Renovating a home is always a big undertaking, with many ideas to explore and plans to make. These projects are so complex that a well-organized approach is an absolute necessity. Without it, a project can easily go downhill - or fail to launch at all.
At Letter Four, we always do our best to steer our projects successfully and to follow the process that we've developed in the last 12+ years of business. That being said, it sometimes happens that, in spite of our best intentions, a project can go awry. We find that when this happens the best we can do is learn from the experience and make improvements to avoid recurrence. Our hope is that this case study will help you to understand the importance of solid communication, stakeholder agreement, and what to watch out for when considering parting ways to find a cheaper architect.
A couple had hired Letter Four to fulfill a Complete Project Action Plan: the full package of research and materials needed to solidify their design direction and understand the total project costs involved. They vocalized that they were aiming to renovate their existing home and add a second floor, as well as convert the garage to an additional dwelling unit (ADU) on the property.
The couple (let’s call them Tom and Kate) had also stated that they were hoping they could do all of this within a very tight budget. Our team clarified that we would need to go through an actual assessment of the site and nail down their specific wishes before we could determine if that budget was feasible, potentially with project phasing. This would prove to be a big sticking point as the project unfolded.
Where Things Went Wrong
Stakeholder Involvement and Agreement
From the start, we had a difficult time getting both Tom and Kate together at the same time. Only Kate was present at our initial site visit, as well as various meetings scheduled to discuss design plans. This meant that Tom was not able to communicate his preferences, and since he and Kate hadn’t settled on a unified vision beforehand, Kate couldn’t communicate his preferences to us either. Our team would create design drawings, inspiration images, and other reference materials based on the information we had, only for Tom to express that they did not reflect his wishes. We’d be sent back to the drawing board and revise the design plans every time, bloating our time investment far beyond the average project.
It became clear that intervention was necessary if this project were going to succeed, so we scheduled a meeting to discuss the importance of Tom showing up to meetings, and how essential it was for both he and Kate to have a vision they could agree on. We stressed that only then would we have the information to create a cohesive, fully thought-through design that met everyone’s needs.
As the project moved along, Tom’s participation unfortunately didn’t improve. He was therefore still unsatisfied with the design concepts we presented, and placed the blame on our team.
Budgeting was also a major source of friction. After explaining that their hopeful budget was likely not feasible from the beginning, Tom and Kate had agreed that they would split the project into phases so that they could more easily afford to do the renovation and ADU build over time.
Nevertheless, we were met with surprise and dismay when our cost estimates showed the higher number we had told them to expect. Despite reviewing how local material prices were on the rise, and that their design choices and site needs would incur greater costs, they still did not understand why the whole project couldn’t be done at once, for the low price they had initially aimed for.
This confusion was made worse by the fact that they had solicited quotes from other contractors who had promised to build their entire project for that rock bottom price. While we advised them that these quotes were too-good-to-be true, Tom and Kate felt confident that going with one of these contractors was the better choice.
In addition to being motivated by a low sticker price, Tom and Kate explained that they didn’t feel like our team understood their design vision. They also preferred not being bound to scheduled meetings during business hours to plan their project. They liked the fact that the other Architects they talked to promised to be available for impromptu calls any time of day, any day of the week, and hold design discussions whenever they thought of something new.
Unfortunately, they didn’t seem aware that their own lack of organization had contributed to the lack of a satisfying design concept, nor that their “on-call” approach to project planning wasn’t effective, professional, or the industry norm. It had seemed that all of our attempts to communicate why the project went wrong just did not succeed.
What Could We Have Done Better?
Though it was a disappointing experience, our team did learn a lot from Tom and Kate’s project. We have since incorporated a few new practices as we navigate new projects.
- Insisting on 100% Stakeholder Engagement
We can’t make everyone happy unless we know what they want, which is why we now require all stakeholders to be present for all meetings. In addition, we also make it a must for every stakeholder to show up to these meetings on the same page, fully aware of each other’s goals, wants, and needs. If they need more time to figure things out, we wait to schedule design meetings until they’ve reached an understanding.
- Holding Firm on Scheduling and the Need for Organization
It’s true that our team isn’t available for late night calls, weekend site visits, or spontaneous planning sessions that last for hours. And we don’t plan on changing that! We respect the time of our staff and our clients equally.
In our experience, impromptu planning is also the fastest way to create chaos in a project. It’s very hard to keep design plans accurate and account for all project factors when off-the-cuff requests come in at a moment’s notice. Sticking to scheduled meetings at convenient times ensures that we can keep client projects on track, and manage changes more efficiently.
- Clarifying Priorities Right Away
We now ask clients if they prefer to build everything they want, and then work out the budget, or plan around a specific budget and make concessions as needed. This allows us to understand the client’s expectations and priorities from the start, and refer back to this agreement if any budget misunderstandings arise.
- Explaining Budget Realities Emphatically, and Often
While we have always been clear about the likelihood that the budgets our clients hope for may not be realistic, we have learned that it’s necessary to drive this point home early and often. We make sure that we alert clients every time they make a request that will drive up the project price tag, and walk them through any challenges that the site or existing infrastructure will take extra investment to overcome. Our frequent cost estimations help to reinforce this by providing accurate updates based on current design plans and material pricing.
- Creating Pre-Planning Materials for Our Clients
We know it can be tough to plan out a complete vision for a renovation or custom build, especially when you don’t have experience with such a big project. It became clear that some of our clients need extra support in this, which is why we’ve gone the extra mile to create a variety of informative resources that can help them discover their wants and needs. We now offer our free Project Planning Pack, a guide full of tips and exercises to help clients prepare for their first design meeting. In addition, we also regularly publish informative articles in our Education Center and on our Blog, all covering common concerns in design and construction projects.
How to Prevent Your Own Project Bust
If you’re looking to plan your own design and construction project, stories like Tom and Kate’s serve as a great model of what not to do. Their difficulties were actually quite avoidable, and you can easily keep your project on track by making a few key commitments.
Make Time for Meetings
Designing your dream home is not a simple task. It requires a lot of time investment, thought, and communication in order to come up with a vision that matches both your aesthetic and your lifestyle. Before you launch your project, make sure that you’ll be able to give it the attention it needs. You should be prepared to schedule and attend meetings during normal working hours.
If it doesn’t seem like that is feasible in your current schedule, wait until life slows down to kick things off. You’ll be rewarded with less stress, and more time to plan the build that makes you truly happy.
Come to the Table Prepared
Architects aren’t mind readers - and even if we were, we couldn’t help you unless you knew exactly what you wanted, first! The best way to achieve smooth planning and clear communication with your Architect is to come to your consultation with a strong vision of what you want.
Everyone who is a decision maker on the project should be on the same page about how the project is taking shape, and your respective wishes should be communicated to each other before meetings take place. We highly recommend working through the exercises in our Project Planning Pack to ensure that you can come to your first consultation with a good understanding of your goals.
Beware of Budget Contractors
Unless you’ve worked in the architecture and construction industry, you may not be aware of some of the unscrupulous practices that take place among budget Contractors. It’s unfortunately common for these firms to make extremely low quotes, undercutting the competition and making you believe you’re getting a great deal. They count on their offer being too tempting to refuse, trapping you into a contract before you’ve realized the issue.
These Contractors know that they cannot make good on their promise. They end up introducing more costs later on in the project, claiming that unforeseen expenses have come up. While it’s true that surprises do happen in construction, the work in question here was never unexpected. In some cases, Contractors may not even bother with this trick, instead silently skipping important work or downgrading materials to save money. The result is a low quality build that doesn’t meet your expectations.
Therefore, it’s wise to be cautious of quotes that sound too good to be true. If a Contractor is claiming they can perform the work at a price far lower than what other firms have set, alarm bells should be ringing. Quality construction can be found at a great value, but it will never be cheap. You can spare yourself a lot of expense and disappointment by acknowledging that the right firm will give a realistic quote, one that has been thoughtfully calculated and accounts for all factors affecting your build.
Your Success is Our Success
At Letter Four, we’re committed to making every project an outstanding experience for our clients. When you choose our team to take on your project, we invest all of our efforts in understanding your vision and giving you an honest assessment of what your build will entail.
Your best interests are always put first, which is why we never lowball quotes or misrepresent what’s achievable. Instead, we want to win your business by providing trustworthy estimates and quality architectural services that allow you to start your project with confidence.
All of our work is done collaboratively, valuing a team-oriented approach that is built on mutual respect and flowing communication. It’s by these principles that we are able to steer your project to the finish line, with your complete satisfaction.
If you’d like to get started on planning your project, please take a look at our Project Planning Pack and Project Action Plans. Once you’re ready to talk, we’ll happily schedule you for your first consultation! Book a call to discuss your project and learn how we can achieve the build of your dreams.