why does it take so long?

27 October 2014

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If you are not an architect or involved in the design and construction industry in any way, you might be part of the population that often asks the question ‘why does it take so long’ for a building to appear in any given location.

This is something I have fielded many times in the past as friends and family notice activity going on somewhere in the community and wonder why large periods of time go by before they actually see construction happen – if it ever happens at all. I can’t say I have all the answers for any particular situation; however, I can say that after all these years of being an architect and being involved in construction that there are probably three main hurdles or phases a project must pass before something appears. Within each of these categories are a multitude of other things that could go wrong. That is to say, there’s no single reason or simple answer, but the overriding reason always comes back to money.

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The first hurdle is someone has to decide that they want to do something – and act on it.

At this point they will contact (or least I recommended that they contact) an architect to begin to explore the strength of their idea and what it may look like and most importantly – what it might cost.

It has never been my experience that said client walks in the door, requests a building, a design process ensues, it gets built and they move in. This goes for both residential and commercial work. There are simply too many pauses along the way where the project is considered and reconsidered.

For instance, it is common in my practice for clients to want to explore the design of a building (new or renovation), yet not fully commit to the endeavor. We will do feasibility studies, explore critical issues, and provide initial design work at times to explore how the spaces may layout or how it may sit on the site. In rare cases we will provide imagery of what it might look like.

These are preliminary studies, sketch design concepts or whatever other name we might give them. Yet at the end of the day it is not a fully considered design. Depending on the circumstances, the client’s interest, their comfort level, their available finances or the cooperation of the local municipal officials, whether that initial design develops further is influenced by many or most of these.

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The next hurdle (if the first one goes well) is to get the project to a place of actual design. Architects will generally refer to this as a schematic design or preliminary design. There is a reasonable investment to get through this in terms of architectural (and engineering) fees, so there has to be a commitment from the client to pursue this to some depth. It is often at this phase where projects die for all the reasons stated. The client has a change of plans, not securing the land or property, difficult zoning or code issues to overcome or it is Wednesday. We see the death of many projects at this phase. Guess what the number one reason is? You got it.

If the project is still alive after the first two hurdles, it must overcome at least one more. Let’s say the client is interested in continuing on with the design process, therefore, the architect will begins to go through a lengthy and far more detailed process of developing the design and documenting it into technical drawings and specifications so that a contractor can then construct the project. Sound simple? Not really.

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This process requires much more investment than the previous phases in finances, time and even in emotional commitment.

Throughout this phase, more exploration of the site conditions takes place, engineering consultants are involved and whether it’s a small addition to a house or a very large building a commitment on behalf of the client is required which is secured or reinforced with cost estimates along the way. This can be done in many ways, but I always prefer it to be done by a contractor that was selected at the outset of the project. Much more can be said about that. A common occurrence that lengthens this process is when the initial cost estimate requires a redesign or a reconsideration about part or all of the project. Then we start this all over again; that means a delay.

At the end of this phase it can be known with as much certainty as possible what this project will cost whether by a pre-selected contractor or by (an archaic process of) competitive bidding. Therefore, there are many reasons projects never make past this point. The number one reason is cost. Other reasons which could contribute are a delay to redesign after a value engineering process, strained relationships, community push back or some technical aspect that is uncovered that makes the project difficult to continue which generally returns back to the first reason – cost.

There are few construction or technical issues that can’t be overcome through research or engineering but generally the cost to overcome certain items can be more than the value in exchange to client paying for it.

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If the project can make it over those hurdles, and somehow the cost is acceptable, the project is now ready to move forward. That means build it. Yea – oh, don’t celebrate yet.

Now prior to dirt being disturbed and there being physical evidence of a building, there are other hurdles that might keep you from seeing your local community gain and addition to it. Some of those reasons might include a lengthy time for the local code officials to review the design documents to issue a permit (this could cause a redesign if they flag major code violations), there might be a lengthy delay in administrative functions on the contractor’s part, (i.e. ordering materials, securing sites, signing contracts with subcontractors), and perhaps there is a problem with the bank – go figure. However, if you can make it through all of those challenges and ground has been broken and emerging from the soil an edifice begins to arise, consider it a victory. Don’t celebrate until it’s complete. Things can still go wrong.

Fortunately, at some point buildings do get built.

From an architect’s point of view there is tremendous satisfaction and great rejoicing that takes place after a lengthy process of complexities. Architects love when their work is made.

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So the next time you’re driving by and wonder why that building hasn’t been built yet or you saw a sign heralding a new building that never came, or your architect friend shares a story you will know a little bit more why it takes so long.

All the more reason to hire an architect to get you to the process. I’m sure you were thinking that, right?

photo 1 credit: Jocey K via photopin cc
photo 2 credit: Jocelyn Catterson via photopin cc
photo 3 credit: Al_HikesAZ via photopin cc
photo 4 credit: Anders Young via photopin cc
photo 5credit: PeterThoeny via photopin cc
photo 6 credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

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