It takes a team.


In the old days, architects, such as the master builders of the great Gothic cathedrals, had complete control of the work, not just of the design of the buildings but their construction. Fast forward ten centuries and architects, having sloughed construction responsibilities off on to contractors, rely more and more on specialist consultants to design certain aspects of projects. While architects are trained as generalists, and can legally do almost any aspect of building or site design, liability concerns, not to mention appreciation of the greater expertise of specialists, demand that we share our duties. Architects still generally act as the conductors of this symphony of consultants; the quarterback who calls the plays and hands off the football when appropriate.

So who does what? Roughly in the order of their involvement, here are some of the consultants that might be found on a large, complex residential project:

Surveyors. Surveyors very carefully measure the surface characteristics of sites, including their topography, property boundaries, existing structures, pavements, trees, utilities, and so forth. They produced scale site plan drawings showing these items; the other site work consultants use the survey as ‘background’ information to their work.

Soils Engineers. More formally known as geotechnical consultants, these consultants drill test borings into the soil of a site, take samples, and write a report indicating what are the underground conditions at the site. They estimate the ground’s bearing capacity, and make recommendations for foundation design. In earthquake county like California, they also report on the nearness of seismic faults and the likelyhood of liquifaction during earthquakes. On steep hillside sites, they report on historic and possible future landslides. This information can be crucial for proper engineering of the structure for long term stability.

Environmental Health Consultants. On residential projects these consultants mostly design septic systems – septic tanks and leach fields for sewage treatment where there is no public sewer to connect to. They start by testing the percolation rate of the to see how quickly it absorbs moisture. Some sites, because of their size, soil composition, proximity to creeks, etc., simply cannot support a house with a septic system, so county governments often want septic systems designed and approved before they will approve a house design.

Civil Engineers. Often closely allied with surveyors, civil engineers draw subdivision maps, design roads and driveways, grading and drainage and utility systems. As more emphasis is placed on environmental protection, they now usually do erosion control plans showing temporary anti-erosion measures during construction, and spend a good deal of their time designing water catchment and dispersal systems to control runoff of rainwater.

Landscape Architects. Another generalist profession, landscape architects emphasis is on the esthetic part of site design – layout and materials of walkways, gardens, trellises. We often speak of landscape (groundcover, shrubs, trees) versus hardscape (walkways, patios, driveways). Landscape architects also design fences, gates, trellises, fountains and pools and similar site structures. There is a technical part of their work too, of course, involving irrigation design, exterior lighting, and so forth.

Architects. We design buildings, of course – in league with the other consultants listed below – but we focus on organization and function of spaces and on the overall design concept, including often the layout of the site. Our focus is generally on producing permit documents – the drawings which are checked by the planning department for zoning compliance and by the building department for code compliance – and which are the basis for obtaining a building permit.

Structural Engineer. These consultants design the underlying structure of a building; they size the structural members and make sure the building is stiff enough to withstand wind and earthquake forces.

MEP Engineers. These are engineers for the mechanical (heating, cooling and ventilation), electrical and plumbing systems. On most residential projects the subcontractors who do the actual construction of these systems also engineer them. In many cases the designs are worked out in the field, without benefit of drawings. On especially large or complicated projects, however, engineering consultants are used.

Energy Consultants. These consultants deal with state mandated energy use regulations – they calculate the energy use of the building and make sure it fits within the states guidelines.

Interior Designer. Interior designers have all the fun – at least architects sometimes think so. Traditionally, interior designers do everything from picking paint colors to selecting carpet and window treatments to choosing furniture, plumbing and lighting fixtures. Lately I’ve been finding that some designers don’t limit themselves to interiors; they like to design any esthetic element of projects, inside or outside, only limiting themselves where technical considerations require more engineering expertise.

On large projects we spend a considerable amount of time dealing with these consultants – briefing them, coordinating their activities, and reviewing their work: making sure the symphony is in tune and making beautiful music.

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