Working With Architects
Whether you’re talking about an individual unit owner’s renovation project or a major capital improvement that affects the whole building, chances are that there will be an architect involved at some point, to a greater or lesser degree. Sometimes this person will interact mostly with the board and management, sometimes with just the individual resident, sometimes with a board-appointed design committee, and sometimes with all of the above.
Let’s take a look at the two ways that architects typically liaise with boards and property managers:
Capital Improvement Projects
Let’s say the board decides—after the usual period of review and back-and-forth with the shareholders—that it’s time to renovate their building’s lobby, or replace the roof, or (as sometimes happens) squeeze a 2,000-square-foot gym into the 1,000-square-foot basement space. It’s time to find an architect.
“We get involved at the initial stage,” says Howard L. Zimmerman, AIA, founder and president of Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, P.C. in Manhattan. “Once the decision is made to re-do the lobby, or whatever the project is.”
The first step is the bidding process.
“The board solicits bids for architects,” Zimmerman says. “Then an interview process is put in place. They interview architects, engineers, landscape designers—whatever the project requires.”
Assisting in the selection of the architect is usually a committee, generally comprised of board members and residents, who ideally have some experience working with designers.
“There’s usually a decorations committee,” Zimmerman says. “The members come from different backgrounds, have different skill levels, and different aesthetics.”
Management plays a role as well, according to Jeff Heidings of Siren Management Corp. in Manhattan. “Choosing an architect or firm for a job is a matter of knowing the building, understanding the project, and hiring a professional who will be a good fit,” he says.
“We deal with many shops,” says Heidings. “Some are a little more tailored to certain types of projects than others. We use smaller firms for some things [because] they’re a little more nimble, often a little more cost-effective, and a little more hold-your-hand design oriented. If you’re talking about a Local Law 11 project or a big masonry project, I’d use a firm with more muscle, a broader experience level, because that’s a more comprehensive type of job.”
“Usually we’ll have one or two companies in mind,” Heidings continues. “We select those based on familiarity, price, efficiency, staffing and capabilities for our time frame. Once a proposal has been offered we sit down with the architect and a board officer or two, fine-tune the proposal, and get familiar with the staff person it will be assigned to.”
It’s during this phase that the board may come to their collective senses about the quixotic plan for that basement gym. Indeed, one of the main tasks of the architect is to manage the expectations of so many disparate people. This job, too, is an art. “You have to listen, be respectful, take some suggestions, disregard others, and make everyone as happy as you can without compromising the design,” says Zimmerman.
The trump card the architect can play is their portfolio. After all, the board hired the particular architect to do the design, and in the process, turned down others. “You are trained,” Zimmerman says, “and you have an aesthetic that they hired you for.”
When the architect is engaged, “You want to define the scope of their services,” says Heidings. “The soft costs—filing fees, packages—are fairly standard from shop-to-shop. Most architects and engineers fall into the same price points for stuff like that, but you want a contract that allows for negotiation of fees along the way, because they tend to pile on. I’ve had situations where there have been discrepancies. You have to have it an arrangement that adjustments can be made on both parties. That’s where management comes in, and where you can save your client a lot.”
Once the board and the decorations committee are on the same page and the contract ink is dry, it’s time to roll out the plan to the rest of the building. The unveiling can be emotionally charged, as whatever change being proposed is sweeping, and people tend not to be crazy about change.
“Usually, there’s an angry, hostile meeting held in the lobby,” Zimmerman jokes. “I stress to the board that this is very important. Whether it’s a lobby, a roof, a roof deck, it’s important to get everyone on board.”
Kevin Lichten AIA, of Lichten Craig Architects LLP in Manhattan, agrees. “Design is a two-way street,” he says. “It’s important for the architect to listen carefully to the aspirations of the board, the shareholders, and the managing agent—not all of which may be in total agreement.”
Often, the chance to vocalize objections is enough to pacify a potentially contentious shareholder. What people want, generally, is to be heard; they don’t need to have their way to get on board with the project as long as they are treated with respect.
“We can be the ‘outside experts’ and take the heat off the board,” says Lichten. “Often we can make a presentation to the assembled shareholders, prepare renderings and other drawings for display in the lobby, and prepare facts and figures for a newsletter. We are used to making presentations to large groups and building a consensus.”
“Our job is to sell what the board has spent months working on,” Zimmerman says. “I stress to the board: don’t do it yourselves! Bring an independent person in. As a third party, we take away a lot of animosity,” or whatever conflict that could stymie a fruitful discussion. “This is an important political and practical thing for a board to do.”
These meetings can get out of control if they aren’t well managed. One tip: don’t show the plans that were rejected. Present the plan that the board agreed on as fait accompli, and sell that and only that to the residents.
“An architect should never force any design down a client’s throat,” Lichten says. “I like to say that we articulate their dreams and aspirations and facilitate their decision-making. But all of these tasks require strong leadership skills on the part of the architect. The owners should feel like they fully participated, if not as if they came up with the ideas themselves.”
Architects are also involved with a co-op or condo when they are renovating an individual apartment. This requires perhaps less political deftness than does a capital improvement project, but the cooperation of the board is still essential. When an individual apartment is being renovated there will be two architects at work: one architect in charge of the project, called the design architect; and one architect acting on behalf of the building, called the reviewing architect.
“The reviewing architect protects the building and the other residents,” Zimmerman explains. “He wants to make sure the marble flooring isn’t going to be a noise problem for the apartment downstairs, or the vibrations from the new Jacuzzi don’t bother the next door neighbor. He sees to it that nothing impinges on another [tenant’s] right to privacy and enjoyment.”
If apartments are renovated, the construction tends to happen when they are first purchased, before the new owners move in.
“We like to be involved as early as possible,” says Lichten, “ideally before an offer is made. The process of obtaining management and board approval and then Landmarks and Department of Buildings permits can take up to 6 or 8 weeks, so we want to get a head start on that task.”
This is inherently a delicate situation, as the first impression the new shareholders make on their new neighbors will be a big rebuilding project. Good architects will dedicate as much attention to liaising with the board as they do to the project itself.
“We ask our clients to let us do all the communicating with the board and management for them,” says Lichten. “This has two advantages. We can be dispassionate and professional with our counterparts at the managing agent. In fact, most agents would rather deal with us than with the owner. We can also be the aggressive ‘bad guys’ in pushing for approval. This allows the owner to keep out of the fray with their future neighbors and board.”
The lion’s share of the architect’s job is at the front end of the project. Without a solid plan—whether that plan is a blueprint or a budget—the project will never get off the ground.
“In addition to running the design process in collaboration with a board subcommittee or an owner, we prepare all the filing and bid documents, run the bidding process, and then monitor the construction, usually attending weekly site meetings,” says Lichten. “For a building, we would perform all these tasks in tandem with the managing agent.”
Architects don’t need to be on-site 24/7 once work is underway, but they are always actively involved with the project.
“We’re very proactive,” says Zimmerman. “You can draw the nicest drawings, but things always happen when construction begins.” For example, digging in the basement to create more headroom, you might hit water ten feet higher than where it’s supposed to be.
“Because all residential work in New York City is ‘high-end’ by national standards, all these projects, whether for individual owners or for buildings, require regular hands-on participation by the architect,” Lichten says.
Zimmerman says he is generally on-site at critical stages, and he conducts meetings on- site 2 to 3 times a week. He advises keeping everyone—the board, the property manager, the super—up to speed throughout the process. “This way, if a shareholder says, ‘Why did we do it this way? I have a nephew who says we should have done it that way,’ the property manager can respond with, ‘I was there, and we thought about doing it your nephew’s way, but we had to do it the way we did because…’” he says. “Transparency is key.”
In the end, most professionals agree that the biggest challenge boards face is one of expectation management. “The client will need to reconcile their dreams with [the reality of] their budget,” Lichten says, “and the two are seldom closely related. Every client wants more than they can afford. Every client ends up paying more than they planned because they want more than they budgeted for.”
In the end, compromise and consensus can make for a smoother project all around and ensure everyone’s input is taken into account.