This is the time of year when we often get calls from clients who want to start work on a project that they hope to have in the ground before winter. (As a Minnesota architecture firm, winter conditions are a big challenge and inevitably cause project delays.) The problem is that there’s a long lead up to getting shovels in the ground. Typically, architecture projects that start now won’t begin actually digging for several months. It’s important to realize just how long it takes to jump through all the hoops to get your project started in the right way.
Zoning Timeline: 1 Week – 6 Months
The first step with any architecture project is look at the piece of ground you’re going on and check the zoning for that area. If your purpose for the property is outside of the approved zoning uses, you’ll need check in with that city’s zoning director and see if you’ll even be able to proceed.
If you need a variance or a conditional use permit, you’ll be required to go through a review process with one or more municipal commissions. A number of cities also have different kinds of architectural commissions that you may need to go through to make sure your project is meeting all of their planning requirements and visual/aesthetic requirements.
These reviews can actually be quite a lengthy process, depending on the municipality and the ask. If you’re asking for a relatively small variance, then it will often more-or-less get rubber-stamped, but you still have to go through the process. If it’s a big ask, it can take multiple rounds of reviews, and each round typically takes at least a month. So if you get caught up in that trap, it can easily eat up two, four, or more months of time. Given the complexity of the entitlement process, it really warrants its own, separate post. Watch for that one next week.
Programming Timeline: 1–3 Weeks
Regardless of any zoning challenges, every architecture project timeline really starts with a planning phase called Programming. In this step, the owner sits down with the architect and outlines their goals for the property and their tangibles — how many employees do they have, what type of widget do they make or sell (or whatever), how many square feet per person does it take to get stuff done, how many offices will they need, are there any big pieces of equipment that need to fit in the space, etc. This information is needed for all of the design work that will follow.
Design & Construction Documents Timeline: 2–8 Weeks
Now we come to the point where we start to design. After the initial space planning and design concepts, it’s often a matter of massaging those designs with the owner to get to a final design. The timeline for that depends on the complexity of the project and the owner’s needs, taking anywhere from a few days to a month or more.
The big challenge in this phase of the architecture project timeline is the coordination with other consultants. The more consultants we need on a project, the more bodies we have to get aligned, and the more schedules we have to juggle to get the work completed. As the architect, we may be able to juggle our work around if there’s a tight deadline or an emergency, but that doesn’t mean the mechanical engineer or the structural engineer can. The more complex the architecture project, the harder it is to get everyone together at the same time. These scheduling conflicts can push the design process out quite a bit, so planning ahead is of the utmost importance.
Permitting & Bidding Timeline: 4 Weeks – 3 Months
Once we get all the drawings completed, then they have to be submitted for permitting. And in fact, it’s normally a number of different submissions that have to be approved so you can actually go build the project. Most cities will tell you that permitting is at least a four-week process. Some turn it around quicker, while others take longer — I’ve had some projects in Florida that took close to three months — but four weeks is pretty typical for Minnesota architecture projects.
In the meantime, plans also have to be submitted to the Metropolitan Council for SAC (Sewer Access Charge) consideration. A lot of times — for instance if it’s a food service project — it will also have to go into the Health Department and the Plumbing Department for review, prior to the start of any construction. So you should factor four-weeks, bare minimum, into your architecture project timeline for city process to permit a job.
Hopefully, however, no one is sitting idle during those four weeks. The plans are done at that point, so the same day or the next, the plans should also go out to contractors for bidding. Because the city process takes four weeks, we’ll typically give the contractor three weeks to bid the project. We want to give them as much time as possible, so they can shop it out to a lot of subcontractors and get the best possible price.
At then end of the three weeks, each general contractor (GC) will submit their bid, and, in the fourth week, the owner will review those bids, ask for any clarifications, and conduct interviews. Then, hopefully within that week, the owner selects the winning contractor and signs the contract. So, as the four weeks of the city process is wrapping up, you’re also getting the contract signed with the GC.
In a perfect world, those two things end on the same day. The contractor finishes signing the contract with the owner, walks over to the city, cuts the city a check for the permit, picks up the permit, and the project is ready to go. That, on paper, is the perfect situation. Of course, in reality, it’s rarely that smooth.
Construction Timeline: 2–12 Months
Once the GC is signed and the permit is approved, it can still take a little while before the contractor can mobilize all of their subs and be ready to go on an architecture project. In this phase of the timeline, it’s really all in the contractor’s hands — how tight a ship do they run? — and the complexity of the project. Construction can take sixty days to a year, depending on how big the project is.
In addition to weather delays and worker scheduling issues, there can also be unexpected delays during the construction phase due to long lead times. Often, specialty items will have long lead times for ordering — for instance, a funky, fun light fixture or a special material that only comes out of one small town in Italy. Specialty stone, for example, can take a long time to source, get it on a ship, get it fabricated, and get it on site. For most items, a little bit of advance planning should prevent any scheduling delays. Even long lead time items — as long as ten weeks — will not delay most projects. It’s just a matter of identifying those specialty items early and making sure they get ordered in time.
Sometimes a build schedule can be accelerated using prefabricated components. For some projects, especially retail and restaurant franchise buildings, we will use panelized building systems, such as Fullerton, that can help save construction time. We’ve also reduced construction time using tip-up concrete panels. They come to the site from the factory more-or-less done. You just tip them up, and all of a sudden you’ve got the shell of a building. These can both speed up construction project timelines or save you from dealing with winter condition costs, which, as I mentioned at the beginning, can be significant in Minnesota. Some of those products cost more, but there are clients who feel like they make it up on the end by getting into their building earlier.
Winter Is Coming
So if everything were to go absolutely perfectly — if there are no zoning challenges, no scheduling conflicts, and the first design concept is perfect — even the most basic architecture project would take two months or more before starting construction. Minnesota architecture projects that are just starting in August are invariably going to run into winter conditions. Now, as Ned Stark would say, winter is coming, and there’s nothing you can do to delay it.
None of this is meant to say that the work can’t be done — just that it’s likely to cost more and take a bit longer than spring or summer architecture projects. Moreover, if you have a project in mind, now is a great time to get started on the design and approval process. It’s never too early to start planning for spring!
Ryan Schroeder, AIA
Ryan has more than 18 years of professional experience and is president of PlanForce. He holds degrees in architecture and environmental science from North Dakota State University, as well as certifications from NCARB and AIA.