Q: What is the first step someone should take when deciding to build?

A: Be clear about what you want to accomplish and how much you are willing to spend. All design decisions should proceed from that foundation.

Q: Do you offer consultations for those considering an architectural project? What is involved in a consultation? Is there a cost? Is the consultation necessary?

A: Yes, we will happily meet with people who are not sure about how they should approach a project. That’s often the most important result of a consultation: establishing a direction to proceed. We don’t charge for an initial consultation in the office, but if it involves a site visit at a considerable distance, we would ask for some reasonable compensation. The information we share has value; otherwise, why go through the process? Often, half of a successful design solution lies in knowing what questions to ask in the very beginning. This is when the potential for the most value is greatest.

Q: Do you work with clients who want to create sustainable buildings and homes? What are your recommendations for them?

A: As a LEED Accedited Professional, I have the training and qualifications to assist clients who want to build sustainably. This starts at the beginning of a project, considering the orientation of the building on the property to take best advantage of the sun for passive solar heating, placement of overhangs and plantings to create shade, and design of fenestration to allow for passive ventilation. I will recommend techniques to reduce water consumption, which durable and low-maintenance building materials to use, and how much insulation to build into the envelope. I can help evaluate mechanical and lighting systems, including whether geothermal heat pumps, solar water heaters, photovoltaic arrays, and windmills are justified.

Q: Do the landscape/environment/other factors in Maryland affect building? How so?

A: Every site is unique in some way, and a one-size-fits-all design cannot hope to respond to these unique characteristics. Maryland stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains, with wide-open wilderness, bucolic farmland, and dense urban areas. Its climate is temperate, its foliage lush. We don’t suffer from some of the extremes, such as earthquakes, wildfires, flooding, and bitter winters, that other regions live through. The built environment includes significant landmarks, both new and historic. With the influence of the District of Columbia the economic climate is similarly moderate. The state thus offers many opportunities for architectural expression.

Q: What is an Environmental Site Delineation?

A: Before developing a site, it should be thoroughly analyzed. This includes not only a boundary survey with zoning, setbacks, and topography, but also a soil study to determine its percolation rate (for septic and stormwater design) and bearing capacity. The survey should note significant trees and forested areas, wetlands, and rocky areas. If there are existing buildings and impervious areas, their extent must be shown. It also helps to know the prevailing winds at various seasons, and where there are pleasant vistas. Before starting a design, we need to know what we have to work with.

Q: What is a hydrogeologist? Why are they necessary during a building project?

A: A hydrogeologist will find out where the water is–or is not–on and under the site, and where it is to go after it has been used. This is especially important as water resources become more scarce. For sites without access to public water, the hydrogeologist can determine the best location to site a well, and can arrange for the necessary permits and drilling contractors. The same is true for safe onsite disposal of water, for sites without sewer service.

Q: I want to add a bedroom to my house. What do I need to do first?

A: Regardless of the project, before contracting with an architect, check with the local authorities to be sure you will be allowed to do what you intend. In the common scenario cited above, with a house served by an onsite septic system, my advice is first to contact the local Environmental Health Department, to verify that your septic system can handle the number of people associated with an additional bedroom. A hydrogeologist can help with this process too. You will also want to contact the local zoning officer, to check your zoning and be certain your house is far enough away from the property lines that your addition will not encroach on the required setbacks; this may require obtaining an accurate location survey from a land surveyor. Finally, look through your records to see if you possess measured drawings of your house; if not, we will have to make them. If you want to make your own measurements, Click here for instructions.

Q: Are there special laws in Maryland concerning building or adding on to existing buildings?

A: The State of Maryland has adopted the series of model codes published by the International Code Council, and these have been endorsed, with some modifications, by most local jurisdictions. The Office of the State Fire Marshal uses codes and standards published by the National Fire Protection Association. These two code families often cover the same topics, but in slightly different ways, and sometimes there are conflicts. Architects must design their buildings to meet the most stringent of the codes and local ordinances.

Q: What should a client be concerned with if they are adding to an existing structure?

A: Depending on the type of addition, the existing structure can have a big effect on the design. Any addition should be aesthetically compatible with the “design language” employed by the existing building, yet should also be a part of its own era. Structurally, the existing building must be able to withstand any additional forces imposed on it by the addition. For example, we were once asked to design a second floor to be added to an existing house with a basement. The quality of construction of the existing house led me to be wary of placing more weight on its walls and foundation. So I designed the addition to straddle the old house, so the new weight came down on a two-story collonade added to the front and rear.

Q: What are blueprints? Does a homeowner/business owner need to work with you to develop blueprints to take to a builder?

A: “Blueprints” is an archaic term left over from when the ammonia-based reproduction process of an architect’s original drawings resulted in copies with white lines on a dark-blue background. Now it simply refers to the drawings used to build a project. At a minimum these drawings typically consist of floor plans, exterior elevations, cross sections and details; but they can also include detailed custom work, site-development design, structural foundations and framing, mechanical systems and plumbing, fire protection, and lighting and power. Maryland State law states that “. . . all architectural documents prepared in connection with the addition, alteration, construction, or design of a building, an integral part of a building, or a group of buildings which are intended for public use or residential use shall be signed, sealed, and dated by a licensed architect . . .” but allows a builder to provide design services related to its own construction of single- or two-family dwellings, ancillary buildings, or farm buildings; and allows an owner-occupant of a single-family dwelling to prepare drawings for additions, alterations, or repairs to that house.

Q: How much does it cost for a set of blueprints?

A: It depends on the kind of services you want, the complexity of your building, and most of all, the time we will spend on your project. We can shepherd your project from the very beginning–analyzing your site and needs–through to your occupancy, and everything in between. Or, we can simply draw up your plans. But the latter approach is not recommended; it would be similar to hiring an attorney to give you legal advice, then representing yourself in court. Every project is unique; it would be irresponsible to quote a fee for a one-size-fits-all design.

Q: How do I decide on the extent of services I need?

A: You could just request your architect to prepare a preliminary (or “schematic”) design to test the feasibility of an idea. Or you could ask him or her to develop those ideas into detailed construction documents, with floor plans, elevations, cross sections, schedules, and specifications–suitable to obtain a permit and construction bids. And whether you are new to the construction process or not, it is wise to retain your architect during construction, to make sure the design is built correctly while acting as your independent guide through unfamiliar industry terms and practices.

Q: Does the architectural firm represent the client once building begins? Will clients need to deal with contract builders or will the architectural firm handle this?

A: Whether the architect or the client deals with the builder depends on how the design and construction contracts have defined their respective roles. As noted above, there are many varieties of contracts. Sophisticated clients–those who have built several projects in the past–may prefer to maintain direction over the builder. For those who have not been through a major construction project, having an architect to intercede with the builder on their behalf can be a definite advantage.

Q: What is included in a construction contract? Do most clients have a lawyer review this for them?

A: The construction contract describes the duties of the Owner, Contractor, and Architect during the construction process. There are many different types of contracts, covering different forms of project delivery; standard forms have been published by the American Institute of Architects, the Associated General Contractors, and many other industry groups. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the use of standard contracts, which have been modified over countless projects and many years of experience, is encouraged. Generally, the Contract Documents consist of the contract form, the General Conditions and supplements, the drawings, and the specifications. Should deviations from the original contract documents be made during the course of construction, these should be handled as Change Orders, which become a part of the construction record.

Q: What are the differences between ‘Design-Bid-Build,’ ‘Design-Build,’ and ‘Negotiated-Bid’ projects?

A: Design-Bid-Build is the traditional arrangement in which the design professional (architect, engineer, or other designer) is hired by the owner first, to create a design according to the client’s needs. This design is then presented to qualified builders who submit their bids, and a contract is made with the winning bidder to build the project. In the Design-Build scenario, the client hires one entity (which could be the architect, the builder, or a joint-venture between them) who then assumes responsibility for both design and construction. Using this method the client simplifies its legal position by having only one agreement; however, this advantage may be offset by some uncertainty as to the final design. A Negotiated-Bid project is one in which the builder is selected at the beginning of the design. The builder knows what the project budget is, and works with the architect as the design develops to assure that it does not exceed it. This may allow for a less adversarial flavor to the design and construction process than the other methods, but loses the competitive advantages of the bid process.

Q: What is the difference between an architect and a drafter?

A: An architect is an individual who is licensed by the state to practice architecture. To become licensed, an architect must satisfy what I call the “Three Es”: Education (the equivalent of a five-year professional degree from an accredited architectural school); Experience (a minimum internship of three years working under another licensed architect); and Exam (pass the Architect Registration Exam). An architect must also pay the associated licensing fees of the state in which he or she practices, and must maintain moral character and minimum amounts of continuing education. Finally, an architect must practice according to a code of ethics regulating competence, conflicts of interest, disclosure, and professional conduct. A drafter is not so licensed, and may or may not have the experience required to design buildings to the standard expected of architects.

Q: Is it more expensive to work with an architect? Is it worth the cost? Why?

A: Although we don’t necessarily calculate them this way, architectural fees can range from 3% to 15% of a building’s construction cost. This is such a wide range due to the variability of size and complexity of the buildings we design. However, those fees may be made up for when competitive bids are received–especially when compared to bids proffered when the plans are incomplete or nonexistent.

Q: What are the client’s responsibilities during the pre-design phase?

A: The client should provide as much information to the architect as he or she can. This should include site information in the form of an Environmental Site Delineation; the project program, which is a statement describing what the design should accomplish; and the project budget. If this minimum information is not supplied to the architect, then he or she will have to research it or hire consultants to provide it–either of which will add to the project cost. If the work will involve an existing building, turning the original construction documents over to the architect can be an invaluable source of information regarding not only the measurable geometry of the building, but also what exists behind the finished surfaces. Many of our projects have dealt with existing buildings for which there were no extant drawings; we had to carefully survey the buildings and draw them, often making educated guesses as to their hidden construction details, before any meaningful design could even begin.

Q: What are important factors for a client to consider during the construction documents phase of their project?

A: While the entire design process can be seen as one of change, the construction documents phase is when the details of earlier decisions made during the schematic and design-development phases get filled in. More of the architect’s work occurs during the construction documents phase than in any other single phase. Major changes made in the design during this phase can be costly (though not nearly as costly as changes made during the construction phase). Thus, clients should be sure about the general aspects of the design before instructing the architect to proceed with developing the construction documents.

Q: Are mistakes made on blueprints or plans? How are they remedied?

A: Everyone makes mistakes, and architects are no exception. While we employ checking systems and Building Information Modeling software that can minimize errors, some may still elude us. One reason we prefer to provide construction administration services is so that we can be involved in arriving at a solution to help resolve any errors quickly, before they become unduly costly. Another reason is that a situation that may look like an error may actually be the result of factors beyond the architect’s control: a change in codes, or a misinterpretation by the builder. A responsible architect will secure professional liability insurance to cover the cost of correcting actual mistakes.

Q: How much should I plan to spend on my project?

A: Construction costs vary widely, depending on the kind of project you plan, its size, and location. In general, smaller projects cost more per square foot of floor area than larger ones. Renovation projects can cost as much per unit area as new projects, even though the structural component may be less. As noted above, every project is unique, with specific requirements and features. Still, it would be wise to set aside a percentage of your budget as a contingency to cover unforeseen events, such as latent conditions, adverse weather, or if you change your mind. On new construction projects, you could identify 3% for this purpose, while for renovations, 10% or more would be wise.

Q: Does the client need to coordinate the architect, builder, surveyor, etc. during their project, or is it possible to hand over the project to the professionals and not worry about the legwork?

A: As the one in control of the building design, an architect is typically experienced at coordinating all of the various entities involved in every aspect of the building project. If the architect is not asked to do this, the work of coordination falls to someone else. Many owners are not equipped for this task.

Q: What are punch outs? (Listed on the Construction phase portion of our website)

A: Punch outs occur when the builder informs us that the project is ready for occupancy. We review every aspect of the “substantially complete” project and list those items which require remedial action before the work is deemed finally complete. Often final payment to the builder is delayed until the punch list is completed.

Q: What advice do you have for someone shopping for an architect?

A: Look at samples of the architect’s body of work. Talk to references–owners, consultants, builders, permit officials–about how the architect was to work with. How long has the architect been in business? Is he or she properly insured?

Q: Should I interview more than one architect?

A: Definitely! You need to be able to trust your architect to find design solutions addressing your particular needs. The design process requires a level of mutual comfort only attained through interview and free communication. What examples of similar past projects can he or she show you? Ask for client and builder references. Check his or her reputation with the local building permits office. Verify that the architect’s license is in good standing. Find out if he or she is properly insured. Make your selection based on the architect’s qualifications on many levels, not merely price.


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