There was no plan for me to have my own business, but after a five-year hiatus from my architectural career —time spent enjoying my children — a neighborhood acquaintance asked for my help turning her little stucco box into a Craftsman-style bungalow. I had a wonderful time, made great friends, and was gratified watching the family's lifestyle transformed. But word-of-mouth soon turned a lark into a demanding business — for which I was unprepared. I enjoyed working with my clients and designing homes, but almost felt annoyed by proposals, contracts, even invoices. And I never said “no.” Even while I was trying to enjoy my family, I worried about something falling through the cracks or about having tasks completed for my next deadline. This worry dogged me throughout the design process.
Value Engineering As an architect, I know basic structural rules of thumb and do's and don'ts about most of the trades, but when it came to staying within a budget, I was shooting at a moving target. All I could do was warn clients that we were probably heading toward a big number — and then draw it anyway. Clients and I spent months designing and dreaming and getting emotionally attached to our design, while I worried about the probability of excessive value engineering. My business needed to change, but I didn't know how to make that happen.
Then, with an almost divine sense of timing, entered Ben Morey, a design/build remodeler for whom I had designed a couple of projects. I knew Ben was honest and ethical and that he shared my desire to help people find solutions that would improve their lives. But I had been taught that architects should remain somewhat removed from contractors, in order to best represent their clients' needs and wants. And that contractors steered clients toward methods and products that made the contractor the most profit — not necessarily toward the best design. A conflict of interests could easily occur. So when Ben approached me to exclusively work for him to direct the design portion of his business, I had my reservations. One thing I liked was the company's fixed-price system that made sense and looked out for both the homeowner and the business. After several months of lengthy conversations, I agreed to work full-time with a flexible schedule.
Dreaming Within Budget I've spent nearly a year heading Morey Construction's design department. I now design with confidence and support. I still interact and dream with clients, but I know the budget and the structural approach from the beginning — from the guy who's going to build it! The clients and I are at ease because we have information. There is a fixed price that we all work toward, and it doesn't move unless the client moves it.
I am still finishing projects with some of my previous architectural clients, and I now have a different perspective. One client told me that the framer and contractor on the job had said the structure could not be built the way it was drawn, and had then asked what she wanted them to do about it. Imagine how nervous this made her, the client, considering she had no idea what to do — nor should she have. The issue required a modification by the structural engineer. Not a big deal, but the problem should never have involved the client. With the design/build system, there is comfortable and constant communication between design and production during the project's development. The integrity of the team in the client's eyes, as well as the client's confidence in us, is not compromised. And that is something every architect should stand by.
While my independent business venture was an enriching and educational chapter in my career, the shift to working for someone else in a design/build company was the right move at the right time. — Cindy Goff is a licensed architect with Morey Construction in Signal Hill, Calif.