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Project Estimating

  • 1.  Project Estimating

    Posted 06-26-2020 03:41 PM
      |   view attached
    I have a project in LA and the client brought in their contractor. It's a 1-story 1500 sq ft house c1920s. I designed a 1000 sq ft 2nd story based on the advice from the contractor that we don't tear down the existing building. That made the project complicated because of existing conditions. The contractor approved the SD set of drawings, but he's now saying after seeing the DD set of drawings that he doesn't know if the project budget of $400,000. is enough. He is not assisting by helping with value engineering and has told the client that architects come to him with a full set of CDs that he then estimates. I understand that is typically the case, but because he was brought in before the design process began I expected to be able to collaborate with him. He said it's the architect's job to understand how much the project will cost before the drawings are given to him.  I can estimate unit costs (rough est per sq ft) based on previous projects, but I am not a contractor and I do not have detailed knowledge of project costs. I don't want my client to pay for a full set of CD's if the project is out of budget. I understand this particular contractor is either inexperienced or uncooperative so I'm not sure how to proceed. He is not familiar with some of the materials I've suggested such as Hardie panel siding or metal roofing. I'm now thinking that the existing structure should be torn down and a 2 story structure be put up, but with smaller total sq footage. My client is aligned with the contractor and the project is stalled for now. I appreciate any suggestions on how to move forward. I've attached the drwg. files.Thanks!

    Cynthia Boyd Design
    Pasadena CA


  • 2.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-29-2020 05:36 PM
    I think you are approaching this in a good direction. Perhaps you could suggest your client allow one or two other contractors to give cost estimates or at least allow you to pay (as a reimbursable expense) another contractor to provide a cost estimate.

    If the client is unwilling to listen to you, you'll probably need to address the possibility with your client of the cost being more than hoped for and there will be additional services involved to make changes after CD's are completed. If they are unwilling to bear that risk, you may all be headed for a bad experience and might consider dropping the client.....(as a last resort)....

    Scott Wilson
    Chief Manager
    Scott Wilson Architect, LLC
    615.377-9131 office
    615.973-3810 mobile

    Inspiring clients to achieve their vision using our God given gifts and timeless principles of design.


  • 3.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-29-2020 05:58 PM
    I know all seems dark and troublesome here, but in actuality, you're ok. This is all about clear and direct communication.

    I'm sure you're going to get lots of responses here, but this is what I would ask myself first: Who is the ultimate decision maker here? If it's your client, that would steer my actions. Let's assume that's the case. This is what I would do.

    1. Go to the client and say, "Your GC recommended we not tear down the existing and instead keep it and build on top."
    2. You (client) and I worked for X weeks or months and came up with this design that you liked and approved.
    3. We gave this design to your GC and they say the current project budget is not enough. Can he please give me a copy of his cost estimate? (Don't hold your breath here...I bet you a silver nickel he doesn't have one; he just guessed. I hope I'm dead wrong).

    This happens all the time, on every project, as you know.

    4. Ask your client if there is additional funding that can be attained? If the answer is no....which it probably is...
    5....ask your client and the GC what they recommend to be removed or "value engineered"...based on his cost estimate of course.

    I looked at your drawings, here are some suggestions (which I'm sure you nor your client will like, but life is tough)
    - Replace Standing seam roof with something cheaper. Not as nice, I get it, but cheaper
    - You have a very large deck on the 2nd floor...will they use that a lot? If not, remove it or make it smaller.
    - Can square footage be reduced? Is that Den a must have on the 1st floor.
    - That is a very large wall of glass next to the dining room...can it be smaller or redesigned and still work?
    I get it...reducing or removing those things totally sucks, but if your client only has $1 and wants $2 worth of stuff...something's gotta give.

    6. After you've redesigned, have the GC give another quote.
    7. If the budget is still not there, rinse and repeat.

    Don't forget to make sure you get paid for all of these revisions (refer to your original contract for this).

    My advice is to make this their problem not yours. You followed their guidance based on their GC. If they want it to meet budget then the client needs to trim their "wants" and the GC needs to help. By the way, for him not to know about Hardie panel siding is troubling.

    Best of luck,


    Danny Cerezo AIA
    c|s design
    Los Angeles CA

  • 4.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-29-2020 06:09 PM

    That sounds like a very difficult situation to be in, considering your statement that your client is aligned with the contractor.  In my experience - and going strictly on what you've described - you've done nothing wrong.  If you knew the project budget at the outset, you certainly had a responsibility to compare it to other projects that you've done, to provide some insight to your clients.  If you had no comparable project in your past experience, you could have also shared that with the homeowner.  However, in the final analysis, everything will eventually lead back to your contract. If your contract does not state that you provide pricing - and I hope it doesn't - you cannot be responsible for providing pricing.  It is simply not a service you provide.  And, absolutely do not provide a complete set of CDs while mired in this situation - unless you can get a signed agreement stating you have no responsibility for the pricing that results from such CDs, and that any/all work you subsequently provide as a revision will be billed hourly.

    Here are some other thoughts:
    • There can be no argument about who provides the pricing.  You need to make this absolutely clear to your clients.  At an absurd level, you could claim that the addition DOES meet the budget, and demand that the builder prove otherwise.
    • The builder approved the SD set.  If he has problems with the cost of the DD set he needs to provide (a) the analysis and assumptions he used for ballpark pricing the SD set (I doubt he has that), (b) a general list of the items that are over the SD budget, and (c) suggestions for substitutions.  You need to tell your clients that this is his responsibility to provide, as the party who is generating the pricing.  You need to explain to them that, if he can't provide this, there is reason to suspect that his "pricing" is vague and unsubstantiated.  And, if that's true then what will prevent him from saying a new re-design is "over budget"?
    • You need to get the builder to show you and your client a few examples (more than one) of projects similar in size and scope to yours that he has successfully completed; and describe their costs.  You will want to make your own comparison of general size and complexity.  If that isn't possible, you need to explain to your clients that he might lack the experience and knowledge necessary to provide the pricing or the construction.
    • If he is inexperienced with the materials you are specifying, your problems have only just begun.  It will get much worse.  You need to change your materials or change your contractor.
    • I suspect that the cost of construction in your area is similar to mine (the DC Metro area).  In my experience, in my area, your project would certainly cost more than $400K.  Additionally, there is absolutely no way that the costs would go down by tearing the house down - even if you built something smaller as a replacement.  Do not suggest this to the client or the builder unless you have actual numbers - and an example project - to back you up.  Because, if you do this, you are actually being the one to propose the costs!
    • In my own experience, I almost never use cost-per-square-foot estimates in additions and remodeling.  They are useful for new-build, it's true.  But, when you do an addition and also re-paint the existing walls, which square foot was the paint?  When you remodel existing areas but install new HVAC or windows, which square foot was that?  It's just way too easy to be mistaken.

    Best of luck for a successful outcome.

    Robert Braddock AIA
    Red House Architects, PLLC
    Arlington VA

  • 5.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-29-2020 06:17 PM

    Hello Cynthia,


    I've been doing custom residential for 38 years and I can tell you that if the general contractor is brought in early as a collaborative team member, part of his services typically include a preliminary estimate based on a DD set of drawings. As you made reference, it would be a disservice to the client if the GC only priced the project once the full set of CDs were completed, as the price may very well exceed the client's budget and then the client has paid for architectural CD services for a project that may be too expensive.


    Most contractors will do the initial estimating as part of their overhead costs. Some will charge for that service and fold it into the overall cost of the project if they end up securing the job. If they don't get the job, then they are paid for their time and effort.


    The GC should be assisting in helping with value engineering. Why else would he be on the team at such an early stage? This is not a competitive bid. That's the only time the architect would come to him with a full set of CDs that he then, not estimate, but provide a firm bid. If the client wishes to move to a competitive bid scenario, then find two other GCs to price it and see what your contractor has to say about that.


    Since he was brought in before the design process began, you should fully expect him to collaborate. It is not the architect's job to determine how much the project will cost. As you noted, architects do not have detailed knowledge of project costs. Your contractor is wrong.


    As most AIA contracts note: "...neither the Architect nor the Owner has control over the cost of labor, materials or equipment, over the Contractor's methods of determining bid prices, or over competitive bidding, market or negotiating conditions. Accordingly, the Architect cannot and does not warrant or represent that bids or negotiated prices will not vary from the Owner's Project budget or from any estimate of Construction Cost or evaluation prepared or agreed to by the Architect".


    If your GC is not familiar with Hardie board or metal roofing, I'm not sure he's the right GC and would inform your client accordingly.


    One last note: I hope you have a structural engineer on board and that he, or she, has determined the existing house can support a second level, particularly since it was built in the 20's.


    Depending on how "aligned" your client is with the contractor, you may be in an untenable situation.


    Good luck,


    Jon Dick


    Santa Fe, New Mexico








    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


  • 6.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-29-2020 07:49 PM
    Hi Cynthia,

    Adding a second floor on to an existing structure is always a fraught proposition . . . . particularly when the existing structure is dated.

    This fact does not need a DD set to establish it should have been obvious to the GC looking at the SD set. I took a look at your drawings . . . we are design-build Architects and would recommend stripping down to the first-floor framing with new framing going up from there. Assuming you have a block foundation you might need to selectively fill the block with concrete. The cost of the existing FF walls and SF deck is nominal in the scheme of things.

    Good luck, hope this works out.


    Nilay Oza AIA
    Oza | Sabbeth Architecture
    Sag Harbor NY

  • 7.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-29-2020 09:05 PM
    Cynthia;  After looking over your drawings I sincerely suggest that you sit down with your client and their contractor and point out that a great amount of the cost of total construction is the demolition as illustrated by your demo drawings.  Then, you can confidently inform them that if an entirely new structure might be their choice you can design with much less cost inflating restrictions and produce a more amenable solution.  Costs would be obvious for the contractor because systems would be normal and quesswork with re-using existing modified members would not exist. Be confident, this is very obvious to me and I am sure to the contractor that is being intimidated with unknowns.

    Robert Stirling Morris AIA
    Morris Architecture/Planning
    Canterbury CT

  • 8.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-30-2020 12:20 AM
    If he's "not familiar with Hardie" he's either so fantastic he's never had to deal with it, or so out of touch you need to distance yourself, 

    Jesse Hager, AIA



    C O N T E N T

    3221 Milam Street, Suite 1

    Houston TX 77006

    713 230 8867

  • 9.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-30-2020 06:27 AM
    Residential contractors are usually all over the place with this, but in general when a good contractor is brought in early they like to provide feedback during the entire process to make their lives simpler in the field. However in busier markets I have run into contractors who are either too busy to care or simply don't have the foresight to recognize the impacts that their early decisions may have on a specific project. I would remind the clients that this was the direction that everyone agreed to based on the contractors recommendation for budget control in the beginning and ultimately they will be the ones pricing. If the contractor is not happy with the cost results of the design then a new path would be best. I would again remind them that this was not necessarily the path you would have recommended, but the one that the contractor said would be best for price. That being said with my limited experience in CA second floors always seem to be very complicated not only with cost but difficult to work with regarding zoning and setbacks. Good Luck.

    Ryan Edwards AIA
    Architect / Owner
    Zipper Architecture, P.L.L.C.
    Snow Camp NC

  • 10.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-30-2020 08:12 AM
    I typically warn clients that having a contractor review SD or DD drawings is problematic because they can not anticipate the unknown and always underestimate the project, either to get in on the ground floor and look good or because they don't understand the full scope of the work.  Their excuse is that they didn't know x or y or z.  The price always goes up - it never goes down.  I agree, as architects we can not estimate the true cost of a project.  The only way to understand the true value of the work is by having multiple bids from independent contractors.  I would suggest working with the client - it's their home and they need to determine how to proceed - to find another contractor at the right price or redesign the project per the client's direction.

    Paul Levine AIA
    Paul J. Levine, Architect
    Pittsburgh PA

  • 11.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-30-2020 08:47 AM
    Hello Cynthia,

    Have you considered entering into a pre-construction agreement with the contractor?  Many contractors are reluctant to keep pricing and re-pricing documents without compensation.  You might have an offline conversation with the contractor to see if you can ascertain his/her unwillingness to help the project through budgeting.  I find that once a contractor understands the firm's expertise is not going to be given away, they are more willing to advise.  Also, I find that a pre-construction agreement "locks in" the contractor and gives them the assurance that the project is going to happen eventually.


    Daniel Steger AIA
    West Roxbury MA

  • 12.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-30-2020 10:20 AM


    I see a couple of troubling things here.  First, I see by your signature that you are Associate AIA.  You should confirm that you do not need to be a registered architect in Pasadena to do the scale and type of work you are talking about here.  If you need to be registered and you are not, your client may have a reason to withhold payment to you and create other difficulties.

    Second, the story that an architect must be able to predict costs is the oldest in the book and one of the most frustrating.  Here is how I try to debunk it.  Even if you complete a set of CD's and bid the project, you will always have a variety of costs from different contractors.  Different contractors have different labor costs, material supply chains, profit margins, and overhead costs.  They may be incentivized to provide a tight bid when they are not busy, but not so when they are flush with work.  The intricacies of the bid process are endless and it is not possible for you to determine these.  It is the contractor's job to determine the costs of a project for that particular contractor (assuming it is design/bid/build) at that particular time. 

    Having a contractor on board early in the process should do exactly as you describe, help estimate costs, provide VE input, and keep the owner's expectations in line as you develop the drawings.  If they are not cooperative and helpful, then it is worthless to have them on the team.  If the owner is siding with the contractor, this is where the red flags start for me.  Before you re-design, I'd try to get estimates from other contractors, using the DD drawings.  If the owner is unwilling to do that, I'd suggest treading very lightly and be willing to leave the project if you cannot get assurances that the current contractor will work with you.  I'd also ask the current contractor what has changed in your DD drawings that has made the project go over budget now.  Usually the real answer is that he did not think through the project fully or ask the right questions.  But if he has legitimate points about the scope or finishes, at least you have a starting point for how to attack the problem.  I'd also ask for a breakdown by CSI division (or something similar) to see if he is really putting any effort into the pricing exercise, or is just throwing a number at it.

    Good luck.

    Glenn MacCullough, AIA

    President, MacCullough Architects, P. C.

    Arlington, VA 

  • 13.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-30-2020 05:21 PM
    Hi Cynthia,

    This contractor sounds like a real winner.  Hasn't heard of Hardie panel or metal roofing!? Whoa, serious concerns here folks! As others have stated, it doesn't make much sense for the client to preselect a contractor who is unwilling to collaborate in the design process.  If the client has a budget of X dollars, then it's in their best interest to entertain more than one estimate. A client going into a project with a preselected contractor becomes a "fox guarding the hen house" situation, and they end up with a half-baked design.  It wouldn't be a bad idea to get another bid from a contractor you know for future reference / safe keeping.  Has the contractor provided his preliminary estimate?  I suspect he doesn't have one.  Ask him for a typical estimate by division from a previous project for reference.  Does your DD set include any engineering?  This would paramount to getting any form of accurate pricing.  Again, if the required engineering for the addition becomes the budget breaker, that was the contractor's direction not yours.  My advice would be to get a DD set of Structural drawings if it doesn't exist yet.  I assume engineering is part of the contract? You should recommend that the client get an estimate from a professional cost estimator.  Proceed carefully, and best of luck.  Any updates would be appreciated.

    Gregory Holah, NCARB
    HOLAH Design + Architecture
    Portland, Oregon 97232

  • 14.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 07-07-2020 02:28 PM
    I agree with Gregory, everyone knows what Hardy Plank and metal roofing is, even my dog! Check to make sure he is a qualified GC. Integrity is more important than holding on to something blocked by a lack of information. Sit down with your client and explain your concerns about the knowledgeably of the GC and that these plans need to be seen by other eyes. Your integrity is what is important, even if the client doesn't like it. It might get the project moving again and if not you have done your best.

    Frances Hamilton
    Residential/Commercial Architect
    Atlanta Georgia

  • 15.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 06-30-2020 06:30 PM
    I think a perfectly good response is that while you are in touch with overall marketplace costs and have attempted to design to such, you do not know how this particular contractor is situated regarding the marketplace. (Maybe high, maybe low.) If the client wants this particular contractor to do the project and the contractor is unwilling to help with value engineering, then you can't be responsible for "overdesign." If the client wants the project to conform to "mainstream" costs, then the project should be bid between multiple contractors of your own choosing, and adjustments can be made after selecting the appropriate contractor. Faced with this prospect, the current contractor may suddenly become more interested in becoming a partner in the process, and be more transparent with his costs.

    Richard Morrison, AIA
    Architect-Interior Designer
    Redwood City, CA

  • 16.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 07-01-2020 05:46 PM
    I think it is a critical skill to master as a business owner is deciding when to gracefully exit a project-losing a bit of your time or fee is preferable to being mired in ongoing issues with an unrealistic project. Also, some quick pricing with another GC or two may be able to help you figure out if this is even a realistic project...

    William Cawood AIA
    Cawood Architecture, PLLC
    Purcellville VA

  • 17.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 07-07-2020 02:29 PM
    All of the comments are helpful for solving the problem. There is not one answer as there is not one situation. There are lessons, however, we had to learn the hard way. This forum provides learning opportunities. First it starts with the client: Is this person trustworthy? Does he/she/they  come with a contractor that is trustworthy? What is their background? My famous questions...are you interested primarily in price, time or quality? If they answer all three run and give the job to someone that wants trouble. If they say time is not an issue then you may be able to work with the project and dead lines. Understand that price and quality together is a high wired act. If they say quality...I always responded I am your architect.

    Given that is only one part of the triangle unless you are a design-build architect or design-build builder then the contractor question is next: If THEY have one you need to get all of their history and interview past projects as your client did with you. We NEVER provide a contractor however, we can make suggestions. We do like to have a contractor on board for cost estimating, however we ask our client to pay for his/her time.

    Everyone can be appropriate until something goes wrong. That is when agreements come in. What does your agreement say? Ours has a rider regarding cost. We do not do cost estimating, however we can help you hire an estimator if you are concerned with the price of the contractor. We also have a finite number of design attempts and other preventative steps for disagreements. Take the high road regardless that needs to be an unwavering certainty.

    The classic problem is an architect and a contractor looking to have the client make what can be emotional decisions. The client is in the realm of financial decisions, however if there are two adversarial parties the outcome is already in the wrong direction. At that point are you in it for the money? Are you still looking to be referred? Limit the damage and take a few pictures? If you are hungry you might take more chances. Regardless, stay away from phrases such as 'value engineering' or any other architect-contractor insider language. Slice items off do not rework the project.

    Before making any suggestions one would need to know the relationship, experience and position of all the team members. If a contractor is the brother of the client it is one case scenario. If the contractor knows you from a previous job another case, and so on. We never had the perfect project. Like a good safe vehicle, we have our safety belts, check our engine and check the oil while following the rules of the road. Nevertheless an accident is possible. We always felt a residential complex addition is more challenging than a mid-rise new construction. The hope is we all learn from experience.

    Constantine Vasilios AIA
    Constantine D. Vasilios & Associates, Ltd.
    Chicago IL

  • 18.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 09-21-2020 03:36 PM
    I want to thank everyone on this forum for all of their solid advice and the time it took to write such thoughtful and helpful emails. I also wanted to share what transpired:

    I redesigned the existing structure, it is now a one-story residence, but at $375,000. the budget is still tight to remodel a one-story 1500 sq ft structure. I have kept the existing footprint but I've replaced the windows/doors, siding, and re-designed the roof. I think I'll be able to keep most of the original wood floors. I have removed some interior walls to clean up the floor plan and I've filled in one, small awkward corner of the building to make a more coherent plan.

    Why wasn't this structure torn down and re-built? Because it is in an area that has a Hillside Ordinance with many code requirements for new construction. Building a new home would trigger all kinds of issues with the city. Additionally, keeping the existing structure keeps the cost down because I am able to use all of the existing foundation and the exterior walls along with some of the interior walls.

    As a concession, because I believe I was not assertive enough in insisting that my client's suggested contractor be more collaborative and by not being vocal enough about his inexperience, I comped my re-design fees up to the CD phase, though not my draftsperson's fees. I felt this was fair.

    We are putting the Construction Documents out to bid once they're finished to qualified contractors instead of using the contractor my client had brought in. I convinced her that the contractor she had suggested is not experienced enough to handle this project.

    I have learned from this experience and from all of you who commented. This forum is a valuable source of information. I am in gratitude.

    Cynthia Boyd Assoc. AIA
    Cynthia Boyd Design
    Pasadena CA

  • 19.  RE: Project Estimating

    Posted 09-21-2020 04:18 PM
    I love a happy ending! Congrats Cynthia.

    Gregory Holah, NCARB
    HOLAH Design + Architecture
    Portland, Oregon 97232