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Here are some frequently asked questions about design and construction.  If you don’t see what you are looking for, send an email  to and we'll write back.
What do architects do, exactly? I have some ideas, some sketches and pictures of what I want.  Where do I go from here?
Do I need an architect? What does an architect charge?
Where do architects get their ideas? What does "AIA" after the name mean?
What is a "Registered Architect"?  
I want to be "green".  How do I do that? What does "LEED AP" after the name mean?
Can you help me find tax credits and incentives for energy saving design features? What's the best way to save money on a construction project?
Will an architect help during construction? What is a "contingency" and why do I need one?
What's the worst way to save money on a construction project? Why should I limit the number of contractors who bid on my project?
How do I find and choose a contractor? What is Design-Bid-Build?
What is Construction Management? What are "General Conditions"?
What is Design-Build? Can I be my own general contractor?
Is there a preferred construction delivery method? What obligation does an architect have to pay for a mistake on a project?
What is a Change Order and who pays for it? How do I get a good construction cost estimate?
What is Building Information Modeling? What do I do if the bids for my project are over budget?
Can an architect help me with building code problems? When do I have to use a professional architect?
Do all projects need a building permit? How do I get a building permit?
What codes affect my project? What is the zoning ordinance and how does it affect my project?
What if I want to do something that doesn’t comply with zoning? My project has to go before a Planning Board. What do they do?
What do I need to do to prepare for a Planning Board hearing and whose help do I need?  

What do architects do, exactly?
They translate your ideas, budget and site into a design that can be built. They also help you solve technical problems and guide your project through the permitting process. Perhaps their most important job is to help you understand what the possibilities are and what the results will look like before they happen. Along the way, they might make design sketches for your review, develop detailed plans and specifications for bidding and construction, coordinate other professionals such as engineers, help you find a builder and evaluate proposals, help manage the construction process, act as your advocate in the event that a problem arises, and help you understand and control the construction process.  They help you make the right choices.
What's the best way to save money on a construction project?

Control its scope.  If you reduce the size of a project, make spaces do more for you and reduce the number of parts that can only do one thing, you can maintain quality and save money

What's the worst way to save money on a construction project?

Reduce the quality of the energy consuming parts of the design, like windows, insulation, doors and mechanical systems.  You will pay for those first cost savings for the rest of the life of the building.  

What does an architect charge?

There is no set formula.  Most calculate their costs by time spent.  For small projects of undefined scope, they will often bill hourly.  For larger or better defined projects, they calculate fees based on a combination of project complexity and size, hours of work required, liability risk, level of service required and how excited they are about the design challenge.  Like all business people, the limits of what they charge are set by the cost of doing business and the competitive marketplace.  Very few architects will be offended if you compare prices although the better ones will be cautious about a client to whom fee seems to be the only consideration.  You will be living with the product of your architect's skills long after you forget what you paid.

Do I need an architect?

If you think of an architect as a designer of buildings and interiors, then every project has an architect. Sometimes the architect is a professional, and sometimes an owner or builder doing the best they can. What separates the good results from the rest is the level of creativity, skill, experience and attention the architect brings to the project. A professional architect has specific training and experience to help you explore possibilities, understand how things will look and avoid mistakes. A really good architect will help you make your project more in tune with its surroundings and your needs than it would have been otherwise.

What does "AIA" after the name mean?
It means that the architect is a member of the American Institute of Architects.  Members have to be registered architects in at least one State and must fulfill an annual continuing education requirement.  An architect does not have to be an AIA member to be registered or to practice.
What does "LEED AP" after the name mean?
The person is accredited by the United States Green Building Council because they have passed an examination on the requirements of the Leadership in Environmental Education and Design (LEED) green building rating system.

What is Design-Build?

A project delivery method in which the architect works for the builder rather than directly for the owner.  The design-build approach allows the owner to deal with only one point of contact and to minimize design fees.  It also means that the owner must rely entirely on his or her own construction and design expertise in monitoring the quality and completeness of the work as well as in negotiating change orders.

What is Construction Management?

In this delivery method, the Construction Manager usually fills the role customarily undertaken by the General Contractor.  Instead of providing a lump sum bid based on plans and specifications, the CM charges a fee for his services, bids out the major subcontracts and manages the construction process.  This approach permits the builder to be involved early in the design process, which can help avoid mistakes and problems with constructability.  Pricing is usually somewhat less competitive than in Design-Bid-Build and the owner is committing himself to work within the limitations and approach of a particular builder from the beginning.  The architect usually continues on the project through the construction phase acting as the owner's advocate and helping to solve technical problems as they arise.

What is Design-Bid-Build?

This is the "traditional" approach.  The architect and/or engineers draw up plans and specifications and offer them to general contractors for bidding, usually to a prequalified set of bidders.  The contractors submit their bids and, generally, the low bidder wins the project.  In most circumstances, this approach provides the owner with the most competitive price.  However, the price only covers exactly what is included in the plans and specifications, which means that the solidity of the price is heavily dependent on the quality and detail of the plans (also true in Construction Management).  The architect normally fulfills the customary role of technical advisor and advocate for the Owner during the construction process.

What is a Change Order and who pays for it?
A change order is any change in the work that requires either a change in cost or schedule.  The most common reasons for change orders are a design change requested by the owner, the discovery of a latent condition such as unsuitable subsoils, or the addition of work not included in the bid documents due to error or omission in the plans and specifications.  Errors made by bidders should not result in change orders.  Some change orders result in a reduction in price (credit), but most result in an increase in either time or money.  Because the owner is the ultimate beneficiary of the work, it is usually his or her responsibility to pay for changes.  If a design error results in a cost without benefit, work that has to be redone for example, then there may be liability on the part of the designer. 
What obligation does an architect have to pay for a mistake on a project?
No professional and no set of documents is perfect.  It is regrettable but not uncommon for a planning error or omission to result in additional expense on a project.  If the additional expense buys something needed and useful that was simply omitted from the plans, then the owner will pay the bill and enjoy the benefit.  The work covered by the change order would have been in the project (and the bid price would have been higher) had the omission not been made.  If the mistake results in expense to the Owner that has no benefit, such as the cost of work that has to be done twice, then it is reasonable to expect the designer to take responsibility.  Most architects carry professional liability insurance to protect both themselves and their clients from the consequences of such mistakes.  A prudent owner will always carry a contingency in the budget to account for the fact that no project is perfect.

What is a "contingency" and why do I need one?

There are two kinds of contingency, an estimating contingency and a construction contingency.

An estimating contingency is an amount added to a calculated construction estimate to account for uncertainty. We do this because all estimates are approximate and estimates made in the early going are usually based on incomplete information. Because the information tends to get more accurate and complete as design proceeds, we often reduce the estimating contingency percentage in successive estimates.  A very early stage estimate might have a contingency of 18-20% while a late stage estimate’s percentage might be 7-10%. 

A construction contingency, usually 5-10% of the accepted bid, is a sum of money that the owner sets aside in a construction budget to cover unforeseen costs. These costs usually arise due to hidden conditions or omissions in the plans and specifications

Unlike most purchases, construction or renovation of a building involves pricing something that doesn't yet exist, which implies some risk for everyone involved.  The contingency allows the owner to manage his share of the risk as a routine part of project planning. The most important thing to remember about a contingency is that it is not “mad money” to pay for project upgrades. If we think of it that way, then we really have no contingency at all.   
I have some ideas, some sketches and pictures of what I want.  Where do I go from here?

Put it all together and go see your architect. If you haven’t chosen an architect or aren’t sure that you want to work with one at all, take your sketches and pictures and go see more than one. Most practitioners won’t charge you for one visit to get acquainted and won’t be offended if you decide to go elsewhere. The better ones will ask a lot of questions about your ideas and objectives. Once you start work, stay open to changes in your thinking and suggestions from your designer. A good design more than a collection of good ideas. It has an internal logic that helps its elements reinforce each other and work together. Much of good design comes from knowing what isn’t working and being willing to set aside attractive ideas that don’t play well with others.

How do I find a contractor?
The best way to find a contractor is by referral. If you know of anyone who has had a project similar to yours done, ask them what they think of the company that did it. If you work with an architect or other professional designer, they will probably have suggestions to offer. The most important attributes of a good contractor are honesty, technical skill, organization, and the ability to listen. If you are considering multiple candidates, spend some time talking with each as well as with their customers. Competitive cost proposals are fine as long as you have confidence in all of the proposers and they have enough information so that the proposals are comparable. Beware the seductively low price based on a quick discussion and a general understanding.
I want to be "green".  How do I do that?
By designing as much as possible in harmony with Nature rather than in combat with her.  Green design does not have to mean exotic contraptions or experiments at the frontier of technology, although it can.  It is not necessarily more expensive than conventional design, but it does require a little thought and effort before you build.  In New England, where we practice, it means arranging the building to take advantage of the light, heat and air that are there already, insulating and sealing what you build, making careful use of water and selecting materials whose harvest and manufacture do the least amount of damage.
Where do architects get their ideas?
For the most part, we get them from our clients.We try to understand what they want and what is important to them.We look at the cues offered by the site, the budget, Nature, and the applicable regulations. With all of this in mind, we experiment with plans and three dimensional forms. Our ideas about form come from educated observation. We look at what other architects do, successful or not, on purpose and by accident. We look at the forms of Nature and we look at the way things need to go together so that they stand up. All of this we do partly consciously and partly intuitively. Like most designers, architects delight in originality, but some of the best ones cheerfully steal ideas from the past because they worked then and they work now.

Will an architect help during construction?

Certainly. No set of drawings covers every detail and many important decisions in a construction project are made along the way.The builder is the expert on what can be done and how, but the architect understands what the results will be and will act as your advocate in an unfamiliar process. In our experience, even the most conscientious builder does better work when he knows that the designer is paying attention. Regular site visits during construction are a big help in avoiding mistakes and misunderstandings.
Why should I limit the number of contractors who bid on my project?
For the same reason that you should select the bidders. The better contractors prefer to bid against other good contractors because they know that the prices will be realistic, which gives them a fair chance. If the number of contractors gets too large (more than 4-5), winning the project starts to become more a matter of luck than skill, especially if bids are not based on detailed plans and specifications. In this case, contractors with better options will not bid.
What are "General Conditions"?
General Conditions are things that the general contractor provides to the project that don’t actually get built into the work. They usually include supervision, permit fees, site safety expenses, miscellaneous cleanup and rubbish removal, security and, on larger projects, a site trailer. They are usually calculated separately from profit and overhead.
What is Building Information Modeling?
Also known as BIM, it is the creation of a 3 dimensional model of a design completely within a computer program. It differs from computer rendering and computer aided drafting (CAD) in that most of the internal elements of the building, ducts, structure, lights, etc. are included as virtual 3D elements in the model. In theory, all of the designers add their work to the model and the contractor actually uses it to guide construction. If all goes as it should, conflicts between building parts are identified when they are only pixels, mistakes are avoided, money is saved and arguments are contained. The technology and its implementation are relatively new, but they are catching on fast, especially in large projects.
Can I be my own general contractor?
Yes, you can. Before you decide to, it is important to know what a general contractor does. Most important, the GC plans and directs the entire project. That means knowing a fair amount about what everyone is doing and how they work together. It also means knowing how to avoid conflicts between the trades (the wall board is up but the electrician wasn’t done) and/or taking responsibility for sorting things out if a conflict arises. The job requires technical knowledge and the ability to communicate with architects, engineers, subcontractors and building officials in language that they understand. GC’s carry liability insurance and worker’s compensation coverage in case the worst happens. Most of all, the job takes time – time planning, time supervising, and time chasing after loose ends. It is very difficult to do well on nights and weekends, especially if you have never done it before.
Is there a preferred construction delivery method?

Each of the three most common methods (design-build, design-bid-build, and construction management) have their strengths and weaknesses so they should be used when the strengths give the most benefit and the weaknesses pose the least problem.

Design-build works best for owners who are familiar with construction and know exactly what they need because there is no third party quality control. It is a good expedient when the schedule is very tight and it tends to require the lowest design cost. We have also used a hybrid D-B method where the design architect turns the project over to the builder for final plans and construction, but remains involved to provide oversight and advocacy for the owner.

Construction Management works best on projects where flexibility or unusual construction techniques are needed. It is also good for projects with inflexible budgets and is easier to accelerate than design-bid-build. With CM, the involvement of the contractor in the early stages helps avoid budget surprises and can help solve technical problems in advance of sub bidding.

Design-bid-build is the best choice when there is a detailed set of plans and specifications and the best possible price is a prime objective.Once bids are in, it is less flexible than CM, hence the need for good plans.Because D-B-B is an arm’s length process, it is often used in public work.

Usually CM and D-B-B both involve oversight of the work by the architects and engineers involved, while D-B usually does not. That makes the first two methods more suitable on projects where quality control is critical or the owner is not in a position to monitor the project directly.


What do I do if the bids for my project are over budget?
First, don’t panic. Even with careful planning and meticulous construction estimating, bids can come in over budget. When this happens, the next step is to sit down with your contractor (or the low bidder) and your architect and discuss design changes that you can make that will bring down the cost. Sometimes it is necessary to adjust the scope of the project as well as change some of the details. Most builders will be eager to help you make the project work and will offer useful suggestions. It is not unusual for an architect to agree in advance to provide additional design services without further charge if the bids exceed a budget that the architect endorsed.
How do I get a good construction cost estimate?
A construction estimate is an educated guess at the cost of building a project. So is a bid, but in the case of an estimate, no one is promising to build the project for the price. Some of the best ways to improve the quality of construction estimates are:
Use a professional estimator. They make it their business to keep up with trends in pricing and current fluctuations in the market place.
Avoid putting too much faith in preliminary estimates made without much information about the details of the project. Ignore altogether estimates offered by people angling for the job after a quick walk through or a brief discussion.
Include an “estimating contingency” large enough to account for the level of uncertainty or imprecision in your information.  This is an add-on amount, similar to a construction contingency
Can you help me find tax credits and incentives for energy saving design features?
Yes.  For a preview of what's available, go to our page on Sustainable Design for several links to sites with information about the programs and incentives available.
When do I have to use a professional architect?
Architects are licensed by the States in which they practice and most States have regulations concerning what projects need the oversight of registered architect or engineer. They also restrict the use of the title “architect” to those who are licensed. Generally, single family house projects and minor renovations don't require professional guidance. All projects are subject to building codes.
Can an architect help me with building code problems?
Yes. Knowledge of building, fire, and energy codes is an important part of what we bring to our clients.
Do all projects need a building permit?
Assume that any construction on your home or business requires a building permit issued by the municipality in which you plan to work. Repairs and repainting do not usually trigger permits, but renovations, additions and demolition (inside or out) almost always do. The easiest way to find out if you need one is to call the code enforcement or selectmen’s office in your town, describe your project and ask.
How do I get a building permit?
For minor projects, you or your contractor will need to visit the town code enforcement office and fill out a form. It is likely that the code enforcement official will request a sketch or some other description of the project to confirm his understanding of your plans. So long as the project is exempted from the licensing law (section 310-A:52) no architect’s or engineer’s stamp is required. Towns charge a fee based on the size and value of your project at rates set by each town.
What codes affect my project?
In New Hampshire, our home state, there is a State Building Code, which includes the International Building Code for commercial and multifamily buildings and the International Residential Code for one and two family residences. There are several secondary codes, including the International Energy Conservation Code. All of them are listed (along with State specific amendments) at the State Building Code Review Board website, . Depending on what you are planning, you may also be affected by your local zoning ordinance, planning regulations, State wetlands restrictions, or special historic district requirements. Septic systems and wells need their own set of approvals through the State Department of Environmental Services, There are a lot of rules governing almost all construction so it is a good idea to check in with your code enforcement office before you get too deep into the process (certainly before anyone starts pounding nails). If you are working with an architect or civil engineer, they will usually provide help and guidance with code problems as a normal part of their services.
What is the zoning ordinance and how does it affect my project?
In New Hampshire, zoning ordinances are adopted by localities under a State law that governs procedure and the underlying rationale for zoning. Local towns and cities develop detailed regulations and lay out the map of zoning districts. The ordinance generally defines what uses can go where, how densely development can occur, and what provisions must be made for parking, access and enclosure on the site. Get a copy of the ordinance from your town code enforcement or selectmen’s office or check your town website for a link to the rules.
Your town code enforcement officer will tell you about the specifics that apply to your project. Residential projects most often run into zoning concerns because they encroach on lot line setbacks, add dwelling units to the lot, or introduce another use, like storage for a business operation. One pitfall to be aware of is demolition of all or part of a non-conforming building, for instance, a garage that is close to the lot line. You may not be able to rebuild it without a variance. Another potential glitch is “involuntary merger”. That can happen if you own two adjacent lots, one or both of which are non-conforming. The town may consider them to be merged even though you don’t and the tax rolls don’t show them that way. That may mean you can’t build on what you think is a vacant lot.
What if I want to do something that doesn’t comply with zoning?
Every town in New Hampshire that has a zoning ordinance also has a Board of Appeals. The procedure may vary from place to place, but the Board’s job is to hear your request for relief from the rules in some specific way. For instance, you might want to build five feet from the lot line where ten feet is the required setback. Anyone can file an appeal so long as they own the property in question or have permission from the owner.
There are different types of appeals with the majority being “variances” or “special exceptions”. The ordinance will tell you which type of appeal you need and the State law spells out what criteria the Board of Appeals must apply to each type of appeal. You don’t have to hire professionals to make your appeal and many people don’t. In any case, it is your job to convince the Board that you meet the criteria for relief, so it is a very good idea to do some research into them before you appear at a hearing. Most of the time, you will get one chance to make your case.
My project has to go before a Planning Board. What do they do?
A Planning Board is responsible for applying a town’s planning and subdivision regulations to individual projects. It differs from a Zoning Board of Appeals in that it does not grant relief from the rules. On the other hand, it does actively guide design, which the ZBA does not. Planning Boards review projects with an eye toward safety, esthetic concerns, impact on the neighbors, impact on traffic, and technical issues like drainage. They also review compliance with planning regulations, which vary among towns and can affect any element of a design. They are responsible for confirming that a given project is consistent with the town’s master plan, a judgment that is not always clear cut
In New Hampshire, the Planning Board will hold at least one public hearing on most projects once it has determined the application complete.
What do I need to do to prepare for a Planning Board hearing and whose help do I need?
If your town has a Planning Director or other planning staff, they will provide you with a checklist of the things required for a presentation. Typical planning board submissions include the following:
  • Drainage, driveway and parking design for the site;
  • Landscaping layout;
  • Renderings of the exterior appearance of new construction (if the board has design review powers);
  • Confirmation that the project is in compliance with zoning or has received the necessary relief.
Planning regulations frequently require that drainage and site design be done by a licensed civil engineer, who must stamp the site plan drawings. If esthetic review of the exterior design is part of the package, a professional quality design and rendering will make a significant difference in gaining approval. An architect or professional building designer is your best source for that. Some towns also require an architect’s stamp on the exterior renderings of larger projects.
What is a "Registered Architect"?
A registered (or licensed) architect has passed a licensing examination, met experience and education requirements, and agreed to the established code of ethics for the state in which he or she is registered. In the USA, architect registration is by state although the exam is the same everywhere with some minor exceptions. The title “architect” is reserved for those who are registered. Traditionally, an architect would apply a registration stamp to a set of drawings to indicate responsibility for their content. That is why you will sometimes hear reference to the need for an “architect’s stamp” on a project.

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