Architects and Engineers Keys to a Successful Relationship

Architects and Engineers

Change is a part of life; and that’s especially true if you’re talking about living in an urban condo community, where no building ever stays the same for too long. Renovations are done, capital improvements are required and even upgrades for building common areas are eventually taken care of.

Regardless of if it’s a unit owner looking to do some remodeling or a building-wide capital improvement program that will affect all residents, odds are that an architect and/or engineer will be part of the process. While architects and engineers perform many parallel functions, the two disciplines are not the same and often they need to work together.

Understanding Distinctions

While some may use the words “architect” and “engineer” without much thought, the two jobs are vastly different and anyone involved with any project should understand what each job entails. True, the two perform many parallel functions, but the two disciplines are not the same even though they frequently work together.

According to the New School of Architecture and Design, architects are responsible for designing the aesthetics and spatial details of a building’s project, and seeing to it that the overall end-use objectives of the client are met. Once the architect and client are in agreement, the architect then provides the engineer with detailed architectural designs. It is under this framework that the engineer will design the building’s systems or structural spaces themselves.

Daniel Baigelman, AIA, principal architect with Full Circle Architects, based in Highland Park, says most clients don’t understand the difference between an architect and engineer and use them interchangeably. Indeed, the city of Chicago allows engineers to perform pretty much the same functions as an architect.

“In my opinion, architects have a broader training across all the spectra of industry and design, whereas an engineer is usually schooled in a certain discipline, like structural, mechanical, electrical, etc.,” he says. “I think that architects are trained more on life-safety issues and just on general background.”

Regardless of discipline, both types of professionals will interact mostly with the board and management, sometimes with just the individual resident, sometimes with a board-appointed design committee, and sometimes with all of the above. However, often they must work together to successfully execute the projects for which they are hired.

A Collaborative Working Arrangement

Kami Farahmandpour, PE, principal and founder of Building Technology Consultants, PC, an architecture and engineering firm in Arlington Heights, says the secret to having a harmonious relationship between the architect and engineer is for each party to understand what their scope objective is, and their limits of responsibility.

“Architects typically handle the aesthetic and building layout issues while the engineers deal with the technical aspects of the project. In some cases, what the architects envision are impractical from a technical standpoint,” he says. “They each have to understand the limitation the other party has and work towards a common goal: a final product that looks good, functions well, and can last a long time.”

Farahmandpour, a licensed professional engineer with 8 other professional construction designations, adds that as long as they each understand these common goals, they will have a good relationship, but they also need to respect each other’s time limitations and deadlines.

And just about all the experts agree that another crucial component is communication—not just between architect and engineer, but between both professionals and the board/management team they're working with. “It is imperative that architects and engineers provide the boards with options for various projects, and educate them on the advantages and disadvantages of each option,” Farahmandpour says.

“Not every architect and every engineer has the experience for every project, so both need to be able to listen accordingly,” Baigelman adds. “If you stay open and talk things through, usually there’s not much of a problem.”

James E. Collins, AIA, NABIE, NCARB, LEED-AP, the president of Criterium-Collins Architects & Engineers in Oak Park, has worked with condos for decades and because his company has both architects and engineers under hire, and they often work together on a project for smaller jobs.

“If the structural engineering gets complicated, we’ll have someone else come in and work with us—usually a consultant on the bigger jobs,” he says. “I like to think we’re working as a team to solve the problem. We need to talk with each other and understand where we are coming from and look to provide a solution for the property and the owner.”

Farahmandpour says that ideally, he would want to work with an individual or a committee who has the authority to make decisions or convey decisions made by the board. “The person is typically the building manager and/or an appointed representative of the board,” he says. “Although the design team should understand that all board members are volunteers and have their own job responsibilities, prompt attention to issues by the board representative is sometimes needed, so it's important for that representative to be available. In many cases, the property manager fills the role of the board representative. This can work well as long as the property manager has sufficient authority to make certain decisions.”

When temperaments or accessibility issues create tension, the best remedy is to have both sides interact in the presence of a third party—be it the owner, a board member, or even a professional mediator. Otherwise, it will slow down construction and could affect the final result—and that could cost money.

Before the Job

Baigelman says most of his interaction comes through the management companies and the property managers, but the company also gets referrals for new work from bankers, accountants and others in the condo industry.

“When they know there’s an upcoming project, most property managers will talk to several architects or engineers based on the scale of the project,” he says. “Sometimes we meet board members at trade conferences, but that’s not the main way of contact.”

Baigelman goes on to say that once his firm is engaged, they always try to meet with the board to find out the true scope of the work and understand what they’re thinking. “A lot of times, not all the information gets passed through by the property managers,” he says. “Yes, it’s their job to find us, but they don’t always disseminate all the information we need. We need to make sure we know the scope of the work and get a preliminary price on it.” By having thorough, realistic estimates, the board or association can start the funding process while the architects and engineers begin the design work.

In most instances, an architect will need to prepare feasibility studies and preliminary budgets to establish and confirm some of these critical agenda items. Once these items are established, then outside consultants such as engineers, specialists or contractors can be invited in to join the project team to offer their expertise as required.

Farahmandpour says that sometimes keeping focus on the ultimate project objectives is very challenging.

“Although boards or owners often change objectives and/or budgets during the progression of a project, they may not realize how such changes can impact the function or durability of the project,” he says. “Therefore, it is incumbent upon the design professionals to communicate the implications of such changes to the board or the owner. Another challenge is to provide the right amount of communication. Some boards want to know every detail, while others simply do not want to be bothered by all the details and a flurry of daily e-mails resulting from each project. Setting expectations regarding communication and project objectives early in the process is imperative.”

Working the Small Jobs…

When an architect is hired by an individual owner, the architect will interact with building’s administrators, board members and/or management as an integral project team member that advises, guides and coordinates all team members through the project.

    On smaller jobs, Collins says people may get to a point where they have some bids from contractors and the prices don’t make sense so he gets called in to provide guidance. And other times he gets called in earlier to help prevent any problems. Even if he’s working with an individual unit owner, he says it’s necessary to talk with the board.

“The board usually wants to make sure that someone isn’t doing something that will be detrimental to the building structure or cause some other kind of damage, so they are going to get involved,” he says. “It’s always just more than the one owner.”

Once underway, Collins visits the site depending on the owner’s wishes and usually when there are payment requests, so he can ensure the work has been done correctly.

…and the Bigger Jobs

For large-scale big-ticket items or capital improvement projects, an architect’s responsibilities become much greater. Not only must and architect and the engineer plan everything together and make sure they are on the same page, but he or she must talk it all through with the management company, board and often the residents themselves.

“They are living there and see what’s happening day to day, so I’ll make myself available to the individual owners and talk with them about the views of what’s been happening over the long period of time,” Collins says. “The more information I can get, the better job I can do.”

The Job Begins

Once construction begins, an architect can custom-tailor their oversight of the project to the client’s specific needs. It is also required that an architect visit the site at specific intervals of the construction process to perform inspections.

During a job, Baigelman says he comes out periodically to monitor the work being done and ensure the engineers are doing what needs to be done in the proper way. Normally, this involves more frequent visits in the beginning of the project when more infrastructure work is being done, and less later on when the finishing is complete.

Working With Design Committees

Architects and engineers must also work with design committees on occasion in a collaborative environment that works best for all. The design committee normally provides the architect with their “wish list” of needs for a specific project and once those parameters are set, an architect can begin to design or plan a project.

“Their heart might be in the right spot, but I have found committees sometimes slow things down,” Collins says. “You might have people there that have a particular point of view that isn’t that flexible but when you’re working with old condo buildings, you need to have some flexibility for issues that come up.”

Based on the client’s comments, those preliminary design options will be refined into a more developed design concept, which is then presented to the client for approval. Then another round of refinements can be done to come up with the final design that the client is happy with prior to starting the detailed construction documents.

“The design committee typically gets the ball rolling, but when you start talking about the money and the actual construction, it really turns more to the board,” Baigelman says. “It’s the board who is responsible to say if the payment is correct or not. The design committee will give recommendations to the board, but the final approval comes down to the board.”

For example, if Baigelman is doing a remodeling of the corridors for the building, a design committee will be formed and assist on getting the design approved, but once actual construction begins, it’s mostly handed over to the board.

The Final Word

Architects and engineers are professionals who should be able to work together and deal properly with the board, management, design committee, and each other. Even if they have a difference of opinion, they must find a way to work together to successfully execute the projects they’re hired for.

Friction often translates into the end product, so it’s vital that harmony rings true.

When things flow, good things happen. When the design and construction run smoothly, both architect and engineer can stand by the finished product and proudly say, “We built this together.”    

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicago Cooperator.

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