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Navigating the builder-architect relationship

Navigating the builder-architect relationship


Ray Brown explores the triumphs and pitfalls of the builder-architect relationship and offers strategies to ensure a successful collaboration.

When I first began renovating my house on the Mornington Peninsula, I, like many other homeowners, was in denial of the number of headaches that were headed my way.

Of course, I expected some project delays and slight budget extensions – any reasonable homeowner should.

But since I had been helping architects grow their practices in the past few years as a business coach, I felt as though I had the wherewithal to avoid any major complications. I knew the areas architects struggled with, their pain points, and how the process worked. Or, at least, I thought so.

It wasn’t three months into the renovation when my builder showed the first signs of trouble. The door that led to the backyard wasn’t opening as planned, he said, and thus it would have to be redrawn or removed altogether.

And so began a long series of conflicts between my builder and architect. Though these two people shared a common goal, they had different means of getting there. I, meanwhile, was quickly becoming a communication conduit between the two.

The builder-architect relationship can often be a source of frustration for both parties, particularly in cases when the client has appointed their own builder.

Often, architects and builders will have different perspectives. They bring unique strengths to the table and, sometimes, those strengths can collide.

Yet it is important that the builder and architect maintain a unified front during the entire process so that their vision is aligned, the final product is one that both are proud of, and the client stays happy.

We’ve spoken with architects and builders to unpack the relationship and understand what each party expects from the other from time of tender through to delivery of a project.

Here are our top three tips for fostering a relationship that you’ll want to continue after the project is completed.

Collaborate early
In many architectural projects, the builder often isn’t appointed until the construction documentation has been completed. The outcome is typically one of two scenarios:

  • the appointed builder points out a number of issues with the design and recommends changes that require you to update the construction drawings creating inefficiencies in your process and frustrating the client, or
  • the client ends up with an inferior product.

By collaborating with the builder during the design phase you can quickly test ideas and gauge the feasibility and cost implications. When presenting more radical concepts that a builder has first assessed, it’s going to help your case when selling the concept to the client if they understand it can be executed successfully.

You’ll probably find that your studio spends less time revising drawings, thereby improving project profitability. Collaboration requires you to be open to accepting feedback and implementing that feedback. As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Be flexible
The traditional approach for most architects is to appoint a builder via a tendering process. Tendering is often a lengthy process, involving preparation of multiple sets of drawings and supporting documentation.

Guiding prospective builders through the tender is time consuming when you factor in not only the hours required to review all the applications, but also fielding all the questions in emails and phone calls to those applying and ensuring every party has access to the same information.

Then there’s the time spent by the builder in preparing their tender. Depending on the size of the project, this can take anywhere from two to four weeks. There’s often limited opportunity to put forward their recommendations on the best approach to the job or to point out errors and omissions in the drawings.

An alternative approach you may like to consider is using a negotiated tender, whereby you, on behalf of the client, negotiate a price with the preferred builder. Under this method, the builder has the ability to discuss any queries at the time of pricing, meaning mistakes in pricing are likely to be reduced.

More builders and architects are now choosing to use Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) contracts for projects. This allows a builder to be engaged early in the process to provide input prior to submitting a fixed lump sum fee for construction.

This arrangement allows both parties to collaborate with the client to achieve the best outcome possible as opposed to more traditional procurement methods like tendering where there are conflicting objectives.

Before entering into an ECI it’s recommended that you have clear project objectives, for the life of the project and not just the ECI phase.

Hug your builder (metaphorically!)
Regardless of which method you use to appoint the builder, recognise that you are both on the same team.

Being on the same team means the lines of communication are always open and you’re working together towards the same objective, delivering the best outcome possible for your client.

All good teams spend time developing their relationship off the field in order to strengthen it on the field. Make an effort to get to know your builder. How do they spend their time when not on-site or in the office? Do they have a family? Where are they headed on their next holiday? Rather than launching into the project when you pick up the phone, take some time to have a chat and learn more about them personally. And just like any good team does, make sure you celebrate the victories with them and give a high five when they’re kicking the proverbial goals.

Remember, a good outcome for both you and the builder is more likely to result in a better outcome for the client. And a happy client means more referrals!

Ray Brown is the co-founder and chief mentor at Archibiz, a Melbourne-based business consultancy for architects. Ray and Bec Kempster, co-founder and CEO, offer a signature Designing Architectural Practice Success (DAPS) Course where they teach architects the foundations of business and how to run a sustainable and profitable practice.

Lead photo: Mursko Središće.

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