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Top Ten Tips When Faced With a Challenging Architectural Project: Early Plan Option - Cropped for Featured Image

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Top Ten Tips When Faced with a Challenging Architectural Project

Not all architecture projects move along seamlessly, totally according to plan, and right on schedule. But, it doesn't have to be so bad: when you find yourself faced with one of these "challenging projects," keep these Top 10 Tips in mind to help make the process a little smoother.

November 8, 2015

We’re approaching 5 years here at Board & Vellum and starting to think about what that means (short answer; it probably means a big party). Not that we’ve had much time for contemplation with the insanity of the Seattle real estate and construction market but it is always nice to sit and ponder what’s next (to be fair, we do a lot of critical planning and strategy but there isn’t much of the sit down and reflect kind of time these days). So when I saw what the next #architalks blog post topic was I actually found a minute to think about what’s already happened versus what’s about to happen. The topic is “My First Project” and what that entails is totally open-ended. I thought about discussing my first personal remodel project or maybe my first project at school. I’ve had three jobs in the architecture industry prior to Board & Vellum so I considered writing about each project that I worked on at those locations. Instead, though, I wanted to look way back at the first project number at Board & Vellum.

It wasn’t much of a stretch.

That first project number, you see, is still very much an active project. Wait, isn’t Board & Vellum going on 5 years you might say? Well, yes, it is. And yes, that means that we’ve been working on a project for over 4 years. This isn’t the norm in architecture but almost every architect I know has a few of these projects that just takes a very, very, very long time.

Before I get too far into this I want to step back and talk a bit about project schedule. I’ve written before about how long a project can take. That’s with a lot of assumptions about a rather typical project schedule and site condition. Sometimes, though, pretty much everything related to the project can impact schedule. Often a remodel can be very easy as there are so many constraints and other times, as with this project, there are so many restraints and conditions that it can be overwhelming for the parties involved. Clients can start with good intentions to move ahead quickly and then be overwhelmed with the number of decisions and issues. Even with an architect advocating for them along the way, the process can be a lot to swallow. In the case of this particular project, we have slowly stretched out the design over many years leaving gaps to help the clients focus and make informed decisions. We’ve all learned numerous lessons along the way and here are a few (10 apparently as who doesn’t love a top ten list) that I think really resonate when you’re faced with a very challenging architectural project:

  1. Communicate openly. The architect and the clients should build a relationship of trust so they can feel comfortable with the decisions being made. We were fortunate to build this early on.
  2. Know your schedule. Or, in this case, know that you don’t actually have one and that you have the freedom to take your time to make decisions. It took a while for this to shake out and once it did, it helped everyone relax and know that we weren’t missing milestones.
  3. Know your budget. You don’t have to know the details but you do have to know roughly what you want to spend. It is one of the most critical project parameters.
  4. Understand that you can’t get line item budget info this early. This is a tough one for many projects, especially “numbers people”. When we’re looking at small scale plans and debating big picture decisions you have to fight the urge to get stuck on pricing out every possible scenario and line item. While it does matter how much that set of French doors costs, it honestly doesn’t matter AT THIS POINT early on. Your architect will help you dial into the detail along each step of the way but the early stages inherently need to be looser or you end up not being able to see the big picture.
  5. Be real with your program. How many bedrooms do you need vs. want? We went through a very extensive programming phase that helped the client understand what sort of house they needed (and also what they wanted, they are two very different things).

    This was one of the very early plan options.
    This was one of the very early plan options.

    This was one of the very early plan options.

  6. You’re never going to get everything you want. Architecture is filled with compromises. Unless this is a house designed for an architect BY the architect and living by him or herself then there will be compromise. It is inherent with any decision involving more than one person. Know and accept this.
  7. Some sites are harder than others. This particular site is rough. Really, really, rough. In all of the projects that have come and gone since this one started no site has stood out as having more unique constraints. The harder the site the longer the process.
  8. Own up to whether you want to remodel or tear down. This is likely the most challenging decision on this particular project. Older homes have such emotion tied to them. Unfortunately, sometimes older homes have just passed their usefulness. Or sometimes even when you know that it would be cheaper and easier to tear the house down you just don’t want to as you know there’s emotional value you in the house. Face this decision as early as you can stomach.
  9. Should you just move? Consider this one carefully as it can’t be ignored as an option.
  10. Know what information you’ll need to make informed decisions. In our case, it was clear that a set of plans wasn’t going to be enough so we made the decision to jump into 3D interior views. It took more time and a lot of information had to be conjured out of thin air, but it helped the project move forward.

    These are early 3D images we did as part of a walk-through of the house.
    These are early 3D images we did as part of a walk-through of the house.

    These are early 3D images we did as part of a walk-through of the house.

  11. So where’s the project now? It is sitting in another prolonged pause where the clients are debating between two schemes. I think we’re close but I also know that everyone is doing all they can to move it forward at the speed that works best for them. We’re fortunate that our workload isn’t dependent upon one (or two or three) projects moving forward full speed ahead. Projects almost always pause at some point in the process so that’s just part of architecture.

As we go through some of these meetings every few months every now and then we’ll pull up an older scheme to discuss the merits. I would be lying if my thinking hasn’t adjusted along the way and some schemes which I used to love now just don’t seem great. It is fun to see the old company logo and some of my early design obsessions on paper.

Board & Vellum: We’ve embraced the ampersand.
Board & Vellum: We’ve embraced the ampersand.

Aside from the fact that I can’t find a high-resolution copy of our current logo, I vastly prefer the newer one. We’ve embraced the ampersand.

More importantly, though, it reminds me that what we do as architects is constantly evolving and that there are numerous correct solutions to the same problem. Design is fun, stressful, insane, and can take a long long long time but when you just nail it, like I know we will with this project, it just feels great.

This post is part of the ArchiTalk series in which Bob Borson of Life of an Architect selects a theme, and a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is Citizen Architect. To read how others interpreted the theme please click the links below.

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
My First Project: The Best Project Ever Designed That Wasn't

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
My "First Project"

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
My First Project - Again

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
first project first process

Mark R. LePage - Entrepreneur Architect (@EntreArchitect)
Our First Architecture Project [#ArchiTalks]

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
#ArchiTalks: My first project

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
The First One -- A Tale of Two Projects

Michael Riscica - Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX)
The Early Years of My Architecture Career - My Role

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
I Hate Decks

Eric Wittman - intern[life] (@rico_w)
[first] project [worst] crit

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice AIA (@egraia)
Project Me

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept)
Define First

Anthony Richardson - That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent)
my first project

Samantha Raburn - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
6 Major Differences between my 1st School Project & my 1st Real Project

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
My First Project – The Contemporary Cottage

Nisha Kandiah - TCDS (@SKRIBBLES_INC)
The Question of Beginning

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