How Stuff Gets Built

We’ve all seen the documentaries speculating on how the pyramids were built or watched dozens of HGTV shows demolish and rebuild in an hour. Not real! A lot of work happens before the aliens beam down or the homeowner picks up a sledgehammer. Those shows seldom share the design, planning, and permitting that make building possible.

“Few people have the opportunity to build in their lifetime,” said Doug Kramer, AIA with A.N Architects Inc., part of Al. Neyer. “So, as architects we have to appreciate how strange the process can feel.”

Luckily, we can clarify the often opaque development process. But first, a caveat: every construction project is unique and there are significant differences between the development process for commercial and residential projects, as well as between single and multifamily residences. That said, there are commonalities between how all buildings get built or renovated, so we’ll begin there.

Location, location, location

Before you can build something, you need land. Finding the right property may take some time and starts with identifying what you need.

“What would be perfect is to come in and consult with an architect when they start looking,” said Sheri Scott, AIA with Springhouse. “By talking about where they want to be, how they want their house to sit on the land, and their priorities, we can help them understand what to look for in a building lot.”

That advice from architects can also help in the purchase negotiation: by identifying the challenges of a specific lot in advance, the client will have a better idea of the building costs (hint, steep slopes cost more) and possibly negotiate a better deal on the parcel.

It doesn’t usually happen that way, especially in rural communities. But in urban areas, the zoning, homeowners’ associations (HOA), and building code make it even more advisable to consult an architect early, although it is possible to have a purchase offer contingent project feasibility.

“Sometimes a developer comes with a piece of property in mind and asks what we can help them do,” said Steve Kenat, AIA with GBBN. “We identify the highest best use of the property including the program, what can be optimized economically, what zoning and use is allowable, and if there are existing buildings to work around. We serve the needs of the clients and have to be good stewards of their resources.”

Urban lots for new residential construction or significant additions may have multiple levels of regulation.
Architects can identify the setbacks, height limitations, and coverage that dictate the buildable area of a lot. “On a small urban lot, it would be foolish not to understand the limits of construction,” said Rick Meyer, AIA of Meyer Brothers & Sons. “Architects can identify the setbacks, height limitations, and coverage that dictate the buildable area of a lot. They will also understand statutes, HOA, or deed restrictions that could impact the allowable square footage or building materials.”

If you’re now panicking about that empty lot or rural acreage you bought without engaging an architect, fear not, there are options.

“When you find a lot, hire a surveyor to pull all the records of the property – get all of the disclosures and encumbrances,” said Scott. “An architect can have design solutions for a lot of issues. But without guidance from a design professional, an owner may scrap a project that could have happened.”

However, starting a project fully informed about disclosures and easements, and with professional guidance, does make the development process easier.

Now the fun part (sort of)

Before the lot gets cleared and the foundation dug, you have to have financing in place. To get financing, you have to know what you’re going to build, have an idea of what it will look like, and a good estimate of what it will cost.

“For a development project, once concept is agreed upon, estimates for site and building costs are completed and incorporated into the pro-forma - a spreadsheet that includes size of building, rent assumptions, lease period, value of building if sold, expenses, etc. – to ensure the project will be financially viable,” said Kramer. “An architect can help determine if the developer’s vision will work on a particular site.”

Large projects often rely on tax credits and other incentives to finance the construction. Affordable housing is funded by state tax credits, which are awarded competitively. Developers have to show what they intend to build and that it’s feasible, so drawings are needed. They also have to meet any sustainability or transit-oriented-development requirements. However, it may take two or three years of submissions to be awarded the credits.

“There is a tension since there is no guarantee that tax credits will come through,” said Carl Sterner, AIA with Sol design + consulting and board member of NEST (Northsiders Engaged in Sustainable Transformation). “A developer doesn’t want to over-invest in a detailed design that might not happen. But you don’t want to rush through the process because so many critical decisions are made early in design.”

Similarly, historic tax credits (HTC) are also awarded competitively at the State of Ohio level, even though Federal HTC are more straightforward when compliant with National Park Service standards. The recent Union Terminal restoration took three cycles of Ohio Preservation Tax Credits applications before it was approved. Understanding the scoring & categories used to judge submissions and incorporating feedback on failed submissions can improve the next submission, but meanwhile, most projects are unable to start until securing those credits.

“From an architect’s perspective, the development process is hurry-up-and-wait,” said Sterner. “You do an initial design. Then wait for financing, which can take a couple of years. Once it comes in, the developer wants construction documents right away since financing often comes with an aggressive timeline.”

Some architecture firms work with clients on funding strategies, including planning for a capital campaign with a nonprofit organization or a levy for a school district.

Residential incentives work a little differently. Homeowners and residential developers in some municipalities including Cincinnati can get a property tax abatement for improvements including passive house, LEED, and geothermal. A project is monitored throughout and evaluated on completion to see if it meets the criteria. The energy savings and tax abatements won’t help with construction costs, but do have long-term savings for the owner, as well as benefits for the occupants and the environment.

The residential design process has considerable variation within the field. If you’re buying a production home, you have options to choose from in the finishes, and maybe in the design, but most of the project is predefined and assigned to a specific builder. Custom homes start from scratch.

“Most people don’t build their own homes, even fewer do custom homes,” said Scott. “There’s a lot of risk and a lot of time involved. But the client can bring any idea to the table, select any finish or fixture, and select their own builder.”

Custom homes require more involvement from a homeowner up front.

“You have to look at everything at the beginning to get the right design at the end,” said Meyer. “We talk about the site, how to sit the house, what trees to save, and their pie in the sky ideas. Design is not a linear process, it’s a marathon not a sprint to get them to an actual built house.”

In both commercial and residential project, having the project team assembled early – the client, architect, and contractor – can make the process smoother. It can also help address the ongoing supply chain and staffing issues.

“In 2020, we had no idea of the delays that were coming,” said Scott. “We understand scheduling now – what to order early and extending the timeline on projects - but we can’t fix labor.”

Architects represent the client to the contractor to ensure the design intent is being carried out. They can also take on a construction administration role, which is common in commercial projects but less so on residential.

“I believe it’s important there is some level of construction administration to make sure it’s going smoothly,” said Meyer. “Architects like to bring contractors on early to help with costing and develop a more fluid and collaborative process.  Those partnerships lead to fewer cost surprises.”

The take way is to get your team together early and work with them throughout.

Embracing engagement

Whether a project is residential or commercial, the community surrounding the site can influence the development. Typically, a project is shaped by existing regulations (zoning, building code, HOA restrictions, etc.), but sometimes, a community can request additional input and adjustments, especially when variances are sought from those existing regulations.

“Designing a project to meet the requirements of the zoning provides a straight-forward path to approval,” said Kramer.  “But it isn’t an attempt to cut the community out of the process. When community organizations are there, developers need to meet with them early on. When there aren’t organized community groups, meetings with residents before and after zoning hearings to listen and respond to their concerns are important.”

Community engagement is complicated. If there’s a solid idea for a project but the property hasn’t been secured, engaging the community early could create competition that challenges property acquisition. But having community input early in the design process often makes for a better project, and a smoother approval process.

“Property owners can steer what gets built in their community,” said Meyer. “Sometimes a development that people don’t like prompts them to make changes to prohibit anything similar in the future.”

In residential communities, projects that require a variance triggers notification of neighbors within a specific distance from the property. Notification is followed by a waiting period to receive feedback from the neighbors. Then the municipal board – usually planning or zoning –will make a decision.

The legally binding timelines attached to financing often impact the level of community engagement and input on a project.

“Community engagement is often viewed favorably by financing agencies and institutions, because it reduces risk of surprises down the road,” said Sterner. “And engagement is often necessary if zoning variances are needed.”

Lenders are focused on the feasibility of a project and their return on investment with less emphasis on design. Incentives can improve design outcomes, and occupant wellbeing, by requiring energy efficiency or transit-oriented development. But ultimately, much of the design process hangs on the budget.

“Owners have to stay within their means,” said Kenat. “Clients would like to have more money to spend too. Architects can help maximize the value of what they’re doing by bringing creativity to the project.”

Is there a better way?

The development process can be messy and driven by factors that may not result in the best design or a better community. But efforts are being made to improve the process. From transparency at city hall to attempts at adapting the zoning code, cities including Cincinnati are trying to create a better built environment for everyone.

“I would love the development process to be more community-driven,” said Sterner. “Start with the community - what do they need, what do they want to see – and create a plan through a robust engagement process that is updated regularly. Then solicit development proposals to make those ideas happen. That’s a role that many community development corporations are looking to fill.”

Community plans can provide a framework for how development occurs in a specific place. They might focus on a business district, an industrial area, or a residential section. But they are driven by property owners and residents in coordination with a municipality.

John Arthur Flats in NorthsideThose plans are essential to the work of community development corporations (CDC). With a community plan in hand, a CDC can match available land and funding with community needs. It’s an opportunity to be strategic and tactical in shaping the development of a community. For example, NEST’s John Arthur Flats addresses a need, affordable housing, clearly prioritized by the Northside neighborhood.

“There are a lot of good reasons for the CDCs to be stronger,” said Kenat. “They leverage and stabilize property with the confidence that the neighborhood is galvanized in the mission.”

Form-based code is another tactic for communities to drive development based on neighborhood needs and wants. Four Cincinnati neighborhoods - Madisonville, Westwood, Walnut Hills, and College Hill - are using form-based code which allows for more mixed-use development by focusing on the form of the building instead of its use.

“Form-based code in some of the neighborhoods is a strategy for their community,” said Kramer. “Although it may be seen as putting constraints on what can be developed, that’s where an architect can really thrive. Constraints become generators of the solution, one that is specific to that place.”

The form-based code process requires owners and residents to come together and build consensus for what they want to see in their neighborhood, a process that would benefit many communities. The benefit is not just the likelihood of increased investment, but more importantly, that development will fulfill the community’s vision.

“It’s not a coincidence Cincinnati’s form-based code pilot neighborhoods are some of Cincinnati’s most active right now,” said Kenat. “They’re attractive to developers because the neighborhood is already on the same page in their preference for density and height in certain areas. The review process can be more straightforward because residents and community stakeholders are genuinely excited about new development.”

As development in form-based code communities is evaluated, more neighborhoods may update or create their own development plans, possibly adding form-based code. Land banks and other community investment strategies are also being explored and could offer additional options to the financing-driven development process.

Residents, owners, and architects all have a role to play in efforts to improve the development process so that everyone in our communities benefit from a healthier, more sustainable, built environment.
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The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati.
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Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.