Architect or general contractor?

Architect or general contractor: Many people associate the word ‘architect’ with big designs and creative architecture. The term general contractor (GC) is more likely to be associated with a turnkey construction at a fixed price. What's the better option?

Architect or general contractor?
Architects don’t design “off-the-rack” buildings, but rather individually designed properties. In the image: Marmont Modern House

Jürg Zulliger

What applies generally in life can also be applied when building a house. Everything works better if it is built on a solid foundation. Laymen in construction quickly exhaust their competences. To start off with: At the beginning, it’s not so much the decisions about kitchen furniture or a specific heating system that are crucial. The choice of the right partner is what is really crucial! “Architect or general contractor?” – Let’s ask an experienced expert, for example, Bernhard Lauper. He has been working as a building consultant at Immopro in Zürich for many years. His first answer is: “The decision between an architect or general contractor doesn’t depend so much on the size of a project.” The important criterion is the type of assignment: Is it about developing a project first and drawing initial sketches of ideas? Or is a construction project that is already defined in all details?

Architect or general contractor?
Creative designs by architects: Rotunda of the Danish office of Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects (Image: flickr / W. Gurak)

Architect or general contractor: Differences

In the first case, it is certainly advisable to contact a qualified and suitable architect. Architects are trained to develop ideas and form proposals depending on the property, the legal planning requirements and the wishes of the customer.. The strength of the general contractor, on the other hand, is the structural realization of a clearly defined project. Above all, GCs are the right partners to concretely execute building projects that have already been designed and defined. Another important difference is that GCs offer cost and term guarantees.

The work contract with a GC should include a very detailed description of the construction commissioned, at a price and date fixed in advance in writing. In contrast, depending on the assignment, architects coordinate the entire tender process for each individual contractor and take over the role of construction management. However, unlike GCs, it is not common to guarantee costs; instead, the architect usually submits a cost estimate to the client – the uncertainty factor in terms of cost is therefore higher. In addition, the client concludes separate contracts with the craftsmen, contractors and suppliers with this model. The GC, on the other hand, works on the principle of “everything from one source”.

When attempting to answer the fundamental question of whether you should choose an architect or general contractor, it must be remembered that the construction partners often define their own role somewhat differently. Lauper says: “I also see a decisive difference in the fact that an architect is also the trustee of the client, in accordance with their assignment.” This means that: An architect considers the interests of their client and does not just pursue his own aims. They will assist the client in an advisory capacity. They thereby help the client to realize their goals with reasonable effort.

In contrast, a GC does not have such a fiduciary duty in this sense. “In short, it is the task of the GC to execute a predefined project in accordance with the concluded contract for work. Nothing more and nothing less. That is, however, not a fiduciary task”, says Bernhard Lauper.

Architect or general contractor?
Architect or general contractor? Good architecture for a general contractor: The new Ruggächern building of the ABZ building cooperative. GC: Allreal (Image: Hannes Henz)

Construction phases: The ideal partner

Architect or general contractor? In practice, the boundaries today are somewhat blurred. Certain architects also offer a coordinated complete service, for example. Lauper brings the idea of answering the question depending on the phase of a project onto the table. “For example, those who have inherited a beautiful home as a private person or layman often don’t know what kind of potential the building offers and how they should deal with the task in hand,” says Bernhard Lauper. In order to explore the options and possibilities, you could commission three architects to design the first rough idea sketches.

“Private individuals are often amazed at the kind of creative proposals they can get with so little effort” says the construction expert. During the first meeting with an architect, you can usually get a feel for whether the "chemistry is right". In order to achieve good results, the client should really be convinced that they have found the "right" partner for construction and planning. Getting references is very advisable.

In the next step, the client would have to decide on a proposal. It is also important to further specify the construction program and the project itself. For building the property itself at a later point, the client can then think about whether the architect should continue to pull the strings or whether they should hand over the construction work to a general contractor. If a client ultimately orders total service (planning and execution), they are referred to as a total contractor (TC). The customer then only has one contact person and contracting partner who consolidates all services to be carried out.

(Federation of Swiss Architects (BSA) Responsible architects

Architect or general contractor? Let's now ask the same question to a well-known agent in architectural circles – Caspar Schärer, who has been the General Secretary of the renowned Federation of Swiss Architects (BSA) since last year. Like the building expert Lauper, he emphasizes the fiduciary function of an architect: “Formally, an architect works on a contractual basis. De facto, however, this often results in a partnership relationship.” The architect is qualified to answer basic questions about the goals and feasibility of construction projects. Schärer says that, “often, this discussion gives rise to new ideas that the client would otherwise not have thought of themselves.”

In essence, the strength of an architect is that he can master an important interdisciplinary field (overall dealing with space and surface, architecture, designs, planning, etc.). Experienced architects are in a position to submit concrete designs to a client relatively quickly – of course, always in the context of what is actually possible on the property and depending on the building and zoning code. A little more conceptual work and more effort for planning and design would do the construction and real estate industry good, says the BSA Secretary General: “If we look at the extent to which new residential buildings are springing up, relatively quickly, in the Mittelland region nowadays,, you can see that more quality must be demanded again,” says Caspar Schärer.

Architect or client: Conclusion

Even if plenty of money is going into new builds, just to avoid negative interest rates in a bank account, this does not add to the architecture. Especially in an environment like today, the services and the passion of architects could provide important inspiration. In view of rising vacancies in second-class locations in second-class buildings, the quality of the architecture is gaining in importance. Residential buildings with good architecture and good floor plans clearly have an advantage in this sense. “In order to properly define the requirements and to enable thorough planning, client are also required,” concludes Schärer from the BSA.

Architect or general contractor?
The famous architect Le Corbusier once said: “I prefer drawing over talking. Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.” (Image: fotolia)[/caption