Ask an Architect – May 2017 Edition

We here at ISA get phone calls all the time from homeowners (and potential homeowners!) who don’t quite know where to start with this whole ‘hiring an architect’ thing. Some people just want to educate themselves (what is an FAR, anyway?) and don’t know where to turn. So we decided to answer some of the most frequently asked questions we get about architects, architecture, and our residential architecture services in a monthly blog series.

Last month, ISA Project Manager Heather Crane, AIA answered some basic questions about hiring an architect and starting a project (see questions 1-5 here). This month, ISA Senior Project Manager Joe Reid answers more detailed questions about the design process. Let’s get to it!

6. How do I budget for my project?

There are two cost categories you have to consider on a building project: the architect’s fees and the construction costs themselves. The relationship between the two is close and architects often determine our fees based on a percentage of expected construction costs, which are fairly straightforward to estimate. Most firms charge a flat fee of somewhere between 10-15% of construction costs. At ISA, we don’t charge a flat fee but instead bill our time hourly. This isn’t as common a method and when it’s all said and done our fees do still tend to be within the industry standard range, but the hourly system allows for a very honest accounting of our time and work. You pay for exactly what you get!

7. How long will my project take?

We estimate timelines based on our experiences with similar project scopes and scales. We’ve handled pretty much every type and size of project over the past 30 years so we have a lot of precedent to pull from. Still, there are certain things that can hold up the process and extend the timeline. Some of the most common delays are with complex sites where additional permitting might be necessary. Steep hillsides, protected habitats, historic resource reviews, Coastal Development Permits or Site Development Permits… all of these things can extend timelines. The timeline is also client-dependent. Some projects only require one or two design iterations and some clients like to see three options reworked half a dozen times! It all depends.

8. My house was built in the 1950’s. Does that change anything?

The short answer is yes. Any property in the City of San Diego over 45 years old must be evaluated by historic resources staff at the City before permits can be granted. This not only adds time to the usual permitting process but can also result in the need for further research and report writing if the property is deemed potentially historic. This can be a complicated process but isn’t something to be afraid of. We have years and years of experience permitting projects for historic properties and can help you complete the historic review process. If your home is determined to be potentially eligible, we can design a historically-sensitive project, complete the reports to satisfy staff’s requirements, and/or designate your home, as appropriate. Lots of homeowners aren’t aware of this process and get caught off guard, so good question!

On a different note, work on an older home can require extra steps to remediate any asbestos and/or lead found in older building materials. This process is usually quick and straightforward, but it will add a small amount of extra time and expense to the project.

9. My uncle’s a general contractor, can I use him?

If you want to! We usually recommend contractors who we have a long history with and trust to do quality work. You are more than welcome to use a contractor that you find on your own, but make sure to evaluate their quality of work, personality, and get to know the supervisors who will be on site handling the day to day work. In our experience, price of the bid alone is not always a sign of the best option. Also keep in mind that a building project can be a long, expensive, and emotional process — you want to hire a contractor that you trust and can have a strong working relationship with, whether they’re family or not.

10. I’m kind of an indecisive person. Can I make design changes at any time?

As we put it, it is better to make design changes during the design phase! Design changes can be made throughout much of the project, but it is far easier to make changes on paper and much harder and more expensive to make changes once construction has started. It might help to know the basic design phases that we work with:

Design changes are fairly simple to do before the Construction Bidding phase (orange), and we generally try to have most of the details figured out during the Design Development phase (yellow). Once building permits are issued, changes could possibly trigger the need for fresh permits… which can stretch both the timeline and the budget. That’s not to say that something as simple as deciding to switch paint colors or the brand of your refrigerator can’t be done at any time, but deciding that you really need that third bedroom or wrap-around porch after permits have been issued can be problematic!

Don’t see you question above? Leave a comment on any of our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram ‘Ask an Architect’ posts (marked with the above logo) with the hashtage #askanarchitect and tag us in it. You could see your question in the next installment!