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Sunday, September 26, 2010

House Construction 1: The Architect and the Quantity Surveyor

If you ever decide to build a house, choose the right architect. After changing out my architect from hell and replacing him with an architect from heaven, I have gone from stressful to stress free. Completely.


The architect I currently have designs factories for the most part. He therefore oversees projects that are humongous. One might think that he designs factories because he has no eye for design, and therefore home owners don't want him for their dream home projects. That is not so. The few houses he designed are appealing. There is even a stunning restoration project in an old Peranakan shop house.


Don't save money on an architect. $70,000 is about the price you need to pay, and since $70,000 is a lot of money, check out your architect properly to make sure that he is like my architect from heaven.


The architect from heaven should have very strong project management skills. There are a thousand and one things to co-ordinate on the worksite. My architect from heaven takes one look at the contractor's project management Gantt Chart and he spots discrepancies and omissions, which he then proceeds to point out in a gentle voice and a non-threatening smile. That is important because some contractors believe architects are conjured up to make life difficult for them. As such, the architect needs to know how to impose his will, without sending a skittish contractor into a fit of frustration.


The architect from heaven should be prompt in providing drawings and construction details. Contractors don't like to read... and they don't like verbal descriptions accompanied with much gesturing. Drawings are what they need. My previous architect from hell took all of one week to make small amendments to drawings. Later, I found out why. He didn't know how to use the computer and had to rely on another to make the amendments. Gosh! The previous architect from hell didn't even send out his own emails!! It was my own fault to have chosen a 60+ yr old architect just because he was cheap.


The architect from heaven should have design integrity. This means that if what you want flouts some accepted principles in good design, he should tell you. My architect from heaven convinced me to do away with the false ceilings in my master bedroom even though stingy Petunia was initially adamant about having them in to save energy on air-conditioning. False ceilings reduce the volume in the room and the air-conditioner has less work to do... ergo, lower electricity bills.


Three times my architect came back to me to suggest that we expose the sloping ceiling of the roof in order to have a larger and more impressive bedroom. "Impress?" I said, "I'm not building my house to impress." A week later, he came back again with computations about how much more electricity I would be paying over the next 20 years to cool the extra space under the roof. He was right, I wouldn't be paying much more. But then I said "It's not green to use even a little bit more electricity than you should". One week later, he came back and said "With the extra volume of air under the roof, your bedroom will be less stuffy... and perhaps you could sleep without the air con some nights". Aha! Now he speaketh a language that stingy Petunia understands! But I think the real reason why he keeps insisting is that it is a good design feature to have a high sloping ceiling. The look and feel of a room is very different when you have extra space under the roof.


An architect from heaven runs a truly objective tender exercise. Thanks to the shady dealings of my previous architect, which you can read about here, I had sourced for and interviewed a few building contractors. I personally invited them to tender. My architect invited 2 other contractors with whom he was familiar. When the tender envelopes were opened, it was clear that he had not given his own contractor contacts any undue help. And his own contractor contacts were the first contractors we took out of the picture because they had quoted a price that had exceeded our budget.


An architect from heaven will explain to you that you need a quantity surveyor. Engage a quantity surveyor (QS) to save yourself the stress when things go wrong. It's a bit like travel insurance. You pay the money and set your heart at ease. Some architects will tell you that to help you save money, you don't need a QS... that the architect will play the QS' role. Don't you believe that. One absolutely needs a QS if one has never had experience building a house.


I am so happy that I have a QS. He tabulated every item in each of the contractor quotes in an Excel spreadsheet. He sent out emails to clarify prices and work scope. At one glance, he could tell whether some numbers were not right and he picked them up for discussion during contract negotiations. My QS has all the standard templates documenting building specifications... and listing all the materials to be used in the house... and the payment schedule. When all this documentation is done right, you are legally protected if the contractor is naughty in any way.


A friend of mine is stuck in a brawl with his contractor. He has paid up quite a lot of money but his contractor wants more, or work won't continue. They are at a point where each is threatening to sue the other. With inadequate documentation, the winner is the more aggressive one. You don't want to get to fisticuffs with your contractor do you?


Yet another person has paid up $100,000 to a contractor who has only done 20% of the work. The contractor has no motivation to continue working because he has already made 80% of profit. More work brings down his profit. Work on the site has stalled and the contractor is using the 80% profit to fund work on other projects. The QS knows how to assess the extent of works done on site. His expert eye can tell if 20% or 30% or 40% has been done. He will then advise you how much to pay. And in the presence of a QS, the contractor knows he faces an expert, and will think twice before trying to pull the woollies over your eyes.


I am glad I engaged a QS because I don't like contentious relationships. I like to be able to speak softly and still be taken seriously. Why be a shrew if you can carry a big stick and speak graciously? My QS is my big stick, and because he is there, I can be nice Petunia. You wouldn't go to India without immunisation shots. Why would you build a house without a QS?


My previous architect told me that he would double up as my QS. I agreed because Petunia can be stingy to the point of stupidity. But even to my untrained eye, his documentation was imprecise, fraught with error and ambiguous. This of course gives the contractor a lot of wiggle room to charge more later, and once you are locked into a contract with a contractor, you have to pay what the contractor asks.


I strongly suspect that my previous architect was gonna get a cut of the fat earnings that his favourite contractor would cream off me. A difference of 200k in tender price from what is usual... plus an architect who has managed to convince owners to choose the same contractor in at least 3 different recent past projects (despite higher than normal tender pricing) can only mean that the tender exercise was not quite as objective as it should have been. And why would an architect favour a particular contractor so much if he didn't get to share in the spoils of a very high tender price?

Notice that I didn't say anything about getting an award winning architect. After all, if you're only building a small house of about 4000 to 5000 sq ft, what kind of artistry do you want? Besides, most of us who want to build a small house want OUR own design details. Go for an architect with a proven track record in the hard stuff (project management, co-ordination and certification) and he will still be able to give you elegance and style to the theme that you want... because that was what he learnt at school.

What you can't learn in school is how to manage contractors... how to oversee a project... how to co-ordinate work and approve builder shop drawings.

24 comments:

Blur Ting said...

Very interesting and highly informative.

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

ditto

My SINFONIA said...

I engaged an architect to do my current extension and I should have known I got the wrong one when he turned up in a wool vest knitted by his grandma...

Open Kitchen Concept said...

LOL. I should have studied and be an architect! :P

Tune said...

Mind sharing your builder? I am in the midst of engaging one and I can imagine it will be a nightmare with the wrong builder. I have got a good architect by the way.

petunialee said...

I haven't appointed the builder yet... I will be appointing the day after tomorrow. My next blogpost will be about my process of appointing a builder. Have you started/completed your tender exercise?

petunialee said...

Sinfonia - Sure! I will email you!! Thanks for leaving your email.

petunialee said...

OKC - Heh! It does sound like a nice paying and fun job eh?

petunialee said...

Sinfonia - If you dun like him, then find another. The architect is key in the construction team. You and your extension will suffer if he is incompetent. I suffered so much because I had not the heart to sack mine.

Wen-ai said...

Hi Petunia, did your architect mention anything about security systems? Or are you looking to install one? I'm currently checking out various security systems and wondering what is the best in the market.

petunialee said...

My friends who stay in landed properties in Malaysia tell me that there is no better deterrent than big dogs. I will be having at least 2 of 'em, if not 3. Hence, no security system... However, in my HDB, I installed wrought iron grilles everywhere... both to discourage break ins and to protect the kids from climbing out.

My SINFONIA said...

Thks Petunia. I cut loss after $3k with the architect sometime ago. Appointed a draughtsman instead and he was a god-send. Only cost me $5k in total for all the plans and he was so good on ideas and very practical. My ensuite and 2 car garage wing is almost lock-up stage already... looking forward to putting the sunroom on inthe next phase...

Malar said...

This is definately an eye opener to all who would like to built a house on their own!!

MetalTab said...

Hi Petunia,

I enjoyed reading your sharing here and your postings in the forum of Renotalk. Thanks for sharing!

It must be a great experience building your own home.

Hope you get your builder from heaven!

YEO said...

Very useful information. I am in the process of engaging an architect. Can you share your architect and builder (and their respective costs)?

lim said...

Hi,able to provide your architect contact?

petunialee said...

Dear Yeo and Lim, would you like to send me a PM in the renotalk forum?

cynthia said...

very nice! pls keep up the good work!

tinkerjoy said...

Hi,

I just bought an old terrace and would like to kick start the reno process. could you share with me your architect contact? Thanks

My email is tinkerjoy@gmail.com

petunialee said...

http://www.asiabuilders.com/asiabuilders2011/CHIN-KAM-ARCHITECTS_Singapore_Company_80094116.aspx

tinkerjoy said...

thanks so much : )

tinkerjoy said...

thanks so much : )

Doryps said...

Stumbled on your renotalk post and followed the link here. A friend is looking for an architect and yours looks like a good one. May I have the contact please (doryps@gmail.com)? Thanks!
(I've tried pm in renotalk but not successful.)

Doryps said...

Hi Petunialee, blunder me..I just realized you've included the link to the architect in one of your replies below. :P
Thanks!