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Architect versus contractor
April 24, 2013 8:16 AM   Subscribe

We're planning a kitchen renovation for our century-old house this summer and have been working with an architect who has so far given us a kitchen layout and rough design. We're now getting quotes from general contractors. The GC we met with last night, who we've worked with before and trust, said further work by the architect will be a waste of money because the progress of the project will depend on how construction goes. Is he right?

We hired the architect in the first place because we need to make structural changes, including shortening windows and minor changes to walls. Since our house is so old, the GC explained that we won't have a good idea of the state of the (probably cast-iron) pipes, (probably ancient) wiring, (probably crumbling) walls, and so on, until we actually start demolition. This makes sense to me.

Also, now that we have a diagram to scale showing where everything will go, I'm not sure why we still need the architect. It was very useful going through the layout process with him, but I think the GC could handle the rest of the decisions. The architect's residential experience is entirely out-of-state and he's not familiar with contractors or zoning laws around here. His rough cost estimate for the project also sounded low to us and the GC said it was extremely low, which makes me think maybe he's not that realistic about how things work in our expensive area.

Is he right? Should we ditch the architect? How will the architect add value to the project now that we have the basic design?
posted by chickenmagazine to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
 
Perhaps if during demo it is discovered that the house was not built/supported properly he may be called in to consult with a structural engineer. However a CG is not an architect, and the vision you paid for will require some consultation from the architect as the project progresses.
posted by Gungho at 8:21 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


We were *just* in a similar situation and I'd trust your contractor here.

My wife and I embarked on a multi-month gut/remodel (including kitchen) working with an architect we knew and liked (and still like). But once construction began it became clear that the initial build designs needed to be modified to accommodate what we found ("oh here's a pipe that wasn't in the formal 'as built' drawings the architect worked with").

Furthermore, there were several design decisions that looked good in the plan but that, during the build, our contractor pointed out and said "so this is what plans say to build but realize that if I do it like that you "will bump you head every time you use the stove" or "won't be able to install the that thing you said you wanted in the closet." Our architect was great, but our contractor was critical to both the build and design.
posted by donovan at 8:31 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, if you discover that there are structural issues that need to be rectified during the process, you'll have to get sign-offs from a structural engineer, which the architect probably isn't. It's great to have a design, but my experience echoes that of the other commenters here: once you get into the nitty gritty of how the existing structure needs to be altered in order to actually work, you're better off trusting your general contractor, and getting a structural engineer who'll sign off on (or subtly modify) any engineering issues where your city or local building authority requires it.
posted by straw at 8:38 AM on April 24, 2013


Have you gotten permits yet? Depending on what you're doing, an architect's (or structural engineer's) stamp may be required to get building permits. Once permits are pulled, it is indeed fairly common for homeowners to proceed with just the GC and not have the architect involved any more, or just have them available on an as-needed basis instead of on regular call making pre-scheduled site visits - this would allow them to resolve issues that come up in the field during demolition like Gungho suggests.

In construction administration, the architect's primary role is to act as an advocate for the homeowner and ensure that the design is actually built according to specifications. Your GC could be either very honest here and is trying to save you money, or he's setting you up to bilk you because he can get away with cutting more corners once the architect is out of the picture, possibly by exaggerating the poor state of the existing construction - if the architect were involved, he may contradict the contractor on this. So, the GC is basically correct that you won't have a good idea of the real cost until you open up the walls, but do you want the only person to make the determination on the existing building condition to be the guy who'll get paid to repair it?Will you know any better? Just from what you've described, this GC actually sounds like a bit of a swindler to me - pushing out the guy ensuring design quality; hinting at possible future expenses that are currently unknown; and characterizing the architect's estimate as too low. Please make sure you're getting more bids than just from this guy, and talk to other people he's worked for to see how things went with them.

Leaving the architect out of construction administration can be an ok thing to do, but only if you really trust your contractor to not start ringing up charges for every little thing and care as much about the quality of the finished design as much as the architect.
posted by LionIndex at 8:39 AM on April 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


LionIndex: Leaving the architect out of construction administration can be an ok thing to do, but only if you really trust your contractor to not start ringing up charges for every little thing and care as much about the quality of the finished design as much as the architect.

Exactly this.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:44 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also: at this point, knowledge of local zoning codes is a non-issue. The plan check process for approving the plans will weed out any zoning irregularities in the plans well before construction starts, so as long as things are built to plan you shouldn't have zoning problems.
posted by LionIndex at 8:59 AM on April 24, 2013


The GC is totally right about not really knowing what you're dealing with until you actually open the walls up. On remodel jobs there are almost always unexpected problems, and with older buildings there can be a lot of unexpected issues. It's not unlikely these will mean the design you've agreed on with the architect will have to be changed. (Or that following it will end up being a lot more expensive than changing it.) The GC can make sure the end result is structurally sound, but it's the architect's job to make sure the end result also looks good. It's good to have the architect around to do this. (I'm coming at this from my experience as a carpenter, rather than a homeowner.)

Keep in mind that construction estimates are estimates of material and labor costs if nothing goes wrong. This is a remodeling job on an older building, so things will go wrong, it's just a matter of what the issues will be and how much they'll cost. There's no way to know until you start doing demo.
posted by nangar at 9:57 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also: at this point, knowledge of local zoning codes is a non-issue. The plan check process for approving the plans will weed out any zoning irregularities in the plans well before construction starts, so as long as things are built to plan you shouldn't have zoning problems.

This is true, provided you've been through that point. We worked with an architect who turned out to be a buffoon who didn't know local requirements. He turned in a set of plans that didn't meet our area's requirements and then was slow/ineffective in making revisions and then buzzed off entirely.

One of the things he failed to deal with were structural issues and specs, and eventually the architect our contractor hired took care of those things. To look at the two sets of plans and compare is astonishing. And depressing that we threw that money down a surly, annoying, unresponsive metaphorical toilet.

But this was a project that involved a shed dormer and carving open a roof line. A kitchen renovation I am inclined to side with your contractor - when you start peeling open old walls you Find Things, and they can be important. Maybe they turn out to be things that demand a plan change, like a load bearing column you can't move. Or there's electrical in that wall that it would be prohibitively expensive to move, so you don't HAVE to change the plan but you decide you WANT to (or want to still be able to retire).

But maybe in your case what they find is a wall which needs more replacement and you want to find a way to alter the rest of the design to work around it. In which case maybe you do want the architect's involvement. I think, based on your arrangement, that you should tell the GC that you trust them and their decisions but you're very happy with the design you have and, because of that, you want the architect's involvement in changes so that he can keep the look and feel you like.
posted by phearlez at 10:24 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I actually just noticed the bit where you said that you'd worked with the contractor previously and trust him - if that's the case, you probably don't have to worry about him hoodwinking you in the manner that I described.

But, yes, as I and others have indicated, there are bound to be odd things in the walls that no one could have anticipated before demolition, and they will likely add cost to the project. If you can trust your contractor enough that you rely on him to only make the necessary fixes to meet code or livability requirements and not go and create more work for himself, then it's probably fine to at least reduce the involvement of the architect. Doing so will sort of depend on the contract you already have with the architect - if you've already signed up to have him involved in construction administration and have a fee for the project based on that, getting rid of him will be a little tricky. If the project requires a professional to sign off on the plans, he could get miffed and remove himself as architect of record for the project, which can sort of invalidate your permit. Many architects will work with a contract where they bow out after permits are pulled anyway, so it might not be much of an issue.
posted by LionIndex at 12:15 PM on April 24, 2013


For something like a kitchen renovation, the architect's work should be pretty well done when he hands off the drawings, unless there are major revisions required.

The cabinet manufacturer's designer is one person who should be in the loop, and you all will want to double check the specs when the rough-in approaches completion.
posted by ovvl at 5:00 PM on April 24, 2013


Thanks for the helpful answers! I think we'll put the architect on hold for now and consult him as needed going forward. I'll probably have a conversation with the architect about this first to give him a chance to make his case.
posted by chickenmagazine at 1:50 PM on April 25, 2013


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