Working with an architect—or working with an architect you haven’t worked with before—is a unique experience. While many of the services architects perform are defined by industry standards, every architect, every client, and every project are different. Outlined below is some general information about how TWaw approaches design projects. If you have specific questions please contact me, and I would be happy to discuss your project.
It depends. A better question might be, “Do I want help with the design of my project and someone to manage its execution?” If so, then yes, you need an architect. We use our talents, skills, resources, and experiences to make the final product—and experience of creating it—significantly better.
Sometimes “Do I need an architect?” actually means “Do I have to have an architect?” The answer to this question is a little more technical. Generally speaking, the larger the project, the more likely you are to need an architect, if for nothing else than to obtain the stamped drawings that are required for most building permits.
While we welcome all inquiries, we are less suited to the latter than the former. Our design process is intensive, and we provide a high level of personal service, qualities that are beyond the merely technical requirements of obtaining a building permit.
Different architects have different tastes, emphasize different parts of the design process, and have experiences with different types of clients and buildings. Thus, you should think carefully about what you want. What level of service do you expect? What type of building are you planning? What style of design do you like? The answer to these questions will help you focus your search.
Don’t be fooled by first impressions, however. An architect’s skills are transferrable and aren’t necessarily limited to a particular style or building type. A contemporary architect may work well with old buildings; an architect who has worked only with residences may be well-suited to design a restaurant. Ultimately, you will need to meet with a potential architect to learn what they are interested in and capable of, and, most important, whether you can envision yourself collaborating with them for an extended time.
Please note that architects do not provide design proposals before they are hired. For one thing, design is what we sell, and we can’t be expected to give it away for free. But more important, design is a service, not a product. An architect can’t make an intelligent design proposal without first understanding your program, site, tastes, and aspirations—things not possible in the course of a job interview.
After meeting you, if there is mutual interest in working together, I will prepare a proposal that will outline the scope of work, a list of deliverables, and fee for service.
If you’ve selected TWaw to be your architect, the first thing I do is send you a contract. I use a standard Owner-Architect agreement from the American Institute of Architects, and I append the accepted proposal to it.
My fee usually corresponds to 10-15% of the anticipated construction cost, ranging according to the scope of work, level of quality, and complexity of the project. If these change over the course of the project, I may need to alter the fee, although I try to avoid this. In addition, since so much is unknown at the outset of a project, if the project budget swells as the design and construction process proceeds, I may need to reconcile my fee with it.
Often, I need to employ various professional consultants to properly perform my work. These might include a structural engineer, mechanical engineer, lighting designer, landscape designer, and others, depending on the needs of the project. Consultants’ fees are usually included in the architectural fee, but not always. The roster of consultants will be developed in the course of the proposal and design process. On smaller projects, they are often unnecessary.
TWaw carries professional liability insurance to cover losses from errors and omissions. I am licensed to practice architecture in Connecticut and New York. To maintain my license, insurance, and American Institute of Architects’ membership, I must complete an annual program of continuing education to stay abreast of the code changes and best practices.
The first thing I do is ask questions. What do you want? What do you need? Do you want to start from a clean slate, or do you have a Pinterest page bursting with ideas? Some of this will emerge during the job interview and be reflected in the proposal, but now that we are working together, we can dig deeper.
Shortly thereafter, I will carefully document the site. I will measure and photograph, and I may recommend commissioning a survey. From this information, I will produce digital drawings and models of the existing conditions, and they will form the basis for the design proposals.
After a few weeks, I will present some preliminary design concepts. I work in a variety of media, so I may show you measured drawings, hand sketches, and models, both digital and physical. I will also present images of precedents and material samples to develop a shared vision for the project. Not everything I present will be intended as an actual recommendation for the project; some of the suggestions may be intended to generate discussion and expand the range of possibilities for the design.
Based on the results of this meeting (or in some cases, these meetings, some of which are best conducted on Skype, where I can walk you through computer models and easily search the internet), I will start to focus the design on a few options, and we can think about the implications of each. Sometimes what seemed obvious and uncontroversial at the outset turns out to be undesirable or unworkable upon further review. Sometimes the opening ideas are the best—although they can only be declared so with proper study.
Once the design has taken shape, I can focus on producing construction documents (CD’s), the plans and specifications that will describe the design in detail. The CD’s are built from the existing-conditions drawings I produce at the start of the project, and so in fact, I develop the CD’s continually, throughout the early design process.
The CD’s will vary in size and number depending on the project. Sometimes a set of drawings can be responsibly printed on 11x17 paper, useful for shipping and reprinting. However, CD’s are typically several sheets of 24x36 paper, and they will include floor plans, building sections, exterior elevations, interior elevations, details, and various schedules for windows, doors, lights, and plumbing fixtures. For larger projects, the drawings are accompanied by written specifications describing the acceptable materials and construction details. When the CD’s are complete, I stamp and sign them, making them suitable for permitting and construction.
As one might guess, New York City places unique demands on architects and clients. First, the building—whether it is a condominium or co-op—will expect to approve the design before construction can occur. This approval is granted through the submission of an “alteration agreement” to the building’s resident Board, administered by the building’s management company. The plans will be reviewed by the building’s engineer, and based on his or her feedback, they will be accepted or rejected, in which case they must be revised and resubmitted. This process can take several weeks and will require payment of fees to the management company, the building, and the engineer.
Before it can be approved, the alteration agreement will require the project to have a permit from the city’s Department of Buildings (a.k.a., the DOB). This is a complicated bureaucratic endeavor, and as such, architects typically ask that you hire a “permit expediter” to manage it. This is a firm who specializes in shepherding the project through the permit application process. I work with them directly to make the process as efficient as possible.
The alteration agreement and the challenging permit process make working in New York City expensive and time consuming. Consequently, my fees are higher in New York City, and it can be very hard to predict the construction schedule.
At some point, of course, a contractor must be hired. Traditionally, this happened after the design was completed and competing bids could be sought from multiple contractors. Today, however, a contractor is often involved from the outset. This can be very useful if the contractor is willing to play an active role in the design process, bringing his or her expertise to bear on my proposals and your choices.
The builder will have a contract directly with you. However, they must follow my drawings because they form part of the contract. As such, the contractor and I will have a close relationship, talking almost daily about how to achieve the project’s design. I am happy to work with new contractors, but it is often best to choose a contractor with whom I already have a relationship—there will be less risk of miscommunications and misunderstandings.
The opening days of construction are the most exciting time of a project. The early stages—demolition and excavation—have a large impact on the site and can be very impressive. Finally! It’s all starting to happen.
Once the initial excitement wears off, however, the construction process is full of alternating feelings of excitement, frustration, gratification, and anxiety. Some weeks will yield large, visible changes onsite. Other weeks, very little will appear to happen at all. Meanwhile, large invoices will come due, and unexpected problems will arise: a fixture isn’t available, the wrong size of window is delivered, there’s a hurricane, or you have a change of heart about the design. Especially if you live in the apartment or house while it is being worked on, the construction process inevitably will be inconvenient, agonizing, and interminable.
When things are at their worst, the best thing you can have is a good team. Between you (paying on time, being flexible, and having a good attitude), me (creating reasonable expectations, being available as needed, and seeing around corners), and the builder (staying on schedule, meeting a budget, submitting invoices as expected, and maintaining a friendly, clean, and safe site), we can make the experience of construction, if not painless, as low-pain as possible. In the end, the final product will transcend the memory of the construction process—truly.
A smart boss once told my wife (who is also an architect) that he always tells potential clients, “There are three elements in a design project: design, budget, and schedule. Pick two.”
Whether he actually said this to clients seems unlikely, I’d say. But he certainly wasn’t wrong. To achieve great design, you must dedicate significant time and money to a project. If you want it quick, you need to spend more for the designers and builders to concentrate their services, and you might need to compromise on quality. And if you want it cheap, you’re going to have to be flexible with your schedule and design expectations.
In the end, the best projects result from designers and builders who are empowered by clients with the necessary resources and a spirit of flexibility. Without them, the final product suffers, and the experience of getting to it is agonizing.
All the work on this website is "mine" in the sense that I was the architect or writer. However, no architect or writer works in a vacuum, and so I frequently use “we” and “our” instead of “I”, “my”, and “mine” when describing the projects. Usually, the “we” is me and my clients. Sometime “we” is me and my colleagues and consultants. TWaw has always been a one-person shop, although that may someday change. What won’t change is my dedication to providing personal service to all of my clients.