Friday, March 11, 2016

Stakeholders in the Design Process

I often have clients who would like to add an addition or build a new house and believe that they can build whatever they want, within reason of course.  It often comes as a very unpleasant surprise when they discover that their "castle" isn't entirely theirs.  The reality, particularly in dense urban areas, is that there are numerous stakeholders who can have an impact on the aesthetics, size and even layout of their home.  Negotiating this maze of vested individuals can be a difficult task.  However, the good news is that most municipalities have a fairly sane process to ensure that your one malcontent neighbor cannot completely derail a project.

The description below outlines San Francisco's stakeholders, mainly because San Francisco has one of the most rigorous review process in the Bay Area.  Other municipalities have similar reviews, though they tend to be less complex and lengthy.

If you are planning a remodel, they are not subject to the same level of scrutiny. In most municipalities neighbors will not have the opportunity to review the project and the project is approved over-the-counter.  However, there are exceptions, such as the neighborhood of Westwood Park in San Francisco which has a Homeowner's Association that reviews all projects.

Planning Department

The Planning Department enforces the local Planning Code.  These were created in the early 20th century as a response to industrialization.  Early codes were designed to protect property value by separating industrial and commercial uses from residential areas.  Current codes are extremely comprehensive and regulate everything from height/bulk, materials, signage, landscaping and historic character.  In San Francisco, residential construction that affects the exterior of a building such as an addition, is also subject to the Residential Design Guidelines.  The Planning Department’s Residential Design Team reviews all new construction and most additions for compliance with the guidelines.  The guidelines are fairly subjective in nature and often results in revisions to projects.

If a structure is historic under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), it is subject to further scrutiny.  Each municipality has significant leeway as to how they enforce CEQA.  San Francisco requires any changes to a historic façade visible from the street to be reviewed by one of the Planning Department’s preservation planners.  Part of the submission requirement entails making the case that the building does not have significant historic value.  This includes researching old building photos, occupants and owners.

SF Planning Department’s Property Map:
Variety of Interesting Planning Maps:

Adjacent Neighbors

The biggest stakeholders, other than the owner, are the adjacent neighbors.  All additions and new construction in San Francisco must go through a rigorous neighbor notification process.  Prior to submitting the project for permit, a pre-application meeting with the neighbors is required.  The goal is to address any concerns prior to permit submittal.  Sometimes this is feasible and at other times accommodating neighbors would necessitate serious design compromises.  Once the project has been submitted for permit AND approved by Planning staff, a second neighbor notification is sent.  At this point neighbors have 30 days in which they can file for review of the project by the Planning Commission.  The Planning Commission is usually the final stop for a project.  If approved by the commission, the project proceeds to the Building Department for review.

Neighborhood Groups/Homeowners Associations (HOA)

Many communities in San Francisco have neighborhood groups who are active in the design review process.  Some examples are the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, the four Bernal Hill neighborhood groups and the Forest Hill Association.  Many of these groups are recognized by San Francisco’s Planning Department who mandates meeting with them prior to permit submittal.  Additionally, many of these groups have adopted their own neighborhood plans (design guidelines) in addition to the Planning Department’s Residential Design Guidelines.  The local guidelines may enforce stricter height and bulk requirements thereby reducing the size of any new construction.  While these local neighborhood groups make recommendations to the Planning Department, final design authority rests with Planning.

List of Neighborhood Plans:

Friday, March 4, 2016

Architectural Phases

A typical architectural project has seven phases.  All projects go through these various steps, though on smaller residential projects there is often blurring of boundaries between the some phases.  The phases are:
Existing Conditions and Code Research
Schematic Design
Design Development
Construction Documents
Bidding and/or Negotiations
Construction Observation

 Phase 1 – Existing Conditions and Code Research

The first two steps in any project are often critical for success.  We start by researching the appropriate zoning code that applies to the site.  Zoning varies from city to city AND from neighborhood to neighborhood.  San Francisco has a great on-line map that makes basic zoning research easy:

The second step is to spend a day measuring the existing building and site.  From these measurements a three dimensional computer model is created from which the existing floor plans, sections, exterior elevations and site plan are generated.  Given that these drawings are the basis of all future work, it's critical that they are accurate.  Therefore we do not work with plans drawn by others.  A survey may be required by a professional surveyor.

 Phase 2 - Schematic Design

Once the existing conditions are drawn, we meet with the client to discuss/sketch their design requirements in greater detail.  From this meeting the first set of schematic floor plans and three dimensional line drawings are created.  Typically two to three floor plans are presented to the client.  Based on the client's feedback the design is refined and presented again.  Depending on both the client and the job, we may create several iterations of the schematic design.  The time frame varies greatly for this phase, it may be as little as a month or as long as several months.

At the end of Schematic Design the drawings can be sent for preliminary construction bidding and engineering.  Additionally, some clients elect to hire a contractor to work with us through the remainder of the phases to manage cost.

 Phase 3 - Design Development

In this phase, we begin to develop the details of the design. In contrast to Schematic Design where, for example, we develop the overall floor plan of a kitchen that simply indicates where the big blocks of cabinetry are located, in Design Development we will develop the actual cabinet sizes and refine the proportions.  In order to communicate the design intent, interior and exterior elevations are drawn.  In conjunction with the floor plans, the interior designer will use the elevations to begin selecting fixtures and finishes.  Typically, the architect will work closely with the interior designer to ensure that the design develops into a cohesive visual and functional design.

At the completion of Design Development, the documents can be utilized for structural engineering, energy analysis and more accurate cost estimating.

 Phase 4 - Construction Documents 

The bulk of the work we do happens in this phase.  The construction documents are developed sufficiently for construction and that means a tremendous amount of detail drawings.  Ideally, the major design details should be drawn to avoid confusion during construction.  These include window and door details, cabinetry details, roof overhangs, connection details of decks, guardrails, etc.  If left undrawn, many design decisions are made by the contractor and the final result may not reflect the design intent. 

The construction documents represent the final design approved by the client.  With our assistance, the client should review the drawings very carefully as changes made later can add substantial cost, both in professional fees and construction change orders.

 Phase 5 - Permitting

The construction documents are submitted to the city Planning and Building Departments for review.  If the project is an interior remodel then it will not be subject to Planning review and in some cities may obtain an over-the-counter permit.  If exterior changes are required, the process could be quite lengthy.  Once the drawings have been reviewed, the city will send the architect “plan check comments”.  These are usually small revisions that need to be made to the drawings to be code compliant.  Most projects have one round of comments, but some may incur a second round.  Once all changes are accepted by the city, the permit is issued to the general contractor.

 Phase 6 - Bidding and/or Negotiations

While the drawings are being reviewed by the city, the project is sent to general contractors for bidding. Typically three to four contractors bid on a job. The architect usually manages the bid process by answering questions the contractors may have, doing walk-throughs of the site and comparing bids. We will provide a list of contractors that we have worked with in the past that have a track record of good workmanship and completing jobs on budget.

Alternatively, the client may choose to do a negotiated bid with on general contractor.  Given the current backlog that most reputable contractors are experiencing, this will allow the client to get into a contractor’s queue prior to completion of construction drawings.  In this scenario, construction usually starts as soon as the permit is issued.  With competitive bidding there may be a delay between the permit being issued and construction commencing.

 Phase 7 - Construction Observation 

At this point, the general contractor becomes the lead person on the project and the architect takes on a supporting role. The contractor is responsible for all aspects of construction including inspections and construction methods. We will be available to address any issues that arise. The amount of construction observation required varies greatly. For smaller projects, we may be on site once a month, for larger projects, site visits may occur weekly.  We will schedule regular walk-throughs with both the contractor and client to discuss construction issues and review the progress. The client should always address construction questions to the architect and we will discuss them with the contractor.  A clear chain of communication is important in order to avoid costly rework.  Once construction is finished, the contractor, client and architect do a final walk-through of the job site.  Any items needing attention are added to a punch list for the contractor to correct before receiving final payment from the owner.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

How to Ensure Your Project is a Success

Realistic Schedule

Good design takes time.  The design process for a remodel may take three to six months or longer. The design of an addition or new construction can be twice as long.  After the design is complete, the project will go through the permit process and once it is approved by the city, construction may start.  Which means that a simple remodel of an existing home from the start of the design to the end of construction is a six-month process and very likely much longer. 

Clients often ask; why does it take so long?  Architecture is one of the few professions in which every project is a custom work.  While parts of a building are mass produced, much of the design and construction is still designed/built for the individual setting.  It’s comparable to having a custom made dress designed for you versus buying a mass produced dress from Gap or Ann Taylor.

Gap Mass Produced Dress
Custom Made Dress

Realistic Budget Expectations

Architects pride themselves on being creative, and we can be very creative with a modest budget.  However, if the budget is tight, then considering Carrera marble counter tops for a kitchen isn’t realistic.  In San Francisco/Bay Area, average construction cost is $400-$500/sf.  It can be lower if there is very little structural work, but it is rarely below $300/sf.  Depending on material choices, construction cost can be considerably higher.  Other areas of the state have much lower construction costs, but even in rural settings construction costs are rarely below $200/sf.

Additionally, professional fees need to be factored into the overall budget.  These vary based on project size.  For example a very small deck addition requires much of the same drawings as a larger project and therefore the architectural fees can be a quarter of the construction costs.  However, for rough estimating, typical architectural fees are between 8-12% of construction cost and structural fees are between 3-5%.  Permit fees should be factored in too and these vary from city to city.


Whenever a client tackles a remodel/addition it is like taking on a second part-time job.  While the architect does the heavy lifting, the client knows the project best.  There will be many decisions that the client needs to make and without these decisions the project may become stalled.  At every major milestone a set of drawings is produced that shows the design intent.  These drawings are the primary form of communication with the client, engineer, contractor and building officials; therefore they are the most important tools in the architect’s repertoire.  Just as the client would review a contract crafted by a lawyer for completeness, it is also the client’s responsibility to review the drawings thoroughly for completeness and intent.  Once the drawings are submitted for permit any changes will result in added cost and delays.

A major component of this second job is timely communication with the architect.  If any changes need to be made, let the architect know in writing immediately.  Some decisions if not communicated in a timely fashion can cause major delays.  For example, the client and architect discussed the possibility of a new window in a load-bearing wall.  An item like this has architectural, structural and energy consequences.  The architect will have to liaison with the engineers and energy consultant to have revisions made to the drawings.  It may take several weeks to effect this simple change, so early and clear communication is key.