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  • Jason

"Our contractor is ready now!"

It's time. You've been living in your home with your family, saved up money for a renovation, and are looking to do something spectacular to your home. You've got ideas and have buttered around the home thinking about the improvements.

Going online or talking with your friends, relatives, and neighbours, you get the same advice: "You should speak with the contractor we worked with, they were great!".

Fast forward a month or two -- after multiple talks with various builders, a few builders have directed you to hire an architect or designer to provide designs or plans for a renovation. It is common for many homeowners to only start reaching out to architects for design services at this point -- a long two or three months after speaking to contractors. In these cases, by the time a homeowner does find an architect or design thinker, many of them have already mentally signed on with a builder.

Nothing might have been signed on paper, nor has any verbal or written commitment been made. But mentally, a home owner may have had conversations with a builder and have already developed a working relationship.

These situations are difficult on our end (as the incoming architects). On one hand, it is great to be introduced to new builders. Further, clients who approach us for design services and already have a builder in mind can sometimes take the burden of contractor selection off our plate.

On the other hand, the "contractor selection" phase is item number, say, #432 on the list of things to do. And at this juncture we're only on item number ... 5.

It is premature to hire a builder before a design is commissioned. If you do not have a design to be built, then how can an informed decision be made when selecting a particular builder? Further, from our perspective, the builder should be matched with the design.

As an analogy: You wouldn't engage a surgeon before knowing what surgery you need to undergo (it's not "guess and check" at that point). You must know which procedure will be conducted, and then a surgeon is paired for the task (one who has experience with that particular procedure). Hiring a builder prior to establishing a design is like hiring a surgeon before speaking to a doctor about a diagnosis.

Without a design, we do not yet know which contractor would be a best fit for the project - what if the design calls for a new product or technology that a pre-engaged builder has little-to-no experience in handling? The builder should be matched to the particularities of a project.

Statistically speaking, any licensed architect would know hundreds of builders who are better than the one builder a homeowner has seemingly vetted (sometimes vetted through quasi reliable online sources like HomeStars). As the principal architect myself, I speak to about 5 or 6 different builders on any given day. My design team would speak to an average of 20 contractors across various projects on any given day. It is highly improbable that a homeowner's search for a good contractor would lead to someone better suited to a construction project than one who an architect refers.

In some instances, it may have taken us two or three construction projects to notice a contractor's "red herrings" . Those have been difficult situations to navigate, especially if construction had already begun. But, as an architectural practice, we have had to navigate through those rough seas so that your future project might not have to.

One of the worst situations is when an owner has already prematurely signed on a builder prior to starting a design process. We would then hear these words: "We must start work in two months because our contractor will be ready then." This is a heartbreaking thing for us to hear since we're already working against the clock at the onset of a design process. Further, see this post about project timeframes. It would take an act of god to execute a design on time, on budget, and of good quality. With a short time frame from the start of the design process to shovels-in-the-ground, the design team and home owners cannot possibly plan the project properly, and the outcomes tend to cause great frustration during construction (the most stressful part of the project).

"We must start work in two months because our contractor will be ready then."

For my team and I, we have endured some difficult situations and learned from tough lessons. In a few past cases, when placed in this situation, we have bent over backwards to blitz a building permit so a contractor can break ground according to their schedule. I must say, in every situation when this has happened, the construction period would be riddled with problems. The design is simply not fully ready and important decisions have not been established. To be clear: an issued building permit does not mean a design package is complete. It just means the plans pass the test for building code (therefore, the design is considered safe to inhabit). If you only have a barebones building permit and not a fully formed design package, then construction is fraught with playing "catchup" to make design decisions during the time a builder is forging ahead with demolition, framing, electrical work, etc.

This is a bad situation for all parties:

1. The client has not yet agreed to a full design package. Only a barebones permit set of drawings. Too much detail has been glossed over, which allows a builder to make things up as they go. It is not in anyone's interest to have the contractor make critical design decisions during construction (nor is it a good idea to have the architects try to physically build your home - it's the wrong task for the wrong party).

2. The contractor does not have a full design to execute. This causes delays as critical decisions have to be made during construction. It's frantic and to no one's benefit. In the worst situations, contractors would make their own decisions on the spot without client or architect input -- forcing our hand to deal with the aftermath or leaving a situation to be cleaned up later (this typically happens when a client brings on a contractor who has not yet developed a working relationship with the architect).

3. The architect is constantly playing catchup -- trying to make decisions for immediate steps forward, while grasping the big picture of the design.

From our perspective, when a contractor mentions that they must start work on a certain date, this is akin to a salesperson saying "BUY NOW as this is on a final sale and supplies are running out". It might be true that a builder is available at a certain date, but this is coming from the business/economic benefits of starting a new project directly after another project finishes - not from a "what is best" for the project at hand, or the client it serves.

If there's no design to build, then there's no rush to hire a builder. For those of you looking to undertake a renovation project, please take the necessary time to develop a design and everything will go more smoothly.


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