How We Work With You

Let's say that you are a prospective client considering the possibility of working with South Mountain.

The process begins with a meeting or meetings with you and John Abrams, our president, who is responsible for design and finance.  Sometimes he may be accompanied at that first meeting by Deirdre Bohan, our vice president, who is responsible for interiors, or Ryan Bushey, our most experienced architect.  We introduce you to SMC - to our values, our projects, our methods, our people.  We will look at your property with you, or your existing house, and brainstorm about possibilities with you.  We may take you to see some SMC projects.

If there seems to be a good match, and you decide to work with SMC, both parties sign a design agreement to begin the project in earnest.

Our design agreement is un-conventional, because we (and you) are agreeing to a design/build relationship. The agreement must address two central aspects  - design and construction - in one agreement. All design and planning is on an hourly basis (we find that design, planning, and permitting is generally 10-12% of construction costs, depending on size and complexity of the project).

The terms of construction are provided, within the design agreement, which states, "It is the present intention of the parties to enter into a Construction Contract, but neither party is obligated by this agreement to do so. South Mountain Company, Inc. is planning the construction of this project into its schedule, and assumes that the Owners will follow through with plans to proceed unless extenuating circumstances prohibit it." This says that we are both committed to building as well as design, but it's so early in the process that neither party can make an ironclad arrangement.

All construction work is done on a cost/plus fixed fee method, which works like this:

  • When design is complete, we do a construction estimate; this becomes the ceiling price.
  • Each month we bill all costs (materials, subcontractor expenses, miscellaneous expenses, and labor at specified rates) and add a percentage, which is usually 22.5%, for overhead and profit. For community projects and affordable housing projects, we reduce these mark-ups.
  • Let's say our estimate shows that the costs are $100,000. The $22,500 fee is added to that. If we go over $100,000 in expense, the client still pays all the bills, but our percentage is capped at $22,500. If we go under $100,000 in expense, we still receive the full $22,500.
  • During construction, if significant changes are agreed to by the parties, these are detailed and the ceiling price is adjusted up or down as appropriate.
  • This method has worked well for decades. We have a strong incentive not to go over-budget (we don't like to work for no profit), but because we don't take a beating if we do go over, we can give the client a fair estimate, rather than a fixed contract price that is inflated for every possible contingency.

We deal forthrightly, and early on, with money. We talk about money from day one. It is an essential design constraint...

We deal forthrightly, and early on, with money. We talk about money from day one. It is an essential design constraint, and we must be able to discuss it as frankly and knowledgeably as siting, space, aesthetics, energy use, and performance. Because we have responsibility for the building as well as the design and a full set of construction skills and broad experience, we can competently advise clients about costs as we design. It doesn’t matter how expansive or limited a client’s financial capability is. Everyone wants good value, and everyone wants to know what they’re paying for. We begin the design process with a program (how much space will be devoted to what), a concept (what is the scope of the project and what kind of project it will be), and a budget. The budget informs our thinking all the way. It’s no use to complete a design that excites and satisfies if it will cost twice what the budget calls for.

We are your guides. Our job is to lead you through the thickets of design and construction.



The Purpose of Design

The designers' role is to ask, to listen, to ask again, and to suggest solutions. The clients' job is to articulate needs, desires, and constraints.

Designers and clients together test solutions and hypotheses to see if they are workable and satisfying. Some clients we see frequently during the design and construction of their project; others we may not see for months. We have to make numerous decisions for these clients. How do we make the right decisions? By getting to know them, talking to them, gauging reactions, and trying to understand their careful articulation of who they are and what they want. This becomes the basis for all decision-making.

Here's an example of how we use information. If someone tells us they want many skylights in their house, our response is "Why?" They may say they like a brilliantly lit house, or morning light in their bedroom, or that when they were a kid they once stayed somewhere with a skylight over their bed and they loved it, or they enjoy lighting from above. There may be conflicting information, such as “I always dreamed of having a skylight over my bed, and I like a cool bedroom in the summer” (skylights over the bed will tend to heat up the bedroom). The information that comes from asking the question, "Why do you want skylights in your house?" may lead to skylights, or it may not. It may lead instead to dormers, or high clerestory windows, or a particular kind of artificial lighting, or skylights with shading devices. If the clients concentrate on giving information, the designers can do their work.

At the heart of the design process is trust that a good solution will emerge, and allowance of room for that to happen.

When the design process feels best is when both designer and client know their roles so well that the collaboration becomes fluid and playful. We don't expect this to happen early in the process, but it is always something to shoot for.

The relationship between client and design/builder is all about honesty, and forthrightness, and expectations fulfilled. We grow to be allies, and learn to work well together. We tell our clients when we feel that they're doing a good job, or not, and expect the same of them. When we screw up, we tell them we screwed up. These relationships become a trail of events, and they become the history of our Company.  When people look back down this trail, we hope they see events which inspire trust and respect. This makes our job easier. Only by conducting each relationship, as the most precious gift we've got, will we create the web of associations that will cause our practice to prosper and thrive.

And the chemistry must be right. The best clients are people who are very good at what they do, secure with their competence. Such people are looking for someone who works the way they do. They won't pretend to be able to do our job; they know they can't, just like we couldn't do theirs. We are fortunate; most of our clients have these qualities.  And the job doesn't end when the client moves in. It usually becomes an on-going relationship.

A lovely story illustrates best what we're trying to achieve:  In the late 1600s the finest instruments originated from three families in the small Italian village of Cremona. First were the Amatis, and outside their shop hung a sign: "The best violins in all of Italy." Not to be outdone, their neighbors, the Guarnerius, hung a bolder sign proclaiming: "The best violins in the world." At the end of the street was the workshop of Anton Stradivarius, and on its front door was a simple notice that read "The best violins on the block."

That's what this is about.

It's about making the best buildings on the block. Good buildings, not important buildings

It's about making the best buildings on the block. Good buildings, not important buildings. Buildings that, first and foremost, serve the needs of the people who inhabit them by supporting and nurturing their health, satisfaction, productivity, and spirit.  Whether our client is one person, a couple, a family, a town, a committee, a tribe, or a nonprofit board, our design/build method makes room for many to be involved and it embraces surprise and unplanned course changes.