Working with contractors only

Why working with contractors only (no architect) may not end up saving you money on your renovation project.

When exploring solutions to make your renovation project as cost-efficient as possible, you may find yourself inclined towards hiring a general contractor directly, and doing without an architect. Surely cutting the expense of an architect would significantly reduce the overall cost of the project, right? Although we cannot dismiss our evident bias towards the benefits of architects, in this article we aim to disclose a reality based on years of experience in the industry. This is not to discredit the contractors’ profession in any way, instead it is to illustrate the crucial aspects in which the work of architects and contractors are highly complementary. This article explores the potential risks of pursing a renovation project without the foundational support of this complementary relationship.

The following two testimonials come from clients who approached AKKA Architects after having initially opted to work with contractors only on their home renovation projects.

We bought a house around 3-years ago and there were many things that needed fixing. We went ahead fixing but only working with contractors since we had a limited budget. However, the thing got out of control and there are multiple problems surfacing in need of attention. We found your approach to architecture pretty interesting and would love to see if you can help us fix this mess. However, I think it’s important to highlight that we already spent a lot of money and energy on all these problems, so we are considering either fixing things properly (hence why we are contacting you) or selling the house.

After our chat last year and after months of delays, we have finally started with the renovation. I decided to do everything myself – with a contactor, and I regret that most days. It’s a lot of work and you were completely right that an architect would be a huge asset. But here we are…I am now contacting you as I really need your advice.


How are architects and general contractors complementary?

Firstly it is important to understand the role of contractors. They are responsible for the construction work on site, overseeing and coordinating the crew of builders who are physically executing the construction of the project. An architect on the other hand is responsible for creating the design plans which the contractor traditionally follows for the build. Creating the design plans includes planning, looking for the most suitable solutions and evaluating alternatives before taking a hammer to the walls. Architects are also usually the point of communication between the contractor and the client.

It is important to note that if you only need to have a simple procedure carried out in your home (such as moving a boiler, or opening up one partition) it may be perfectly ok to work with a contractor only. When it comes to standard home improvements, general contractors are a great option for fast and cost-efficient results.

3 reasons why working with contractors only (without an architect) may not actually end up saving you money on your renovation project.

1. Contractors tend to work without drawings

One major disadvantage of working with a contractor only is that some do not use plans or drawings, preferring to do the work directly on ground. An architect would usually be responsible for creating the detailed, thoroughly-checked drawings that a contractor would work from. There are three main issues with this scenario of working with no drawings. No drawings means that:

  1. contractors can only see the things obvious to the naked eye, it is probable they will miss hidden but critical elements.
  2. the best solution may not be reached. Drawings encourage creativity and innovation, revisions and refinements in an iterative process. Working without drawings may lead not to the best solution, but instead to the most obvious solution, or the first one that came to mind.
  3. The contractor’s intentions and thinking may not be easily communicated to the client. With a lack of visual aid, misunderstandings and potentially unexpected or undesirable results are likely.
2. Deviations in the renovation budget

Although they may start from a budget, or a cost estimate, contractors tend to operate by carrying out the work first and sending you an invoice afterwards. Therefore clients are likely to be faced with an element of financial surprise.

Generally, contractors work with a budget that includes their labour and the cost of materials. It is then their responsibility to acquire said materials and carry out the work. When the material and labour estimates fall short of reality, and contactors need to do more work than expected or materials are more expensive, they will likely ask the clients for additional budget. However, if materials can be acquired cheaper than anticipated, few contractors would revise their budget to reduce them and give the difference back to clients. While there are many honest contractors that may not subscribe to this practice, there may be a tendency towards pocketing the difference in opting for cheaper materials and cutting corners. Architects on the other hand have no incentive to cut corners, their interest is in seeing a beautifully finished long-lasting project. Therefore architects be incredibly useful for keeping an eye on the actual materials purchased and their quality in relation to the price that clients are willing to pay.

contractors cost
3. Client not consulted on technical matters

One the biggest issues when it comes to working with contractors alone is the lack of communication between the client and the contractors themselves. The client is usually not knowledgeable about building technicalities, therefore contractors tend to make technical decisions without consulting the client beforehand, or without even informing the client of the potential consequences of such decisions. Acting upon their own accord in this manner may result in significant mistakes or unwanted choices that the client will later have to pay additional costs to amend.

The scenarios described above are most relevant to renovations or new builds which are more holistic; involving elaborate designs, new materials and structural changes. If you are undertaking a more elaborate project, the potential mistakes described in this article may be highly undesirable. As a client, you want to be well-informed about cost and design decisions. Architects are an ideal partner to have in order to plan well, search for the best solutions before beginning, and coordinate between clients and contractors. Architects understand the ins-and-outs of your design vision, therefore they can actively participate in the decision-making processes to ensure the effects are achieved whilst adhering as closely to the budget as possible.

If you are still unsure about whether working with a contractor only is the right choice for your renovation project or not, we recommend reading our article Do I Really Need To Hire An Architect?

If you need advice on working with contractors or you are planning on designing or renovating your home and would like some help, get in touch with us. We would be happy to help with any questions you may have.


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“We would like to express our gratitude for the time you invested in helping us get to a clear picture.  Anna and I really appreciated the call we had with you, your responsiveness, and the great empathy that you exhibited throughout – we certainly felt very “well taken care of” when engaging with you.  On the practical side, we especially appreciated that there was the option to obtain robust bottom-up cost estimates for the construction itself (not every design architect offers this).”

-Private Client of AKKA



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