Building 101: How to Navigate the Architect-Contractor-Client Relationship

Architect Cary Bernstein gives constructive advice: know what you want, who you're working with, and how much you can spend. And be patient.
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In 12 years of running her own firm, San Francisco–based architect Cary Bernstein has designed countless residential projects and worked with dozens of contractors. She knows well the difficulties of architect-contractor-client relationships, and while she has no magic formula, she’s developed a pretty good system for making them work.

Award-winning architect Cary Bernstein earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Russian Literature from Dartmouth College, and a Master of Architecture from the Yale School of Architecture. Prior to starting her San Francisco office in 1995, Bernstein practiced in New York for six years.

What are the first steps a client should take when starting a new construction project?

The most important thing clients can do is know themselves. They should spend time looking at buildings and spaces that they like, building their visual literacy, and try as best as possible to figure out why they like them. Once clients have a head start on understanding their priorities, they’re in a better position to pick the right architect and make the most informed decisions.

Is an architect always necessary?

It depends on the size and complexity of the project. Two of the most important things an architect can do is provide a great design and an organized set of construction documents. Great design speaks for itself. The more organized the construction documents the better—financially and emotionally—the construction process is likely to be.

Hill House, a 1930s residence in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood, underwent a skillful renovation by Cary Bernstein Architect.

San Francisco–based architect Cary Bernstein at the Hill House renovation site.

What’s the most important thing a client, an architect, and a contractor can do to ensure a smooth construction process?

The most important thing a client can do is select an architect and contractor with the highest degree of professionalism and commitment. The most important thing an architect can do is listen to the client and prepare a thorough set of construction documents. The most important thing a contractor can do is read the drawings and specs!

Construction, especially at the residential scale, is a very human endeavor and is vulnerable to all of life’s surprises.

—Cary Bernstein, Architect

How do you guide your clients into selecting the right contractor?

It’s an interesting dilemma. Since many homeowners don’t know contractors, they rely on their architect to put them in touch with a good one. This puts us in an awkward position: if the contractor doesn’t perform, we’re guilty by association. 

I try to help clients feel comfortable with their choice, and that means encouraging them to do diligent research. I recommend client-to-client conversations, speaking to other homeowners who’ve worked with the contractor before, and asking questions like: "What was the relationship like between the contractor and the architect?" "Did you find the contractor responsive and respectful?" "Did you have frustrations with him or her and, if so, what were they?"

Cary Bernstein Architect renovated Teaberry, a midcentury home overlooking the San Francisco Bay, to include a new principal suite that is connected to the main residence via a covered bridge.

What are your clients’ biggest frustrations with contractors?

The first is schedule overruns, then higher costs, and then performance. I try to minimize disappointment by managing clients’ expectations from the beginning. Without being overly pessimistic, I tell them to anticipate delays and to expect some increase in cost. That means building a 10 to 15 percent contingency into the initial price. There are always going to be issues you can’t predict—all of a sudden, the foreman is getting a divorce or one of the subcontractor’s mother gets sick—and it’s good to get your head in the right place from the beginning. Construction, especially at the residential scale, is a very human endeavor and is vulnerable to all of life’s surprises.

Do your clients’ personalities help determine which contractors you recommend?

Absolutely. I have clients who have very high expectations of professionalism. For them, I would never recommend a contractor, no matter how good, who has less of a backup office and whose paperwork isn’t going to be as tidy or as timely. That guy might be less expensive because he’s not paying as much overhead, but for someone who is very demanding and expects service when and how they want it, he is the wrong contractor.

Cary Bernstein Architect updated a 1904 cottage in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood to include a third-floor addition that meets the needs of a growing family—while also upholding sustainability standards.

Can a client negotiate with a contractor?

Sure, but it should be treated as a collaborative, not an adversarial, process. A client could say, "Your bid was for $30,000 and we have $20,000 to spend. How do you think we can make it a $20,000 job?" It’s good to keep in mind that being a contractor can be a very unpleasant job.

More Building 101:

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How to Work With a Contractor to Create Your Dream Home