The Process

Contractors & Architects

The profession of general contracting is underappreciated and not fully understood by the public. It is hard work and carries a huge risk. My experience with the contractors and sub-contractors I know is that they are skilled, honest and authentic people in a way that is refreshing.

In my view, if a contractor doesn’t participate in the design process I may have hired the wrong contractor (or the wrong architect). The more people working on the project that feel authorized to speak up, the better the outcome.

I try to work with some of the same professionals and sub/contractors to the extent I can tolerate them and vice versa. This policy leads to fewer misunderstandings as we all know each other’s limitations.

The professional divorce of architecture from contracting that occurred in the early 20th century was unfortunate and, like most divorces, left both parties with less than they had before.

Architects are underpaid given the barriers to entering the profession and they operate in a scary space in which their errors are public and permanent. It is best for uninhibited forms of design experimentation to be conducted indoors; a small powder room is an excellent place to go crazy.

A review of award winning design projects from years past can cause serious cringing when viewed today.

Residential design excellence is not about the creation of beautiful drawings or a project model but resides in the experience of the person living in the created space.

I am suspicious of architects who feature an array of un-built projects on their websites or who can’t change a flat tire.

The Challenge of Development

The challenge in San Francisco is to protect the project’s enthusiasm, momentum and creative energy from being derailed by the endless, arbitrary and other unpleasant aspects of the approval process.

Neighborhood groups can express honest concerns about significant impacts of a project on residents and the neighborhood. These require full attention and fair accommodation. Other times they merely express parochial and disingenuous objections aimed at obstructing any change at all. It is fair to say that there are a significant number of groups who will oppose any development that might impact sleeping-in in the morning, temporarily reduced on-street parking during construction or the presence of construction workers in the neighborhood.

It is strangely ironic that despite San Francisco’s brutal approval process a lot of really bad buildings get built in prominent locations. Look at Van Ness Avenue.

Real estate development is exceeded only by Wall Street in its tendency to attract scoundrels and egotists. Anyone entering the field must overcome the public’s presumption that you are suspect at best. The glacial pace of project approval and the endless hearings can easily make the idea of bribery and graft appealing in the abstract.

In cities like Chicago, where I imagine development moves smoothly, payments are made directly to City officials, often in paper bags. Though San Francisco has employed that system in the past, the current scheme is based on checks written to attorneys and lobbyists who explain the process to their clients and make appearances at hearings and behind the scenes.

“Permit expediters” are essential to the San Francisco process and are amply compensated as they guide the easily lost and misplaced permit applications through the dozens of bureaucratic stops they must make before they are issued and ready for pick up months or years after submission.