Could taking on owner's rep work be a good move for you?
You trained as an architect, so you work as an architect, right? Maybe not all the time. Some architects are hiring themselves out as owner’s representatives or going to work for salaried jobs at owner’s rep firms. What an owner’s rep does can be subtle, but architects who have tried it say the experience sharpens their ability to steer a project from brief to move-in. That can be of value later on.
Consider the job as the assumption of an identity: You’re playing the idealized owner. You hire the architect and general contactor. You set the full project budget. You manage weekly meetings of the entire team. You tag along, perceptively but unobtrusively, on site visits. You catch problems architects unwittingly miss or contractors unintentionally cause. You make the architects feel they can solve these problems. All the traditional liability remains with the architect. All the flak for a failure rests with you. Regardless, whatever goes wrong, your job was to see it coming—and knowing how to solve the problems that arise.
By assuming the role of the owner—on a freelance basis or forever—the architect can venture into a realm beyond design. And trading construction administration for broad strategic responsibility can bring higher paychecks for the firms that do it right. “We can insert our value early on, prior to architects getting onboard,” says Linda McCracken Hunt, who has led the owner’s rep practice at St. Paul’s Studio Five Architecture since 1998, “by really framing a project and its budget.”
Some architect/owner’s reps, like the national Jonathan Rose Companies, follow a detailed protocol that begins with hiring the architect and ends with testing carpets and HVAC after move-in. Others, like Studio Five, review construction documents before bid and provide written comments. Still others take the work only occasionally. Markus Dochantschi, who runs StudioMDA in New York City, got an owner’s rep job for a vacation home after the client met him at a design competition; he handled the budget but also discussed design choices with the interiors architect. Jared Della Valle, a cofounder of Brooklyn, New York–based architecture/development firm Della Valle Bernheimer, says he’s taken owner’s rep jobs on crumbling projects, when real estate lawyers call him to clean up a mess.
Typically, reps work for a client with a complex hierarchy, like a hospital network, or a client too busy or inexperienced to cope with the details. Sarah Haga, who has worked as a project manager for Jonathan Rose in New York and Atlanta, stresses the importance of ensuring harmony. “Architects might not have the background to figure out details of the budget outside construction—when we come on later, everyone has to go back to square one, which for an architect is so frustrating.”
The responsibility for financial management distinguishes an owner’s rep from a traditional “master-builder” architect. It means worrying about issues beyond an architect’s ken, like an owner’s creditworthiness or local real estate trends.
Reps do not formally sign off on construction documents or oversee contractors, but they do help assure that the owner will bless every outcome. An owner’s rep who knows architecture can bring legitimacy, when an architect might otherwise resist suggestions from someone who doesn’t understand design.
“We can query your window detail and see weaknesses in it that are not yet developed, and because of our experience in construction administration, we can see things in the documents that are going to become weaknesses later,” says Hunt. “We can point that out to the architect and tell them to look at it again. Many times in the field, we will have conversations that are really private from the owner.”
An architect-turned-rep can avoid seeming like an enforcer for real estate lawyers who want architects to concentrate on keeping costs under control. Property lawyer Barry LePatner notes: “An owner’s rep is going to be talking to the design team about preordering long-lead items, like a private elevator in a residence or materials from overseas.” This illustrates the distinction. An architect knows what materials cost; an owner’s rep knows how badly the owner wants that luxurious lift. And how to make architects and contractors feel like they are the ones finding the solution.
This tightrope management brings higher pay. Hunt says she can bill at a 30 to 40 percent premium in St. Paul. Della Valle, in Brooklyn, says the work lets an architect “bill like a lawyer.” When he’s an owner’s rep, he charges $350 per hour in a way that would be harder to compute if he had full architectural obligations. Discussants on an Archinect message board in 2007 said they’d seen salaries $10,000 to $25,000 higher than what a typical architect makes at owner’s rep firms, including $95,000 salaries in northern California. Haga calculates a rough 10 to 15 percent pay bump for architects in New York and Denver who work as owner’s reps.
Look to the future
Also, taking the job can be a way to learn skills you’d like to add to your architectural practice without liability. That can help make architects tackle future work with more foresight. Dochantschi says, “When you see how people present themselves, that teaches you to understand priorities and anxieties.”