Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"I've been doing this a long time."

In your job and career, you'll ask generally honest questions about how something looks or why it's being done the way it's being done, and the response you'll get ranges from straightforward and curt to pleasant and pensive--someone may realize that you've brought up a good point that they've never considered. Occasionally, though, you'll get today's post title as a response to your questioning or challenging of an idea or method for doing or designing something. And I'm here to tell you: don't take "I've been doing this for a long time--trust me, this way is right" as an acceptable answer.

I'm sure some if not most people mean well when they tell you that sentence. They want to reassure you that the project and/or detail is not going to hell in a handbasket. They want you to know that whatever this decision is to be made, it's been thought through before now so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel on every project. So good on them. But while it's meant to reassure you, the intern, the newbie (as it were), it's not a very educational or informative answer, is it? Understanding why we do what we do--why we put the vapor barrier on this or that side of the insulation, why we show the doors swinging like this or that into the exam rooms, why we indicate control joints in the brick exterior every X or Y feet--is one of the vital essences of being an architect. It does no one in any profession any good to simply copy details and methods as rote gospel. The understanding of what we're doing and why makes it easier to remember what to do next time, and it gives us an understanding that helps us deal with unusual situations (the doors swing like this in the exam rooms for privacy, but it can't because of the column here, so perhaps this should be an office instead).

So instead of shrugging and mumbling, "oh, okay" when someone feeds you this line, ask "Why is it right? Can you explain it to me? If you can't, then who should I ask?" Or, if you think they very well could be wrong, ask "Well, I found this thing in the code/facility standards/meeting notes/whatever, and it seems to contradict that--can we go over this together for a few minutes? If you can't, who should I review it with? Can you look at it with me later?" If you're still getting pushback, then push right back (I'm officially giving you permission to be a pain, if only for a moment): "Perhaps it is right, but I'm not seeing how that's possible given what I've found here...would you mind explaining it to me?" Or even "I'm sure you're right about this, but I need to understand what the reasoning is behind this detail--this isn't the only detail I'll be doing on this project."

Questioning the reasons for doing things they way someone tells to do it is important, because they may not realize--innocently enough--that they're wrong. They may have been following some superbasic rule of thumb ("the vapor barrier always goes on the warm side of the insulation!!!!") without realizing that the correct answer is either different or more complicated that they originally thought. Asking them to explain the reasoning behind their response gives everyone one more chance to check their assumptions and see if they're still correct. A corollary to this is that people may do things the way they've always done it and not realized that technology has made their way of doing things obsolete or more trouble than they're worth. For example, a lot of our interns are having to confront the older project managers in my office with how Revit changes the old way of setting up a set of drawings and indeed a project. Because we're building in 3D, there's no more fudging details and just saying, "oh, we'll fix it later." 3D software platforms like Revit and ArchiCAD tend to require longer SD and DD phases and a shorter CD phase, and we who deal with the software are having to challenge our bosses' assertion that "we've been doing this a long time and it works" still applies (when it doesn't). So challenge someone when you have done the research and really believe you've found a better way.

I'm giving you permission to push on this because there are a few people who use the above sentence as a way to shut you up. By asking them why something is the way it is or by disagreeing with their decision or direction, they view this as some iPod-wearing, text-message-sending, baggy-pants-wearing whipper-snapper punk challenging their authority. How dare you insinuate that they're wrong? You're an intern, for crying out loud! And they're an architect/ engineer/interior designer/whatever! These are the people you especially need to push back on, because they're wrong at least half the time, and all you're really doing is saving them from themselves.

About a year ago, I was helping an interior designer in my office by checking her floor plans for compliance with various codes, including ADA and ANSI (the two major codes that govern disabled accessibility). I noticed in the code that a clear space of 36" wide by 48" long was required at all 3' by 3' transfer showers, instead of the usual 30" x 48" clear space required just about anywhere and everywhere else in ANSI. I brought it to her attention, almost in passing, and she corrected me, "Oh no, it's 30" by 48"." I disagreed politely, saying that it was 30x48 everywhere but at 3' by 3' showers, where the code pretty clearly said 36" by 48", but I would check one more time. (After all, I too could be wrong.) She asked me to do that to be sure. When I checked again, sure enough--36" by 48" at all transfer showers. I mentioned it to her again when she walked by my desk to talk to someone sitting near me, and she said, "I've been doing this a long time, and it's always 30-by-48."

That threw up a red flag for me, knowing that the code was very clear on this. It further threw up a red flag because of her tone of voice and body language--all that was missing was a Beyonce-style Z-snap when she finished her sentence. She was about ten to fifteen years older than me, and I know that interior designers catch heat sometimes from architects because they may not always understand all the ins and outs of building and accessibility codes. Perhaps some of her attitude was coming from a feeling of being challenged by someone younger, or by someone who thought she was "smarter" than this interior designer. However, some of my fellow architects in the office had bumped heads with her on code issues before, and I felt this was no different.

"Here, let me show you the piece of code; perhaps I'm reading it wrong and you can help me," I said. I had already marked the page in the code book, and I showed it to her. She read it...and was beside herself.

"Well," she said, putting on an air of sophistication, "what made you judge this shower room as a 'Type A' residence?"

"I didn't," I replied calmly and pointed to the section number by the code paragraph. "This is in section 6, which is just plain old plumbing fixtures."

She was stunned for a response, and it took her a moment to recover and then thank me for finding this bit of code for her. I checked the rest of her floor plan, fixed anything that was noncompliant, and went on my way. I was polite and considerate as I showed this interior designer the error in her understanding, which is important. No one wants to be told they're wrong, then be proved wrong, then get made fun of. I was clear, nonaccusatory, and civil. But I didn't buy her excuse of "doing this a long time." That's a lazy and condescending excuse, and there's no reason you should ever accept that as a good reason.

On Friday, we'll talk about estimating the time it takes to get work done. In the meantime, if you have something you'd like to see discussed or a question to ask, feel free to do so in the comments or via email in the sidebar. Thanks!

Monday, September 28, 2009

"We can't afford for interns to go to meetings."

I thought I might take this week to talk about a few sayings I've heard time and again in the architectural profession, and this is one of them that I've heard recently (and about which I asked in a past last week). I've heard it said more than once that a firm cannot afford to have interns at meetings, and I cannot entirely agree nor disagree.

Why aren't you being taken to meetings with clients, consultants, and contractors? There may be many reasons, but ultimately it boils down to a relationship between money and skill. Drawing takes a long time, and interns are not only good at it but also don't cost a lot in the eyes of the owner/client, the folks paying the bill. If the hypothetical architect of an earlier post charges the owner $85/hr for an intern's time and $100/hr for a licensed architect's time, and drawing takes a lot of time, then it makes sense to have the intern do the drawings while the architect does the meetings. And not to diminish what you do with a mouse, but my own mother went back to college and gained an associate's degree in computer drafting and design at the age of 51. I mention that because a professor of mine once said that he could teach anyone to use CAD, but he can't teach just anyone to think architecturally. Hence, you only need a certain amount of experience and skill to do the drawings.

The architect has generally spent more time working on projects than an intern, and s/he generally has more experience with projects and will know the kind of information to gather, questions to ask, red flags to raise, etc. in a meeting. She will know enough about construction administration to discuss RFI procedures with the job superintendent; he will know enough to ask a client about workflow and staffing in a department that's being renovated; she will know enough to push back on the engineer who insists that the electrical room "just can't get any smaller" (or to know when the engineer is telling the honest truth about that room size).

But how is that architect's experience gained? By doing, of course. And sometimes that doing involves going to meetings. I learned some about what it takes to put together a hospital by doing the redlines that were brought back to me from meetings, and I filled in that knowledge by reading the AIA's healthcare guidelines, but what really solidified my education was going to client meetings with my boss and watching and listening to him ask questions and pull information out of these nurses and doctors and administrators, who knew plenty about replacing a hip or administering chemotherapy but who had a hard time understanding what our 2D plans and elevations meant in terms of real space.

The biggest thing you learn by going to meetings is a skill that college really has a hard time teaching you (if it does at all) and that is how to (and how not to) communicate. There is a science and an art to listening, to reading people's verbal and nonverbal cues, to saying 'no' to a client when they're asking for something that they'll hate in less then a year and then helping them understand why you're saying 'no' to them when they're paying your fee. I recently got the chance to lead one of these user group meetings with a hospital, and while I was a bit clumsy at first, I got better as I went. When the conversation got off track and the users started wondering about things that would have no real effect on the project, my boss was able to pull the conversation back to the plans and elevations that I was trying to walk them through. I filed his words and approach in my head, knowing that it was okay for me to use such words to guide folks back to the task at hand without offending my clients. That sort of skill must be modeled, not dictated. While I try to outline those skills here, it's really more helpful if you see someone do it in real life--it really makes a difference.

On the one hand, it seems indulgent that architects would budget in time for a "lowly" intern to go to meetings, but to me it makes sense, at least a couple of times. I know that when I've been present at meetings and looked back at my boss' notes or at the redlines generated from those meetings, they make way more sense. By hearing the conversations that led to the decisions that have been transcribed or redlines, I also had an overarching idea of why we're doing what we're doing and how to solve problems in the future on this project. If you're in a meeting with some user groups, and the head of accounting bristles at the idea of having his department near plant operations, then you know in the future not to locate those departments near each other under any circumstances. Furthermore, you've internalized that knowledge in a way that no meeting note saying "Accounting should not be near plant ops" ever could convey. If I ran the zoo, I'd make time for interns to make at least two meetings on a decently-sized project. And they'd get at least two site visits after construction commenced, if not more. Interns need to see who they're working for and how the things they draw get built. It makes your work more concrete and make sense. And you deserve to learn on the job--that's the whole point of internship.

On Wednesday, we'll be talking about one of my least favorite phrases ever, which is mostly used by lazy people. In the meantime, if you have a phrase you've heard over and over and love or hate it, mention it in the comments or via an email to me from the sidebar. Thanks!

Friday, September 25, 2009

So, what *is* an architect?

Eric over at BlueArchitecture has a great post about the legalities of calling oneself an architect, whether one is licensed or just in posession of an architectural education. It's important to remember that in the eyes of the design and construction industry, one has to be licensed to say "I'm an architect," but Eric (rightfully so) gives us some food for thought on that narrow definition.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Do you get to go to meetings?

Before I get too far into my next post, I should ask: how many of you now or in the recent past get to/got to go to meetings? Did you go to meetings with the clients? The engineers? The contractors? Anyone? Ever? It's usually been my experience that interns rarely if ever get to go to meetings for the projects on which they work, and while I understand the reasoning behind not sending you, I don't always agree with that reasoning.

Sound off in the comments or even in an email in the sidebar and share your experiences with project meetings (or your lack of experience thereof). Thanks!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The power of the list

Some of us are natural born listmakers; I am among those people. I regularly make lists of what needs to be done on my project(s) so that I can cross tasks off and add new ones on, and it also helps keep me organized. Listmaking doesn't come naturally to everyone, and if you have a solid, proven way to keep track of everything you need to do that doesn't involve a list, then don't sweat it. But if you find that you're forgetting to get things done or you're missing deadlines or major details, then I encourage you to give it a try.

The real power of the list is when it is shared. When you deal with other team members in your office, emailing out or tacking up a list of who's doing what and when it's due is a good, clear way to keep everyone accountable and make sure your team is on the same page. That goes doubly for dealing with consultants that aren't in your office, like engineers or various other design professionals like interior designers or landscape architects. Back in the day, when iPods were just coming out, I used lists to keep everyone on track when I was doing CA on a hospital in the next state over. On Friday afternoons, I sent out a list of the upcoming deadlines and issues of the next week, and I sent out a list of outstanding RFIs and whose court they were in. Years after the project was over, one of the engineers told me how handy that was to have once a week. (I realize this sounds like you're doing a bit of parenting, or at the very least you're kinda doing other people's jobs for them, but remember: architects are the ultimate coordinators on a project, especially up until the contractor starts building the project. You will have to look at everyone's stuff before it goes out to make sure it jives with what you've drawn/designed. Therefore, you occasionally will have to remind people of deadlines and commitments.)

Some project management software will do some of this coordination and listmaking for you, but sometimes it's good just to remember what all you have to do yourself. I recently began making a list of everything that still needed to be done on my two projects, and it hit me: I'd been incredibly busy for the past month. I'd been feeling tired, and no wonder given the tasks I had left to do and the deadlines to do it in. Making lists for yourself can help ease your weary burden when you show them to your boss. When they ask you to do yet one more thing, you can show them the list and ask, "what would you like for me to move down the list so I can do that for you?" Remember the boss' paradox: they don't always know what you're doing, but they know how well you do it. Lists remind them of the first part.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Back shortly...

I've received some good input and questions in the few short months that I101 has been on the internet, and I appreciate every email, comment, question, and correction. All the input I've received has been useful and informative, and I will be addressing those ideas in the next couple of weeks. I try to make sure I've posted something well-thought out and decently researched on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but the last half of my week last week had me working 13-hour days full of back-to-back meetings and even having to go in for half of Saturday (which I haven't done in a while). Hence, it's left me with low energy and the desire to sleep in and shuffle around in my jammies.

You'll have days, weeks, and perhaps even months like this in your professional career. Maybe not so much now, but when the economy and the workload comes back, those days of overwork shall return. When they happen, make sure you're good to yourself when you're not at work. Get some sleep, forego that third drink at happy hour for a good dinner and some rest, go for a walk or a bike ride or a yoga class. Do what you need to do to get recharged...which is what I'm doing. My posts for this week will be a little late, but they'll be done. I really appreciate y'all continuing to visit the site, and feel free to share your own stories of overwork in the comments on via email from the sidebar. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Spec-tacular stuff

First of all, I just realized that I forgot to include the link to MasterSpec (thanks for the catch, Chris Grimm!). The actual site for MasterFormat is here, a list of divisions and titles is here, and a link to a downloadable table of contents of spec sections is here. Knock yourselves out--having a list of the sections handy allows you to keep specs in mind as you draw. As you might notice from Chris' site, specs are hard enough to do that architects will hire spec writers, either as consultants or as part of their staff. They can tough to write well, but don't let that scare you away from learning about them.

Each spec section is broken into three subsections: General, Products, and Execution. Let's look at each one a little more closely, using the example of 084313 Aluminum Framed Storefronts as an example. (If you're not familiar with this product, it's the kind of windows you see on most retail and low-rise commercial buildings, about 4" or so deep, with a 1" insulated lite of glass in them.)

General: This section covers general, overall information, as you might guess. It mentions any spec sections that are related to this section. In our case, related sections would include 087000 Hardware and 088000 Glazing as well as any other sections involved in the project. (If we had skylights in our project, we'd mention 086300 Metal-Framed Skylights in this section, for example.) The General section also mentions any industry standards that need to be adhered to, any system or general product requirements (sometimes, this is described in the Products section instead), and the warranty that should be provided on the product as well as on its installation. Requirements for the submittals are indicated here:
  • will just product info work, or does the architect want shop drawings how many windows, what sizes, how the mullions are spaced, etc.?
  • will any physical samples be required, such as a 12" long piece of a window mullion finished just as the final product will be finished?
  • will a mock-up be required?
Directions for hiring an installer are also included here. It might be odd to see the architect telling the contractor what kind of installer to hire, but it makes sense if the system requires a certain amount of skill and experience to install. If we're installing aluminum-framed storefront windows in our project, it's probably a commercial project, so we don't want some guy who installs wood windows in houses to get hired to install this. Related to the installer qualifications is the delivery and storage instructions--if the windows need to be kept somewhere out of the weather or cannot be left on an uneven surface (because the mullions might warp or bend), that needs to be said (though a qualified installer might already know this).

Products: Just what it sounds like--here we describe all the products we want on our project. If we have a specific window system in mind, this is where we mention it (e.g., Kawneer 451T). If we have a specific product in mind but know that we might not be able to afford it, we might list the product we want as "product basis of design" and then list other manufacturers as "approved substitutes" (e.g., Alcoa, EFCO) If we have no preferences, we can simply list the acceptable manufacturers (Kawneer, Alcoa, EFCO, etc.). However, this section also describes more specific standards for the products--it may list various ASTM standards that the product is required to meet, and it will also list how these items are to be fabricated (extruded, welded, etc.). Product names and standards for closely-related products (such as gasketing, sealant, and flashing, in the case of our windows) may be described here as well.

Execution: Finally, we provide direction on examining the product before the contractor/installer accepts it from the manufacturer and/or before they install it. This section describes some more basic info on the product's installation (for example, with our windows, we may instruct them to make sure that they're well supported and attached per manufacturer's recommendations to adjacent structure). This section lists and/or describes any tests that need to be performed in the field prior to or after installation, and it also describes protection and cleaning practices. Our storefront windows might come with a thin plastic covering on them, and the spec might indicate not to remove this covering until the system is fully into place, for example.

Again, I encourage you to read through the specs on your project and think about how what you draw supports or works with what the spec describes. Are you even showing all the products that are being described? Are you repeating information (not always a good idea--if the spec changes but the drawings don't change to match, that's an RFI at best and an incorrectly-installed product at worst)?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Let's talk about specs, bay-bee

Interns often get a great deal of experience on drawings but lack a comparable level of experience on specifications. Let me first say that there is no law against you looking on your company's server in the project files at the spec in electronic form, nor is there a reason that you cannot flip through a hard copy of that spec yourself, but I understand that doing so usually feels like trying to drive through an unfamiliar country with a map not written in your language. The main thing to know about specs is that they dictate to the contractor the what, while the drawings dictate the how. Drawings describe the external appearance of the object's existence (storefront windows: they're this tall, this wide, mullions are spaced like this, if you count them on the plan and exterior elevations there are 16) and specs explain the inherent qualities of the object (list of acceptable manufacturers of storefront windows, list of acceptable products by those manufacturers for this application, make sure they pass x hurricane and wind pressure tests and y seismic tests and use z as a finish). A contractor has to review the specs as well as the drawings to ensure that the project is built to the proper standards, quality, and cost. If the contractor misses something in the spec, revising his construction to comply with the details is generally on his dime.

The specs cover everything, soup to nuts, on a project. If it's in the project, it gets a spec section. Windows? Spec section. Flooring? Spec section. Adhesive for the flooring? Gets described in the flooring spec section. A table of contents for the latest version of specs can be found here on Masterspec's website--I recommend downloading a copy to your work computer and keeping it handy. Not only will it make it easier to get familiar with specs, but it can help with your noting and detailing on the drawings. Some drawing software (like Revit) allow you to keynote stuff in your details to a spec section, and that can make it less likely that a contractor will miss something because it was in the specs. While some firms (or projects/clients) still use the older 1995 Masterformat of specs, which uses 16 divisions, most firms and projects are going to the new 2004 masterformat, which uses a whole lot more, which are thus:

Division 01 - General (covers things like the process of doing CA, project meetings, sending submittals to the architect, sending in pay applications, and performing closeout procedures and handing the building over to the owner)
Division 02 - Existing Conditions (total and partial demolition of existing structures and sites)
Division 03 - Concrete (cast-in-place concrete, precast concrete, and anything related to making or installing those two things)
Division 04 - Masonry (cmu [concrete block], bricks, cast stone units, glass block, and anything related to making or installing those items)
Division 05 - Metals (steel structural items as well as decorative metal things, like railings)
Division 06 - Wood, Plastics, and Composites (wood framing and structure, wood trim, casework/cabinetry, plywood and fabricated wood products, and nice woodwork)
Division 07 - Thermal and Moisture Protection (batt and rigid insulation, roofing materials, stucco and EIFS exterior finish systems, exterior metal panels, sealants, and fireproofing)
Division 08 - Openings (doors and windows of all types and materials, door and window hardware, louvers and vents, access doors, insulated glass, interior and decorative glass, mirrors, and skylights)
Division 09 - Finishes (flooring, paint, wallcovering, floor and wall tile, ceiling tiles, wall and door protection, etc.)
Division 10 - Specialties (odds and ends like signage, toilet compartments, toilet and bathroom accessories, marker boards, operable partitions...lots of stuff that needs to be properly installed but doesn't fit in any of the other categories)
Division 11 - Equipment (in kitchens, laundry, medical, lab, theater and stage, loading dock, etc.)
Division 12 - Furnishings (not just chairs and what not, but also things like modular casework and cabinetry, shades and blinds, theater and stadium seating, etc.)
Division 13 - Special Construction (things that the contractor hires a special subcontractor to do, like saunas, cold storage units, or the RF enclosure for an MRI at a hospital)
Division 14 - Conveying Equipment (elevators, escalators, dumbwaiters)
Division 15-21 - Reserved
Division 22 - Plumbing (anything and everything having to do with the supply and removal of water, sewage, and gases; if it goes through a pipe, it gets discussed here)
Division 23 - Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (if it heats, cools, humdifies, dehumidifies, filters, supplies, or removes air, it's covered here)
Division 24 - Electrical (power systems, circuitry, light fixtures, panel boards, fuse boxes...all covered here)
Division 27-30 - Reserved
Division 31 - Earthwork (excavation, grading, moving dirt around, and installing new foundations)
Division 32 - Exterior Improvements (this used to be Chapter 02 for the landscape architects and civil engineers to describe exterior paving, fencing, benches and bollards, irrigation, and planting material)
Division 33 - Utilities (getting local utilities to the site and building and getting sewer and groundwater away from the building)

On Wednesday, we'll talk about the structure of a spec section and what each subsection does.

Friday, September 11, 2009

It's all about the Benjamins: Architectural Design Fees 101, Part 3

So we talked here about the basics of design fees, and we spoke here about ways that those fees get complicated and how we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot with those fees by asking for too little up front or by not asking for add services when we asked to do work outside our agreed-upon scope of work. We know inherently that not charging enough means that the firm loses money when we don't charge enough, but what does that mean, really?

Let's go back to our hypothetical architect in the past two posts on fees. Recall, for example, that she charges her clients $85/hr for her intern's time. The intern's actual hourly rate that she gets paid, however, might be more like $20/hr. That means that the intern only gets about 25% of what the owner charges the client. Where's the other $65 going? Into supporting the firm, that's where it goes. The architect knows she has some set (or mostly set) costs every month for her building, like rent or mortgage on her office space, power and water bills, and maybe even paying for parking for her employees (either partially or in full). She has the costs of daily work, like computer and equipment leasing, internet broadband connections, and printing costs. She has to pay the overhead staff, like IT, janitorial staff, and accounting--people who keep her business and workplace working. She also has to make regular professional liability insurance payments, which protect her from her own mistakes as well as from the mistakes of her own employees and her consultants; she has to make building and property insurance payments in case something happens to her physical business; and she has to make unemployment and worker's compensation payments to protect her employees. If her firm contributes to employee health care and/or retirement funds, she has to make payments to those too. She has to build in a little room for savings for the company to help tide them over in case a client bilks them or makes a late payment or if they just flat out have a lean month or two. Oh, and she has to build in some room for profit, too.

That $65/hr seems stretched kinda thin, huh?

Sometimes it is stretched thin. One way that our hypothetical architect can make those dollars go farther is putting the right people on the right jobs. For example, she has the intern who bills at $85/hr but gets paid $20/hr, and let's say she also has a licensed but junior architect who bills at $100/hr but gets paid $30/hr. If the junior architect does all the tasks on our hypothetical MOB project--everything from research and as-builts to drawing and coordination, the architect will likely burn through a set fee from a client before the work is all done. That's because it takes what it takes timewise to get a project done, and just because the person doing the work is an architect who knows building codes as well as Revit is no guarantee that the work will be done faster or more expediently. However, the architect can make more judicious use of the fee for that MOB if the junior architect does the code study and research and writes the specs while the intern does the drawings and some product research.

Knowing that the office's billing rates must pay for all the things that go into keeping a firm going, the architect has to figure out what her expenses are per month, then figure out how busy the office has to be per month (i.e., all design staff must bill at least 36 hours a week), then figure out what to charge per hour for the different levels of design staff to make sure the income is more than the outgo. I don't know if firms have some equation that they use to figure that out, but I know that's what goes into the decision.

So what does this mean for you? It means that everyone on a project--from the partner/VP down to the intern--has to be judicious and make the best use of their time on each project. If you can tell that you'll be done with your assigned task(s) in a short amount of time, ask what else you can do after that so that you're not spinning your wheels, waiting for the boss to get back into the office so s/he can tell you what to do next. Expanding your skills, such as becoming familiar with building codes, can make you more valuable on a project team, which makes your projects more profitable overall. While being very skilled gets you a raise, your firm can charge even more for your skills to the client but still keep you least until you're licensed.

If you have a question you'd like answered, or if you would like to see a topic discussed on Intern 101, please drop me a line in the comments or via my email address in the sidebar. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It's all about the Benjamins: Architectural Design Fees 101, Part 2

In our last discussion of design fees, we talked about a hypothetical architect figuring out the fees she would charge for a project. The fees she's figuring out are based on if the project goes just as it's supposed to: here are the project's requirements, here's the budget, decisions get made, buildings get built, and everyone gets paid. However, there are a few ways that this process gets complicated.

The first is when the project budget gets changed. Let's say that the owner of our fictional medical office building (MOB) from the first part of this post realizes that he's going to have to increase his budget to build the kind of building he wants to have and that people will want to rent space in. His original budget was $3 million, but let's say he increases it to $3.6 million. Remember that the architect's fee was based on the construction budget; if she charges 7%, then her fee is $210,000 under the original scope. If the owner increases the budget after the original contract and fee were agreed upon, she may decide to increase her fee if the extra $600,000 is about increasing scope, for example. She may decide not to raise her fee if the scope increase is just about being able to afford the nicest materials and finishes, or if the project was poorly budgeted before and the owner is increasing the budget just to make the project happen.

The second way to complicate the fee process is with additional services, or "add services". Let's say that the owner didn't decide to make the building LEED certified until partway through the design process. Perhaps the architect signs a contract with the owner and the doctors we mentioned in the last post, but then partway through the design process he brings in a gastroenterologist who wants to bring in a scope procedure suite, and he needs to have his suite designed, which involves some major changes to the rest of the project. Maybe as the deisgn process gets underway, the owner decides he needs an interior designer and wants the architect to provide those services. All three of these scenarios are reasons to ask for additional services--if the owner or project suddenly calls for things that are outside of the architect's contract, then she can ask for some cash and time to do those tasks correctly.

The third happens less frequently, but I've had it happen to me. If the project scope or cost decreases, the architect's fees may get reduced. One developer I worked with a while ago paid their architects a certain fee by the square foot of the project. When a project the developer decreased in square footage but not in scope, they decreased my fee. Talk about leaving a bad taste in my firm's mouth!

Trying not to leave a bad taste in people's mouths is often why architects won't charge more, especially in terms of add services. We want to seem like team players, like professionals that produce lots of good work at a good price. The problem with that is that we often shoot ourselves in the foot and undercharge for our work. We're seeing a lot of undercharging in the aftermath of the recession of 2008-2009 as owners literally choose the lowest of the fees amongst the architecture firms that interview for their projects. As construction and new projects has slowed in the last year, firms get desparate and lowball just to get work, figuring that if they get just one job with a big client and show them how good they are, they can get more work with them and make that money back over time. Nice idea, but it can set a firm up for having to constantly low-bid to keep the work with a client ("Why is this fee so high? Your last project wasn't nearly this high!").

On Friday, we'll talk about what going into charging fees and what those fees pay for. However, I'd love to hear from you, either in the comments or in in email from the sidebar, about what you'd like to see discussed here. Thanks!

Monday, September 7, 2009

It's all about the Benjamins: Architectural Design Fees 101, Part 1

Architects have a long history of discussing (or complaining about) how underpaid they are, but many of us don't actually know how we get that income in the first place. A quick review of how architects charge for their efforts--either as a percentage of construction costs or on an hourly basis--is in order, and it may make that discussion a little clearer.

For most projects, architects charge a percentage of the construction costs as their fee, ranging usually from 6%-10%, usually falling somewhere around 7%-9%. (I'm not sure how this particular percentage range came about; I'll have to do a little more research.) Architects will often charge towards the lower end of that scale if the project is a new building or a renovation/addition inside or on a building that the architect originally did and for which s/he has good drawings. We charge towards the higher end of that scale if the project is a renovation or renovation and addition, and perhaps even a little more if the work is being done on a project that doesn't have any CAD drawings available, and we'll have to rely on dimensions taken in the field plus whatever notes the building's facility manager has made during his time at the facility. Renovations, especially on older buildings (more than about 20 years old) can be fraught with problems, especially if the owner doesn't have accurate records of what's been done where to the building. For example, a project I did a couple of years ago had unforeseen increased demolition costs because some masonry walls had been completely covered with drywall, which did not show up on the old CAD plans as masonry (they were drawn like a wall with a 6" metal stud).

Let's say that company wants to build a new office building in an office park that was developed about six years ago, and their construction budget (that is for construction of the building alone) is $3 million. The architect looks at the project, and it's fairly simple: a new, four-story office building with a few amenities. The site should be easy to work with; since it was developed and built recently, all the plans and utility and soils information should be up to date and records will be fairly well-kept, and there are likely even CAD files of the site. The architect may then decide she only wants to charge 6% for her services: 6% of $3 million = $180,000. But suddenly, let's say that the owner wants to make the building LEED certified. The architect knows that getting a building LEED certified can take extra effort on her part to do all the research and get the paperwork in line, so she ups her fee to 6.5% = $189,000. That's an extra $9,000 for dealing with the hassle of research and paperwork with the USGBC. (Note: I have heard that it's a hassle to deal with the paperwork of getting a building LEED certified--I don't know this from experience. I'm just using that here as an easy example.)

But suddenly, the goal of the office building changes: it's going to be a medical office building, not just a plain old office building. Instead of lawyers and real estate agents in it, there are going to be obstetricians and gynocologists and podiatrists, and there's a dermatologist who wants an office here and he might bring in a plastic surgeon who will be doing outpatient surgeries and Botox and such, plus an oncologist (cancer doctor) wants to open an outpatient chemo treatment clinic here. Whoa--healthcare architecture is a specialty in architecture that requires more code compliance, more research, more expertise than just an office building. Our architect knows that she's going to have to do more coordination with her MEP consultants and with any special equipment the owner wants, plus any special equipment that the owner's tenants want. Extra coordination means extra work which means she ups her fee to 7% = $210,000.

At this point, our architect may decide that she doesn't charge extra for the LEED certification coordination, figuring that she can roll it into the overall project coordination. Conversely, she may still decide to tack on a couple of extra tenths of a percent to cover that coordination. That will be based on her experience with LEED certification procedures as well as designing medical office buildings in the past. Also, she will likely indicate to the owner a separate amount for "reimbursables": mileage for driving to and from meetings with the owner, the cost of printing and copying drawings for the owner and the contractor, any meals incurred in the process of working on the project (for example, having to eat lunch on the road because the owner's meeting took place far away from the office and by the time the architect got back to her office, her stomach would be eating itself), and so on. Sometimes, an architect will roll reimbursables into her fee in order not to nickel-and-dime the owner, especially if it's a smaller job or if the job is under a super-tight budget and the architect wants to show herself as a team player. This isn't ideal, but it can help keep a project moving forward if the architect isn't taking a few thousand out here and there for printing and mileage.

Also, the architect's contracts and fees may depend on the owner's dealings with the tenants of his new medical office building. If the owner builds the medical office building (MOB) on behalf of the various tenants (the dermatologist and plastic surgeon, the OB/GYN docs, the podiatrist, and the oncologist), the architect may keep the same 7% fee because she's dealing with one tenant with many different needs, which would be the case if she were designing a hospital with several different departments or a school building with several different subjects taught in it. However, if each of the tenants engages her separately, she may keep to the 6.3% she originally charged the building owner and sign a contract with each of the tenants separately. She may charge the dermatologist and plastic surgeon 7% on their suite because the surgery equipment is going to be a bear to coordinate, but she may charge the oncologist 6.5% or so because his suite will require a lot of code research regarding handling of hazardous waste but not a lot of equipment coordination per se.

The podiatrist's office will be relatively small and easy to do, so our architect may decide to use the other primary method of charging fees, which is hourly. The architect will look at the program of the podiatrist's office (what rooms does he need, and how big, and what equipment or special requirements are needed if any in those rooms), use past experience to decide how long it will take what people (intern, architect, etc.) to do the project, and then provide the podiatrist with an hourly fee not to exceed X. Let's say that the podiatrist only wants three exam rooms (90 sf each), a procedure room (130 sf), a clean supply storage room (100 sf), a trash/waste collection room/closet (40 sf), a staff toilet (50 sf) and break room (100 sf), a reception area (80 sf) and file storage (80 sf), a waiting room (about 100 sf), and an office for himself (100 sf). Including space for halls and walls, that's 1,365 sf. The finishes can be simple, no walls need lead lining, there's no super-duper equipment that needs to hang from unistrut in the ceiling...nice, simple project. This project will require an initial creation of a suite layout and review with the podiatrist, possibly another revision or two with accompanying reviews, the creation of the drawings, and final coordination. She can give these tasks to an intern in her office who has passed three of his seven ARE exams; this would be a good smallish project for him to manage, and he works pretty fast, so she knows it will only take him about eight hours to come up with the original layout and another four to revise it once, four to revise it again, another full week to do a small code study on the suite and complete the CDs on it, and another week to coordinate with the consultants. After passing the drawings on to the MEP consultants for a little work (likely the same consultants doing the rest of the MOB), that's about a half-week or so of their work to put in a few diffusers and ducts and lights and switches and circuitry. The architect herself will handle the meetings with the podiatrist, and those should last no more than an hour, but you never know.

So at this point, the architect takes that estimate, pads it a little bit just in case, and then comes up with a final amount:
She bills $150/hr for her time, and she's allotting 8 hours of her time for meetings and reviewing drawings = $1200.
She bills $85/hr for her intern's time, and she'll allotting 96 hours of the intern's time for drawings, code study, and coordination, but to be safe she'll round it up to 100 hours = $8500.
The MEP engineers told her that they'll charge $100/hr for their time in general, and it will take the two engineers on the project a total combined amount of time of 24 hours to do the work = $2400.
Total hourly cost not to exceed = $12,100.

That $12,100 may sound like a lot, especially if the podiatrist's suite's construction costs are kind of low: if his suite cost an extravagant $100,000 to build, and the design team ends up billing their entire estimate, they've billed 12.1% of the construction cost. However, bear in mind two things: one, the design team won't necessarily bill the entire $12,100, it's just that that's the highest they can bill for the project; and two, it takes what it takes to design, draw, and coordinate a project of any size. Just because the project is only 1400 sf, that's no excuse to design something that doesn't meet code or is drawn such that the contractor can't get clear information on how this or that should be built, and providing a good set of drawings takes time and effort. The architect might be able to bill the same hourly-not-to-exceed fee of $12,100 to a 2,500sf yoga studio going into the same MOB because it takes a certain amount of work, research, and coordination to do anything over three rooms.

On Wednesday, we'll talk about the pitfalls of fees: when architects don't charge enough, the price wars of 2009, and where all that money goes anyway. In the meantime, if you have a question or would like to see something discussed on Intern 101, feel free to mention it in the comments or ask me in in my email on the sidebar. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Vanity Googling: not just for vain people

Vanity Googling, I learned recently, is the name for the act of typing your own name into a search engine and seeing what comes up. It sounds like a silly practice, but it's a really good idea if your involved in a job search. Put your name into a few search engines, like Bing, Yahoo, and (ntach) Google and see what comes up. If you have a really common name (like Mary Johnson), put in your name and "architect" or your college or something else that might actually bring you up. Then check the results for the first five pages.

An article in the September 2009 issue of Real Simple magazine profiles a few good ways to clean up your online profile if you find less than stellar pictures or comments about yourself (or by yourself!) online. (Yes, it's a magazine aimed at women, but both genders can benefit from this article.) It also provides you with a few ideas for adding good stuff to your online profile, like using a LinkedIn profile and even a Twitter account to toot your own horn about your accomplishments.