A Failure to Communicate

By Michael Allan Torre

Having worked on dozens of renovations, additions, and custom home designs for other architects and, more recently, for my own clients, I concur with Steve LoParco’s thesis in “How to Get What You Want" (Winter 2007 issue). 

In the design and construction of a new home or in the renovation of a home, the principals—architects, contractors, and homeowner—had better learn to communicate frankly with one another. A communications breakdown can cause delays, cost overruns, and possibly even injury to homeowners and construction workers.

All too often, homeowners find their architect uncommunicative and hard to reach. There are architects who assume that the homeowner, who has no education in architecture, has no valuable opinion to offer with respect to the design project at hand. The rigorous training architects go through sometimes produces arrogance or tunnel vision. Architects follow an exacting course of study that includes art history and the philosophies of design, drawing, drafting, and engineering. Then they may spend many years working for a licensed architect in order to achieve certification by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

This extensive training gives architects specific methods for judging the multitude of design elements in every project. They are well qualified to make judgments about the way something “should look”— for example, the placement of columns, the connected roof lines in multiple-story homes (a very important matter), the scale and color of stonework, etc. But they are at risk of developing, over time, an egocentric, “top down” view of the design process: They condescend to and patronize their clients, dismissing their opinions on the design of their new home or an addition/renovation. However, success in a building project requires that each partner be willing to listen and make revisions during design and construction. This is especially important when the owner is adding to an existing home or restoring a home with historic value that does not meet current building codes.

My advice to the homeowner, then, is this: Don’t be timid in your discussions with the architect or contractor! No single member of the “design family” should presume to have the final say. I suggest that you stay silent at the beginning of the initial design discussion. Let the architect you may be interviewing talk for a length of time. See if he lets you interject a question, or even asks you for your opinion. If you find that he dominates the presentation from start to finish, then you may want to look elsewhere for your architect. All the members of your team—the architect, the builder, and the subcontractor—ought to be team players, not prima donnas.

The thing you don't want during the design/build process is confrontation. Anger (and the language it produces) is not only counterproductive to the project but could lead to one or more team members’ quitting the project midway—and that is a disaster. The way you approach your architect will have a great deal to do with whether he respects your input and is willing to be flexible. Your architect will listen to you if he knows you are listening to him. But if, in the final analysis, you believe that any of the architects, you may be interviewing does not respect your opinion or even your role as an authority figure, homeowner/project financier, then look elsewhere for your architect.

Your architect will work with you more amicably if you do not rush him to finish. There is always a call for design changes during the designing process and after construction. And changes always create some havoc in the construction process. Building officials care less about what your project looks like than about health and safety issues. Heating, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing, and structural elements conflict with each other on every project. Skillful discussion will solve these conflicts and put you project back on track.

The architect should seriously consider the wishes of not only the client but the client’s spouse and children as well. I have found that homeowners—and even their children—have generated ideas so sophisticated that, many years later, I’m still impressed. Husbands tend to focus on studies, fireplaces, dens, and game rooms, wives on kitchens, cabinets, and built-ins. Children desire to express their individuality in their bedroom suites, which now include private baths and walk-in closets. And the presence of live-in help and pets must also be factored into the design. (The need for input by both professionals and family members is hardly a new issue: Just rent a copy of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. This late-1940s classic expresses the competing interests of architects, clients, clients’ children, and contractors.)

What can happen if the communication between subcontractors—say, an electrical contractor and a gypsum wallboard contractor—breaks down? I know of a new home in an affluent Connecticut town that was left with its home-theater wiring hidden and unusable behind its new Sheetrock walls. (The general contractor had failed to inform either of the subcontractors that they needed to coordinate their efforts.) I last heard that no new theater contractor would even attempt to solve the problem created by the loss of communication on that project—contractors are reluctant to attempt to repair mistakes made before they arrive on the job. It would be foolish to assume responsibility for numerous, and often hidden, “unknowns” left behind by others.

Why should a homeowner bother to learn about, and stay actively involved in, the design and building process? Because the homeowner, as well as building professionals on the team, must be savvy enough to spot potential breakdowns in the logical sequence of construction. If part A has to be built before part B, but isn’t, the problems created by out-of-sequence construction will spread through the entire project and cause unnecessary delays and added expense. Evaluate the progress of your project daily; pay attention to details like the quality of the fit and finish of framing and trimwork, and the quality of the plumbing, the electrical systems, etc. Focus on the vital matter of construction sequencing.

The moral of the story: From the beginning, be forthright but gentle in the way you communicate with members of your team. These relationships exist through choice, not through force, and the success of the collaboration is suspended by a slender thread.

And be proactive: At the beginning of the project, let your design and construction team know (forthrightly but gently) that you expect to be informed about every aspect of the construction sequence, just as if you yourself would be working on the project.

Michael Allan Torre offers residential design services on projects in the Fairfield County area.
203.434.8157; mmmaaattt@earthlink.net

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