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Why Do You Still Need an Architect After You Have Your Building Permit?

Clients often ask us why they still need an architect once they have a contractor and a building permit. In fact, our continued involvement in your project during construction is so critical that we waive our liability if we aren't a part of it. So, why is that? Let's get into the details! (Pun intended.)

August 17, 2017

No one (out of the industry) really knows what the heck architects do.

Do we just draw pretty pictures? Do we document things and then walk away as everything is figured out? Do we manage the construction process, or does the general contractor do that?

The process to design, document, and then build a project is one that has been well-established by the architectural and design industries for decades. However, as soon as you leave the industry, even after all this time, it turns out, it is still a mystery to even relatively well-informed clients.

I've spoken before about Board & Vellum's specific schematic design process, so I wanted to expand on the three major phases of a project at the end (skipping the Bidding and Pricing phase for the time being). Here's a brief, high-level overview of what happens (and what gets done) after you secure a schematic design you love and enter into Design Development and Permitting, Construction Documents, and then finally Construction Observation phases.

Design Development and Permitting (DD & Permit)

In this phase, we take the schematic drawings and "develop" (get the name now?) the design into a roughly buildable set of permit drawings. All of the life safety and code issues are identified and designed for, structural design evolves and is largely complete, and general interior concepts are identified. If interior services are offered, this is when you start to see specific design proposals for your spaces (but not final selection of materials or evolution of details). At the end of this phase you have a permit set of documents, and, once approved, a building permit.

This is the part where everyone gets confused. If we have a permit set, aren't things complete?


Not even close, although you can legally build something from this. Confused a little? You aren't alone, and this ends up being the number one question we get about these later phases of architectural projects.

A design development and permit set is a relatively-developed of drawings that can be used to build what is drawn, given a savvy contractor. However, the final product will likely deviate significantly from what was drawn – and what you were expecting – as there's a lot of information still missing, and our work is not done. We may show a stair dimensioned to meet code, but what does that stair look like? Is there an open rail? What happens at the ceiling? What is the detail like when the stair intersects the floor?

At this point in a project, there is so much detail and refinement still necessary that if a client declines our continued services, we waive our liability. Of course, it happens from time to time when budgets shift that clients make the call to no longer retain architectural services. They go into it with their eyes wide open, willing to take a risk, but it isn't something that promises a really complete and well-designed project.

Construction Documents (CDs)

So, how do you detail those situations that aren't covered in the design development phase? This occurs in the final evolution of the drawings into construction documents. Here, we complete the construction details that weren't necessary for the permit or for general constructability. These include stair details, interior sections and elevations, clarifying details for waterproofing, and a host of other items that get drawn (technically, in our case, that get modeled, as we "draft" in 3D), and integrated into a more complete set of architectural drawings. The design intent and execution is set and it can be built from, with the intended end result.

Often times, this phase is done a little a la carte: we structure our services to design and detail some areas but not others. For example, let's consider a master bath. It's a complicated room with a lot to coordinate, and it's a space that is usually personalized and with a high level of finish. Typically, we will draw up cabinet details for any custom cabinets, pick and layout the tile, and help coordinate the myriad intersections of electrical fixtures, plumbing selections, and finish materials that need to be solved in order to have a seamless space put together. Meanwhile, for the basement guest bathroom, perhaps the homeowners will opt to pick out everything themselves and work with a willing contractor to get it all worked out without our input. They'll do the research on a stock vanity, figure out what tile they want, and handle all the plumbing and lighting selections. This bathroom may end up a funky tile layout since it wasn't thought-through; or, maybe the faucet reaches too far out beyond the sink. These are risks that come with not documenting some areas, but often times rolling the dice becomes a reasonable budgetary calculation. Some contractors will help you avoid these mistakes, so if you are planning on winging it in this way, we recommend you select a contractor that can handle it. Of course, we will work with you to tailor our services to the space and your budget, helping you prioritize your resources.

So at this point, let's say we've completed a full-service scope of construction documents: everything is done, all the details are thought-through, the space can be built perfectly as imagined... all is good in the world, right?

Again, nope. Now we start construction and here's what that looks like.

Construction Observation (CO)

Quite frankly, reserving some of our fee and time to be on hand during construction is the cheapest, fastest, and best way to complete your project. This phase is, in my opinion, the most critical phase (beyond Schematic Design) to have us involved in. Because we have seen so many projects have a simple permit set misinterpreted, we consider our involvement in this phase critical. So much so, that if we aren't involved in a minimum of one site meeting every two weeks, we waive our liability.

Without knowing how (and if) the documents we designed were actually built, and without providing supplemental and clarifying details during constructing, we simply can't know that the design we produced got built and that we can, therefore, stand behind it.

You may have heard this phase described as "construction administration" – that is an outdated term and technically incorrect. During this phase we observe the project, rather than administer, as that is the general contractor's job. There are a few critical things we do during this phase:

  • We catch errors or misinterpretations of the drawings. On likely every other project, even the best general contractor will snap a chalk line to the wrong side of a wall and put it in the wrong spot after looking at the drawings too quickly. Having us catch this before too much time passes can save issues with a myriad number of problems later on.
  • We problem solve. A recent project had the above wall issue happen, and then the plumber moved in quickly and put the drain line under the slab a foot into the room and not in the wall where it was supposed to be. Since we were included in this phase, we were there, and able to work out a creative design solution that didn't compromise the original design intent.
  • We ensure that even when revisions are proposed, the original design intent is respected. For instance, it is easy for a client to innocently ask for a change order from the contractor for a new window in a bedroom. The contractor doesn't see an issue with it and so it goes ahead. If we are involved, however, we can help remind you why there wasn't a window there originally. Perhaps the adjoining lot is zoned such that it is likely that a neighbor's window may be there in the future. Or, perhaps the wall is structural and so the window could only be very small. Or, it could be that a window in that location interferes with the proposed furniture layout in the room, or that the exterior façade will now look strange with a window in an odd spot. We are your insurance policy to ensure the design you sweated over gets built and not hacked away.
  • We draw details as needed. Look at your house right now, at every single wall, and try to imagine drawing every single condition, noting what everything is, and then detailing the guts of it. That would be a ton of stuff! If we drew EVERYTHING during the Construction Documents phase, our fees would have to be much higher and it would take much longer. And, honestly, we would still miss a few things or even make minor mistakes. (We are human.) So, we often elect to not draw everything and to instead work it out on site. This way, we can draw one clarifying detail after reviewing the actual installation method rather than five details during the Construction Document phase that get ignored during construction anyway because of a surprise utility line in that spot.

In general, our time during construction is to help the final project come together, ensure you get what you paid for, and help mediate and navigate the hiccups and surprises that inevitably happen during construction. We are your advocate and I can't say it enough: this final phase is truly critical.

So, totally clear on all the phases? Yup, probably only just a little more. Designing a beautiful project, documenting it, and building it is one of life's craziest endeavors. It is intensely rewarding and taxing. Our job as architects, interior designers, and landscape architects, is to walk you through our established and thorough process, advocating for you the whole way through.

And don't worry, we will be happy to answer the million other questions you'll have each step of the way because just as a set of construction documents is truly never complete, a blog post can never capture the full picture of what we do.

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