When Richard Williams, AIA, designed his own house five years ago, he decided to forgo a general contractor and manage the fieldwork himself. He spent nights and early mornings coordinating the various trades before heading to his Washington, D.C., office, often sketching out construction details the day they were needed. Williams lived next door, and he remembers crawling around with a flashlight at night to see what had been accomplished during the day. “It was time-consuming,” he says of wearing the GC hat for the yearlong duration. “But it was a good learning experience.”
Architects sometimes slash construction costs on their own houses by cutting out the middleman. More rarely, they may agree to general-contract a client project to ensure tricky design or site nuances are handled correctly. Bill Austin, AIA, took on that challenge several years ago, when he conducted the daily construction work on a client's pool house, and he's currently GCing a second pool house. “Because of the tight tolerances and complexity of the ductwork, I still would have had to coordinate a lot of things,” says Austin, principal of Colrain, Mass.-based Austin Design. “That extra step to just GC it wasn't very big.”
As it happens, though, the step from architect to GC is bigger than many architects anticipate. The two-for-one arrangement may have worked for the master artisans of old, but today's firms typically aren't set up to support such divisions of time and identity. Dealing with on-site issues takes time away from the real work of the office. Construction snafus cut into profits. And unlike general contractors or designer/ builders, architects can't grab resources from another job-site in an emergency. How much to charge is another big question mark: While a firm's overhead costs remain virtually unchanged, the risks are higher, and few clients are willing to pay per hour.
Of course, there's another side to the ledger. A big bonus of GCing the occasional project is the thrilling sense of flexibility and control it engenders. You have the ability to solve construction puzzles speedily, the security of knowing that important details won't be overlooked, and the opportunity for hands-on experimentation. There's also the extra tier of knowledge gained from seeing design through the eyes of a builder. “Once you've observed enough construction, you know enough of the sequence and can zero in on the critical stuff contractors need,” Williams says. “If you get that level of information right, everything else falls into place.”
degrees of separation The decision to GC a client project often results from unusual site conditions or construction specs with which local builders are unfamiliar. That was the case when Manhattan architect Stuart Narofsky, AIA, coordinated construction on a 6,500-square-foot waterfront house on suburban Long Island, N.Y. Because the house was made of concrete and steel and incorporated European rainscreen technology, he subbed out the shell to a commercial contractor. Once the first phase was completed, he brought in the other trades and assigned one of his eight employees to manage construction full time over the next year. Narofsky says the house turned out beautifully, eventually winning an award from the AIA Long Island Chapter, and adds that he relished the hands-on involvement it afforded. But now that he's been asked to do it for another client, he's weighing the pros and cons.
Topping his list of concerns is the frequency with which he was drawn into troubleshooting and advice-giving. “Because the job was managed in-house, I was way too accessible,” Narofsky admits. “I found myself dealing directly with the guy doing shower enclosures. I'm very detail-oriented, and I enjoyed the great control, but it was very time-demanding.” And the odd juxtaposition of roles sometimes clouded jobsite objectivity. “My guy was building relationships with people in the field and softened up a little bit, so I had to be the heavy,” he adds. “If we do it again, I would definitely lean toward hiring my own construction manager and field super and then set them up separately in a field office so it doesn't burden our office. It would be in the office but out of the office.”
The fee structure, in turn, was off-kilter. Narofsky negotiated a fixed fee for his construction services, based on calculations for having a dedicated staff member on the job for 12 to 14 months. He figured that it's reasonable for the client to shell out slightly less to hire his firm than to hire a GC, since overhead doesn't need to be duplicated. But the fee, which worked out to be about 10 percent of construction costs, fell a little short.
“We didn't charge enough for what we did, honestly,” Narofsky says. “It took longer than we anticipated. In the future I would ask for a percentage of net construction value and for a separate percentage to cover insurance—break it down more but keep it tied to a percentage. It's not like we went bankrupt. But had we charged a normal contractor fee of 15 percent to 20 percent, it could have been a pretty nice profit.”
Austin, who oversees a staff of seven, came to similar conclusions while GCing the pool houses. “We are charging 10 percent, because there's overlap between the architecture and construction, and we didn't feel we needed a full fee for both sides,” Austin says. “However, we won't ever do that again.”
In hindsight, he says, he would charge 15 percent to compensate for the separate roles of the architectural project manager and the construction manager. “We thought we could blend things together and it would be cheaper to GC, but the fact is, we're losing a little money,” he says. “We need those two entities to work in the office as if they were from separate companies so they can deal with each other fully in their own roles and can argue out the standards. By keeping both people really sharp in taking care of their turf, we have fewer mistakes.”
Austin's advice is to get the fee right, remembering that it's easy to underestimate the extra workload. Before taking the jobs, he also checked to be sure his liability policy covered him for construction (it did). Still, he felt more vulnerable, so he was a stickler for such documentation as digital photos, meeting minutes, and written change orders. Would he do it again? Only in a rare circumstance, he says, adding that he agreed to the latest GC job partly as a hedge against the housing slump, which so far hasn't materialized in his market.
That GC fee is particularly attractive to enterprising young architects. The dual roles free them up to do fewer projects while teaching them to design efficiently. Case in point: Austin, Texas, intern Amy Dempsey, who, between client projects, has GC'ed three spec houses since finishing graduate school in 2001. “It's kind of completed my architecture education,” she says. From her construction-side perch, she's learned how to create a concise set of working drawings and how much things cost, as well as about cause and effect. “There are so many variables you don't think of,” she says. “I can better foresee the problems: I speced this, and it didn't work well because it was too hard to cut. If you're the regular architect, you see it finished, and if it's not right, you never really know why.”