Architects! Who Needs ‘Em?

You do.  If you want superior results and the best return on your investment.

 

Architects are kinda like prostitutes.  They perform a service we could do by ourselves, if absolutely necessary, but the process goes a little more smoothly, and the results are far more satisfying with the aid of a professional.

 

Almost anyone with an ounce of taste and good sense can execute a remodel without an architect.  And for your average run-of-the-mill middle-market or down-market flip or rental property, that may be all you need – a slap of paint, whatever tile you can get on sale, some inexpensive fixtures from Home Depot and voila!  Job done. 

 

For more extensive remodels (moving walls, building additions, etc.) a good contractor can get your ideas drawn-up and signed-off by an engineer.  Some contractors consider themselves amateur designers or (unlicensed) architects – and some of them are pretty adequate at meeting the needs of their clients.  But if you’re dealing in the luxury market, or even want to get top-dollar for an ordinary house, get yourself a pro.

 

Design Integrity

Designer showcase houses where every room is done by a different designer may be fun to look at, but would you really want to live in it?  A good house calms the spirit and lifts the soul.  A poorly designed home creates visual chaos and subliminal stress.  Think about houses you’ve been in that please you versus those that confuse you.  Room flow, sight-lines, massing and proportion are vital – but they’re only the foundation.  The finishes, the hardware, the lighting, the colors and textures – they can make or break an otherwise good house.  It’s what I call “design integrity” and what one of my architects calls the “language” of the house. 

 

Here are some basic rules of design I’ve learned from working with architects:

1.  Be consistent with finishes:  Carrying the same cabinetry finishes and countertops throughout the kitchen and baths makes the house feel larger, calmer, and more “designed”.  Some designers even believe in using the same tile throughout all the bathrooms, but I sometimes like to vary tile color or shape to give a powder room or guest bath a different attitude than a master bath, while staying within the same family (glass, stone, ceramic, etc.)  When done right, this doesn’t result in a bland house, but in a house with a strong visual presence.

 

2.  Be consistent with your hardware and fixtures:  Doorknobs and drawer-pulls are called the “jewelry” of a house.  Like jewelry on a beautiful woman, it should all work together.  A well-dressed woman wouldn’t mix gold and silver jewelry and neither should your house.  Whether it’s polished chrome, satin nickel or oil-rubbed bronze, pick one finish and carry it throughout the house – everywhere – including window and door hardware, cabinetry knobs and drawer-pulls, plumbing fixtures, everything.  Mixing and matching confuses the observer and creates subliminal stress. 

 

3.  Be consistent with flooring:  A different floor in each room adds to the visual chaos and breaks up the spaces into separate smaller spaces.  Whether you’re using hardwood or tile, carry it through everywhere you have a solid floor surface and the house will feel more expansive.  When you do alter the flooring, use it to define different spaces – carpet in the bedroom or tile in an entry foyer, for example.  But try to limit it to no more than two or three flooring materials for your house and carry them throughout.  Using tile, slate or concrete indoors and continuing it out to a patio brings the outdoors in.  And blurring the line between indoors and out is what mid-century modern design is all about.

 

4.  It’s not just visual, it’s tactile.  Think about the things you touch most often in a house – doorknobs, drawer-pulls, faucets, etc.  These things should feel solid and rich and work with precision, this is not the area to go cheap to save money.  Think of the sound you get when you shut the door of a Bentley versus a Yugo.  You want your house to be the Bentley.

 

A good architect is certain to do a better job of this than you could do on your own.  The benefits may seem intangible but I assure you this will add real value by creating a house that stands apart from the rest.  And if done correctly, the added cost of engaging an architect will more than pay for itself in substantially higher returns. 

 

Remember, you are creating a product with lots of competition and it’s your job as the owner/builder (or “flipper”) to create a house with a competitive edge that people will remember – whether it’s in Beverly Hills or Compton. 

 

Read about how to find and hire a contractor here.  And look for other postings here about design and how to find, hire, and negotiate a contract with an architect as well as the option of working with a “design-build firm”.

What Is a Permit Expediter and Do I Need One?

The permit process can be pretty straightforward if you’re doing a simple remodel.  But try to do anything out of the ordinary (like everything I do), and it can be a frustrating, time-consuming, and expensive proposition.  The city Planning Department is a fun-house hall of mirrors and the people who work there like it that way.

 

The Planning Department is a vast conspiracy whose primary mission is to make the process as confusing as possible in order to guarantee every retiring staff member a lucrative second career as permit consultants where they make more money than they ever could have working behind a counter.

 

These consultants are often called “expediters”, but that term is misleading and often misused.  The only people who can really expedite a permit process are one of the downtown law firms who hire former planning department staff members and even retired city council members and charge fees starting at $50,000 and up.  These expediters are hired by large developers or superrich celebrities trying to get around the rules with as little fuss as possible.

 

For the rest of us mere mortals, there are a variety of consultants who can help us navigate the system with as few mistakes and delays as possible.  Only by avoiding delays are they “expediting” anything.  They cannot circumvent the process or make anything move faster.  The most they can do is ensure that an eight-month process actually takes eight months – not ten.  But these consultants aren’t cheap either and usually won’t touch a project unless they can charge at least $10-20,000 in fees.

 

What many people call “expediters” are what I call “runners” or “bag-carriers”.  For $40-50 per hour, they will carry your plans through Plan Check and other planning counters.  Some of them will help you research and prepare your case – others won’t.  Some others only do the research, not the trafficking.  You’ll see these runners around the planning office, often pulling file crates on wheels loaded-up with plans and paperwork for multiple clients.  I’ve seen two types: 1) older men and women who recently retired from the Planning Departments and are still on close terms with everyone behind the counter, and 2) young, leggy women who wear the highest heels, the shortest skirts and the lowest-cut blouses you’ve ever seen and know how to flirt.  In both cases, you’ll see them wave and blow kisses to everyone as they enter the floor.  They’ll stop and chat with everyone they see and spend more time talking with staff members about family, vacations and office gossip than they do conducting business.  All this while you sit seething, waiting for your number to be called, feeling like the outcast at a party where everyone else knows each other.

 

So back to you – do you need a runner, a permit consultant or an actual expediter?  It depends on how complicated your permit issues are and what your budget can afford.  You don’t need any of these if your project is fairly simple and your architect or contractor doesn’t hit any snags.  But if you do encounter a problem, it’s going to be up to you which strategy to pursue since you’re the one paying the bills.  In separate postings I’ll talk about how to find the help you need, and how to handle the process yourself.  Or contact me directly through this site and I’ll see if I can steer you in the right direction.

 

Read more about clearing a difficult permit here.

What is a Design-Build Firm and Should You Work With One?

There are architects, and there are contractors – two separate functions that must work in synergy with each other, and who must also serve as checks and balances against each other.  It seems to make sense to combine both functions under one roof – and this is popularly referred to as a “design-build firm”.  So why wouldn’t you simplify your life and work with one?

 

Conventional wisdom dictates that you should always work with a separate architect and contractor, the reason being that the architect works as the client-advocate overseeing the contractor.  The assumption is that contractors are as trustworthy as mechanics and used car salesmen and will take every opportunity to gouge the customer.  And there’s enough anecdotal evidence out there to justify this stereotype.  After all, construction is a mystery to most people and you have little choice but to believe whatever your contractor tells you.  So with a design-build firm, the assumption is nobody’s looking out for you – therefore, design-build firms inherently pose a conflict of interest.  There’s even some debate as to whether they are ethical – or even legal.

 

Having worked both ways, here’s my take on the matter.  In theory, the architect-as-client-advocate sounds great, but from my experience, few architects are effective in that role.  Architects are artistes and ego driven.  They want their vision built no matter what.  They are often ignorant – and sometimes completely oblivious – to cost of materials and labor.  When I’ve worked with separate architects and contractors, nobody was my advocate.  I had to maintain tight control over the budgets and often mediate spats between the two parties.  Each came to me complaining about the other and they resisted direct contact at all costs.  I rationalized this as “healthy tension” that I believed was benefiting the project, but I can assure you it also created its share of problems.

 

In contrast, working with a single design-build firm was a bit easier, but posed its own set of challenges.  With the architect and contractor partners in their own business, they have a shared interest in benefiting themselves.  Nobody was looking out for my best interests and I had to be even more vigilant, exercising even more control over the budgets, questioning every dollar spent, and second-guessing every recommendation.  Differences between the architect and contractor were settled at their office, not in front of me, and didn’t require me to serve as referee.  Architect and contractor spoke with a single voice and a shared vision, and that made my life a whole lot easier.  But it brings us to the trust factor.

 

It helps that I’ve had a long relationship with my design-build firm, having used them as contractors before.  They have earned my trust, I know how they work and what to expect of them.  We’ve become friends outside work, attending each other’s weddings and children’s birthdays.  They’ve built their company on the work I’ve given them so I know my jobs will always take priority over their other clients.  I know they would never jeopardize our relationship.  I would not have been so confident working with a design-build firm I didn’t know as well.

 

There’s also the budget consideration.  Don’t forget that the architect and contractor each take a percentage of the overall construction budget which could be as much as 20% to each party.  Working with a single design-build firm makes it easier to negotiate a package deal at a much lower percentage.

 

The bottom line – there’s no clear-cut answer.  It depends on you, your situation, your knowledge level and your confidence in undertaking a major project.  If you’re uncertain, I’d suggest starting with an architect you like and trust and letting him/her guide you in your search for a separate contractor.  But if you know what you’re doing and intend to be heavily involved in the day-to-day process and don’t feel a need for an advocate, then a design-build firm may be the best way to go, as long as you know the benefits and pitfalls.

 

In separate postings, I will talk about how to find and hire a contractor and the value of working with an architect.

Bad Design is Bad Economics

  

You’ll see me harp a lot about design issues in a blog about real estate flipping, but design is what makes or breaks a house when you’re selling it.

 

This may strike you as obvious, as it does me, but it’s not obvious to everyone.  The wide proliferation of ugly spec houses throughout L.A. attests to that.

 

I know a team of developers who once showed me a high-end multi-million dollar house they were flipping in the Hollywood Hills.  They bragged to me about the deals they got on materials and how they bought overstocked flooring, doors, hardware, vanities and fixtures at huge discounts off Craigslist and eBay.  There was hardwood flooring of one color in the sunken living room, another kind of wood on the stairs to the dining area which had cheap-looking engineered flooring of another color.  There were at least six different kinds of doors in the house – solid flush wood stained, solid flush wood painted, doors with clear glass panels, doors with frosted glass panels, louvered closet doors and mirrored closet doors.  There was different door hardware in every room – some knobs, some levers, some chrome, some brass.  There were even windows of aluminum, black anodized, and white vinyl clad.  Outside they had aluminum railings, white light fixtures and a faux gold-leaf door.  And some of their ideas were just plain asking for trouble – a faux-concrete finish over drywall in a shower?  A large wood-framed window in another shower?  Both disasters waiting to happen.  The place was a mess.  It looked like the showroom at a bad Expo Design Center.  Think I’m exaggerating?  I’m not.  And these guys were both real estate agents who thought they knew their market.  What they didn’t know was anything about design or the value of working with an architect. 

 

The end result?  Their house sat on the market for almost a year with repeated price reductions and eventually sold at a loss for about $450 per square foot.  My smaller house directly across the street sold in 60 days with multiple offers at $1,200 per square foot.  Those guys ended up hiring my architect for their next project.

 

See other postings here about why you should work with an architecthow to find, hire and negotiate with a contractor and the option of working with a design-build firm.