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Meet Vahe Ohannessian of Boston Architects and Builders in Watertown

Today we’d like to introduce you to Vahe Ohannessian.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Vahe. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
The two classes in high school that I was really good at and took advanced placement courses in were Art and Math, and they also happened to be my favorites! Looking back I realize that was a good representation of right brain and left brain. My first year of college was at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, but my left brain complained so I transferred into Northeastern’s Architecture program where both sides of my brain were satisfied!

After graduating I worked for several firms of various sizes and on a variety of types of projects, and I found that the gap between design and construction was very difficult to close. I could see that especially in the residential market there would be a great niche in providing both design and construction services to homeowners as one company, with a single source of accountability. While I didn’t have the experience to go off on my own at the time, the seeds were planted and I dreamt of starting my own practice. I started the evening Master of Architecture program at the Boston Architectural College, which took several years, and after a couple of more years with other firms and getting married, I took the leap.

I started a design-build company working with some friends who were in the construction business to make up for my lack of experience in construction. While I don’t regret going off on my own, it became quite rocky as the economy turned. I also learned that running a business that does design and construction is very different than designing and building! And when my wife became pregnant with our second and third children (twins) I decided to go back to work for one of the largest firms in Boston. After two and a half years there, I felt the time was right to go back on my own. I’m now finding myself fascinated not only by constructing my designs as an Architect-Led Design-Build company but also by the process of designing and building the design-build business itself!

Has it been a smooth road?
The road has certainly not been smooth. There are so many moving parts to any business, and people are the most complex part of it. Prospects, clients, employees, subcontractors, vendors, and on and on. I have learned that a loyal carpenter with a great personality can be sloppy in his work, costing money and embarrassment, and a carpenter who is very skilled and organized can have a temper or have impure motives (such as stealing clients). Then there are times when something in your gut tells you this project or prospect may not be the best fit for our company, and nothing but experience can help you in those moments. Experience and discipline teach us to say no and avoid frustrations later due to unrealistic expectations from either side of a transaction.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Boston Architects and Builders story. Tell us more about the business.
Boston Architects and Builders is a residential design and construction company serving homeowners in the Greater Boston Area. Our projects range from New Construction to additions, major remodels, and kitchens and baths, and we specialize in energy efficient and healthy homes. We have designed and built to Energy Star and LEED Silver certification standards, as well as National Grid’s Deep Energy Retrofit program where our client received a $34,000 check for the energy upgrades we did to their home. We’re proud of this Deep Energy Retrofit project in Newton, MA which was written up as a case study by Building Science Corporation. They are national experts in building science and were the technical advisors on the project. We have also been certified as a Passive House Builder and we’re looking forward to building homes that meet this most stringent energy efficiency standard.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
There’s no doubt that there are major shifts taking place in our industry. One shift is the focus on energy efficiency and our environment. Net zero homes (that produce as much energy as they consume) are now becoming more and more common. Passive House (Passivhaus in Europe) in the US is catching on like wildfire, though we are far behind Europe when it comes to designing and building these super-insulated, airtight and well-ventilated homes. If Passive House is being discussed at the Bonn Climate Conference, you know it’s serious.

The other trend we’re seeing is the popularity of the design-build concept. The traditional method of design, then bid (to several contractors) and finally build (“design-bid-build”) is perceived as the better method to encourage competitive bidding and get the best price, or at least best value, but what is often lost is the synergy between the design and construction. This leads to lost time, more frustration and miscommunication, and ultimately often ends up costing more. While design-build may not have the competitive bidding in the traditional sense, if the Owner does their homework and finds a reputable design-build company with a track record, they will know they’re getting good value in the services being provided.

Lastly, there’s a distinction between a “design-build” construction company that hires an architect to consult on a project, and a true Architect-Led Design-Build firm where the architect is the one leading the process, being more sensitive to cost (minimizing change orders), schedule, and material issues during design, and more attuned to addressing quality issues during construction. This is also in contrast to an architect who is not responsible for building a project on budget and on schedule, and a contractor who is not attuned to the design aesthetic and quality. These issues become even more important when you introduce energy efficiency and other sustainability measures into a project, where what is built must match what was designed to a much greater level of detail, especially when it will be measured by a third party for performance to meet a certain standard for certification. We’re proud to be on the right track to make Boston Architects and Builders the premier Architect-Led Design-Build firm in the Boston area.

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