The ALL CAPS Top 10 Articles of 2020

Who’s ready for a listicle!? It’s that time of year when everyone everywhere is reminiscing on the best whatevers of the year. Of course, I’m getting in on that action with a list of the top ten most-read articles of 2020, the year of ALL CAPS triumphant return. Here we go…

10. Rethinking Access to the Architecture Profession

My opinions on how the three pillars of prerequisite experiences to becoming a licensed architect need to change were a popular read — even if not everyone agreed with me!

9. The Smartsheet for Rollout Development Series

It’s no secret that I ❤️ Smartsheet and I was happy to see that you all liked this series on building the absolute best friggin’ system for managing rollout development! (seriously, all other systems suck and this one rules)

8. A Spoonful of Content Makes BIM Exchange Absurd

People love venting about the closed BIM world created by divergent objectives and proprietary file formats. I do too, so I did…in this article!

7. Information-Driven Design: Distributing Design Criteria Via Smartsheet – Part 2

More Smartsheet! This look at the direct pipeline of information exchange between Smartsheet and BIM is my favorite Smartsheet trick!

6. Revisiting Software Costs

I did my own take on a cheap tech stack to try and help Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost’s fuzzy math work better…and I did it! Just not using any Autodesk products. Sorry, Andy!

5. The Mike Brady Compensation Index

We all like to see how much others are making, and I was happy to lift the veil that had long been concealing TV architect Mike Brady’s earnings from us. Turns out Mike is a cash machine! 🤑

4. On Architects Being “Good at Math”

It’s the question for the ages: do you need to be good at math to be an architect? I hate this question. You love this article!

🥉 3. Grab a Drink! Let’s Peruse Architecture’s PPP Data

The Paycheck Protection Program was one of the few morsels of good news we had in 2020…until we saw who was taking all that dough. In my tabloid-esque look at who got what in architecture, we see that there’s some architects out there making Mike Brady look downright poor!

🥈 2. Searching the Soul of Your Software Developer

There’s no question that THE STORY of 2020 for the AEC software world was the angry architecture firms’ open letter to Autodesk. It was real tip-of-the-iceberg shit. One of my favorite things I wrote this year was this article, so I’m glad you guys liked it too.

…and now, the most-read story of 2020 at ALL CAPS…

🏆 1. The Software Obituaries of an Architect’s Practice

This was one of those article ideas I felt really satisfied with, and it was a lot of fun to think back on all these titles. I had to dust off a lot of old spreadsheets and notes to find all the failed software. Every architect knows the struggle of finding good digital tools to get the job done.

Thanks for reading! In my look back at the site’s statistics I found one article that doesn’t have a single view! I’m not saying which one because now I’m paranoid that it’s really bad! 😂

Understanding the Regulations of Universal Design

My favorite movie of 2020 was Crip Camp. This documentary follows the lives of a group of disabled teenagers and young adults who met at a summer camp for the disabled in the 1970s and went on to form the movement for universal access and rights for disabled Americans that eventually led to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. For me, the ADA is the greatest design movement of the 20th century, as it caused sweeping changes to the ways civil engineers and architects design sites and buildings — it opened up these spaces to everyone for the first time in our country’s history. It’s easy to forget what our built environment was like before ADA, and the numbers of architects who practiced in that pre-ADA world are shrinking every year. In Crip Camp, the inequalities of the pre-ADA world are laid out in deeply personal terms by the campers. We learn about the lived experiences of people with a wide variety of disabilities too — it’s not all about wheelchair access. The filmmakers do such a good job capturing the importance of this overlooked movement for equality that Crip Camp should be required viewing for all architects and architecture students.

The movie also got me thinking about an aspect of practice that I’ve seen a lot of newcomers to architecture struggle with over the years, and that’s how to juggle the overlapping accessibility requirements of the ADA with state and local codes and regulations on accessibility. I see a lot of people mix up these overlapping requirements when they’re starting out, and most frequently, the mistake is that the state and local codes get followed to the detriment of ADA’s requirements. Sometimes, that’s okay if the state and local codes are more stringent, but most of the overlapping requirements represent a little bit of this code and a little bit of that ADA requirement — you’ve got to blend them together in your design to make sure you meet all the regulations.

Here’s how I look at ADA versus state and local codes and regulations:

For those I’ve mentored over the years I use this approach to explain the regulations of accessible design, and it seems to help people get past their misunderstanding of this topic more quickly.

Beyond the dry topic of law, code, and regulation you have the larger landscape of universal design. It’s rarely enough to simply implement accessibility law, code, and regulation. The most impactful part of Crip Camp for me as an architect was getting to see the discussions the campers had about their frustrations not just with the built environment, but with the way the world perceived them and their value to society. The design insights provided by these conversations provide powerful lessons in universal design for architects. It’s certainly changed the way I think about the access and usability of space, especially the weight of those considerations versus everything else one considers when turning a program into a design.

The Month in Buildings: October, November, December 2020

Who likes looking at pictures!?! In this semi-regularly occurring series, we look at pictures and drawings of buildings from the wonderful world of tumblr.


Gawd is in the deets…

EcoBrutes…

Inverted cones…

Window wrappers…

Boolean unions…

Places to poop…

Atom smashers…

Being Steven Holl before Steven Holl…

Arches…

Aside

November, 2020 Beer Can ABI Plunges — We’re Running Low on Cheap Beer

The November ALL CAPS Beer Can ABI took a step in the wring direction following months of progress towards the land of actual good beer. At this point, we’ve been so down for so long that we’re running low on cheap beer options. If only Costco still made Kirko Sigs Light…

A Spoonful of Content Makes BIM Exchange Absurd

The absurdity for me began back about a decade ago — I can’t remember the exact year, but I’ll never forget the sequence of events. A client reached out to have me send a bunch of content from the drawings we had prepared for them over the years to a guy at Autodesk. After what I can only assume based on personal experiences was a full-court-press sales job, the client had decided to migrate their design criteria from AutoCAD to Revit and Autodesk was going to build them a template and a library of content on top of signing them up for rent-a-license annual fees.

In a rational world, this would be no big deal for me as my firm had already been producing this client’s projects using a BIM authoring tool for several years at that time. They would be catching up to me and maybe they actually start using the ever more powerful BIMs my team was producing. In turn, I could help them out with sophisticated content that was already up and running. Side note: since our contract obligated us to provide what some well-meaning, but ultimately poorly informed attorney wrote in as “AutoCad R.12 files” we simply exported our beautiful, smart BIM to dumb DWG files for the client’s records up to this point. The BIM was really just a more efficient design and production tool for us at that time.

But 21st century BIM practitioners do not operate in a rational world; we work in a world of daily absurdity. My offer of BIM content was rebuffed, most likely because Autodesk had mostly walled off any of Revit’s potential model geometry sharing capabilities ever since it acquired the software from its original developers. All they wanted was some DWGs, and to this day it still makes me laugh that my content went from Archicad to AutoCAD to gawd-knows-what to Revit. That. Is. Absurd.

I don’t mean to make this all about Autodesk walling off the rest of the industry either — even though that’s exactly what they do. The real point, the real absurdity, is the basic approach to BIM collaboration happening here.

My area of practice as an architect focuses on working with chain concepts on rollout development, especially with restaurants and retailers developing dozens or even hundreds of locations nationally here in the US every year, so that’s the perspective I’m writing from with this article. In conversations with other BIM practitioners, I’ve found that we chain architects share the same absurdity with those who work on larger one-off projects like campuses, stadiums, and high-rise buildings where the client has an extensive and very specific EIR.

Back to that BIM collaboration approach. Basically, every chain that’s migrated from CAD to BIM in the US takes the same approach, which is, “hey, we’re using Revit (insert specific version number here) to make a shit-ton of content for you, so you have to use Revit (insert same specific version number as client here) and use all of this content as-is — oh, and that’s super easy ’cause Autodesk said so. So get it done faster and cheaper too.”

This. Is. Absurd.

If I approached someone (maybe not you, as if you’re reading this you’re probably thoroughly tainted by the absurdity already) and said they would be spoon-fed a bunch of stuff for their job…

…and this stuff was often cumbersome or counterintuitive to their workflows, (imagine fixing the same errors with each new version of the content, or reformatting the same stuff over and over with each new design made from the content) but they couldn’t do anything about that because this stuff had to stay in the same format and version it came in even if the rest of their company was working in a different format and/or version since the content had no backwards or cross-platform compatibility…

…and receiving this stuff, and working for the client would tether them to really expensive and often flawed software — the only software that can use this restrictive format — and that software stops working if they stop paying in every year — even though other software does all the same stuff and more and better for less money, oh and it has perpetual licenses…

…and despite all that nonsense, everything they create for their client will be useless in a few years because this software will be unable to open the old files, so they’ll have to do the old work all over again in a newer version of the same shitty software if the project ever gets revisited by the client…

…they would probably stop to think and say, “well, how much am I making off this?”

FAIR QUESTION! The answer is certainly no more than you did already and there will be pressure to do it all for less since the client is investing so much effort in spoon-feeding you, even though their content is slowing you down. Also, what is your sanity and freedom to operate as you see fit worth to you?

…they would then agree to do the work anyway! Why? Remember: ThIs iS aBsUrD¡

Getting back to us, the tainted-by-absurdity BIM community now. A/E firms sign up for this — we line right up to participate in the absurdity. We need the work and we don’t want to let down our clients, even if they’re headed down an ill-advised path that will fuck over our G&A budget while giving our staff (especially BIM managers) migraines. There are also people amongst us who think this is a good idea because they don’t know better, so they’ll sign up for the work too. This is what we do as poor sap architects after all, this is our lot in life. Embrace the absurd!

When Did It Become Absurd?

The story of how it became absurd is a brief one. It’s not complicated. Autodesk acquisition-ed itself into the BIM paradigm and used that change to avoid the mistake it made with AutoCAD in not having a locked-down proprietary file format. Then Autodesk seasoned that shit stew with some restrictive versioning and a shift to renting instead of owning the software licenses. We poor sap architects made like Tennille and told our Captain, “do it to me one more time!”

But here’s the real kicker, in our (I’m using this possessive determiner to be nice, keep me otherwise out of this) rush to Revit, most made the same mistake that always happens at paradigm shifts in our profession and in this case, didn’t really change their CAD workflows for the BIM world they were living in now. A few users found their way to little bim and enjoyed new levels of production automation over CAD, but not much more than that. And here in the US there was virtually no Information in BIMs early on (and it’s not much better today).

This brings us back to chain concepts (and clients with large-scale one-off projects). Autodesk sells these corporate entities on flashy BIM doing fancy Information-driven shit, but they only get to little bim (the content I’ve seen made by Autodesk is, well…crap) and settle for getting automatic elevations and basic stuff like that. Keeping those old CAD workflows on top of all this, the corporate entities (our clients) push out templates and libraries to their consultants, but it’s not like it was with DWGs where people could use a variety of versions of AutoCAD or even other CAD tools (looking at you, Microstation and Vectorworks lovers, or any of the multitude of other software that can run with DWGs), you have to use the exact same version of Revit now as your client and absolutely nothing else. Side note: the acrobatics these companies and their consultants go through when the company decides it’s time to use a new version of Revit since it’s not backward compatible are truly something, and bring plenty of unintended consequences with them. Another thing the client doesn’t realize is that unlike DWGs or DXFs, eventually these RVT files will age out, and unless you have and old computer sitting around that can run that old version of Revit, you’ll be sitting on gigabytes of worthless files…unless (per Autodesk support) you also happened to save out an IFC file with that RVT back whenever (warm up that time machine). But no one reads that part. I know because no one involved in the decision making about using Revit at these corporations seems to know much about IFCs at all in the conversations I’ve had with them over the years.

We don’t stop to consider what you actually need for legacy BIMs, which is just the friggin’ BIM itself and not all the CD set content that proprietary formats include (at least not the editable original versions of it); and that these BIMs may not be needed for ten years or longer (ten years is a common lease term for the retail industry and that’s often when old designs get revisited). Who’s to say what we’ll be using to do our work in a decade? I certainly don’t want a bloated legacy file, as all that bloat guarantees a crash on open. Thus far Autodesk hasn’t done jack shit to make sure their customers can use those RVTs that many years later. It’s enough to make an openBIM advocate roll their eyes so hard they get stuck in the back of their head.

What Keeps Us Embracing the Absurd?

Fear, for one thing. We’ve been in the walled garden long enough to be worried that if we step outside we may not be able to get back in again. But on a more technical level, there’s the divergent objectives of openBIM that create confusion and frustration for people new to it that are just trying to be free to author BIMs using the tools and workflows and content that they control. This part is where some of the openBIM folks will get irritated with me, and that’s okay. We’re not letting perfect, standards-driven, Information-loaded deliverables get in the way at this point (though I do earnestly want us all to get there someday). Let’s just get ourselves decoupled from proprietary files and dumb CAD workflows for now.

If you dive into IFC, you’ll quickly get that it’s all about the ‘I’ in BIM — the Information. But in the beginning when you’re starting out with it, you really just want to be able to share model geometry with another party because that’s all anyone’s been doing to this point in time with all their RVTs and RTEs and RFAs and whatever else. This graphical side of the conversation is largely ignored in conversations about openBIM because those convos are conducted by the more advanced BIM practitioners who are simply focusing on their interests. Yes, these early exchanges will be messy and could be better with some Information coordination, but we’ll get there, just hang on. While we all need to be doing Information-driven BIM, we have to start by just making sure we can share the damn model geometry, even if it’s not perfect (it wasn’t perfect in the RVT either, so there’s that too). That’s step one for this particular project type and it’s the impure, ugly truth.

I’ve had the…uh…joy of being on both sides of the model geometry exchange: as the client’s architecture consultant and as the corporate entity, AKA the client. I’ve written extensively about the proper way to set up design criteria, which is not handing over a proprietary template and library based on your personal way of doing BIM, so I won’t go into that too much here. My client-side methodology is driven by the organizational structure I wrote about as well as rigorously documenting the Information in ways that allow for easy exchange and importation into the consultant’s BIM. The process I’ve described is definitely critical to open workflows, but it’s equally beneficial to any kind of chain rollout development efforts as it just works better for conveying design intent, and that leads to better outcomes.

This is an example of one of the client-side workflows I’ve used with great success

On the consultant side of things, I find that you need to keep things short and sweet with the client, as you’re lucky just to get a moment to talk about a different way of doing things. What I’ll do is discuss the IFC format and IFC viewers, then we’ll exchange some small, simple test IFC geometry that we can each look at the test geometry in the viewers and our BIM authoring tools. Now we understand how the geometry translates across platforms and make adjustments as needed. There’s often frustration for the client when they don’t see something exactly like the RVTs they’ve been looking at for years. I equate these feelings to the frustration one feels when initially learning a BIM authoring tool at that moment when they feel like it’s all too much work, too many settings to fiddle with, and it was just easier with CAD (but substitute RVT files for CAD in this case). I’ll explain to the client that it’s just different and that the BIM tools have settings to better control/automate imports and exports to make the software do the work for them. Like when initially learning BIM, just keep at out and you’ll grow to appreciate it for what it is: a better way of working because it lets all of us work the way we choose that’s best for us. There’s another conversation to be had with the client about the forward compatibility and reliability of the IFC format over time, and this convo goes pretty smooth as people don’t want to lose that work due to the passage of time.

I’ve found you need to give the teams doing IFC model geometry exchange time to get comfortable before you get into the Information part of those IFC-based BIMs, and some of those Information conversations will just start happening naturally when they realize the Information drives the model. After exchanging IFCs for a while, people start to make requests of each other with regard to model elements and maybe even some properties of the elements. From there, people see possibilities in working together to customize the BIM via IFCs neutral exchange and then you can start talking about including (or more accurately, cleaning up the mess of) Information embedded in that model geometry. People are shocked to find out that all the Information they’ve ever wanted from their BIM has already been asked for a zillion times in the past and that someone invented a system for reliably exchanging that Information (why hello, COBie!) and that there’s software to automate the movement of that Information between parties. It’s all baby steps to make sure we don’t lose anyone or anything along the way.

Will We Ever Not Be Absurd?

You can see how it’s easier when the client just does things openly from the start, as that trickles down to the consulting professionals and then everybody’s on board. It takes longer and requires more effort to push uphill with change from the consulting professional side of the content exchange.

The same mindset that resists adopting national CAD and BIM standards kind of applies here. For example, we all know our personal standards are best, so we don’t pause to think about a world in which we never have to spend time configuring and troubleshooting software for our own standards because the national ones are baked right into the default settings. It’s a similar kind of resistance that says it’s easier if I spoon-feed everything to those who work for me and we all do it my way in my software using my content — take all the thinking and choice out of it, you know…

Another obstacle to these efforts is the software and its limitations (mostly this is Autodesk, but not exclusively). A lot of Information exchange is hindered when developers don’t implement reliable import/export methods for standards-based information. I see Autodesk joined ODA, so maybe this will change, but I won’t hold my breath. Right now, Autodesk does a lot to muddy or just outright block the road for imported geometry to become a Family, which is a constant source of frustration and wasted time in my efforts to work openly amongst teams using a variety of BIM platforms. We find workarounds that allow us to support our openBIM efforts, but it’s clunky and inefficient. There’s no question that we need something slightly less shitty from Autodesk here.

Anyway, back to converting RFAs for use outside Revit just to be able to do some architecture. Have an absurd day!

Aside

October, 2020 Beer Can ABI Brings Good Beer and Not So Good Beer

October’s ALL CAPS Beer Can ABI brought us mixed signals, with design contracts firmly over the line into quality beer territory as billings lag behind and are still sipping the crap beers.

Since Midwest firms lead the way back to good beer, we’ll salute this part of the country with Three Floyd’s legendary Alpha King. Cheers! We ain’t drank this good since February! 🍻

Architecture Policy: Talk Versus Action

Election season always means we’ll hear renewed calls from AIA leadership for politicians to engage with policies supported by the architecture community. This has me thinking about ArchiPAC again. I’m not happy about ArchiPAC, the AIA’s political action committee. Anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter knows that too. I want to defund ArchiPAC because it is an organization that has lost its way and is disconnected from the AIA’s Policy Platform.

A question that comes up in discussions about how to make ArchiPAC better (for those that want to keep it around) is what exactly are the rules that would guide ArchiPAC contributions. Well, a good place to start is by simply making sure that politicians who receive funds have policy positions and, more importantly, votes that support the initiatives of the AIA Policy Platform. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how ArchiPAC has failed to align its giving with the Policy Platform. In this article, I’ll be zooming in on the “Climate Action” portion of the Platform.

One part of the “Climate Action” Platform is “Rejoin the Paris Climate Accord”, which President Trump walked away from a few years back. It’s important to note that the President’s decision was greatly influenced by lawmakers in his party, including the 22 senators with significant connections to big oil who wrote him a letter urging him to dump the Accord. In the two election cycles since the letter was written, ArchiPAC gave money to several of these anti-environment senators:

⛽️ Oil-Loving Senator💰 ArchiPAC Contribution
Blunt, 2020$1,000
McConnell, 2020$2,500
Scott, 2020$5,000
Blunt, 2018$2,500
Hatch, 2018$2,500
Source: OpenSecrets 2020, OpenSecrets 2018

For reference, the contributions above represent 40% of all the money ArchiPAC gave to senators during those election cycles.

This group of senators also lobbied the Trump administration to rescind the Clean Power Plan in the same letter, which goes directly against each of the carbon-based pollution mitigation/elimination strategies within AIA’s “Climate Action” Platform. So by giving money to these senators, ArchiPAC is getting a 2-for-1 deal in its pro-oil-industry giving.

This is just one example of connecting politicians’ actions to ArchiPAC’s giving and looking at how that giving contradicts the AIA Policy Platform. There are plenty more connections to be made. For example, connecting opposition to Superfund site cleanup dollars to lawmakers — something that goes against the Platform’s initiative to “actively address the disproportionate impact of climate change and environmental degradation on communities of color.” All of this is still just focused on the “Climate Action” portion of the Platform too — and we haven’t even looked at the “Future Economy” or “Healthy Communities” Platforms.

There’s no question that it’s a ton of work to do this connecting across a Platform and across congress, but if we think it’s important enough to have a PAC, then we must put in the work to make sure giving is aligned with our values. And if we think it’s too much work, then defund the PAC and move on to something that’s actually productive; something where our words and actions are actually aligned to do good for the health, safety, and welfare of our planet, its occupants, and their communities.

Aside

September, 2020 Beer Can ABI Continues to Languish in Cheap Beer Territory

The post-lockdown dip into the cheapo beers for the ALL CAPS Beer Can ABI continues in the latest beer can stack from September. As the Beer Can ABI enters the upper 40s, we are seeing a changeover into “ironic cool” cheap beer, which is good news, but still a ways to go in this recovery. It feels like an eternity since we enjoyed quality brewskis.

As always, remember that the more we bill, the bigger the stack of beer cans and the better the quality of those beers. 🍻

The Month in Buildings: September, 2020

Who likes looking at pictures!?! In this semi-regularly occurring series, we look at pictures and drawings of buildings from the wonderful world of tumblr.


Retail…

Rounding Corners…

MEP…

Commitment to an Idea…

Hanging Out…

The Upside Down Approach to Restaurant Design

A little while ago I wrote this thread on Twitter about how chefs with a dream need to approach design and construction of their first restaurant (or one of their first few, for that matter). I was triggered by a story in the local news about yet another chef teaming up with a firm that has a long history of shaming chefs into spending more money than they should (or even have) on elaborate, crazy expensive designs with almost no project management to steer those designs to reality on schedule and on budget.

Now I’m triggered to expand on my Twitter thread by a tweet from Carl Quintanilla about restaurant chains gaining while independents are losing during this pandemic-induced recession. Not to digress (too much), but what it’s really about regardless of whether we’re talking chains or independents is places that serve amazing food (or even just so-so food) and make it effortless to get delivered or picked up curbside will kick ass right now, no matter if they’re big or small. For example, independent fine dining will suffer if they turn their nose up at this notion of delivery/takeout. Or big chain fast/casual will suffer if they don’t quickly pivot to a tightly integrated delivery experiences with phone apps and fast, reliable service. Almost everyone will suffer this winter, so we need to float restaurants during these months of shitty weather with bailouts too. Just give the people what they want…in a pandemic without any bullshit: restaurant food without the whole going into the restaurant part of it. Anyhoo…

…All of this adds to the pressure of a chef opening a one-off restaurant. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the disciplined approach to restaurant development that’s needed by independent operators, but my Twitter thread reflects what might be a better way of saying essentially the same thing. So let’s dig into the details of that now!

First Thing: The Space You’re Going Into Costs More Than Just the Rent

Setting aside the number one most important rule of real estate (location), the space you’re renting for your restaurant needs to be able to accommodate a restaurant. That’s potentially easier if it’s already been a restaurant in the past, even if the last tenant wasn’t a restaurant. I say potentially because it needs to have the infrastructure in place (presently or at a time in the past) specific to YOUR restaurant — and that infrastructure is driven by your menu, so your architect can help figure out what you’ll need based on what you’re serving. If you’re cooking at all, then like 99% of what fucks up your budget if you pick a space that doesn’t lend itself to restaurants is cooking exhaust — getting all the grease-laden smoke from cooking to the outside. This kind of exhaust is super expensive to design, construct, and maintain, so the shorter the duct going from the cooking appliances to the outside, the better off your budget will be. Spaces that don’t lend themselves to short, straightforward runs of grease exhaust duct get insanely expensive real quick. Another space-related money trap is who’s below your tenant space. If it’s anyone other than dirt and worms, it gets spendy to put in underfloor plumbing and make sure your very wet kitchen doesn’t leak into the neighbors below.

There’s all sorts of things about a space that can make it cheap and easy to build out or expensive and difficult. It’s not sexy, and it gets in the way when all you want to do is start putting your dreams “on paper” with your architect, but having your architect perform a thorough assessment of the premises is like having a mechanic look over a used car that you want to buy before you pull out your wallet. So do this before signing a lease if you can, that way you can talk the landlord down on rent or get other concessions based on what your architect discovers. The architect will also do a regulatory assessment to understand all the red tape that you’ll need to cut through to get this restaurant to the finish line — research that saves you a ton of time down the line when a contractor is engaged and the big bucks are getting spent on the job site. All of this research is the most important (if not glamorous) step in the entire development process. Do it!

Second Thing: Everything You Don’t Want to Talk/Think About is Most Important

More unsexy stuff: plumbing, HVAC, and electrical. Restaurants have gobs of this stuff (only hospitals have more and we all know how expensive they are). Almost your entire budget will be gobbled up by the guts of your restaurant. Cold, hard fact right there. This is another place where if you aren’t careful about how your restaurant gets laid out in the space you could screw your budget up before construction even starts. The most important money-saving moves you can make with expensive plumbing, HVAC, and electrical will be related to the initial design of the restaurant. Never let the contractor design this stuff for you, because not only does that disconnect expensive stuff from a design process that could save money, but very few contractors have the foresight to understand the consequences of their own on-site design decisions, which will have them coming back to you for more moolah after they’ve realized their design choices aren’t going to fit the budget and/or schedule. You always want these systems engineered up front while the restaurant is being designed by your architect. That’s smart spending.

None of this has anything to do with finishes or layout function. An experienced restaurant architect will be able to juggle all the expensive guts while considering finishes and layout function in a way that preserves your budget by planning in great detail up front while things are cheap to do “on paper” so to speak, rather than figuring it out on the fly while you have a dozen or more laborers on site charging you thousands per day even when they have to sit around waiting for a decision to be made. This leads us to the next thing…

Third Thing: Applying Detailed Planning and Thought to Bare Minimum Documentation

Just like everything else, you need to be smart with how you spend your money on architecture and engineering services. We’ve discussed having your architect perform thorough assessments of the premises and regulatory conditions, and this is where you want to concentrate your professional services dollars because these services are all about uncovering as many of the potential money pits and schedule bombs as possible up front so that the rest of the project can be delivered with these hazards in mind and without excuses later on that blow up budget and/or schedule.

But you still need some documentation to go and get a permit and health department plan approval. This is where your architect can develop a bare minimum set of drawings to get you through these pre-construction entitlements. All of the important knowledge gained from the assessments can inform a simple, spartan architectural floor plan, reflected ceiling plan, and room finish schedule. The engineers will add a plumbing plan, HVAC plan, and a power and lighting plan with necessary schedules. That room finish schedule and reflected ceiling plan will include bare minimum finishes for the kitchen and restrooms to appease the health department, with all other finishes to be determined later. Spatially, the architect can still layout an interesting front-of-house in anticipation of finishes. Light fixtures can also be placed based on some desired level of illumination and then left to be specified later. Basically, the last thing that will happen on your restaurant project from a design perspective will be selection of finishes, furniture, and light fixtures because we’ll back into what you can afford for those things after two big milestones: 1.) signing a contract with a GC; and 2.) getting through the rough-in stage of construction. Getting through framing and utility rough-ins is a critical stage of restaurant construction because if there are any more unpleasant surprises to be uncovered once construction starts, they’ll likely all of been found (and more importantly, paid for) by this time. Then, and only then, do you have a sense of what kind of money you’ll have left over for all the fun stuff you envisioned when you first had the idea to open your own restaurant.

A quick note on what happens in between finishing those bare minimum construction documents and starting construction. You’ll go and secure your permits and approvals yourself and you’ll do that feeling well-informed thanks to that regulatory assessment your architect did a while back. At the same time the permitting is happening you’ll want to bid out your project to GCs. Talk to your architect about the pros and cons of having them involved in your bidding process. It all depends on your comfort level and willingness to not bend on the contract after your GC is underway with construction. Sometimes it’s best to have your architect go over bids with a fine tooth comb and make sure there are no omissions or other surprises while also qualifying the GCs. Other times, it’s better to have the owner play “dumb but firm” and if a GC comes back after contract execution saying they didn’t include something that owner can force their hand — it all depends on who you are and how willing you are to be firm.

Fourth Thing: Everything Else That Wasn’t Important Earlier in the Development Process

What the bare minimum construction documentation does is embed all the intelligence gained from detailed research into a quick and cheap set of documentation that can be quickly permitted and built. In a worst case scenario, you use up your entire budget just getting to the point in development of having a built out space with a raw dining room, but you’ll have an operating restaurant — even if you have to start delivery only or fill the dining room with card tables and folding chairs sitting on bare concrete like a garage, this joint will be up and running and able to generate revenue — let your great food and hospitality speak for itself.

But it’s more likely you’ll have a little bit to spend on finishes and furnishings. In exchange for a meal or three at your new joint, your architect would be happy to steer you towards selections that are appropriate to whatever’s left of your budget and schedule at this point. The best part is that this is all stuff you can likely order direct and even install yourself if you have to in order to save time and money. Because your architect planned everything so carefully up to this point, you’ll get good results with their guidance to get you over the finish line too.

In Conclusion: Don’t Fall for the Trap

The trap is anyone: architect, contractor, investor, whoever — that focuses you on the daydreamy part of your restaurant (think: sexy dining rooms with stainless- and copper-clad exhibition cooking lines roaring away in the background) rather than the harsh reality that this shit is expensive; and no, we’re not talking about the contract quality imported furniture (though that’s expensive too). The most important thing when you’re starting out is to get open fast so you can get cooking so you can get revenue so you can stay open. Don’t screw up the opportunity before you serve that first meal because of poor choices in the development process. Let an experienced restaurant architect help you avoid the pitfalls.

Everything in the process outlined here can be done quickly and inexpensively. Remember: the less you have to spend, the more carefully you have to consider and plan out each design decision up front.