Guide to Architectural Services

Few people realize how complicated it is to build--that is until they find themselves lost in the maze of design options, building codes, zoning laws, insurance requirements, windstorm, flood and historic requirements, contractors, and so on. No two projects are alike, so there is no single, clear-cut path to follow. As architects, we guide you through the process, helping you make the decisions that are right for the project.

The architect is the generalist, the one professional who has the education, training, experience, and vision to guide you through the entire design and construction process, from helping you define what you want to build to helping you define what you want to build to helping you get the most for your construction dollar.

The architect sees the big picture. They don't just design four walls and a roof--they create total environments, interiors and exteriors, that satisfy functional needs and are exciting, dynamic spaces in which to work and live.

Whether you are remodeling, adding on, or building from scratch, the architect can guide the way. Working with contractors and other construction professionals, we help you end up with a well-designed project that meets your needs and works with your budget and time frame.

Problem Seeking and Problem Solving

Most building projects start with a want or need. "I need more file space in my office." Or, "We've outgrown our house." But how does that need or want get translated into square feet and three-dimensional space? First we seek the problems - understanding the problems is the first step toward the best solution.

Then we work to solve problems in creative ways. With our broad knowledge of design and construction, we show you alternatives and options you might never think of on your own. We help you evaluate possible solutions so you can make the decision that's right for you.

Need more room for your growing family? We can show you how to enlarge your home so you don't have to move. Not sure how fast your business is going to grow? We can design an office that meets your needs today and can be adapted for tomorrow. Have a limited budget? We look for ways to make your project cost effective.

How we save you money

Our services are a wise investment for the money, not an added cost to your project. A well-conceived, carefully planned and well documented project can be built more efficiently and economically.

  • We work with your budget and help you select the appropriate materials and workmanship at a fair price.
  • We develop the drawings and specifications to help you get bids for construction that are based on your requirements.
  • We help you choose materials and finishes that are durable as well as beautiful, saving on maintenance and replacement costs. Our familiarity with a range of materials enables us to suggest appropriate materials for your project.
  • We stay informed about advances in building technology such as windows and doors, roofing, cladding, floors, paints, etc.
  • High quality design adds value because good design sells. A well-designed project has a higher resale value. A well-designed store draws customers. A well-designed work environment attracts employees and increases productivity.
  • We plan your project with you. As your ideas evolve, changes can be made on paper--much less expensively than later when construction is underway.
  • Drawings make it easier for the contractor to accurately price and build your project.
  • Because energy efficient buildings save you money, we can design a building to minimize heating, cooling, and electric bills over time.

We make your life easier

Building is a long process that is often messy and disruptive, particularly if you are living or working in the space under construction. We look out for your interests and try to find ways to make that process go smoothly.

When your project requires engineering or other design services, we coordinate the team of experts so you don't have to. We sort out complex building codes and zoning laws. We help you find qualified construction contractors based on your requirements. We visit the construction site to help verify that the project is being built according to plans and specifications. We review contractor payment requests to assure that you pay for what is built and completed according to specifications. We use standard agreements that protect the Owner from financial calamities during construction. We prepare change orders when necessary and review pricing so that any change is recorded and contracted fairly.

The importance of understanding the architect's role

Your visit to this page is a start to understanding the role of the architect. We believe that understanding what we do is crucial in the ability to use our services. The standard agreements we use further define the roles of the Owner, Contractor and Architect.  If you would like to understand every detail, ask us for sample copies of the agreements that might be used on the project.

Once you understand what we do, think carefully about your building needs and goals. Do you need more space? What activities will be housed in the space? How much can you spend on the project? How will you finance it? Where will it be located? Do you plan to do some of the work yourself? Don't worry if you don't have all the answers. We will help you clarify your goals.

The initial meeting and the concept of team work

The initial meeting is crucial because it gives us both a chance to meet each other and see who we are. It is our opportunity to begin a strong design team with your project in mind.We will be working with you for a long time and will potentially be starting a relationship that can last much beyond one project. We want you to feel comfortable, just like the way you feel with the other professionals in your life, your doctor or dentist, your lawyer or accountant.

Figure on at least half a day for the meeting. It might take place at our office -- helpful because you can see where the work will be done. Or it could be held at your home or office -- helpful because we can learn more about your project and needs -- whichever feels right.

If, during the course of the discussion, there is something you don't understand, ask us for clarification. We are there to make things easy for you to understand, we are there to serve you and that we rely on teamwork as much as you do.

Team work

The best building projects are created when the client and architect work together as a team. Designing a building is an exciting, creative challenge. The process is fun, satisfying, and positive. It is also hard work. If at any time in the design process you are uncomfortable, discuss your concerns with us.

Our common goal

Ultimately, the goal of the initial meeting is to build trust and obtain a feel for the project. Unlike buying a car or a new appliance, you can't see the final product yet and test it out. Michael Gaertner Architects provides professional services, not a product. We are the ones who provide the judgment, technical expertise, and creative skills, at a reasonable cost, to help you realize a project that fits your practical needs as well as your dreams.

A word on fees

Fees can be confusing to first-time clients. There is no set fee for a particular type of project. Fees are established in a number of ways, depending on the sort of project, and the amount and nature of the services best suited to your unique needs.

We have only one "product", and that is our time. The more time we spend on the project, the larger our fee; therefore we strive to work efficiently, and to communicate clearly. On the other hand, we don't want to scrimp when it comes to communicating with you. We must all recognize that there are differences between the ways that clients understand construction projects and visualize. Some clients understand a sketch on a napkin, others need to see several color renderings to understand the project, to some extent and there are always variables that affect the fee for a project. It is always better to spend extra money during the design phase to be sure you understand, once the construction has begun the cost of making changes increases vastly.

Some projects are best done at hourly rates; others for a stipulated sum per unit, based on what is to be built (for example, the number of square feet, apartments, rooms, etc.). Sometimes we charge a lump sum fee other times we charge a percentage of construction costs. It is appropriate to discuss how we should expect to establish the fee on the project. We may suggest a combination of the above methods. The basis for the fee, the amount, and payment schedule are issues for us to work out together. Therefore, it is very important and helpful to know as much as we can about the requirements of a particular project.

Expenses are usually not included since they can vary widely from copying and printing, travel expenses or consultant costs. These expenses are added to regular invoices with a modest multiplier to cover interest and overhead costs on these types of expenditures.

Getting it in writing

Once the fee is determined a contract is prepared and sent to you so that you will fully understand the services you will receive.

When the decision is made to move ahead with the job, the terms of the agreement on the scope of work, services, schedule, construction budget, and compensation. This written agreement can take many forms. Michael Gaertner Architects has a variety of standard contract forms which are used industry wide for all types of projects. Both parties sign the agreement, and the job usually begins with a modest retainer to carry the start-up operation costs.

Steps toward building your dream

Design and construction projects involve several steps. Typically, projects go through the following six phases. However, on some projects, several of these steps may be combined; on others there may be additional steps.

Programming: Deciding what to build

This first stage, called programming, is probably the most valuable time you spend with Michael Gaertner Architects. It is at this time that we discuss the requirements for your building: how many rooms, what function the structure will have, who will use it and how. It is also the time when we will begin to test the fit between what you want, what you need, and what you can spend.

It is risky to come in with solutions already decided upon. This is the time when an open mind on ideas is to be encouraged. Be prepared to explore new and creative ideas. Be frank about how you want the end result to feel and work. Create a shopping list of dreams. These dreams serve as the basis for formulating solutions.

We ask you lots of questions to get a better sense of your goals and needs and to determine if your expectations match your budget. We may suggest changes based upon knowledge, experience, and your budget. After thoroughly discussing your functional requirements, after adding or eliminating feasible ideas, we prepare a statement outlining the scope of your project. During the next step, your program will be realized.

Schematic Design: Rough sketches

Once we have defined what is to be built, we then do a series of rough sketches, known as schematic designs. These sketches show you the general arrangement of rooms and of the site. If you have difficulty understanding the sketches (many people do), ask us to explain. Depending on the project, we also sometimes make simple models of the design to help better visualize it. These sketches and models are not "finished" construction documents. They are meant to show possible approaches for you to consider.

We refine and revise the sketches until a solution is developed into one that you agree with and that meets the needs of your project. At this point, we may be able give you a preliminary estimate of construction cost. This is only a general idea of cost, there are still many more details to be established about your project and that this cost estimate is very general. It is hard to predict market conditions, the availability of materials, and other unforeseen situations that could drive up costs. Therefore, this figure should include a contingency to possible increases as the design matures.

Often these first sketches seem different from what you first envisioned. Ask us to explain how these designs satisfy the requirements you discussed in the first stage. It is vital that we are clear about what you want and what we design. It is much easier to make changes when the project is on paper, than later on when foundations have been poured and walls erected. Before proceeding to the next phase, we will get your approval of the sketches.

Design Development: Refining the design

This step, called design development, is when we prepare more detailed drawings to illustrate other aspects of the proposed design. The floor plans and drawings show all the rooms in the correct size and shape. Outline specifications are prepared listing the major materials and room finishes. At this time, we may review the drawings with code officials and others to ensure compliance and uncover any potential problems, before we begin final construction documents.

When looking at these drawings, try to imagine yourself actually using the spaces. Ask yourself: Do the traffic patterns flow well? Does each space serve the intended purpose? Do I have a good sense of what it will look like? Are the wall and ceiling finishes, door types, windows, etc. correct? 

Based on these drawings, we prepare a more detained estimate, though final costs depend on market conditions. Review every element with us to make sure you are getting the most out of your construction dollar.

Preparing construction documents

At this point, we prepare the construction documents, the detailed drawings and specifications which the contractor will use to establish actual construction costs and to build the project. Drawings are used to show the relationship and configuration of the building components and show the quantities required, specifications set standards of quality and workmanship. The secret to good documents is knowing how much information the contractor needs to build the project and providing just that much.

On larger projects (millions of dollars) the specifications may be a large set, bound into a book; at the opposite end of the spectrum, a small project, such as a room addition might have the required information written directly on the drawing sheets. Most of our projects are in between, there are several sheets of drawings and a small booklet of specifications. Whatever final form they may take, drawings and specifications become part of the contract. When construction documents are finished, you are ready to get bids and hire a general contractor or builder.

Construction documents are a tool used to communicate to the contractor what the final product is intended to be. These documents vary greatly depending on a variety of factors, including the budget for architectural services, the way the contractor is to be selected, the type and complexity of the project, and the location of the project. As a communication tool, these documents are never perfect   (and there may even be mistakes although we have several reviews in the office before documents are released). Therefore, we are careful to point out that the documents are intended to convey the design intent, and that it is the contractor's responsibility to review the drawings and site, fully understand them, and get any clarifications before submitting a bid.

Bidding and Negotiation: Selecting the contractor

There are a number of ways to select a contractor. We can make recommendations, or if you already have someone you want to work with, you might send the construction documents to him or her and negotiate fees and costs. Or you may wish to choose among several contractors you've asked to submit bids on the job. If that is the case, we prepare the bidding documents, which consist of drawings and specifications as well as invitations to bid and instruction to bidders. The bidding documents are then sent to several contractors, who within a given period of time, reply with bids which include the cost for building your project. The lowest bidder is often selected to do the work, but is not the only factor. Often, quality is a prime concern.

While we recommend contractors and assist in the selection process, the final choice is up to you. Some people prefer to act as their own general contractor or to do part or all of the construction themselves. These methods can save you money initially but can also add problems and costs later on. Discuss the pros and cons of these methods with us to help you decide what will work best.

Once a General Contractor has been selected, we can assist you in reaching an agreement with and can prepare the agreement for your use.  The agreement is between the contractor and the owner, the architect-owner agreement is a separate agreement, and during the construction phase, the roles of the owner, contractor and architect are defined in their agreements.

Construction Administration

Construction administration is the final step and is often the most anxiety-producing part of the entire process. Up until now, your project has been confined to intense discussion, planning, and two-dimensional renderings. When construction begins, your project moves from an abstraction to a physical reality.

Our involvement normally does not stop with the preparation of construction documents. We also provide construction administration services. These services may include assisting you in hiring the contractor, making site visits, reviewing and approving the contractor's applications for payment, assisting with change orders that may occur and keeping you informed of the project's progress by supplying you with progress reports.

Although we observe construction and report to the owner, the contractor is solely responsible for construction methods, techniques, schedules, and procedures. The contractor supervises and directs the construction work on the project.


The road to a completed building project is paved with lots of challenges and uncertainty. There are hundreds of decisions to be made, decisions that have an impact on how the project looks and functions over time. We can ease the way by helping you avoid wrong turns, but can also direct you to solutions you never considered. The result is a unique building project created to meet your needs, express your individuality, and provide enjoyment for everyone who uses it.

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