Why every Architect should also be a Developer

Traditionalists will tell you that the best way to get something built is to get one person to design it, another to build it and, most importantly, someone to pay for it. But, like all love triangles, the end result almost always leaves at least one of the parties feeling jilted. So what if you decided to avoid heartbreak by taking on all three roles yourself? What would that mean for your project and more importantly, what would that mean for you and how you approached traditional building projects in the future? This month, we talk to Jake Edgley, an architect who develops and builds his own projects, to see how his perception of the client-architect-contractor triangle has been changed by his own experiences: HC: How did you get started developing your own projects?

JE: I always intended to follow the development route, after working on some small-scale developments as a student, and seeing the possibilities of this role. I set up my practice in 2004 as a development practice and my first project was a development scheme. The architectural work followed on from the experience I gained on this scheme.

HC: But why developing? Why not just “optimise” your practice and lower your fees like everyone else?

JE: I think that when you open an office as an architect you have to choose what kind of architect you are going to be: either you are going to choose the commercial mode or you are going to focus on design. The simple fact is that the design approach requires much more time. In the early days of building a practice when you haven’t yet established a reputation that will enable you to charge the higher fees that are required to fund that kind of work, you just can’t expect to compete on even terms with the practices in commercial mode. There is this idea that if you just work harder then you can succeed, but when everyone is working hard, it isn’t enough, you have to find another way.

Yes, you can optimise: you can fund the time differential by cutting your overheads to a minimum or by working out of your house, probably as a one person operation, and there are definitely people out there who have made that way work. But other risks emerge: when you are on your own, you can only do a very few projects of a limited size and so you are much more exposed to the ebbs and flows of the economic cycle. So for me, optimisation wasn’t an ideal solution.

The way I saw it was that by taking on all the roles, I could take the profits that would usually be distributed three ways and use them to pay for the good quality design that I wanted to be producing. So it wasn’t even really about making more money, it was about finding the money to fund the extra design time.

HC: But if this way of working is so good, why go back to doing traditional projects at all?

JE: Developing and building your own projects doesn’t mean that you then don’t go back to doing traditional projects, it just changes the way you look at them.

Being a developer gives you an empathy for a client’s situation that you could never have otherwise have obtained. Likewise, if you are arranging the building work yourself and interfacing with all the trades you gain an appreciation for how important a contractor’s good organisational skills are and the relative value they can bring to the project. A good contractor should be able to pay for themselves, but you can only know how to recognise this if you have an understanding of what they do and how they work.

The other big advantage comes from using the buildings that you design. By living in a house that I designed, for the first time I was able to experience the house through a range of seasons and to a level of intimacy usually reserved only for clients. Out of this I realised how little feedback you actually get from clients and how crucial this feedback is in shaping how you design.

So, to answer your question, developing and building my own projects has not made me want to stop doing traditional projects, it has just meant that I see them in a different way and can bring more to them as a result of the projects I have done for myself.

HC: So there are no downsides?

JE: I wouldn’t say that!

The one contradiction that does strike me is that as a developer / designer / builder is that you do embrace risk much more than what you would advise a client to do in a traditional project.

In a traditional project, your starting point as an architect is to try to reduce the client’s risk to a minimum. By insisting that everything is designed to as high a level of detail as possible the pricing is as accurate as possible and by tendering to three contractors you ensure that you get a competitive price and a realistic picture of the build-time. Finally, you make clear to the client that once the contract has been agreed, making changes is a big no-no if they want to keep the costs and schedule under control.

This is essentially a very defensive approach that assumes that cost and time are the most important factors and so is designed to reduce as much as possible any risks that will result in the project being late or over-budget.

But the quality will only ever be as good as the original design and so excludes all of the expertise that the individual craftsmen or trades can bring to the design after the project has started on-site.

When you develop and build your own projects, because quality is the single most important driver, you are able to incorporate their advice as well as making other changes that arise as an inevitable result of understanding the project better as it is realised. This does mean that the build itself may take longer, and may be more expensive, but the outcome is always going to be a better quality design than what was on paper at the outset.

In terms of cost, it may be cheaper to follow a traditional route, but only because the scope of the building can be reduced at the outset to reduce the budget which is not always possible following a design and build route. However it should always produce a building which is good value in terms of the final design, as the overheads are reduced by taking on the various management and funding roles.

So reconciling these two approaches is not always easy, but by having the experience of delivering the projects using different approaches means that you can at least have an informed discussion with the client about perhaps adjusting their approach to risk and the rewards that may bring to the project.

HC: Developing projects seems risky enough and yet, from what you are saying, the idea is to invite in more risk by increasing the number of unknowns – how does that work and why would a client buy into that logic?

JE: I guess the secret lies in having the discipline to set parameters for the project and to then stick to those parameters. Obviously it is no good having a great project if it is never finished or if it bankrupts you!

I would say that the biggest risk in developing your own projects is the lack of parameters and the freedom you have to make changes as you progress. There are many areas that you become involved with and because you don’t have to justify yourself to a client or a contractor, you can be tempted into making changes which you wouldn’t normally make if you didn’t have to fight for them.

It’s also tempting to follow new ideas. Projects evolve over such a long period of time that it’s vital to form a strong conceptual framework at the outset of a project and to stick to it. Otherwise, a project can end up drifting through various concepts and ideas which can erode the clarity of the initial design.

So conversely, the experience of traditional projects is actually a help to the developer projects because you do need to be disciplined about working within a strict framework.

HC: What question do you get asked most by architects and self-builders who want to take the leap into developing their own projects?

JE: By far the most popular question is: How do you find the right site?

My answer is always the same, “By looking for it!” Unfortunately there are no shortcuts - it’s simply a case of getting out and about, looking for interesting sites, talking to agents, and looking out for sale and auction opportunities.

The simple truth is that the more risky a site, the more profitable it will be, so any site worth taking on will probably come with significant risks - otherwise someone else would have already taken it on. And don’t forget, it’s the profit that’s going to pay for the design!

Jake Edgley was talking to Ryan von Ruben for Harris Calnan.

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