Redo-it Yourself

February 2, 2017


With the rise of the home improvement economy, many homeowners try to save money when remodeling or building new homes. They do this by eliminating licensed architects and general contractors. This gives rise to some very entertaining construction horror stories. Nightmares involving permitting, costs, delays, errors, and the quality of the finished work. Trying to design and build or modify your own home all by yourself is a lot like trying to perform self  brain surgery. On your kitchen table. With kitchen utensils. Without any medical training.


"How hard can it be? I'll just drill a hole in my head with a cordless drill / screwdriver and scoop out my brain tumor with melon baller. Don't worry though - I'm not an idiot. I'll watch some Youtube videos first.




I suppose it's possible to perform brain surgery on yourself -  but is it really a good idea? Buildings are more complicated than the human body in many ways. They are certainly a lot larger and more expensive. I've even seen architects and contractors make this mistake with their own homes. They think because they are professionals they can do it themselves.


I once worked for an architect who remodeled his own home. He tried to save money by hiring and coordinating the work of subcontractors himself rather than hiring a general contractor. It was ugly. Time after time he'd leave the office mid-day to meet some tradesmen, only to get stood-up when they failed to show. Lesson 1: A subcontractor's first loyalty is always to the General Contractors that feed them steady work. They could care less about some cheap, inexperienced, unreasonable homeowner - or architect for that matter. These subcontractors had better jobs lined up, so they just ignored my boss until they had a little gap in work. He'd browbeat them into agreeing to show-up on a certain date over the phone, and they'd stiff him. Repeatedly. It became a running joke in the office. At one point $10,000 worth of custom french doors arrived at the job-site with all their hinges reversed. This made them absolutely useless. It wasn't his fault, but it still cost him a 6 week delay and almost ended his marriage. There were so many problems during construction his wife threatened to leave him. He eventually hired a General Contractor. After getting tired of sleeping on the couch I suspect. Never heard about any problems with his remodel after that....




Like the old saying about the lawyer who tries to represent himself in court, the homeowner who tries to manage construction themself has a fool for a client. More-so, because a lawyer understands the law and proper courtroom etiquette.


I get it. Home construction is an expensive undertaking. Owners want to save as much as possible, and the benefits of hiring professionals is less obvious than their expense. What they dont get is that the benefits far outweigh any expense. Having professionals on your building team will actually reduce the cost of project. It will insure the project is well designed and built. How much is that worth?




"Do it yourself" home improvement has been sold to the public for one reason:


To make the owners of Home Depot and Lowes really, really rich.


Look at who sponsors “This Old House”. Its Home Depot and Lumber Liquidators. Gorilla glue (!) These corporations make more money when building projects go wrong than when they go right. They get to sell the same product twice. The first time, and then after the tear-down because something went wrong. They'll happily sell you the sledge-hammers and crowbars and lumber you'll need re-do-it-yourself.




Architects are highly trained professionals. Hiring one gets you a set of carefully developed drawings and specifications called "contract documents". These lay out for the builder exactly how the project fits together. The drawings of structural, electrical, and mechanical engineers are carefully coordinated by the architect. They are checked for accuracy and completeness. A detailed set of specifications are developed spelling out the quality of all materials, finishes and hardware. The project will meet or exceed building codes. The architect will prepare the contract between you and the general contractor.

Importantly, the architect will enforce the contract during construction on your behalf. Architectural drawings can be used to secure construction loans, contractor bids, and building permits. They provide a highly specific set of requirements for the contractor to follow during construction. Deviation from these requirements must be approved both by the architect and owner. Costs are controlled and quality is insured. Codes are met, and the owner's project becomes a success, rather than a nightmare of cost overruns, delays, leaky roofs, cracking walls, peeling paint and expensive lawsuits. Clients get dream homes rather than money pits. Lawyers go hungry.


A general contractor (GC) provides a complementary set of services during construction. These services dovetail with those of the architect. The GC's primary role in construction is administrative and supervisory – few actually swing hammers. Why should you pay for that? Here's why: They coordinate scheduling and oversee the work of various construction trades. Trades who perform excavation, concrete, plumbing, framing, electrical, roofing, dry-walling, tile setting, cabinet making, and so on. Each these sub-contractors specializes in a narrow area of construction. Their work must be done in the proper sequence to avoid conflicts, damage, and delays during construction. It must be constantly reviewed for quality and conformance with contract document drawings and specifications. This is the general contractors job.



So the architect and general contractor have similar roles within their disciplines. Both are experienced professionals who must pass rigorous state exams for licensure.  Taken together, they form a team devoted to making sure building projects come in well designed, on time, of high quality, and under budget. They also provide checks and balances against each other. The architect reviews the quality of the contractor's work, and the contractor cross-checks the architect's work during construction. This is why there is a friendly rivalry between the two professions. Each makes sure the other has done their job properly for the client. They should always work together to insure the client gets a quality building.




The cost to hire an Architect varies greatly by project type, scale, location, and schedule. The architect's background and professional reputation play a large roll. Firm size factors in, with small firms charging less than big ones. The same goes for contractors. Generally speaking, the smaller the project, the more you can expect to pay relative to the overall cost of construction. A conservative rule of thumb is to budget 20% of the expected material and labor costs of construction alone for design and contracting expenses. 10% goes to pay for architecture and engineering services, and 10% goes to the general contractor to cover his profit and overhead. Famous architects might demand twice that amount. Less well known ones might work for half as much. General contractor's also vary in cost.




When looking for an architect, you'll quickly learn that there are a variety of firm sizes. It's important to understand the pros and cons of each type of practice. Select an architect appropriate for the project you envision and your budget. They vary from small local practitioners like myself to corporate firms with thousands of employees. Don't select a corporate giant to do a kitchen remodel or a sole practitioner to do a football stadium! In between these two extremes lies the mid-sized firm.  A final option is the design-build route.




Big and super big architecture firms are the Walmarts of the architecture engineering and construction industries. They are usually giant multinational corporations with holdings in several different sectors of the construction economy. They offer a combination architecture, engineering, construction, and construction management. Examples include WSP Parsons Birkoff, HNTB (whom I once worked for), HDR inc, Gensler, and others. Annual revenue at these firms ranges from tens of millions of dollars a year to billions of dollars. These giants focus on huge infrastructure developments, building roads and subways and stadiums. They design and build skyscrapers. They master plan new cities. They  bring the infrastructure of modern civilization to developing parts of the world. They also work domestically building and renovating roads and mass transit systems. They are specialists in handling the logistics of mammoth building projects of all sorts. If you want to build a skyscraper, an airport or a highway, you seek out one of these firms.


They are not known for great design work or innovation. The nature of the work makes them very conservative. Bland but functional buildings are the norm. Architects are just a small part of such firms. Their roles are usually managerial. Artistic, innovative architects like Frank Ghery rarely practice in such firms. Large firms do not do small projects, or even mid sized projects. Such projects are not profitabl because of the enormous overhead these outfits carry




Mid-sized firms are the Swiss army knives of the architecture profession. They employ fewer than 50 people. Their annual billings rarely exceed 10 million dollars. Some specialize in a narrow area of practice such as health-care, but the majority offer design services for a variety of building types. These types might include institutional, commercial and residential projects. Some mid sized firms are led by outstanding designers. Erlich Architects in Culver city comes to mind. The 80/20 rule applies here. 20% of these firms do good or excellent work, while 80% produce mediocre buildings. At best. While they are usually quite competent from a technical standpoint, design quality varies greatly. It depends greatly on the owner's of the firm, and whether they put a premium on profit or good design. Profit and good design are not mutually exclusive, but design itself is an inherently inefficient process. This makes design a tempting target for cost cutting - especially by mediocre architects. Most of the buildings you see around Los Angeles are ugly because either no architect was used, or their was a mediocre/bad one. Most mid-sized firms don't bother with residential work unless its large multifamily apartment or mixed use buildings. If they do single family residential work at all, it's likely for high-end multi-million dollar custom homes. Mid sized firms tend to charge more than small firms because they have more employees and more overhead. Many mid-sized firms struggle financially. They have high overhead costs and depend on a steady supply of profitable projects to survive. They sometimes cut corners. While you can get good service from these outfits as a small client, you will never be a top priority for them. This is because they have larger clients who represent a steady supply of work. Small clients usually hire architects for one project.




80% of all architecture firms are considered small. They are the mom and pop small businesses of the Architecture profession. They range in size from a single architect like myself to firms with 10 employees or less. They run lean and mean. They work almost exclusively in single family residential and light commercial or institutional building types. A large part of their practice may be renovation or interior work. Others specialize in doing additions. Their annual billings will be less than 1 million dollars per year - usually a lot less. Sole practitioners generally bill less than $250,000. Most bill less than $100,000. 


Small firms are usually very efficient from a financial standpoint. The have to be. With low overhead, they can offer their services at a discount relative to mid-sized firms. If you are small business or homeowner looking to hire an architect, I'd advise that you to start with a small local firm. You'll get personalized service because your job represents a much larger portion of the firms overall revenue than it would at a mid-sized firm. Good small offices care passionately about doing good design work. Its why they work for themselves rather than a larger firm. Frank Lloyd Wright ran a small practice. So did Frank Gehry. Some small practitioners have academic experience, myself included. This keeps them abreast of design trends and sharpens their communication skills. It can also supplement their income allowing them to highly selective about the clients and projects they take on.


The quality of the design work produced by a small office depends on both the talent of the architect and the willingness of their clients to support good design. Ask and architect and they will tell you that "It takes a good client to make good architecture". In my practice, design is a collaborative process with my clients. It makes sense for clients to seek architects with aesthetic sensibilities aligned with their own. You are commissioning a work of art in many respects. Just as you wouldnt commission a painting from Picasso if you hated modern art, commissioning a minimalist architect to design an english country manor makes no sense.  It is important to work with someone who communicates well, and who you feel comfortable with on a personal level. In my opinion this is one of the most important things for clients to consider when hiring an architect.




The challenges of design-build project delivery are a topic for another post, but I wanted to touch briefly on them here. For better or worse, design-build is a growing construction services model. Its selling points are that it can be cheaper than traditional project delivery models. There is also a single source of responsibility in the designer / contractor.  A lot of contractors use the term “design-build” to describe themselves these days. Unlike the term “architecture” or the title “Architect” there are no legal restrictions for using the term. Anybody can call themselves a “Design–Builder”, including the guys hanging out in the Home Depot parking lot. Got a dog and pick-up truck? You too can open a design-build office. At a minimum, you should work with a licensed contractor here. I think it's best to select a design-build firm with at least one licensed architect in its employ, at least if you care about design quality.


To be frank, you are unlikely to get good design work from a design-build firm. Such firms are almost always run by builders with no formal design education. Some are fly-by-night con-artists. The checks and balances of traditional architect/contractor, design, bid, build project delivery are absent. There is a strong profit incentive for design-builders to do the bare minimum when putting buildings together. The fox is in the hen-house. There is no outside expert looking over their shoulder on the owner's behalf during construction.

It's not my first choice as a project delivery method.




I hope I have convinced you that its in the best interest of anyone contemplating a construction project to budget for both a licensed architect and a licensed contractor. It might seem like you can save money by going the cheap route and doing it yourself. But the old proverb about cheap things actually being the most expensive holds true with a vengeance in the world of design and building.







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