How Do I Design My Project with an Architect?
May 27, 2015
The opportunity to remodel or design a new house for a client is a privilege, a joy, and something that has often moved me to do the cliché “pinch myself to see if this is real” routine. I have my dream job and I’m in awe that people put their trust and hard-earned money in my hands to help make their dream come true. It is also a little stressful to realize that we DO have people’s dreams in our hands. It's a weight that lies heavy on our shoulders, knowing that our creativity (which isn’t a fixed resource) can either make or break your day.
Luckily, architects and designers have thick skin. We also know that there is a process in place that helps to alleviate anxiety-attack-inducing moments. I probably wouldn’t leave my house (heck, my bed!) if every day I let it sink in: what could happen if we had no road map for design. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your project won’t be designed in one either. Here’s how it actually works.
Step 1: The Dreaming Phase
Once we have a signed agreement, we've measured your house for existing “as-built” drawings, and performed preliminary code and site research, we have the basis of what we’ll use to start designing your project. The proposal includes your first list of what you want (the program) and we use that, as well as the realities of the site / project, to help determine our first steps. The core project team - two associates - will sit down for an internal kick-off meeting to review the project parameters and start laying the ground work for design options. We review the information and begin to assemble some basic parameters (what expansion options we have based on the zoning code, where the best solar exposure is, where the bedrooms should go for privacy, etc.). This is a very rough working session to help shake the cobwebs out of our heads and get the ideas rolling. It is exciting, inspirational, and easily my favorite part of the design process.
Then we walk away.
I find a great deal of value in having two people tackle the first round of design. Quite frankly, when it comes to design, two heads are better than one. Following the kick-off meeting, we sit at our desks to design and dream in peace. All ideas are on the table and this is the time to sketch loose-and-quick and gather a large pile of crinkled trace paper. Sometimes I’ll be Googling images or searching through Houzz (yes, we do that too) for something that resembles what's in my head. We’ll pour through our library and find examples of projects that inspire and get our spirits rolling too. At the end of this deep exploration, we have several iterations of ideas, plenty of messy sketches, and if we've really given it our all, by then we're usually in need of a glass of wine, a hard cider, or three fingers of Bullit bourbon on the rocks (OK, that last bit was my particular solution).
The following day, we’ll reconvene and walk through our ideas. We’ll discuss the pros and cons (design, budget, sheer insanity), and try to critique each other’s work to find the best possible options. I’ll usually pull out a variety of ridiculous phrases I’ve assembled in my bag of tricks to describe the merits of some of the options. The meeting is rambunctious, spirited, and always shockingly productive. At the end we have three, four, or five options that we think are worthwhile (and they’re often not the ones we came into the meeting with). We’ll walk through our ideas, and begin assembling the drawings we’ll present to you at the first meeting, typically two weeks after we finish the as-built drawings.
Step 2: The First Meeting
So, what happens at that first meeting? Well, first we walk you through our big picture approach by describing the parameters influencing our designs, what obstacles are we working around, what particular programmatic elements were challenging, and a myriad of other issues that may have influenced us along the way. This helps you get into our heads so you can understand where the work is coming from. Then we present each of the options along with their individual pros and cons. We rarely build any of the plans exactly as presented to you, but we often will incorporate pieces of them into the final design. It ends up being a collection of menu items from which you can choose your perfect architectural meal. At the end of this first meeting, you're likely to feel a little overwhelmed with preliminary thoughts and gut reactions swirling in your head, but hopefully you leave our office inspired that there’s a great path forward to your dream project.
Step 3: Take a Big Breath
Now we pause. You go home and discuss it. We won’t take any direct feedback in that first meeting as I feel it is imperative that you get the chance to digest the information and talk it out alone. If we were to put you on the spot you might say, “Oh, I definitely see your point on that sketch, it is very interesting,” when what you really mean is, "Whoa, that plan is just awful. Aunt Mabel would laugh at me for years if we built a kitchen like that." You really can’t hurt our feelings, but you should have the time to talk through what you saw on your own, at your own speed, and with your own process. So pull together your feedback and get it to us in a way that works best for you (email, another meeting, or a phone call).
Step 4: Refinement
Next we move forward with typically one or two of the top choices. Usually it becomes clear that there is one viable option and maybe a second option that is worth some additional consideration. We dive into these plans and start work on refining them. Here, again, is where some magic really starts to happen. You may notice that my name isn’t on the door at Board & Vellum (and to answer a question I often receive, there is also no one named Board or Vellum here). What that really means, is that I don’t have to “win." You, the clients, get to win. Whatever design Board & Vellum comes up with should really resonate with you and solve your design problems. We are obsessed with this customer service approach, so at this point we pull the top plans, gather your feedback, and gather the whole team in a room to hash it out. Everyone gets a say, we yell a lot at the wall, and in the end we feel confident we’ve worked through a variety of design ideas.
A design critique (or "crit" as we call them) is a tool that most architects and designers are accustomed to from school. We present our well-thought out ideas to a well-educated group, receptive to our ideas. We pin up drawings on the wall, describe our goals, and then carefully defend our thoughts on why our idea is the best. Then the group rips our ideas to shreds.
We are relentless. We want to ensure that every idea has been filtered through the two lead designers, but has the added benefit of critique from the entire team here at Board & Vellum. Our team comes from a variety of backgrounds with different lengths of experience, and because of that, we can always approach a design from multiple angles. Sometimes those ideas are junk, but more often than not, a gem shines through and the design gets better. The goal here is to get all the viable ideas from our talented design staff on the table and ensure that the best design wins. It is a little unconventional, but we believe it adds value to our projects and our clients benefit from it.
Step 5: Second Design Meeting
Once this happens, the core team gathers back together and works on refining the plans. We present them again and work through the details. At this point we’re usually 90% there, and work through a few tweaks by email, or in a rare case, in another in-person meeting at our office. Clients typically leave this meeting far more centered and grounded than they do from the first meeting. This is where it all gets real and you can start picturing yourselves in the house.
Step 6: The Schematic Pricing Package
Coupled with this final plan (realizing that there’s still plenty of time to tweak the details), we pull together a schematic-level specification to help with pricing and support the plans. This helps clarify things that can’t be drawn (where the tile is, what the budgeted price per square foot should be, what the assumed heating system is, etc.), and then we can use this to pull together a Schematic Pricing Set. This is used to pull together our preliminary budget and pricing and set the tone for how we move forward in the phases ahead.
Phew. Design isn’t a quick process. Overall you should assume four to eight weeks from hiring an architect to the delivery of the Schematic Pricing Package. Our main goal is to assure you that the finished pricing package is what works best for your project. It is exciting and intense, but just one more reason why I believe we have the best jobs in the world.
And remember, that job isn’t just as an architect and designer, it is as your advocate.