Homeowners Project Handbook | Guide to Massachusetts Architects:

2015 Homeowner’s Project Handbook


This guide serves as a valuable resource for individuals and organizations planning renovation, addition, or new-construction projects. It clarifies the design and construction process for a residential or small commercial project and includes advice on choosing the right architect and structuring the working relationship. A series of “worksheets” helps you think through your project.

Table of contents

Lexington Living Room, designed by Reisen Design Associates with Heinrich Hermann.Project designed by Reisen Design Associates with Heinrich Hermann. Photo: Eric Roth.

Working with an architect

An architect listens to you and serves as your advocate throughout your project. Your architect translates your wishes into buildable form, addresses compliance with state and town regulations, oversees the work of the builder, and coordinates all technical and aesthetic aspects of your project. Your architect solves space problems; manages your budget; protects your project from unreasonable extra costs; and assists in disputes that may arise with your town, other consultants, or your builder.

Your architect is responsible for:

Translating your wishes into plans for construction. Your hopes and dreams for your project may be vague and abstract, and are usually expressed in words. Your architect works with you to translate them into a visual and technical prescription for construction that is very detailed.

Designing custom work and installations. Each building has a special history; every site has unusual conditions; and every client has unique goals, desires, and requirements. Your architect seeks a design solution that unites all these elements and reflects your unique personality and style of living or working.

Preparing drawings and specifications. Drawings and specifications are the graphic and verbal descriptions of the project. They describe your preferences and wishes for the project you are building and are used to document decisions about the project’s size, function, organization, and aesthetics. They prescribe the engineer’s requirements for structural stability, climate control, drainage, and electrical service. These documents are submitted to your town to obtain a building permit so construction can begin; they are used by the town building inspector to determine that the project will meet local requirements.

Drawings and specifications prepared by your architect also are the basis for the relationship between you as the owner/client and your contractor (builder). They can be used for bidding by contractors so you can compare several builders’ estimated project costs, construction schedules, and logistics plans. Once you choose a builder, plans and specifications are used as “contract documents” (instructions to your contractor) and the basis of your written agreement with your contractor about exactly what work is to be done and at what cost.

Helping you meet building codes and regulations. Zoning regulations, which are published by every town and vary from one to another, concern the building’s use, size, relationship to the site, and parking. Building codes are published by the state and address how buildings are to be constructed—dictating, for example, door sizes and materials, window sizes and locations, structural lumber sizes, and stair and hallway dimensions.

Coordinating the work of consultants. Your architect may coordinate the work of specialty consultants your project may require, including structural, electrical, and mechanical (heating, plumbing, air-conditioning), and civil (drainage and site utilities) engineers.

Helping you secure a builder. Labor generally accounts for more than half the cost of a building project. Materials also represent significant costs. Your architect can help you through the process of selecting a contractor.

Administering the construction contract. On any project, there are myriad small details and opportunities that require resolution. Your architect serves as your advocate, working to ensure that your project is built as it was designed and specified. Your architect analyzes and helps you make decisions about “change orders” that could affect your project’s costs.

Helping you manage your budget. Having a single, complete set of architectural drawings to present to several prospective contractors allows you to choose among comparable bids. When your contractor knows at the start what will be built, costly delays and changes during construction are minimized. During construction, your architect helps determine if proposed changes are responsibly priced and in keeping with local costs and methods of construction.

Five recommendations from people who have done it

1 Contracts are essential. Execute a contract or letter of agreement with your architect and builder detailing fees, schedules, budgets, and tasks, and monitor the process outlined in the agreements every step of the way.

2 It is far easier to erase a line than to remove a wall. Make all design decisions before construction begins because it gets very expensive to change your mind later.

3 Carefully conduct necessary site surveys, title searches, and similar research.

4 It is not reasonable to expect that a building project will heal a marriage, friendship, or company; it won’t.

5 Allow budget contingencies for both design and construction.

Project designed by LDa Architecture & Interiors, LLPProject designed by LDa Architecture & Interiors, LLP. Photo: Greg Premru Photography.

Budgeting the project

Budgeting the costs of design and construction is an important first step to help you avoid surprises and frustration. Share with your architect your budgetary goals and constraints. Only with full knowledge of your budget can your architect design within your constraints and allocate your project money wisely.


Although much is done to research the site of your project or to predict conditions in an existing building before renovation, there are sometimes surprises that are not revealed until demolition or construction. Examples of these hidden conditions are poor soil, underground tanks or piping, plumbing leaks or inadequacies, asbestos, mold, structural deficiencies, and insect damage. Leave extra room in your budget (a “construction contingency”) to cover the cost of resolving these problems. Depending on the project’s size and complexity, a reasonable contingency is between five and 10 percent of the total cost of construction.

Another type of contingency you should budget for is called the “client contingency.” Reversing or remaking decisions about the design after construction begins is very costly because your builder must reschedule his or her subcontractors, remove and rebuild areas already completed, and quickly obtain materials or components not currently onsite.

On the other hand, the opportunity to do things right should include the occasional good idea or change of mind as an anticipated cost in the budget.

Selecting an architect

The most popular and usually the best way to select an architect is by interviewing several candidates. This handbook is a good source for identifying architects who are qualified for your project. Friends and neighbors can be another good source, especially if they’ve completed a project similar to your own.

Steps to hiring an architect

1. Make a brief call to an architect to determine if his or her expertise is appropriate to your project.

2. When you find at least three with related experience, schedule interviews with them to discuss your project, and review photographs and other samples of their work.

3. Check references from past clients.

Your responsibilities as a client

Decide on your budget at the outset. Determine both the ideal and the maximum you are willing to spend, and communicate it clearly.

Make decisions in a timely manner. Try not to revisit or reverse decisions you already have made because it is likely your architect has already acted on them. If you do change your mind, tell your architect immediately.

Carefully review the drawings and materials. Return them promptly with questions, comments, and changes.

Selection criteria

Use the following criteria to choose among the architects you consider.

License. Your architect should be licensed in Massachusetts. To check on the status of an architect’s license in Massachusetts, call the Board of Registration of Architects at 617-727-3072 or check that agency’s website.

Experience. Your architect should have a track record of similar work in terms of your project’s size, complexity, type, and cost.

Chemistry. You and your architect will need to feel comfortable with each other as you will be interacting frequently over the course of the design. Your architect should be a good listener; responsive to your phone calls; interested in your needs; and able to communicate with you in clear, everyday language.

References. Satisfied former clients should attest to your architect’s ability to respect agreements about services, fees, and schedule.

Level of service. Architects’ services vary. Some will carry your project through construction, while others may leave the responsibility for overseeing construction to you or the builder. Match your preferences with your architect’s.

Design fees. You should define the scope of service carefully, including possible cost savings and extras; the use of consulting engineers; and work by others such as landscape, security, sound-system, and interior-design consultants.

During construction, your architect can provide construction administration, helping to ensure the project is built according to plans and specifications. Your architect should visit the site periodically to observe construction, work out design issues and details, sort out conflicts between drawings and existing or developing conditions, review and approve your builder’s requests for payment, and keep you informed of the project’s progress.

Project schedule

Some residential and small commercial projects can be designed within a few weeks; however, it’s very important to have adequate time to think through the options, do the necessary research, and talk to people about what you are planning. We recommend you allow between three and six months for the design phase. This can include selecting an architect at the outset of your project and, later, selecting a builder.

Most small projects take between three and six months to build; larger projects can certainly take longer. Interior construction can be done in any season; outdoor construction must be carefully timed.

Contractors are in high demand all year round, particularly in the summer, so be sure to let your contractor know well in advance when you want to begin construction, so he or she can reserve the time and resources. A nine-month notice is recommended.

Structuring the relationship

It is customary for an architect to be paid in several stages rather than with full payment at the end of the job. A down payment or retainer may be required prior to start-up. In most cases, an architect’s fee includes compensation for structural-, mechanical- (heating, ventilation, plumbing, and air-conditioning), and electrical-engineering consultants the architect may need to hire for your project.

Architects’ fees are determined in one of three ways:

1. As a percentage of the total construction costs, which varies in proportion to the project’s size and complexity

2. On an hourly-fee basis plus expenses

3. As a “lump-sum” fee agreed on in a written contract that includes the fee method, condition, and pricing parameters

The contract

You and your architect should begin your relationship with a written agreement or contract that details your expectations; your architect’s services, fees, and schedule; and all other parameters you and your architect consider important. A thorough, clear written agreement will help prevent misunderstandings or disappointments.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) publishes a variety of contract documents that define the full array of relationships and terms involved in design and construction projects. You can purchase paper documents from the Boston Society of Architects/AIA at architects.org/store or as PDF documents from the AIA at documentsondemand.aia.org.

10 questions to ask your architect

1What do you see as important issues or considerations with regard to my project?

2 Who in the firm will I be working with?

3 How do you establish fees?

4 How will I be able to relate fee payments to milestones in your scope of work?

5 What are the steps in the design process?

6 What will you show me along the way to explain the project: Models, drawings, or sketches?

7 If the scope of the project changes, will there be additional fees?

8 If the builders’ bids exceed my budget, will you revise the design and will this carry a cost?

9 How disruptive will construction be?

10 How long do you expect it will take to complete my project?

10 questions to ask (and answer) yourself

1What would you change—and keep—about your current home?

2 What is your lifestyle? (That is, are you at home a great deal? Do you work from home? Do you entertain often?
How much time do you spend in the living areas, bedrooms, kitchen, den or office, utility space, etc.?)

3 How much time and energy are you willing to invest to maintain your home?

4 What do you think the addition/renovation/new home should look like?

5 When planning a new home or space, what do you envision that you don’t have now? (For example, are there any family-and/or aging-related changes on the horizon you would like to address?)

6 How much can you realistically afford to spend?

7 How soon would you like to be settled into your new home or addition?

8 How much time do you have to be involved in the design and construction process?

9 Do you plan to do any of the construction work yourself?

10 How much disruption in your life can you tolerate to add on to or renovate your home?

Project designed by Jan Gleysteen Architects, Inc.Project designed by Jan Gleysteen Architects, Inc. Photo: Richard Mandelkorn.

Design and construction

Projects typically involve six phases.

1. Programming (deciding what to build). You and your architect will begin by defining the requirements for your project (how many rooms, the function of the spaces, etc.), determining how your desires fit within your budget.

2. Schematic design (developing the concept). During this phase, your architect prepares a series of rough sketches that reflect a conceptual approach to the design, general arrangement of the rooms, and general organization of the site. You approve these sketches before proceeding to the next phase.

3. Design development (refining the design). Your architect prepares more-refined drawings, which communicate and document more detailed aspects of the proposed design. Floor plans show the proportions, shapes, and dimensions of all the rooms. Outline specifications listing the major materials and room finishes are prepared.

4. Preparation of construction documents. Once you approve the design, your architect prepares detailed drawings and specifications, which your contractor can use to establish actual construction costs, obtain permits to begin construction, and build the project.

5. Hiring the builder. As the client, you select and hire the builder. Your architect may be willing to make some recommendations of builders to consider and can help you prepare bidding documents, invitations to bid, and instructions to bidders.

6. Construction. Your builder builds the project and is solely responsible for construction methods, techniques, schedules, and procedures.

The role of the builder

Builders (general contractors) provide construction services based on architects’ designs and are best suited to define construction methods and sequences, estimate costs, and coordinate the work of subcontractors. They typically will control the budget and schedule for the work, and be responsible to the owner and the architect for the quality of their workmanship and conformity with the design intent.

Your contract with the builder may be based on a lump-sum price or be billed on a time and materials, or T&M, basis, with or without a guaranteed maximum price, or GMP, determined at the start.

As the client, you are ultimately responsible for selecting and paying your builder. If you would like, your architect can assist you in finding builders to consider and may help you review their credentials. To determine whether a builder is registered to do business in Massachusetts, call the Department of Public Safety at 617-727-3200 or check online at 1.usa.gov/1CUKhHc. To check for complaints filed against a builder, call the Attorney General’s Consumer Hotline at 617-727-8400.

Three approaches to hiring a builder

1. In a competitive bidding process, bids are requested from several builders who outline their credentials and approaches to cost, schedule, and logistics for the project construction. The bidders all use the same design drawings to develop their bids, so, theoretically, the estimates received are comparable.

2. In a negotiated contract, your architect helps you develop the cost, schedule, and scope of work through discussions with a single builder. In this model, the builder is selected much the same way the architect is selected—on the basis of credentials and personal “fit” with the project. He or she becomes part of a three-way partnership with you and your architect. Competitive bidding takes place at the subcontractor level, overseen by the builder.

3. Hiring a design-build company allows you to obtain both design and building services from a single source (provided that the design-build company actually works with an architect registered in Massachusetts).


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