Price It, Permit It and Put the Rubber to the Road

Working with your Architect through the Bidding, Negotiation & Permitting Phase

Phew! The project has been a wild ride but you're finally over the hump.  You've crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's with your architect, you've labored over challenging design decisions and marveled as the loose ideas you discussed months ago over coffee or a beer have taken shape, been fleshed out with thoughtful material choices and drawn to exact dimension.  You're ready to build your dream home or the exciting new space for your blossoming business.  So let's put those drawings to work and get the hammers flying! 

In the words of the legendary sportscaster, Lee Corso, "Not.So.Fast!"  Yes, the sweet smell of freshly-cut wood is on the horizon but there are two important steps that mustn't be overlooked.  In some ways, these are two of the most important steps in the whole process though seldom discussed because they lack the excitement offered by the other phases.  But they are critical nonetheless.  Before the frenzy happens on the job site, we must first 1) determine who will build the project (and for how much) and we must 2) procure all required permits.

Let's begin with the who of the matter. A design is only as successful as the quality of its execution.  Contractors bring a huge wealth of knowledge to any project.  Like all professions however, some are great and some are - well - not so great.  Even as your architect assists you in getting the cream to rise to the top, there are still challenges to finding the right match.  Among the large pool of quality contractors, finding the one who marries well into your project can leave you spinning.  

If asked, most people would of course like to win the trifecta.  Somewhere out there, they hope, there is a contractor who will deliver the highest quality for the cheapest cost and will complete the project in record time with a beaming smile on his/her and a high-five as the project concludes.  Mmmmmmm...sounds dreamy.  Although there are many quality contractors out there who can deliver cost-competitive projects on a schedule, there are realities at play that limit the degree to which all three goals (quality, budget, schedule) can be achieved to the same level.  To build high-quality work takes time.  If you don't have the time but still want the quality, more man hours per day are required which equates to more money.  Conversely, if you need a very inexpensive project, the small budget will allow for fewer people to work on a daily basis so it will take twice the time.  If low costs and quick turnaround are the soup du jour, it's likely that the quality will suffer.  The simple reality is that you can't expect caviar on a cat food budget and you shouldn't pay filet mignon prices if you only want a happy meal.


The moral of the story is this:  Quality, Budget, Schedule...Pick two and lean on your architect to help you find a great contractor who excels at shaking up the particular cocktail you've ordered.  With a little luck and some expert coordination by your architect during the construction phase, the third priority on the pecking order might just come to some fruition as well.  

It's also important to note that, often times, several reputable contractors may be in the running to build your project.  Fielding their questions during the pricing exercise, sifting through the nuances of their bids and understanding them in apples-to-apples terms can be overwhelming.  Your architect has likely been on this dance floor many time before and knows the steps.  It's important to lean on her/him to help you through the evaluation process, the final selection process and, most importantly, the final contract negotiation process.  


Setting clear and legible expectations for your project is paramount.  The final negotiated cost is often the focus of the conversation but means nothing when one does not understand clearly what those dollars are buying.  Simple questions and a thorough investigation by your architect can often uncover large missing puzzle pieces to your project that, when realized later, can add significant unexpected costs and weeks to your project schedule.  "Does your electrical number include trim electric or only electrical rough-in?" This might be a typical question asked to your contractor by your architect.  Don't understand what that question even means?  Not to worry, the professional you've hired will know and thankfully so.  Whether or not your contractor answers 'yes' or 'no' can often mean the difference between thousands or tens-of-thousands of dollars to your bottom line.  And this is only one of dozens of critical questions to be asked during the brief but important contract negotiation process.


In parallel to or shortly after the contract negotiation process, the project will need to be submitted to the local municipality for a building permit.  There are commonly two components to the review process that require careful preparation and clear communication by you and your architect. These components are 1) a zoning review and 2) a building department review.  

The zoning review measures the compliance of your project with the local zoning rules and regulations.  Which uses/functions are allowed on my property?  How big can my building be?  How far can it extend into the front, back and side yards?  How harmonious will it need to be with the surrounding buildings?  The regulations governing this criteria varies broadly from city-to-city and town-to-town making the front-end zoning research during the Pre-Design phase critical.  Knowing what you can and can not build on a site prior to investing money on design seems like an obvious prerequisite but we're often amazed at how often people put the cart before the horse.  The front end research, coupled with a clear set of well-considered site drawings should make the zoning review as painless as possible.

The building department review is even more complex and nuanced. This review process dissects your project proposal into discreet-but-interrelated areas of focus.  Specialists within your local building department will apply focus to each of the major building systems.  These include a review of the building's structural system as well as separate reviews for the HVAC, electrical and plumbing systems.  Additional reviews include an analysis of the building's energy efficiency, health & fire-safety measures, accommodations for people with disabilities and a number of other areas of review.  In order to streamline this review process, a clear set of drawings is paramount.  Prior to submitting these drawings, your architect should have a clear understanding of the local building department's expectations and be able to anticipate the information for which they'll be looking.  Clear drawings which accurately communicate the specifics of the design intent for the building and all of its requisite systems will allow for a straightforward review by the city officials and should minimize the duration of the approval process.

Bidding, Negotiation & Permitting Phase Recap


GOAL: Having developed the construction drawings and design specifications to a reasonable level, the goal of this phase is twofold; to 1) negotiate and secure a competitive construction bid from a reputable contractor and 2) secure the necessary permits for construction.

ARCHITECT'S SERVICES: This phase includes the administration of the permit process (i.e. completion of all applications, drawings, administrative review meetings at City Hall, etc.), administration of the bid or pricing process and consultation to the Owner during contract negotiations with a contractor.

CLIENT ROLE: Remember when we discussed trusting your Architect?  Never is there more critical a time to trust the professional you've hired than now.  Selecting the right contractor is critical to the success of any project.  A project is only as good as the hand that builds it.  The negotiation and selection process requires finesse and a deep-rooted knowledge base that can only be drawn from a career spent juggling the nuances of creative ambition, technical proficiency and construction know-how.  In order to keep all the balls in the air, you must rely on the professional insights of your Architect.  Placing your trust in the professional you've hired will ensure the most optimal relationship of quality, cost-efficiency and project schedule compliance.  

PROJECT TEAM DURING THIS PHASE: Architect(s), Owner(s), Additional Stakeholders, Engineering Consultants, Contractor(s) (General Contractors and Specialized Sub-Contractors), Permitting Authorities (to review and approve the project's detailed design intent), Product Manufacturers & Vendors (to assist in the selection, specifications and pricing of various finishes, fixtures, equipment and building components), Legal Professionals (to assist the Owner in structuring their contract with the contractor and, in certain cases, to sort out any hiccups during the permit review process).

HOW ARCHITECTS CAN SAVE YOU TIME & MONEY IN THIS PHASE: Efficiently navigating the permitting process and the various gauntlets of project review can be tricky.  Experience in dealing with the idiosyncrasies of various municipalities can save a lot of time and can protect the momentum of a project.  Efficiently bridging the gap between the design phases (Phases 00-03) and the construction phase (Phase 05) is critical in keeping things on track.  Time is the critical savings in this case but, as we know, time-is-money.  In parallel to the permitting & various review processes is the important effort of bidding the job and securing a qualified contractor. Architects can bring contractors to the table that have survived their own rigorous vetting process.  Trust us when we say that nobody is more aware and appreciative of a good quality construction professional than an Architect.  These are the professionals we seek out throughout our careers and these are the people we can bring to the table as a value to the Owner.  During this phase an Architect will also evaluate all bids, communicate with the various bidders to dial in on their specific combination of scope and costs and, ultimately, translate the nuances of each bid into a clear apples-to-apples comparison.  Knowledge is power.  This analysis allows the Owner to make an educated choice and acquire the most comprehensive value for the money they will be spending. Finally, the Architect assists the Owner in negotiating the terms of the contract that they will ultimately sign with the contractor (we will consult with the Owner and the Owner's legal team).

Be sure to check out the previous posts in this series as well as the subsequent posts covering the remaining phases of your project.  Links are provided below:

01 - What...Would You Say...You Do?

02 - Soup-to-Nuts: The Stages of Your Project

03 - What is Your Problem?

04 - Blazing Your Trail

05 - Making Your Project Tick

06 - Speak With Purpose

07 - Price It, Permit It & Put the Rubber to the Road


American Institute of Architects - Emerging Professional's Companion - Bidding & Contract Negotiation

Ellipsis on Pinterest -  Phase 04 - Bidding, Negotiation & Permitting