Architect Scott Guyon, AIA, thinks of his clients as heroes. Of the new homes built in central Kentucky last year, only about 10 percent were designed by architects. So, he figures, the relatively few brave souls who request his services are not ordinary people. They have a higher threshold for uncertainty than most, and they've got faith that the reward will be worth the moments of fear and loathing, which are inevitable. Even so, they are utterly human. "I would say the biggest problem any client will face is the workings of his own mind during this process," says the Lexington, Ky.-based architect, as though he were a psychologist.
In some ways, he is. We live in an instant gratification society, one that's accustomed to buyer-protection plans, escape clauses, and consumer advocates. But unlike other purchases, architecture is a piece-by-piece venture in which clients have huge sums of money at stake and little recourse or control. In that sense, "much of this process is like getting a life-threatening disease," Guyon says. "Over the course of a year, they can talk themselves into a very high level of anxiety. It's a constant shepherding process."
Every architect has a story or two about the client from hell, the one who insists that the veneer on the $50,000 cabinetry isn't what she ordered, even though her signature is on the back of the sample; the one who picks apart every invoice; or the client who wants to be the GC. This column isn't about those people. Architects are supposed to recognize the warning signs and send potential troublemakers on their way--politely, of course. But even perfectly good projects for reasonable people can go terribly wrong. When it comes to clients, certain problems crop up like clockwork, unless there are safeguards to avoid them.
As an attorney for architects and engineers, Eric Singer of Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon in Lisle, Ill., has seen all the bad things that can happen on a project. And the conventional wisdom still holds true: Almost all of them can be tagged to misunderstandings or unreasonable expectations that don't get corrected at the outset. Most, he says, can be avoided by going over a carefully worded contract with clients. "I like AIA contracts as a starting point for their boilerplate and details a lot of people wouldn't think about," Singer says. "On the other hand, there are lots of things in the AIA documents that architects don't understand. They're big and scary and onerous. You can create a letter of agreement as a good compromise and use it to educate clients, but you need legal help to draw up the letter."
For example, most architects see themselves as perfectionists, but that can work against them. Here's where a good contract puts things in perspective. Karen Erger, an attorney and insurance agent with Holmes Murphy & Associates, based in Des Moines, Iowa, sees a lot of client-drafted contracts that want to hold their architect to "the highest standard of care." While every architect aspires to that, the clause is not insurable if there is a claim. "What that means is that the contract isn't fully insurable because you've agreed to perform perfectly, versus the tort standard of ordinary care," Erger says. "Those extreme things are drafted by clients who really want to protect themselves, but they're doing a disservice by raising coverage issues where there really should be none."
More to the point, the clause raises the opportunity to set clients straight about the vagaries of design and construction. Erger likes to relay the story of the engineer who stood up at a conference and said that he tells clients he's never designed a perfect project. "That's a pretty hard thing to say to clients you've just wooed and won," she says. "But talk about the fact that there may be delays. Clients will need a contingency fund to cover those."
Miscommunication about when the design phase ends and construction documents begin can also result in contention, says Singer. The agreements architects use often omit details about the development phases, he explains. So clients don't understand that once you start construction drawings, it will cost them extra money to move things around. "Having them sign off on the design is a way of educating them that they'll incur an extra fee if they make a change from that point on," he says. "Be clear about charging an hourly wage for the extra work."
The biggest threat to a client's loss of faith, of course, is a construction bid that's over budget by several hundred thousand dollars. To avoid bitter disappointment, Sprinkle Robey Architects in San Antonio, Texas, is careful not to do any design work until the owners' wishes are firmly aligned with their budget. Once design is in full swing, and preferably with a contractor on board, the architects will offer an "opinion of probable cost," says Davis Sprinkle, working off a software spreadsheet that is continually being updated based on meetings with local contractors and figures from industry-standard costing books.
"We do takeoffs on square footage and the area of walls and count the number of lights," Sprinkle says. "The software allows us to come up with some fairly rough figures at the beginning but within 10 percent of the final cost per square foot. If we know it has a real sloping site, we may say it will be $180 a square foot; if it's level, $150 a square foot." In addition, the firm prepares a spreadsheet outlining items the owner will have to pay for that aren't part of the contractor bid, such as surveys, municipality fees, and window treatments, which can add 25 percent to the cost of a project.
David Guilietti, AIA, of Guilietti Schouten Architects in Portland, Ore., has devised a similar approach to help clients see the big picture. "I found it works out really nice to give them an estimate up front that includes both hard and soft costs, because they hear from friends that a house should cost X amount and don't realize there are other project costs associated with it," Guilietti says. "I try to educate them up front that this $500,000 house will actually cost $700,000 by the time they're done. It shocks them before we get too far down the road."
No architect can guarantee that a design won't exceed budget, but the parties can agree on what to do if it does. On this issue, AIA contract language is pretty clear, says Singer. The choices are to increase the budget, re-bid the project, do some value engineering, or cancel the contract.
In any event, the architect's liability is limited to redesign service within a range. Singer recommends architects give themselves a 15 percent leeway and put it in the contract. If bids come in more than 15 percent above that good-faith estimate, the architect might agree to do some design work for free. But if it comes within that range, the owner will bear the risk.
Experience has taught Guyon that an elaborate set of specs is a red flag for contractors. Too many details can cause protection pricing. The subs will pad the bid, thinking the owners and their architect are going to be demanding. "You have to find a middle way between overly detailed documents and ones that are simply too inadequate and sketchy," he says. That approach happens to fit in with a design philosophy he shares with the Shakers: "nothing extra, nothing left out." But if it does comes up, "the architect should make the client aware that if the documents have a lot of burdensome requirements, it will result in an unhappy situation when the bids come in," he says.
Guyon guides the estimating process with a firm hand by inviting contractors to participate in a negotiated bid. And he attaches a schedule of values to the documents so contractors know what he expects the project to cost. "Most contractors are shocked to see that," he admits. "It raises their good-natured resentment of architects, and not everyone wants to play. But it can help prevent these awful surprises that happen at the end."
Even if an architect is conservative with the design, a client's modifications, which are inevitable, will nudge the budget upward. So Guyon prepares them for that possibility, too. He counsels clients that if they can keep their hands off the project while it's under construction, a 10 percent contingency is plenty. But human nature suggests that irresistible enhancements will be discovered in the process. And, the rationale goes, they'll never be able to do it cheaper.
In that case, Guyon helps clients measure the financial impact. "I can tell clients that at current rates, every $10,000 they add will cost them less than $100 a month on their mortgage," Guyon says. "It seems innocuous; borrowing $100,000 will add about $700 a month. It's very enticing." And while the construction loan might be unprecedented in their financial history, he's noticed that by the time clients break through to a new level of commitment, their confidence builds that their house will rise in value, and that they'll be able to fold the payment into their lives.
Could a client stick to the original budget when building a house? Sure, but they'd have to be unusually disciplined. Maybe that's why some people resist the custom route and buy a cookie-cutter house for a certain price, knowing it's done with, Guyon says. They don't want to deal with all those decisions.
On the other hand, builders offer all kinds of profit-generating extras they know buyers can't resist. "A lot of clients are looking for the 'Not-So-Big House' and a kind of non-conspicuous consumption, an investment in simplicity," Guyon says. "A properly detailed house of great simplicity avoids a lot of this stuff where people are buying all the extras" that may not add up to good design.
differences of opinion
Today's clients are savvier than ever, both about design and about how to protect their interests with the proper contract. Ideally, they choose architects with a compatible philosophy and aesthetic. They've studied portfolios, conducted interviews, and gathered references. But they still may not understand that, unless everyone who has a say in the outcome attends the design meetings, they're probably wasting time and money.
Guilietti changed his policies on that score after two separate projects fell through because only one spouse participated. He'd met with each couple to discuss the program and present the initial proposal. But only the wives showed up to develop schematics. "It creates a vicious cycle of designing for two separate people who aren't in the same room at the same time," Guilietti says. In both cases, they'd gotten all the way to construction drawings. But when the price came in on target, the husband thought it was too high. He had the veto power but was left out of the loop.
Likewise, architect Lucia Howard, a partner with Ace Architects in Oakland, Calif., designed a house for a gung-ho client in Sonoma who didn't bring his wife into the discussions. When she rejected the design, the project got canceled. "When you have someone who's so sure of himself managing it and always referring to his wife, you don't feel you have the right to say anything," Howard says. "Now, before designing anything, I would overcome my embarrassment about prying to find out what's going on."
Being there, and saying the right thing, can defuse domestic tension of all kinds. And nowhere is that tension more palpable than when a house is under construction. Often, clients will visit the site in beautiful weather, and no one is working there. Two weeks go by, and it looks to them as though nothing has happened. Maybe it's because the sealing of floors has stopped all other activity, or drywall finishing prevents the rest of the trades from entering. Pauses in production, if not explained, will set people to panic.
Guyon supports his clients by remaining calm, optimistic, and reassuring--but that's about all he can do. "There really isn't a mechanism, in the residential contractor industry I deal with, for pressuring or leveraging production," he says. "If you're behind schedule, you simply have to be patient and continue to apply non-alienating pressure. If you alienate the contractor group, the project comes to a complete halt."
Then there's construction fatigue. After months, the owners may simply become worn out with the process and have a meltdown. But once they recover and come back, they're usually recharged by the progress that has occurred. "It happens every time," Guyon says. "We've used childbirth as an analogy. They're convinced the baby will never be born, and the owners are put in the position of the father who can do nothing about it.
"Clients can certainly have free access to me at most times of the day and night during the process of construction," Guyon adds. "It involves being able to just keep repeating the mantra that anything technical is solvable. There's rarely a house that's a complete debacle. And at end of the day, the handmade process remains the only way to get a house that has the kind of soul and charm you'd expect it to have. Once people experience it, a whole new world opens up to them."
Unless architects spell it out plainly, clients may not realize that an agreement can run out, and additional fees may be charged if the work isn't completed by a certain date. Alexandria, Va., architect David Jameson, AIA, wrapped up construction documents on a project, put it out for bid, and found a qualified contractor to build the house at an agreed-upon cost. The clients' financing fell through, though, and the project was put on hold for more than a year. By the time they obtained financing, the contractor had withdrawn the bid and taken on other jobs. Jameson recently received an e-mail from the clients asking him to find several new contractors that he approved of and re-bid the job, for free. "Clearly the plans which you have prepared for us are of no value without an approved contractor who can do the job," they wrote.
"Clients have this classic perception that if nothing gets built, there's zero value in the plans," Jameson says, noting that the bid and contracting phase accounts for about 5 percent of his fee. He had to remind the clients to take another look at the contract, which stated that if they suspend work for 90 days or more, everything else is an additional service.
The expiration clause is a common oversight on architectural contracts, says attorney Eric Singer. "If they don't put anything in, most states will apply some reasonable amount of time, but why rely on that?" he says. A 90-day expiration period is common, but what's reasonable depends on the project. "On some contracts, it's anticipated that there will be some gap between design and funding, but it needs to be worked out at the beginning."