Expert Advice – How to Work with Architects

Q & A with Stephen Vanze

Expert Advice – How to Work with Architects

Barnes Vanze consulted their clients before designing this house situated along a canal in Rehoboth Beach. One of their goals was to offer as many views of the ocean as possible-and as much privacy.

The Washington, DC, chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) also offered a seminar on how to work with an architect as part of “Architecture Week,” its annual public outreach program. As he has for many years, Stephen Vanze, AIA, principal of Barnes Vanze Architects in Georgetown, delivered a lively, informal talk on a recent Saturday morning. He began by recommending that homeowners contact their local chapter of the AIA, many of which maintain a free Client Resource Center where homeowners can review the portfolios of dozens of member firms. Portfolios provide a quick way to get the names and review the work of many architects and get a sense of which ones do work in the prospective client’s preferred style and price range. Following is a summary of Vanze’s discussion.

What is the first step in the design process?
The first step is for the client to prepare a “program,” a written list of the desired rooms, their approximate size and how they will be used. “You want to give the architect as much information as possible.” From that information and an understanding of the building site, an architect will then develop loose sketches of the design that gradually become more definitive through discussions with the client. This stage, known as “schematic design,” is intended to help the architect and the client develop a common understanding of the proposed design. “We will often use [cardboard] models or computer models at this stage as well,” said Vanze. “To help people understand the design.”

When should I consult a contractor?
Vanze recommends that the architect and the client consult a good contractor to develop a preliminary estimate of construction costs based on the schematic design, to develop a budget price within a 10 percent range. “It’s important to do a good job on the initial design and budget,” said Vanze. “You don’t want to pay the architect to develop complete construction drawings, only to discover that the project is way over budget and has to be redesigned.”

When do I need to make decisions on material selection?
During the design stage, a homeowner often has to make dozens of choices about materials, finishes, cabinets and appliances, which many find overwhelming. “It’s not necessary to choose every appliance or select every tile right away,” said Vanze. The architect can work with the client to determine the desired quality level for each item, and include “allowances” in the budget for each. “If, for example, we include an allowance of $15 per square foot for bathroom tile,” said Vanze, “then the homeowners can shop at their leisure for any tile in that price range.”

How do I figure out the final cost of a project?
During construction, the architect acts as the client’s representative, working closely with the contractor to ensure that the project is built in accordance with the architect’s design. As the project unfolds, various factors can affect the final cost. Clients may change their minds about certain details, construction documents may not have described a particular item in complete detail or unforeseen site conditions, such
as a ledge or subsurface water, may affect the design or construction. “We advise clients to keep a cushion of 10 percent of construction cost in mind for changes during construction,” said Vanze.

Freelance writer and editor Michael Tardif is based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Barnes Vanze renovated this 1960s chouse along the eastern seabord, meeting their clients’ requests for specific new features. Inside, crisp white walls and floors, and a seagrass rug add to the cottage-like atmosphere.