It's that time of year again—peak season for home building—and that means the sound of backhoes, band saws, and the barely audible shuffling of blueprints. It's a time when an architect's sense of orderliness meets the uncertainties of construction, when the masters of the thin blue line team up with the masters of the material underworld, and the dream of a custom home inches closer to reality. All across the country, builders and architects are longing for that quality that's next to godliness, and almost as difficult to achieve: a clean set of drawings and a cleanly executed design, respectively.

On construction sites today, the traditional battle between architects and contractors is largely over if not forgotten. Veteran team members have gotten the dance down. They learn from each other, giving a little here and a little there to get the job done. Still, a complicated set of tensions will always exist, rooted in real differences of outlook and interests.

Builder Andrew Goldstein, of Thoughtforms in Acton, Mass., sees those potential conflicts all the time. Watching "The Fog of War" prompted him to put the tension in philosophical terms. "In the movie, [former defense secretary] Robert McNamara talks about the idea of really trying to see things from the opposite side's perspective and understand what they're after," says Goldstein, whose company started out as a design-build firm but now just builds. "The same thing has to happen in a building project. It's basic stuff, but people don't do it."

Goldstein's founding partner, an architect who is no longer with the firm, taught him to view building projects through an architect's lens. That means taking time to understand the subtleties of the design intent, building not only to plan but making sure, on a Modern house for example, that a roofline or doorway lines up with another architectural element the way the architect envisioned. The discipline of respecting the other point of view works both ways, of course. Whether it's because of time constraints or because there are issues the architect wants to resolve during construction, sketchy plans are a potential point of frustration for builders. "As long as builders are asking the right questions early in the process, they're usually flexible," Goldstein says. "But if it's late in the game and there's a time deadline and things get designed without consulting the builder, it becomes problematic."

Some years ago, curiosity about the building point of view led Vetter Denk Architects, Milwaukee, to construct a half dozen of its own designs. Partners John Vetter and Kelly Denk wanted to experiment with the idea of making a house versus "predetermining it," as Kelly Denk, AIA, puts it. Doing construction was an eye-opener. They saw how difficult it was to keep a project on schedule when working with people who aren't on staff. It was a challenge to get the subcontractors there on time, get them to do it right the first time, and come back when there was a problem. Now, "we have a pretty good idea of how buildings get built, at least in this part of the country," Denk says. "It's made us better designers as well."

a good fit

If tackling architecture with a table saw helped Vetter and Denk think like contractors, it also taught them to hire contractors who think like they do. Builders should be eager to do some of the things they see in your portfolio, Denk says, and be motivated to expand their expertise and add to their own portfolio--similar reasons that architects take a job. If a client doesn't already have a contractor in tow, the firm suggests several that the client can interview to see if there's a good chemistry. And although most contractors know how to build, not all are so good at keeping track of paperwork. "Many of our clients are entrepreneurs, and they want to make sure their money is being managed correctly," Denk says. "If they commit to this builder, how do they know they're getting the best value for their money?"

To assure competitive pricing down to the subcontractor level, Vetter Denk requires its general contractors to have an open-book management system and to get several bids per trade. Clients can see the drywall bids and their percent of markup. The architects also seek out builders who are sticklers for communication, whether returning phone calls and e-mail or leaving a detailed paper trail. "A lot of work in this area does get done very casually," Denk says. "That only works when things are going well. It's when they aren't that things get ugly." And when something goes wrong it invariably reflects on the architect. Denk recalls the otherwise successful project that ended on a sour note because the contractor forgot to bill for change orders until the very end.

David Hacin, Hacin & Associates, Boston, is always happy to recommend builders to owners, but he makes sure they understand that the contract is between them and the builder. He wants them to feel confident in the contractor rather than taking his recommendation at face value. Hacin also encourages his clients to read between the lines on references from past clients. Even a glowing account can inadvertently convey a contractor's weaknesses. "Someone might say, 'We loved working with Joe.' It didn't matter that the project was late because he was so terrific," Hacin says. Clients should find out how many jobs the builder is working on at a given time and how the projects are managed--does he have experienced job captains on the site daily, or is he splitting his time between jobs in three different communities?

Builders also must be willing to negotiate contracts. Often, the contracts builders use don't follow a format architects are familiar with, so they need to be reviewed by an attorney. They may be vague, omitting penalties for being late or missing budget numbers. "Once a house is torn up and the builder says, 'Whoops, I forgot about X,' you're not in a good position to negotiate unless you've got a good contract," Hacin says. "Good contracts make good relationships and keep everyone honest. You write a rigorous contract, and hopefully you'll never have to look at it again. It's only when you don't write a good contract that you find yourself looking at it."

Clients are fairly resourceful about finding a builder through friends and neighbors, but often they spend less time selecting a builder than they do the architect. Yet no matter how good the plans are, like the telephone game, the project's layers can get lost in translation. Conversely, an experienced contractor can deliver a project that's better than what's on paper. When it came time to build 17 tightly spaced row homes in downtown San Diego, for example, Kevin deFreitas, AIA, hired a contractor who'd installed "miles and miles" of the concrete tilt-up wall panels he was using for the first time. Working as a team, the two of them caught glitches before they turned into problems and ended up with a better project than what was drawn. "I am thoughtful about my interactions with subs," deFreitas says. "We made a number of changes; they were very willing to do it because they felt like they were part of the process, and fairly compensated. Once the process gets adversarial, it's very difficult to recuperate from that."

DeFreitas learned the value of building bridges with contractors early in his career. His first job was doing drafting for a production housing firm. As a junior designer drawing up mechanical ducts, he rarely went out to the jobsite, and the lines were abstract to him. On one particular project, he remembers, the developer had a fractious relationship with the contractor. "One day the contractor called us out in front of the client and looked at me like, hey, monkey boy, how are you going to get this duct through this big beam?" deFreitas says. "I had five minutes to figure it out, but he had already worked it out in his head. Contractors can make you look incredibly bad in front of the client. It was a significant moment for me in terms of how things get done in the field."

taming the budget

Denk agrees that the best projects are those in which the builder and architect come in as equals. The firm encourages both client and contractor to be present at design meetings, when window and structural systems are being established. "The contractor brings a lot to the table: I've used that window system; the windows went in great, but the service was bad, so we'll never use them again," Denk says. "That will probably influence our design." Such input builds respect and trust. And when the project goes out to bid, the builder is not only familiar with the design intent but also with the budget expectations.

Of course, some collaborations aren't so seamless. Three times in the past year, contractors who had been on board with Leesburg, Va., architect Randall Mars during design development submitted a final bid that was 75 percent higher than the budget they were all working toward. "One contractor did it twice," Mars says. "The biggest thing is that clients lose confidence in us. My clients had great difficulty with our position, so we won't use that company to estimate anything else."

Those problems do occur, admits Andrew Goldstein. What happens, he says, is that all the forces are working to make the job more expensive. Builders give their best guess based on the developing design, but invariably materials and details become more complex on the final drawings. By the time a project has progressed to a full set of plans, most of them have to be value engineered.

"Most people in construction underestimate what things are going to cost; they want to be optimistic based on the last job they did," Goldstein says. "But until you really get it out to bid, you don't know what things will cost. Sometimes prices escalate dramatically, as they're doing now on steel. You can have a 40 percent difference in the cost of certain materials between the estimate and the time the project gets under way."

field of dreams

As the Chinese steel industry has increased its metal consumption, resulting in U.S. shortages, spiking prices have caused Vetter Denk Architects to go back and figure out substitutions for steel during construction. Because circumstances can change as a house is going up, a lot of problems are alleviated by good construction oversight, Denk says. Recently, for example, a pipe froze and burst in a house that had just been completed, destroying some of the interior. Everyone gathered at the house to determine why it had occurred and who should take responsibility. "When the contractor has regular jobsite meetings and minutes, such issues are more easily addressed," he says. "This whole business-like approach could be stronger in a lot of companies."

Platinum Homes, Scottsdale, Ariz., uses a whole constellation of management systems to keep its projects orbiting smoothly, from critical path scheduling and weekly e-mail updates to digital progress photos and a comprehensive selections database that's cross-referenced by trade. Owner Dave Reese makes sure his crew keeps photo records of what's behind the walls, in case a question comes up. And at the end of the project, each customer gets a CD-ROM containing the photos. The company also uses a three-part method to keep tabs on all those elusive change orders: those made on the jobsite; changes made in the office, such as adding soffits with crown molding and lighting; and a budget recap sheet to track pricing on the finished items and record where the project costs stand against the original budget.

On the other hand, the builder is lithe enough to keep the process fluid, something architects appreciate. "We like to see a good clean set of drawings, that's for sure," says Reese, whose homes range from $1.5 million to $5 million. "But these projects are so custom that too much detail on certain things can get in the way." It's fine with him if items such as kitchen cabinets, fireplaces, and built-in barbecues are modified over time. "We don't require architects to reissue drawings once someone changes his mind about things like that," he says. "Solving it in the field, with subs, is more expedient."

Flexibility, underpinned with a solid structure, is also the modus operandi at Harwick Homes in Naples, Fla. Thanks to new custom software, the builder is close to being 100 percent electronic in its management and communications. Most of its customer base is gone during construction, and they can be in the loop as little or as much as they wish. "The way we handle customer A is completely different than how we handle customer B," says builder Rick Harwick. "Some want to know everything; others just the high points. You need good systems and processes, but you can't shove everybody down the same hole."

In the end, it's clear that it takes a truly golden triangle--client, architect, contractor--to work out discrepancies between the design and the feasibility of building it, which are inevitable. Goldstein says that to have a really successful project, all three parties have to make a concerted effort. "Somewhere along the line there will be issues for all three to deal with," he says. "If one of them isn't competent, ethical, and reasonable, and not willing to see the others' points of view, you're headed for a problematic job."

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


you're fired!

Between a builder and an architect, there are very few construction problems that can't be solved--unless the problem is the builder. Several years ago, Alexandria, Va., architect Bob Gurney, AIA, and his client were at their wits' end when, six months into construction, the house hadn't been framed up. Over the next three months, the builder kept promising to put more manpower on the job, but work proceeded so slowly that Gurney and his client lost faith and fired him. Later they found out that the builder's partner had left the company, taking the staff with him. "No matter how much homework you do on a builder," Gurney says, "you can still get burned."

What's the proper way to fire a contractor for breach of contract? The termination letter must address the contract agreement, says attorney David Pfeffer, LePatner & Associates, New York City. The owner needs to show that the builder has repeatedly failed to provide skilled workers, make payments to subs, or meet any of the other conditions spelled out in the contract. (Article 14.2 of the AIA's General Conditions of the Contract for Construction lists typical performance requirements.)

Second, the owner must have a letter from the architect verifying the problems. "Often, this is overlooked," Pfeffer says. "The owner will write the termination letter, and when the claim comes up down the road, the contractor may say it was never certified by the architect. By that time, getting the architect involved again may be a real problem."

Just as important, before giving a contractor notice, devise a game plan to make sure the project can be completed:

  • Find a replacement contractor who is ready to go.
  • Take stock of funds, especially if the job is nearly finished, to make sure there's enough cash to complete it with another builder. That's usually what the retainer is for, Pfeffer says.
  • Secure the construction documents and materials from the contractor. Often, the contractor is holding onto everything in a job trailer. Or he may have a load of stone in a storage facility that's been paid for. Come up with a plan for retrieving CAD disks, if the contractor has the only copies, or asking for the stone to be delivered to the site.
  • Advise the owner to protect against contractor counter-claims by keeping project photos and correspondence from the design team. And for every payment made during construction, make sure lien waivers are signed not only by the contractor, but by subs as well. "Without that, an owner can't be sure subs are being paid," Pfeffer says. "The owner and architect have to look at the numbers and figure out how to protect the project financially. If an owner thinks he wants to terminate the contract in the next month, deny payment for work that is defective. You certainly don't want the contractor to be overpaid at that point."