open plan living-­dining-­kitchen space immediately connected to a terrace or garden. Multi­-generational families and shared households very often involve several master bedroom suites. People have pets, home offices, sports, camping, music, yoga, arts, and crafts. These aspects of our lives need space.

In my particular niche I have learned that many people who excel in Silicon Valley technology have a kind of intelligence that finds social interaction somewhat stressful. Increasingly I find we’re designing for people who have a very real need for private retreat spaces within their homes so they can re­charge after connecting with family and the larger world. With globalization, mid­-career executives are often traveling inter­nationally every month. Packing and unpacking, coping with jet lag, and repairing their bodies after the wear and tear of travel become significant needs with spacial impacts.

Budget

Just now in San Francisco our projects run about $350 per square foot for construction costs, plus 20 percent for soft costs and 20 percent for contingencies, for a total around $500 per square foot. Renovation and new construction costs are basically the same.

Soft costs include consultant fees, including architecture, and city fees. Architectural fees tend to average about 15 percent of construction costs, and these fees are usually fairly equally distributed across the six phases. Likewise, construction costs are remarkably evenly distributed over the 10-­12 months of construction.

Financing can mean equity loans or construction loans. People generally start liquidating assets at the start of year one so their cash is on hand at the outset of construction.

Schedule

The five pre-construction phases of the work usually happen over the course of a year, driven almost entirely by the pace of the permit process. Construction then takes place over the following year, driven by the realities of coordinating subcontractors and suppliers.

luxurious tub

Project Phases

 

1 Predesign

We measure and photograph the existing house and its site from top ­to ­bottom, front ­to­ back. For the permit process we need to have four elevations (drawings of the house from the side), roof plan, foundation plan, site plan, full floor plans, and two sections (vertical drawings of the interior). On our first day we measure every aspect of the house and commit it by hand to graph paper, so we can spot any inconsistencies immediately. I generally bring several draftsmen to measure and photograph, so the whole architecture team is familiar with the building and we can support each other in the process as the work unfolds.

While the draftsmen are measuring and photographing, I’ll be sketching alternative scenarios for resolving issues we had discussed in the preliminary client meeting. The draftsmen often need a month or two to carve out time from existing projects and get the existing conditions drawings established in Autocad. During that time I’ll use a photocopy of the survey to use as the basis of hand-­drafted schemes. I’ll draw several fast and loose pencil on paper scenarios for how the house would be fit together.

Around this time I’ll also obtain microfilm records from the city for any past permits. I’ll look at zoning constraints and discuss the context with the planning department.

 

2 Schematic Design

Typically this phase involves generating and testing alternative scenarios for addressing the needs of the house, the context, and the clients. There are often small, medium, and large solutions so the client can see what they get at $0.5m, $1m, or $1.5m. We bill our time hourly so we have no attachment to the size of the project and can be equally enthralled with the architectural qualities of the small, medium, or large outcomes. Scenarios might evolve that focus the work in one area of the house or another, since that is a great factor in controlling construction costs. Through several meetings, several iterations of new scenarios, and several re­-appraisals of the priorities, we find a scheme with the best value to the client. We generate a set of drawings that define the occupancy and mass of the building, we review it with the neighbors, and submit it to the planning department.

 

3 Design Development

While the planning department is doing their multi-­month process, we’re working with mechanical and structural engineers to cultivate their input. We’re identifying preliminary choices about finishes, fixtures, and equipment. We’re accumulating on the drawings all the items the building department will review. When the planning department issues an approval we then add our new info and submit the application to the building department.

 

4 Construction Documents

While the building department does its review, we prepare the drawings and specifications that the contractors will bid upon. The building department is looking at the building code, sidewalks, fire safety, structural safety, mechanical equipment, energy efficiency and other regulated aspects of home and site design.

 

5 Bidding and Negotiation

Quite often we introduce the owners to several contractors for a round of fast and loose ballpark bids. In the process of meeting with the contractors, reviewing their ballparks, looking at their references and portfolio the clients find a preference and select a contractor. We prepare a thorough set of drawings and specs, the contractor reaches out to their subcontractors and suppliers and develops a detailed bid. This detailed bid takes the form of a spread sheet identifying costs of labor, materials, subcontractors, and overhead & profit for each aspect of the design. This becomes a sort of shopping list that informs another level of re­appraisal of the priorities of the project. We quite often have a fairly substantial revision at this stage, as information from the bidding process is integrated into the drawing package.

Bidding and negotiation generally starts mid-­way through design development. At the point the structural engineer is 50 percent complete with his framing plans we’re able to get relatively realistic ballparks from general contractors. This allows us to be mid­-way through bidding and negotiation while we’re in the building department. If construction cost estimates and juggling priorities necessitates revisions to the engineering or architectural drawing packages then these are incorporated with the permit drawings while they are moving through the system. This is a core value to the process I’ve designed: by integrating the bidding process with the city process we capture the most value for our clients with the least redundancy.

 

6 Construction Administration

During demolition a number of issues are uncovered so there is often a flurry of activity at the outset to design resolutions to these issues, have these changes priced, and get the project off and running. Throughout construction there are regular meetings to review the work as it proceeds. At the very least there are monthly meetings to review contractor invoices. On larger projects there tend to be more construction meetings, which actually helps to insulate them from problems, more than in the case of smaller projects. Contractors can feel quite isolated juggling dozens of subcontractors and suppliers. By hearing their concerns as they arise and helping them find resolutions we prevent problems from escalating. Quite often there are code, cost, engineering and aesthetic issues coming together at once. As architects we’ve already had a year to see how this solution has come to be. The logic of our solution is only evident to the contractor after they have come to grips with all of these issues. We’re also listening to input from suppliers and installers, looking for opportunities to enhance the design, save money, and make the outcome more elegant and effective.