The single house gets the most publicity, awards and attention, and it is the one that is undertaken by more architectural practices, more often.
But the difficulty of DIY clients, restrictive sites and controls and particularly unrealistic budgets and expectations make it the most difficult, and often the most frustrating, of all architectural commissions.
Last week was about a way to overcome these difficulties by starting a project using a feasibility study, aka the ‘feaso’. This week is about carrying the project to completion: in a word, process; in three words, managing the process. The secret is not design, but management.
There is an adage that design is 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration. Nowhere is this truer than in a single house project because germinating the idea may take a day, then a week in draughting, but the project may be drawn out for two years.
Some architecture schools over-emphasise the creativity of initial ideas (which I have called the ‘proposition’) to the detriment of other parts of the building process. On the other hand many schools teach more holistically, including collaboration, consultants, construction even costs. The latter’s graduates often go on to endeavours parallel to architecture where managing numbers of people from different disciplines play important parts, such as the theatre, cinema and TV.
Another adage is that the building process is like shepherding cats, to which we may reply that architects can make the best shepherds, particularly when focussed on, and experienced in, construction. Historically architects, well-trained in the design process and experienced in construction, have been vital in managing projects large and small; being best placed to carry the initial design through to a completed building.
But clients perceived failures in increasingly larger projects in the 1980’s and, egged on by engineers, promoted the creation of the project manager, and architects have unwittingly surrendered the role of management to others for some 40 years. But it is still eminently sensible for an architect to manage the process for a single house with a single client.
Nevertheless, as many correspondents have commented, it is often very difficult to secure a contract with a client to become that project manager. Agreeing with a client to proceed, by establishing that a project is viable via the ‘feaso,’ is the essential first step. Then an architect can set out a second contract for the remainder, and there are the three key issues of the ‘triangle’ to be considered: time, costs and quality, which equates to identifying stages, fees and the all-important builder.
The architect has key knowledge to impart to the client: every single part, of every stage, that has to be addressed. And setting these out in detail is the first step in gaining a client’s trust; the architect is showing the value of their experience in identifying things of which a client may have no anticipation, making sure the architect and the house client will be on the same wavelength for the long duration.
My experience is that most architects spend too little time on providing this detailed document; I’m suggesting 5-10 pages of detailed information, each with a fixed fee attached (which we will come to). Set out everything: every stage in meetings, design and documentation. Set out every drawing in the council application, the CC or BA, and the complete construction set. Set out every anticipated step: council negotiations, revised designs, additional meetings, changing details, issuing certificates.
Architects should be leveraging in small domestic contracts every part of that is managed on larger projects by a project manager (who clip their ticket on the way through for eye-watering amounts of money). This is particularly true for the tender and construction process (see below). The removal of surprises is crucial: spell out ever twist and turn, every variation. If it scares the client off then that’s an equally good outcome, for the later grief avoided.
This line by line forecast, usefully called the ‘pre-vision’ in Italian, is far more valuable to the client than the Institute’s client-architect agreement, which is only useful if you end up in court, and even then, it’s of doubtful value. Better to think through how to be transparent, how to be on equal understanding, that let’s either party walk away, without rancour, financially complete, at any time.
Let me be blunt about how we contract our fees: percentages are disastrous. They should be left to real estate agents, a notch above used car salesmen (also on percentages!). They lead to aggravation in two ways: percentages are so crude that without a detailed stage plan, like the above, it opens a door for difficult and frustrating negotiations. And the suspicion is always there that it is in the architect’s interest to increase the budget and costs, contrary to the client’s wishes.
An architect working in domestic architecture should be able to formulate a schedule of fixed fees for every eventuality, it can start out low, with hours, rates and limits, and provide for every contingency at the beginning will avoid arguments later. Then the entire process can take place without concern by either party for the costs, allowing concentration on key matters at hand.
And every domestic contract should have a clause for “Droit de suite”. Despite protestations to the contrary, every homeowner is a developer, and their capital gain (or monies for cinematic / TV use) should be shared. An outline of DDS can be found here.
Thirdly, and most controversially, we must address the issue that architects are only the beginners and managers of the process: ultimately the goal is to have a building built, which necessitates a builder. And finding a builder through tenders is fraught: clients obsess about finding the lowest price rather than the best value.
Builders hate the tender process, adding the costs to every one until they win. Patient explanation of the hidden on-costs of tendering can help a client see past it. The architect must find a way to concentrate on establishing the high quality of construction and delivery rather than quibbling in a fight over variations.
Two alternative approaches to tender are preferable. The first is to agree a budget with the client early (in the feaso), and then to use a known contractor to meet that budget by negotiation, often called ECI or ‘early contractor intervention’ in larger projects. A detailed report on costs, by a third-party QS, can help establish a benchmark to assure the client about the value, the word to replace costs.
Secondly, architects are increasingly going to become builders themselves, or joint venture with builders, to deliver projects. In this way architects can become a ‘one stop shop’ for a house to be procured by a client. The approach is similar to that by a project home (PH) builder, providing design, approvals and management of the process to deliver the final product.
Architects being builders is best represented by CplusC Architecture Workshop in Sydney, which can be seen here. And the leader, Clinton Cole was one of the key winners in the A+D Sustainabilty Awards last year.
Rather than scoff at project homes, architects should learn from them. For the last 15 years my practice has followed PHs, by developing a JV process with particular builders, which is a much more satisfying process, being in charge from beginning to end. It’s not been easy, JV builders going broke, difficult clients, a re-thinking of design and documentation, and particularly the pricing issues of variations.
Our product, called ‘Environa Concept Homes’, is intended to be halfway between a PH and an architect’s bespoke home: it is based on a construction rate that is twice to three times that of a PH, but half of most architect-designed and tendered homes. As a small/medium sized practice it has been the only way we have been able to sustain a single house business.
PH builders provide a fixed price at the beginning for the delivery of the building. Architects must learn to match this process in key parts if more clients are to take up their better design skills. If they are to provide a popular single house design service two key components must be adopted: the starting ‘feaso’, and a better managed building process.
Further, if architects are to have an impact on wide-spread house design in the future they need to look to the past: to the designs that had an impact on mass housing such as Petit+Sevitt and Habitat in Sydney and Merchant Builders in Melbourne. These were houses that grew out of the common PH process, with high design values, at known and fixed prices. You can find out more here.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to email@example.com.