Why The Architect Should Be The Lead Professional On A Home-Building Team

September 19, 2009

NOTE: This article previously appeared in the Mid Atlantic Real Estate Journal in June 2009 and is slated to appear in the Mann Report in December.

By Seth A. Leeb, AIA
Immediate Past President, New Jersey Chapter, American Institute of Architects
Seth A. Leeb, AIA, immediate past present of the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-NJ) is the principal of Seth A. Leeb Architect in Parsippany, N.J., which specializes in home additions and remodeling. He says that homeowners frequently make the mistake of not hiring an architect to lead their home-building or remodeling project. In this Q & A he addresses the issue of why the architect is important to the home-building team.

Why should the architect be the lead professional?

The architect wears many hats. He is the visionary who comes up with the concept. He develops the plans, does the construction drawings and understands the codes. He is also the communicator. He has to communicate ideas to both the homeowner and the builder. Sometimes he is the referee between the homeowner and the builder. He also has to communicate with subcontractors such as cabinetmakers, kitchen designers or interior designers — even the landscape architect or designer. So the architect plays many different roles. But he — or she — coordinates all these efforts. He is the orchestrator.

Has this always been the case?

In the past, it was even more so. Centuries ago, the architect was the master builder. He was the architect, the contractor, everything. Architects can’t do everything anymore, but they are still the leader. In residential architecture, the architect is the designer-visionary, but he also has to be able to understand the different aspects and bring them together. That doesn’t mean the architect has to know what all four wires in the structured cable are, but he has to understand the need for structured cable and who to coordinate with on it. The architect as lead professional on the design or construction team is still very relevant and brings incredible value to a project. And an architect who is a member of AIA contributes an added level of professionalism and ethical standards.

Why do homeowners think they can undertake a project without an architect?

Often homeowners ask themselves, “Do we really need an architect?” — even for big additions. Or maybe the word “architect” doesn’t even cross their minds. They think, “I’ll hire a general contractor. I just want a one-room addition out the back.” I’ve taken over many projects where this has happened. Other architects have too. The general contractor sometimes says “Yeah, I can handle it,” but the outcome is often very disjointed. The homeowner has hired a contractor, an interior designer and a kitchen designer, for example. They each have their own ideas, but nobody other than the homeowner is trying to mesh everything together. Nobody is there to look at the big picture.

What should the role of the contractor be?

The role of the contractor is to make the vision physical. The architect’s role is to create the vision and then coordinate the components to make the vision physical. But the contractor isn’t the designer. He may have a set of design skills — and a lot of contractors do — but he doesn’t have the training that the architect has. One of the skills that an architect learns is problem solving. He learns how to pick something apart, look at all the pieces and then bring the pieces together. That’s what you have in a construction project — a lot of little pieces that the architect brings together into a whole. The contractor then builds that whole. I look at it as a three-way team: the architect, the owner and the contractor. All are working together to accomplish the goals of the owner.

What are the drawbacks of letting the contractor play the role of lead professional?

An addition designed by a contractor may come out okay; it may even come out nice. But maybe the contractor’s forte is moldings and spaces, but not lighting. Or maybe he’s good with lighting, but not finishes. Maybe he’s good with everything, but not the landscape and how it’s integrated into the site. The architect knows that the most important element is how the addition is integrated with the rest of the site. Also, an architect in the lead can prevent other problems. Maybe there are water issues. Yes, the contractor can put drainage in, but it’s better if the drainage is integrated into the design and the landscape and the other components.

What about homeowners acting as their own designers?

A lot of homeowners say, “I sketched it out a little bit.” That’s great, but it’s not going to get them the building permit and it’s not going to meet the codes and it’s not going to get an honest bid from a contractor. It’s just going to get their ideas down on paper. But some homeowners think they can give that sketch to the contractor and the contractor will build it. Fifteen years or more ago it was different. We weren’t as litigious a society. Contractors don’t want to do that anymore. They don’t want the liability. Most contractors want to work with an architect. They want to see a blueprint and architectural drawings so they know they’re bidding apples to apples against the next guy. They also know that they won’t have to worry about guessing in the field — that it’s all there in the blueprints.

What about building codes? Whose responsibility are they?

Contractors generally know simple codes from builders’ courses, but the codes keep changing. So it’s the architect’s responsibility to be up on these codes. This is an area where the architect is extremely important because every town is different. They all have their own zoning codes and some may also have building codes. If the contractor does a lot of work in that town he may know some of the zoning codes, but not all of them. A lot of the older towns have very tricky zoning codes. Although an architect may never have worked in that town, he will know how to work with those codes because he has worked in towns with similar codes.

Does the architect also sometimes have to be a psychologist?

Any type of residential construction — addition, renovation or new home — is very draining, physically and emotionally. That can be very stressful, especially if a husband and wife are not on the same page. A lot of times the architect is the referee — not with the contractor, but with the homeowners. A good architect doesn’t take sides, but listens to both and synthesizes with both and works with both. You can’t play favorites. In a lot of cases the architect meets more with the wife, but not always. The architect should assign one partner, or the couple can assign one, to have the final word.

What are some of the benefits of making the architect the lead professional?

Architects add incredible value to a project. And it’s not just that the project has been designed by a professional, but the value of what is actually built. A lot of prospective buyers say, “I love the nooks and crannies” or “I love the built-in window seat.” Built-ins, moldings, variations in ceiling heights, differently shaped rooms, angled roofs, beamed ceilings, alcoves, reading nooks — all add to the value of a home. These are the things that make it a home, not just a collection of boxy spaces. One of the main elements affecting resale value is that the design is cohesive. The architect makes sure that the new spaces are related to the existing spaces — that you don’t have, for example, a really big space that is disproportionate to the other spaces. A house can have small bathrooms and a small kitchen, but it will maintain its resale value as long as it’s functional. Houses get more marks on resale for functionality and flow than for size. If the house has good “bones,” the buyer can always do things with it.

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