David Merrill, president of Merrill Contracting, Arlington, Va., has worked with architects for years -- and sometimes he would even get the jobs they asked him to consult on. Other times, he didn't. The architects would say, "You're the guy for this job!" and, Merrill says, "I'd get really excited, invest lots of time doing all kinds of work while the project was developed. Then they'd put it out for bid and I wouldn't get it. It was a big bummer."

After this scenario played out a few times, Merrill decided to make a major change in the way he deals with the architects. "I instituted a retainer agreement that asks the architect's clients to invest a certain amount of money before I would get involved," he says.

Now, the client pays up to $5,000 in retainer fees and from that point forward, Merrill is part of the project development process. For this investment, he will do an initial cost study and then keep tabs on the budget as the client and architect massage the design. The money is applied to the construction costs if Merrill is chosen to do the work.

But mistakes can happen. "Once, an architect and client were discussing changes and I suggested that we stop the process until I could do a cost analysis. Both of them told me not to bother, as they were not concerned. So against my better judgment, we didn't stop the process. When we finally did get around to doing another cost update, we were way over budget and I got the blame. This taught me to stick to my guns, maintain control of the project, and insist that we halt the process until we all understand the financial ramifications of the change.

"I actually like this better than design/build," says Merrill. "It's got many of the benefits of design/build -- such as the early and continual cost updates. In this scenario, the architect is responsible for the design and its inherent liabilities, which is wonderful. And as an added plus, I'm exposed to the cool design ideas of top architects."

And while the investment doesn't cover all of the time and effort involved, the monetary and psychological investment means the clients are much more likely to choose Merrill Contracting as their remodeling contractor. That way Merrill doesn't waste his time and expertise. --Victoria Downing is president of Remodelers Advantage, Fulton, Md. (301) 490-5620, [email protected].