Still, in a simpatico partnership, communication runs both ways. All architects have their favorite contractors whose subs are skilled, who ask questions if they're in the dark, and who are good at anticipating what's coming up. When there's a rapport, architects can be somewhat casual about the process. By contrast, firms who do multifamily work are often cast in with unknown contractors or construction managers, and so must adopt a more rigorous protocol.

Perfido Weiskopf Architects, Pittsburgh, sometimes finds itself in a situation where, in order to secure funding for, say, an affordable housing project, the developer is required to work with a minority enterprise and thus breaks out construction observation into a different contract, limiting the firm's role. “It's clearly not our preference,” says Alan Weiskopf, AIA. “Although we don't have the same reporting requirements as if we were observing construction, if there is a problem, we're the architects of record.” The firm still carries the professional liability on the completed work, although contract language transfers the responsibility for interpreting the contract documents to the owner and requires the owner to waive any claims against the architects that arise from field conditions or modifications to the drawings. Weiskopf also gets copied on minutes, field reports, and shop drawings. “We only do it when we're working with a client with whom we've worked before and who is obligated to do this,” he says. In those rare cases where the firm does not provide construction observation, it inserts contract language stating that it has recommended providing such services and the client has declined.

cost versus value

“It's a dangerous trap to allow clients to be in charge,” Princeton says. “A lot of architects are afraid to speak up for fear clients won't buy as much, or the architect is waiting for a check. But it's important to push back and say, ‘No, I'm the expert, and the one who needs to manage the process.'”

Indeed, if architects have to explain the value of their design fees to residential clients, the same is true, perhaps to an even greater extent, for construction-phase services. Paul Nakazawa, AIA, an architectural consultant and educator in Boston, says that the standard AIA fee formula—15 percent for schematics, 20 percent for design development, 35 percent for working drawings, 5 percent for bid, and 25 percent for construction observation—makes it difficult for architects to argue that they should be more substantially involved at the back end, and paid for it. Clients need to be told that the fee distribution is only for basic services. In a complex project, an architect may need to be on site full-time or half days when critical systems or finishes are being installed.

“By the time you're ready to start construction, you know more than you did in schematic design: We wound up with this contractor, this situation,” Nakazawa says. “If there are systems that are important for the project, then it's essential that architects and their clients agree ahead of time about what those areas are and what the value of the additional participation is. It's incumbent on the architect to make the case.

“All the stakeholders need to get together to discuss what's worth doing,” he continues. “Part of the dynamic of construction-phase services is whether everyone is set up to cooperate or if it's a confrontational situation where there are winners and losers, people fixated on price and trying to drive a profit to bottom line.” And in a phase as messy and unarticulated as construction, communication is the crux of success. “No matter what the legal documents say, it's hard to be precise about everything,” Nakazawa says. “A lot of the insanity of this last phase is really due to poor communication—people not taking care to make sure everyone understands.”

Given this nebulous process, how can architects be sure they won't lose money on other people's inefficiencies? Ever since he was caught in a contract percentage on a job that was so poorly managed by the builder that it took a year longer than necessary, architect Donald Mallow, Leonia, N.J., has charged a per diem for site visits, and an hourly rate for related work. “I'm not willing to be bound into a fixed fee during construction, when I have no control over the builder's work schedule,” he says. He notes that in a percentage fee structure, owners often feel they shouldn't have to pay more for construction observation just because they've chosen pricier materials.

However, Marcie Meditch, AIA, says that the higher the cost of the material, the more involvement it takes from architects. Specializing in highly detailed custom commissions, Chevy Chase, Md.–based Meditch Murphy Architects spends a lot of time talking to fabricators and reviewing shop drawings. One recent project included a huge slab of onyx that covered a powder-room wall. The firm followed the stone's fabrication down to the cut of the pattern and the location of the seams. “When an expensive product is going into a high-end installation, you stay involved,” Meditch says.

Kanner Architects, whose construction budgets fall in the $250-per-square-foot range, charges 15 to 20 percent of its fee for construction observation, which pays for eight to 16 hours a week. To prepare for the inevitable, he asks clients to reserve 10 percent of the budget for construction contingencies. He simply tells them it's not a perfect business, and to be aware that neither he nor the subs will pay for unexpected costs. “Nobody can stay completely away from blame,” Kanner says. “That's why it's such a litigious field. You really need to be a strong team at the outset, and have a good builder and an owner who puts all these principles in motion. Then you're going to be okay.”

Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.

checks and balances

We find a lot of problems arise when you have procedures in place but don't follow them,” says Joe Jones, an architect-turned-attorney with Victor O. Shinnerer & Co., Chevy Chase, Md. “The procedures are there based on a long history of court cases, so it's very important that architects not try to cut corners.” Here are six problems associated with reviewing shop drawings and other submittals from the builder during the construction observation phase, as outlined in the company's management advisory:

  • Not requiring a contractor to submit a shop drawing schedule that allows for your timely review.
  • Not strictly enforcing the submittal and review schedules.
  • Accepting shop drawings that haven't been checked and approved by a contractor.
  • Accepting shop drawings that are not required by the contract documents. (If drawings are accepted and returned without noting objections, it's likely the firm will be held responsible for having approved them.)
  • Delegating your review to someone in the firm who's not familiar with the project or not qualified to perform the review.
  • Not having a system to log, track, and follow up on the submittal process.