Hiring consultants: The do’s and don'ts to help you maximize a project from start to finish
The world of architecture is getting more interesting—and complicated—by the day.
The days of the architect as the master-builder are long gone. Today’s design environment requires different types of expertise working in harmony.
Sometimes the best way to tackle your projects is to loop in specialists and consultants who have both the skill and network needed to get the job done.
Amy Baker is a spec writing consultant and freelance architect who loves digging deep into the “nerdy” side of projects. Chris O’Hara is a founding Principal of Studio NYL, a group of structural engineers and facade designers.
Amy and Chris have even worked together on some of the same projects, giving them a unique perspective on the firm-consultant relationship. They teamed up to walk us through the major do’s and don’t when it comes to hiring consultants to help your firm.
Let consultants help you prioritize the big picture
Whether or not you elect to work with outside consultants, the need to consider big picture questions is important.
Amy said that it’s smart to think about the big picture as soon as DD starts, which means assigning someone as the point person to think through big decisions that will guide the rest of the project.
“Have you thought about the air barrier? Have you thought about your waterproofing? Have you thought about your roofing?” Amy asked.
“Having another voice or partner in the process helps capture all of these big decisions that should be made maybe as soon as DD starts. Because they all are interrelated and interconnected.”
Chris agreed that there is huge value in a holistic project view. Because there are hundreds of tiny decisions that go into the creation of a building, specialists can help you understand and make sense of all of the overwhelming options.
“There's all these different overlaps of how the details are coming together,” Chris said. “Having the different focused areas of expertise overlap the way we do creates a great dialogue of being able to help our architectural teams understand the options, see where they can go, and help the team select the most appropriate thing.”
The value of hiring a consultant is that they have seen dozens of projects and know what questions to ask to determine what is missing, what still needs to be considered, and what the pros and cons are of potential decisions.
If you think your firm is too small to support a consultant, think again.
“Not every project can support full spec writing throughout, but a lot of them can,” Amy said. “All of these services that either Chris or I would provide are definitely scalable, even for smaller projects or smaller firms.”
Let consultants act as translators
Consultants provide a secondary service of great value, which is their ability to act as a translator between firms and manufacturers.
Technical consultants have a deep understanding of materials and vendors, which means they are well-suited to act as the trusted go-between.
“We are that transition between the rest of the design team and the specialty fabricators or manufacturers. We're able to talk to them on a more technical level than a lot of architects are able to, and really get down to the nuts and bolts of why their systems work the way they are,” Chris said.
What are the lap lengths? What are the necessary transition zones? Is X compatible with Y?
Consultants can help you answer all of these questions thanks to their firsthand knowledge and their network of manufacturing contacts.
You could do this on your own, of course, by contacting various sales reps. But time can be a time-consuming task, not to mention sometimes inconclusive.
“One of the challenges when you're only dealing with sales reps, you know, let's face it. ‘Rep’ is one word, but the other one's ‘sales.’ They're there to sell. Because of what we do, we have more access to the national-level technical people. We know exactly how the material is working, as opposed to what that representative has been trained to tell people,” Chris said.
Let consultants add research & development expertise
Consultants like the engineers at Chris’ company are used to getting into the technical weeds. They enjoy having conversations with scientists and manufacturers, and are able to share that knowledge with the firms they serve.
“Scientists invent the technology, engineers manipulate and figure out how to use the technology. And oftentimes we try to use it in ways they didn't envision,” Chris said.
That’s why letting consultants play the role of translator and mediator can be such a big perk.
Chris said that part of his job is staying up-to-date on current materials and vendor offerings. This makes his company uniquely positioned to advise clients on the pros and cons of specific materials and suppliers.
This boils down to an ongoing process of research and development, some of which is billable and some of which is not.
“We're not built to work for the contractor, it’s not really our goal. We're more designers in service to architects. And to work with the top digital fabricators, or start to learn the craft of a different material or system and really be able to vet that is something we have the ability to do, due to the engineering side of our office,” Chris said.
All that quickly comes into play during client work. For example, if a client notes that they are considering porcelain, Chris’ team is ready with a laundry list of all suppliers who could meet their needs.
“Given that this is what we do all the time, we're able to maintain the vigilance on that and really know exactly what's possible,” said Chris.
Don’t be intimidated by consultants
Now that we’ve covered the “dos” of approaching consulting relationships, we’ll follow with a couple of “don’ts.”
First off, don’t be intimidated by the thought of seeking out consultants, or overwhelmed once you start talking to them.
Amy said that the last thing consultants want is for you to feel ignorant. On the contrary, they are often the first to say when they don’t know the answer to a question and need to do additional research to move a project forward.
“As far as being a technical type of consultant, the name of our game is to not provide services in a way that makes people feel stupid,” Amy said.
“I put a lot of emphasis on trying to build up that team aspect, and making sure that people feel comfortable to reach out. Because I would hate for somebody to not ask the question, and have it result in something that maybe they didn't want.”
Amy dives into each new project by “interviewing” the team members involved to get a baseline of what’s already been figured out and what is still undecided.
“I approach spec writing as like an interviewing process. I have a lot of questions, and I'm interested in talking through everybody's comfort zone. If you know you like certain materials or systems, let's talk about those first. But I'm also gonna ask a bunch of questions about things you're maybe not quite as familiar about,” she said.
Amy said that the language consultants use can be technical and intimidating to your average architect.
“What I never want to do is to hang up with the architect that I'm working with and have them freak out and have a panic attack. Everybody's process is a little bit different, and I'm interested in making it as not stressful as possible. At the end of the day we'll get through it, but it's a process,” Amy said.
Don’t wait until the last minute to involve consultants
The final and key piece of advice is to involve your consultants as early as possible.
Chris explained that the earlier you involve your consultants, the better. When consultants have a full view of a project instead of a delayed or fragmented one, they can help you guide the design toward your initial vision.
“There are a lot of architects we work with where they're like, ‘Oh, we want to protect their fee. We won't bring them in until we get our ideas together.’ And that's the exact opposite of what we should do. The more understanding why the design evolves the way they want it to be, and how they got where they are before compromises, the better work I can do,” Chris said.
Sometimes subtle adjustments or material swaps early on can ensure that the final product is closer to the initial design vision.
“Getting this narrow glimpse of a project isn't what we want. We often tell them, you cannot overwhelm us with information. Give us as much as you've got,” Chris said.
From there, it comes down to keeping the lines of communication open so that your consultant can provide feedback and options at every stage.
“The more [clients] understand ‘why’ on the technical aspects or why something is more expensive than another, the better we can start bending these rules to get to the most appropriate design for a project,” Chris said.
Whether those parameters are based on aesthetics, performance, or purely on cost, your consultant can help guide you.
If you wait too long to seek expert advice, you could end up stuck with a subpar design or end up paying loads of extra money.
Amy agreed. “There's a big benefit in bringing a technical consultant in earlier, so that a lot of this shakes out before too many decisions are made that lock it in that make it impossible to undo without creating all sorts of additional work,” she said.
In a world of increasingly complex and integrated systems, the need for expertise and specialization has never been higher.
If you are interested in pursuing a holistic building solution, saving time, and identifying materials and manufacturers up front, consultants can help pave the way to success.
Join us on Thursday, May 13th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Amy Baker of Amy Baker Architect and Christopher O'Hara of Studio NYL.
Amy Baker is an Architect and Specifications Consultant at Amy Baker Architect, a commercial architecture and spec consulting firm located in Royal Oak, Michigan that provides a variety of architectural services for new construction, addition, and renovation work. With experience in retail, daycare centers, multi-family residential, commercial office build-outs, entertainment, light industrial, and restaurant work, Amy Baker Architect provides design and construction document services for commercial projects. For architect clients, Amy focuses on specific technical services to support project teams, including third party drawing reviews, code reviews, and construction specifications. Amy is on the Board of Directors for the metro-Detroit chapter of the Building Enclosure Council (BEC-GD) and was recently nominated and voted onto the Board of Directors for the Air Barrier Association of America (ABAA). "My heart lies in construction detailing and building science. I enjoy the tedious tasks that many architects loathe, like spec writing, building code studies, and coordinating door hardware schedules."
Christopher O'Hara is the Founding Principal and Facade Director at Studio NYL, a Boulder, Colorado-based structural engineering and facade design firm known for its exemplary skills. The firm has earned the trust and respect of architects around the world for delivering truly innovative design-led solutions that exceed the conventional. Founded in 2004 by Chris O'Hara, PE and Julian Lineham, PE, Studio NYL's vision is rooted in the founders' belief that all architectural design can be elevated through the inventive use of structures that enhance rather than limit design. It is this passion for raising design standards through the "artful use of structure" on every project—whether humble or grandiose in scope—that drives their distinctively poetic approach. The Skins Group is a division of Studio NYL that provides a full service facade design team specializing in thermal modeling, moisture/condensation analysis, in-depth detailing and more. The Skins Group works closely with contractors, architects and building design teams around the world, and is often sought out by facade consultants and architects needing assistance with challenging systems.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Amy and Chris about building your technical team with specialists.
- Lessons learned from working with many architecture firms
- Why work with a technical consultant vs hire in-house?
- Everything from spec writing to facade engineering
- and more!