As an architect and part-time developer, Lloyd Russell, AIA, San Diego, is happy to also blur the design/build boundary on his real estate investments. Since launching his practice 10 years ago, he's GC'ed a handful of speculative multifamily projects, allowing him to keep a firm hand on the budget while indulging his penchant for trying out new ideas. For example, while bidding out work on the 36-foot-high poured-concrete façade of the R3 Triangle Building, which won a 2007 RADA Merit award, he talked a sub into charging for a basic concrete wall and allowing Russell to experiment alongside of him. The resulting one-of-a-kind crenulations were made by randomly nailing plywood strips in varying thicknesses onto the form. “I only needed to stay two hours ahead of him,” Russell says. “Another guy said, ‘Oh, custom concrete,' and quoted me a price that was 50 percent higher. But it cost me just 5 percent more to get that trick pattern that people love.”
For architects doing one-off projects, the bid process can be hit or miss. “Subcontractors size me up as an architect and figure I'll be high-maintenance or that I don't know what I'm doing,” Russell says. “Or they might say, ‘Oh, you'll be on the site the whole time, so this will be the easiest job I've ever done,' so I get even tighter bids.” Subs also may feel less accountable to an architect than to a general contractor who will hire them for job after job. That's why Russell jokes that he tries to be the maître d' on projects. “I help them carry tools, make sure everything is going smoothly for them, remind them to get their invoices in, and pay them promptly,” he explains. “I try to be the ideal client, hoping they'll be the same for me.”
Alexandria, Va., architect David Jameson, FAIA, professes admiration for general contractors after overseeing several big-ticket spec remodels. Although he says he wouldn't want to tie up his design practice to do it for a client, the jobs went smoothly because he handpicked tradespeople he could trust. And with his own investment at stake, he figured out how to coordinate his drawings with mechanical, plumbing, electrical, and framing conditions. “Nine out of 10 GCs will tell you that on projects with architects, the drawings are sort of an idea of how something gets built,” he says. By coordinating construction, “I think you become more detailed and in sync with the realities of building a project.”
Carrie Meinberg Burke, AIA, took charge of construction on her family's Charlottesville, Va., house and agrees that the biggest eye-opener was the different way of communicating. Viewed through a contractor's lens, much of the information on her drawings seemed useless, and as the job progressed, she began erasing things. “It became a joke that when the house was finished, the Mylar would be blank,” Burke says. She began creating full-scale details in the field, drawing right on the wood rather than on an intermediate piece of paper. And rather than simply dimensioning her drawings, she saw the importance of identifying crystal-clear reference points from which everything else radiated—a practice that keeps errors from accumulating downstream.
“When architects do a site visit, it seems like they're just swooping in and don't have an understanding of what's going on,” Burke says. “There's a removal that makes it difficult to really collaborate with people who are doing the building.” In addition to working closely with subs, such as the roofing contractor who helped her refine the detailing on the copper siding system, Burke tried to build jobsite morale by supplying workers with “Spudnuts” from a local doughnut shop. “We turned a dried-out Spudnut into a mascot that we nailed to the wall,” she says. “We only had trouble getting the drywall trade to show up.”