architects without borders

Ultimately, these architects had to ask themselves, Is design/build a better way to work? While the experience was appealing in its directness and intimacy, those interviewed for this story said no, not for them. Their temporary roles raised larger issues too. For Russell, serving as owner, contractor, and architect meant decisions often came down to ethics. “You want to waterproof the roof, but how much waterproofing is enough?” he asks. “We always joke that you can't make the perfect building. But if you're all those entities, you always know what you did; your actions are embedded in your conscience.”

Williams' stint as a GC inspired him to let go of unhealthy—and potentially unprofitable—control instincts. Although architects typically do some building on projects, when things left to the GC wouldn't turn out as well, it's easy to lose that balance. Williams calls it the conservation of momentum—not doing more than you have to do to achieve 90 percent of the results. “I worry about that sometimes,” he says. “You can lull yourself into thinking you're absolutely critical to the building. It's still a fluid boundary line, and every architect approaches it differently. I keep reminding myself not to do the GC job in terms of paperwork and information routing.”

As a practice grows, Williams believes architects have to dispense what they do best, judiciously and equally, to get consistent results. “That's one of the lessons I take away from it,” he concludes. “Are we being vigilant about doing our role professionally within the boundaries that are normative to the profession, or are we sort of being a GC on every single project?”

building in safeguards

Even if you general-contract a design project once in a blue moon, the moment you do it, you're a designer/builder. And that puts you at the top of the food chain in terms of liability. "The contractor is charged with a different degree of knowledge," says Paul J. Weinberg, an attorney and mediator in Irvine, Calif. "It's not just a matter of putting into practice what I do but ensuring that what I do will really work."

For starters, he says, make sure you're complying with the law, since some states require architects hiring subs to have a general contractor's license. Weinberg also suggests creating a firewall for your architecture practice by setting up a separate LLC for the construction project. Beyond that, "you could get fussy with indemnity clauses, where the subcontractor agrees not to hold the architect responsible" for errors, construction defects, or jobsite injuries, for example.

Joe Jones, AIA, vice president and head of risk management services at Victor O. Schinnerer & Co., strongly seconds those moves. His company, an insurance provider headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md., prefers to cover the LLC under the architect's existing policy to avoid a conflict of interest in the event of a lawsuit. "You don't want two policies fighting against each other to determine who should be covered," he says, though he warns that the LLC would likely result in a higher premium. The company also urges its clients to use a design/build contract, such as the AIA's, that explicitly outlines the architect's responsibilities. Taking such precautions will help to ensure that jobsite issues outside of your control don't come back to haunt you.