Architects are part of Construction

We are specialty builders/cabinetmakers and do some of the most complex of projects, and in the last 17 years I have observed a change in architectural involvement in construction. Architectural firms have less and less involvement with the projects than in years past – partly this is driven by economics, however, I believe that a good architect should get paid his/her fee and would save money to the client in the long run – here are some of my observations.


17 years ago, most projects had an architect that met at weekly meetings, provided elevations and plan views, and discussed their visions and desires, guiding us to build what they wanted. Our relationship was a natural one, combining vision with engineering and manufacturing to hone a final product – synergy at its best. Economics, I believe, has altered the architects’ involvement; often now, we receive an incomplete set of drawings, providing a plan view and few elevations, “a bidding set”, to bid and produce a project from with little to no further involvement from the architectural firm.


I know that architectural firms would bill a percentage of the cost of the project – usually around 10% for custom builds – often now, a client can get a, “bidding set” of plans for between $10-15,000 – a significant saving on a 1-5 million dollar project. This leaves a much greater responsibility on the builder and their subs to figure out and engineer a project. We, as builders, have adopted a different approach to projects; we have several employees that can produce drawings and elevations so that we can better translate details – however, our audience is untrained in discussing architecture so we have to first educate and then explain – a frustrating position to be in if you are in mid-build. Furthermore, this is not what we are trained to do.


"As a young cabinetmaker, we won the bid to do a Hugh Newell Jacobsen house here in Nashville."


We successfully manufactured and installed all of those cabinets and even the front door – that project is proudly displayed on the front cover of his compilation book from 1993-2006. A lasting impression was left in my mind as to the size and detail of those prints – almost no detail was left out – our job was to perform what was explained and drawn in great detail and elevations. When that project was showcased in Architectural Digest, I was incredibly proud, as most of the close-up shots were of our work – a huge feather in a young builder’s cap!


More surprisingly, there were scarcely few alterations allowed to his plan – I remember the framer complaining to me that he had to move a window ¼” on the wall where we built the egg crate bookcases, insuring that we would have equal measurements on both sides for the finished product – unbelievable foresight. Often now when we have involvement with the architect throughout the process, the amount of changes is unbelievable – I often joke with my colleagues that we should compare the “bidding set” to the “as built” and we would have a different structure. This is not a reflection on architects – it is hard to see through a project until you draw the entire project – we see this with our cabinetry and millwork – often a problem will only arise when we create a detail and then and only then, will we have to alter something previously decided upon.


As an aside, as a result of our deeper involvement with building and architecture, we were forced to figure out complicated hardware situations which forged a relationship with Hafele, a German manufacturer of high quality architectural hardware and it became a side business for us – selling and supporting others in purchasing architectural hardware. 


Since the Jacobsen job, I have not seen such a complete set of drawings, in fact not even close. I am not sure if this is a problem systematic of Nashville, TN or if this is everywhere. I enjoy the synergy that is created in solving issues and dislike the blame that is thrown around when a problem arises and finger-pointing occurs – often, the absent architect, receives the blame. I know that in Europe this sort of thing is forbidden and no alterations are allowed without proper documentation and plans – I am not one for added government involvement, however I believe that builders need to merge with architects and solve this – perhaps there is a simple solution – I’d love to hear your thoughts.