Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Construction Administration - What's this about anyway?

The term "Construction Administration" typically references what an Architect does during the time the General Contractor is building a project. In a Commercial Project, this phase is rather mundane doing activities such as shop drawings reviews, site inspections, and draw requests. However, if the project is Custom Residential, construction administration becomes an entirely different task. Since design is a never ending process, it certainly does not stop when you start building.

Clients often have a hard time visualizing things until they start to come up out of the ground. On many occasions, I have worked to tweak specific design solutions during the process to make them better. Whether it's aligning panels on the cabinetry, finalizing the design of a fireplace surround, assisting with railing selections, or even figuring out a way to hide a TV behind a motorized panel - there is plenty of design to be done once the house is under construction.

I have heard that some builders say that there is no need for an Architect to be involved during construction. Those builders obviously don't understand design and continuity of a home. Yes, without an architect's involvement, you will end up with a roof over your head. But will the hinges on the exterior doors match the hinges on the interiors doors? Probably not.

If I had my way, I would change the name "Construction Administration" to "Design Enhancement".


  1. Our house definitely would not have as successfully realized the vision inherent in its design had not the architect participated fully during the construction phase. Myriad issues and questions arise during the building process and in many cases, only the architect can formulate solutions that may be necessary. We lived more than 500 miles away while our house was being built. Despite visiting once a month, we would have been lost without the eyes and advice of our architect who was on the scene. Even if we were to build another house around the corner I would still want our architect's expertise and advice as the house was built.

  2. We just completed a custom built home which was designed by Keith Shaw and built by K. Alan Builders (Rocky McCampbell).

    I worked in commercial real estate development for twenty years. I have developed warehouses, office buildings and research and development buildings; mostly in master planned business parks. I spent years dealing with architects and contractors and taking a hands on approach to the development process. Generally, once we had the building designed, we rarely dealt with the architect unless there was a question or a problem; and that didn’t happen very often at all.

    We engaged Keith in a full service contract. He designed a beautiful house for us and did great working drawings. However, when it came to the actual building process, I have to admit that I was kind of expecting it to be similar to my previous experiences with commercial buildings. I could not have been more wrong.

    Building commercial buildings was a walk in the park compared to building this house. The level of attention to detail and number of decisions that had to be made on site during the job far exceeded anything I had ever dealt with before. And I don’t think there was anything unusual about our job. In terms of custom home building, this seems to be the nature of the beast. That may sound strange, but, after going through this process, I am a believer.

    In the course of building, two things became very apparent. First, we needed Keith’s advice throughout the job on a number of issues. These were things that could only be addressed during the course of construction (when the house was partially complete) as opposed to during the drawing phase. There are simply too many things that can only be addressed once you are able to stand in the interior of the unfinished rooms.

    Second, when we needed input, it was needed immediately. Once the questions arose, we could not afford to wait around for a week or two to get Keith’s opinion. Fortunately, we didn’t have to. When we called Keith, he responded immediately; which, from talking to our friends who have also built houses, is not always the case with some other architects in the area.

    An architect and a contractor have to work together to ensure you get the best product. Each brings something important to the table. When decisions are made during the job, there are two major considerations that are always tugging at each other; looks and practicality. In other words, you want something that is going to look nice and work well. At the same time, whatever it is that you want, you need to know that it is feasible; in other words, that it is possible to do what you want to do at a reasonable cost.

    For example, an architect might recommend you use a particularly good looking material for your elevated outdoor patio. However, the contractor may point out that installing this material will require re-doing the support structure and the creation of an entirely new drainage system. That may cost a small fortune; which is certainly something you want to know. But, it may go beyond that. Installing this material may compromise other aspects of the building structure and result in long term maintenance problems. Some of these issues might prompt you to use another material.

    Similarly, a contractor might suggest you use a particular type of molding. But, your architect might think that it looks incredibly cheap. Perhaps there are reasons why the contractor likes this type of material. Perhaps it is easier to install. In any event, after receiving the architect’s input, you might decide to spend a little extra on this item to get the look you want.

    Those are two pretty extreme examples. I am not saying that architects and contractors are always that cavalier about their recommendations. I used these two examples simply to highlight the difference between “what looks nice” and “what is practical”. Good architects do not always focus just on looks and style. They will also focus on practicality and feasibility. Similarly, good contractors do not always focus just on practicality. If they are any good, will consider style and looks as well.

    However, it is probably fair to say that an architect’s best input will be in the arena of looks and style, while the contractor’s best input will be in the arena of practicality and cost. Giving either one total control over a job would, in my view, not be a good idea. To get the best look for a custom built home, input from both is essential during the entire building process. Even if there is a little pushing and pulling going on between the two, that is not necessarily a bad thing. At least you know that everything is being properly considered.

    I have heard of contractors who claim that an architect is not needed once the construction starts and that they can handle anything that arises. At the risk of sounding overly cynical, I’d say that this is simply to allow the contractor go down the path of least resistance. An architect will do several things during the course of construction; and among these are providing design input on critical, visual items and monitoring the overall quality of construction. Not having that oversight and input would certainly make the contractor’s life easier. What contractor wouldn’t want that? But, in the end, that may not result in the best house.

    I might go so far as to say that one should be wary of any contractor building a custom home who says that the architect’s input is not required during the building process. They are probably looking to make their life as easy as possible. A custom home is not built off of cookie cutter plans. If you allow a contractor to guide all the decision making processes during the course of construction, it will look like a contractor designed it.

    In the overall scheme of things and considering the total budget for a custom home, I believe the benefits which accrue from having an architect involved throughout the building process far outweigh the cost. We had an outstanding builder with an unusually good sense of design and style. Even with that good a builder, Keith’s input during the course of construction was important and ensured that we ended up with a home that worked and of which we could be proud. Looking back, had we used almost any other builder, his input would have been much more than important; it would have been absolutely indispensable.

    My advice? Don’t try to save a few dollars and think you can simply trust your contractor or do it on your own. You will have to live with the house for years. Make sure it is done right the first time.

  3. As one of the owners of the "home-in-progress" pictured under this heading, I can readily recount several areas in which Keith's continuing input was invaluable.

    Placement of a television in the Great Room was a wee source of marital friction! It was a typical discussion between husband and wife: he wants as large a TV as possible; she doesn't want to see the "big black box" all time. Several ideas were batted about during design and early construction and the solution Keith came up with is perfect. When closed, the fireplace surround has the appearance of a lovely, traditional mantle and over mantle with pilasters and molding. At the press of a button, a panel lifts to reveal the television. This arrangement satisfies both of us, protects the television and affords us an additional space for artwork. K Alan (Rocky McCampbell) was our contractor and his superb carpentry sub-contractor rendered Keith's specifications beautifully. We could not be more pleased.

    Though we were more than happy with the attractive details of our shingle house in its initial inception, Keith had a stroke of genius during construction. He suggested slightly flaring the exterior walls. The exterior is now much more distinctive, refined, and graceful. We love it.

    Those are two major areas in which "construction administration" by an engaged and creative architect truly enhanced our project. Here are several other improvements which took place during the building process thanks to his ongoing presence:
    • Slightly adjusting the axis of the house to take advantage of a beautiful rock out-cropping.
    • Altering the roof line of the screened porch to reduce the visual bulk.
    • Redesigning the supports of the screened porch and lower grill porch, accentuating this prominent feature.
    • Working with me to design windows that pay homage to my childhood home.
    • Detailing "disappearing" mahogany doors for a closet and back door between the study and the master bedroom dressing area.
    • Sourcing unusual materials to solve several problematic technical or lighting situations.
    Designing and building a house is a long, expensive, exciting, and arduous process which includes hundreds of thousands of choices. We had an excellent builder with a keen design sense. Nevertheless, we have no doubt that retaining Keith throughout the construction phase was wise, prudent, and ultimately cost-effective. It is tempting to cross the “construction administration” line item off the budget. Our best advice is to find other areas to trim. Our home is more beautiful, livable and distinct because we had the benefit of Keith's eyes and experience from the first pencil stroke through the last nail.