Great Expectations

By: Steve Thorburn

Do you know what your client expects from a project? Currently, we’re experiencing life from the client side of the fence, and learning from the experience. Thorburn Associates is expanding its offices in North Carolina. We grew, we ran out of room, and nobody liked the idea of running a second shift. So we plunged into the office space Realtor thing. We located a spot that is better than our existing space. Then came the build-out plan.

Being savvy AV designers who continually deal with space planning, we whipped up our base plan in about two hours and then spent the next month refining it. Our new landlord took the plan and gave it to an architectural firm voted one of the “best places to work” in the area.

I admit I got a little ruffled, professionally, at the first teleconference— when the architect began to instruct us about the design process and about how architects work, and then said the project would take six months (three times longer than the lease contract allowed.) It dawned on me that they had not prepared for our meeting. They had not spoken with the landlord about the contractual requirements. They had not looked at the 16 pages of plans and details we had put together to illustrate what we wanted, which was for a qualified architect to take our plans, ferret out what was needed for permit, and submit the plans as required.

Our landlord next suggested a smaller firm, a one-man shop. This new architect would be using the same MEP engineering firm for the tenant improvement (TI) design and permits, and his fee was 50 percent of what the other firm had quoted. Yes! That is a bargain any Scottish boy will take seriously. We bundled up our now-20-sheet stack of plans and details and handed them to the landlord’s favorite TI contractor for pricing. We also gave the stack to a second TI firm to price, one that had LEED experience.

The new architect understood the process, took our work, slapped on his title block after he field-verified a few things, and added his notes. We were off to the permit process. At the same time we got the initial bids back from both TI contractors. The firm with LEED experience bid only 1 percent higher than the other, and we were impressed that they had taken the time to meet with us prior to issuing their initial bid, in order to confirm a few details. They were ready and willing to start demolition based on our drawings. (The other firm planned to wait until after the permit drawings were out to ask us further questions, which would have added a week.)

We went ahead with the LEEDexperienced contractor. Then came the rub. A few days ago at our last team meeting, the contractor’s rep advised us that there were discrepancies between our current drawings and the set of drawings they had priced, and additional discrepancies between the architectural permit set and the MEP permit set. They had, the rep declared, based their fees on an early set of drawings we had given the landlord—drawings which did not take into account any of our updates. This meant they had missed about 40 percent of the scope of work. As the client, are my expectations being met? From a design point of view, I think so. I got what I paid for with the architect. The jury is still out on the MEP. As for the contractor-of-the-discrepancies, I think they will, ultimately, work out. The relationship and the level of trust are pretty good. They completed five days’ worth of demolition in two days, and the site is clean and easy to get around. They have almost all of the new framing done. They are fast-tracking it on the assumption that we will agree on a final quote in a few days. We will find out then if I am happy or not.

So, from a client’s perspective: Learn who your client is, ask about their expectations, and listen to the answer. And stay tuned—I am sure we will have a few more stories out of this project. (We have not even started on the technology yet!)

This article was originally published at  System Contractor News.