Providing Custom Design-Build Services Along the Jersey Shore Since 1990


A Good Time to Build

Michael Pagnotta AIA, Architect/Builder

The real estate market along the Jersey Shore is slowly recovering from the Great Recession,  but as in the past down turns, savvy investors have chosen to swim against the current to take advantage of bargains on LBI. Coastal properties have rebounded well in the past and those fortunate to buy during these cycles will be able to brag about the deal they got when prices jump in the future.

Not only is this a great time to invest in real-estate on LBI, it’s also a terrific time to take on some new construction. Whether it’s a deck addition, or a brand new home, it’s been a long time since conditions favored the homeowner who’s chosen to take on new construction.

The existing inventory of new construction remains strong, but some home buyers desire to be in a particular location that requires new construction.

New construction proposed for a waterfront lot will likely require a CAFRA permit and will need to meet the new stringent wind-resistant standards set forth in the 2009 IRC.

 The effort of going through the approval process is well worth it and the upside is tremendous, as new construction can be designed to be site ­­­–responsive, energy efficient and custom designed to suit every functional need of the buyer.

As architects we are striving to design homes that are low-maintenance while utilizing “green” materials whenever possible. Buildings are one of our country’s biggest consumers of energy, both in their operation and in their use of materials . New construction in 2011 is an opportunity to make a change and help reduce energy needs and our dependency on foreign oil.

Natural materials such as cedar shingles and manufactured materials such as cement board siding are appropriate alternatives to the use of oil based materials such as vinyl siding. 

Now is the time for personal attention. No longer being swamped with work, builders are more willing to take on the unique demands of the custom client and will now consider the smaller “fussier” jobs that did not receive a lot of attention over the past few years.

 Homeowners who are contemplating the purchase of an existing home may do so with the desire to make minor changes. Discuss your proposed improvements with your architect during the negotiation period to verify zoning requirements, estimated construction costs and structural feasibility.

The surge of activity in the recent past not only created at times a culture of indifference to the unique needs of the client, but even attracted builders from afar who had no experience in building weather -resistant homes.  Homeowners are wise to seek experienced builders, and those having a long history of work on LBI who know how to deal with construction on the Jersey Shore and its challenging real estate cycles.

Prior to the recession, construction went on at a frantic pace. Every builder on LBI was busy, and homeowners became frustrated with spiraling costs, dragging schedules and lack of personal attention.  The slowing pace of construction is good news to those wanting to build now.

Take advantage of this slow period to create the home of your dreams. You’ll get more home for the money and a home that’s energy efficient, better for the environment and customized to your specifications. The added incentives of dropping interest rates, and the fact that material suppliers want and need to move inventory, will also result in lower construction costs.  Real estate will no doubt boom again on LBI, builders will get busier and construction costs will spike. For those who can, there is no better time to build than now.


The Design-Build Concept

By Michael Pagnotta and Sandra Shagat 


            When it comes to personal fulfillment, creative men and women in many fields derive great satisfaction in seeing an initial concept through to its completion.  Bruce Springsteen performs the songs he writes.  George Lucas directs his own stories for the big screen.  And for a number of architects, the personal satisfaction of completing the construction of their own designs occurs through a growing segment of the construction industry known as “Design-Build.”

            The concept of architect as builder is not a new one.  For centuries, architects were responsible for the construction of some of the world’s most renowned structures.  In fact, the very word “architect” is defined in the dictionary as “master-builder.”  Architects had always been responsible for the design and subsequent construction of their projects.

            It wasn’t until the early part of this century that architects were discouraged from taking an active role in construction projects.  The architectural profession saw architects as being representatives between the client (and user) and the builder in the field.  This setup gave rise to a natural adversarial relationship between architect and builder. 

            While one of the profession’s goals, to reduce an architect’s liability, was realized, it was at the cost of reducing the value of the architect’s role in the construction process.  The architect’s role in construction was stripped down and limited to that of an observer.  Architects became merely a necessary evil in the eyes of many builders.  Architectural schools got away from the “nuts and bolts” curriculum, opting to emphasize limited construction experience.

            Obviously, this further damaged the architect’s reputation in the field.  Architectural graduates left their schools with high hopes of landing prestigious design jobs with strong firms.  Unfortunately, there were only so many architectural designers needed in the construction industry, and the few job openings that existed went to only the most talented.  The profession is now full of architectural graduates with little value to the construction industry and with little prospect of securing the design position the desire. 

            In 1975, after much pressure and criticism from its members, the American Institute of Architects decided to allow its members back into construction.  Architects with construction knowledge took to the field to build their own projects.  Others joined established construction companies as partners in design-build ventures.  Design-build projects of one form or another have been increasing in popularity ever since. 

            The advantages of having a stronger architectural presence in the construction process have made design-build projects very popular.  It is estimated that within the next five years, more than 30 percent of all domestic construction projects and 50 percent of all construction projects globally will be via design-build.

            Of course, the potential for creative satisfaction is not the only reason an architect would want to partake in design-build projects.  There is an element of control over a project that enables an architect to best represent his or her client.  There are the financial rewards as well that go along with the additional construction responsibilities.  And there are the many advantages that a design-build architect can bring to a project, making him or her more valuable and hence more likely able to sustain a viable workload.

            An architect responsible for the ultimate construction of a project must be very knowledgeable and very serious about budget implications.  I remember that in the earlier part of my career, while working for other architectural firms, I would design a project, send it out to bid to general contractors and expect it to “come in” at a certain cost.  I also remember the horrible look on my client’s face as I tried to explain why the project had come in way over budget. 

            In a design-build scenario, the project parameters are established up front, and that includes the construction budget.  The design-build entity will design towards that budget.  Projects can still go out to bid, but the owner can rest assured that at least one builder will be at or below the established budget.

            That’s important to clients – not only those intending to build a custom home, but especially those seeking to add onto or renovate an existing home without the luxury of an unlimited budget.  After months of expecting a certain product, clients detest scaling back on a wonderful design that they thought was within their budget.  This control over a project allows a design-build architect the ability to effectively value-engineer a project and create the most “bang for the buck” by explaining to the clients what things cost, and letting them decide where to spend their money.



Managed Better


In addition, the design-build firms are uniquely suited to counsel clients seeking information required to make intelligent decisions regarding the purchase of property on LBI.  Clients contemplating an addition or renovation first need to understand what restrictions would be imposed upon them by unique local zoning ordinances and CAFRA regulations which can be both confusing and frustrating. 

            While design-build firms are no big fans of changes in the field, there are times during construction when opportunities arise that can make the project even more successful.  And any changes that are required because of unforeseen circumstances can be made quickly and easily through the direct access of the architect.

            Most importantly, with an architect on-hand during construction, these changes will remain compatible with the intent of the original design.  I used to get frustrated at seeing a project leave my drawing board in one form, only to be completed as a “watered down” version; now I’ve become spoiled with the ability to bring about positive change during construction.  There is a definite advantage (to both the architect and client) to having a team of architects follow your project to completion, contributing helpful, creative advice every step of the way.

            Design-build can also streamline the construction process.  There are many clients who will give a budget, and providing that the design meets their program and falls within their budget, they will proceed directly into construction.  Design-build firms are happy to do this, although they should approach every project expecting to bid competitively against other builders.

            There is nothing more exciting for a design-build architect than to take part in the construction of a project he or she has designed.  The project team may consist of a design architect, and in-house construction manager and a foreman.  This project team will work closely with the client in achieving a singular goal; to create the best project they can.  When an architect and builder work as teammates during construction, a synergy develops that is absent from traditional design-bid-build projects.

            Design-build architects can enjoy greater control over a given project, but they must also shoulder greater responsibility.  There are no pointing fingers in hopes of shedding blame.  Clients expect accountability and a single point of responsibility.  This single point of responsibility has been erroneously deemed a conflict of interest by critics of design-build projects.  D/B architects prefer to consider themselves as providing their clients with a consistency of interest.

            For clients building or renovating a second home at the beach, the ability to work with one team throughout the design and construction means there is just one person to call to check on the status of the job, just one person to call to discuss changes and, of course, just one person to yell at during the inevitable delays. 

            Home buyers today are generally very curious about the construction process.  In traditional design-bid-build projects, a client can look to receive good service.  In design-build scenarios, the client expects to receive a high-quality combination of service and product.


Clients Learn

While Doing


            The educational process that may begin during the architectural phase can continue through the construction process.  Clients like to know what’s going on from day to day, and there is a comfort level established during design that carries over into construction.

            It would be hard to find an industry that is more scrutinized than residential construction.  There are many television shows devoted to home construction, countless magazines and dozens of books available explaining the ups and downs of construction.  Of course, with all the material available, some of the information can be a little misleading.  Professionals within the industry are now asked “why the young lady on TV was able to frame her addition so quickly and with only one helper.”

            Imagine if other fields were subjects of similar programs and “do-it-yourself” assistance.  How about dentistry, for one?  Tune into “This Old Tooth,” during which viewers will be shown how to do their own root canal (and without all that fuss and pain normally associated with dentistry).  Or go to “Tooth Depot” to get all the dental supplies you need and pay less than you would with a “real” dentist.  With home buyers demanding so much information about their projects, design-build teams can more easily make reliable information available.

            Computerization has enabled design-build architects to work more efficiently than before.  Within today’s CAD programs, an architect can begin to automatically track costs during schematic design phases.  Integrated software packages are offered that can run design and estimating systems simultaneously.

            Long Beach Island has seen several design-build firms over the years, with the work of Gym Wilson being the most notable.  During the ‘80s, Wilson enjoyed tremendous success and was responsible for many of the most creative homes on the Island.  Many of today’s Island architectural firms are direct descendants of the Gym Wilson office.

            Why don’t more architects enter the design-build arena?  There are start-up costs (generally liability insurance, labor and overhead) of any new construction project that could be cost-prohibitive.  And it can be fairly risky.  Currently, many architects are not necessarily well-schooled in business, and the requirements of managing a construction project with all of its variables can be daunting. 

            In the future, I see many new firms offering design-build services, but fewer established architectural firms taking on their own construction.  I see the increasing number of design-build firms as start-up firms and mergers between established design firms and construction companies.  Many established architectural firms that depend on a symbiotic relationship with their builder-clients for future work will be reluctant to rock the boat and forge into construction on their own.  An architectural firm entering into design-build contracts would be competing with its source of work and risk losing revenue.  (By contrast, design-build firms get their work primarily from referrals, and are therefore very dependent upon completing their jobs well and with happy clients.)

            Perhaps most importantly, an architect hoping to offer construction services must have a strong construction background.  I remember sitting in my “Architecture & Society” class as a freshman at the University of Texas.  Our dean, Hal Box, explained to us about the exciting opportunities opening up in the architectural profession through design-build.  (He didn’t mention the part about clients yelling at you.)  I have since spent the last 25 years working in both architecture and construction.  It doesn’t happen overnight.

            Architects who do decide to embark on design-build careers can have a very strong influence on the built environment.  Perhaps as more architects move into construction management and subsequently, real estate development, a greater sensitivity towards design will account for better projects, whether they be housing developments or commercial establishments.  One thing is clear:  Only by taking a stronger position in construction will architecture be able to become stronger as a profession.