Hiring the right professional

Most commercial building projects are extremely complex—much more so than business owners anticipate or even want to believe is possible. It’s vital, then, to hire the right professionals to help you through the process.




Moving into a new business location or expanding in your existing space often triggers the need for an architect, engineer, or other design/construction professional.

Resist the urge to hire your architect friend from Arizona or the general contractor who comes in with the lowest bid. Many commercial design and construction projects trigger land use regulations and building and fire prevention codes. Some also involve water and sewage requirements.

Consequently, most commercial projects are extremely complex—much more so than business owners anticipate or even want to believe is possible. It’s vital, then, to hire professionals with the right combination of local experience and industry expertise, who have both the knowledge and the guts to give you a realistic estimate of how much the project will cost and how long it will take.

Below are a few tips for hiring that special someone:


When it comes to experience, you need to look at more than just years. You also want to look for someone who has experience with:

Similar types of projects:  Commercial design and construction professionals tend to specialize in certain types of projects (retail build-outs, restaurants, etc.) or clients (food manufacturers, biotech companies, auto dealers). The experience that comes through specialization should lead to better project management and a higher likelihood of finishing the project within the project estimate.

Similar types of buildings: A commercial kitchen project located in a 19th-century building downtown will pose different challenges than one located in a retail center built in the 1980s. These challenges relate not only to City requirements, but also to things like physical access (for doing work or accepting deliveries), infrastructure (electrical, water, tech, etc.), and aesthetics. Hiring someone who has experience working in buildings of diverse ages and locations can minimize the risk of expensive surprises.

Projects in the City of Petaluma: Managing a commercial project within the Petaluma city limits is going to look somewhat different than managing the same project outside the city limits. That’s because every jurisdiction – whether county or city – has some wiggle room when it comes to how it interprets the state building code. Furthermore, every jurisdiction has its own land use (Planning) requirements and its own way of doing things (aka, “quirks”).

While it’s true that a skilled professional should be able to navigate their way in any jurisdiction—it’s also true that someone who already understands the local requirements and processes will need to spend less time (and less of your money) getting up to speed.  If you decide to hire someone who does not have experience working with the City of Petaluma, make sure that person or firm understands the following “quirks” about us:

  • We’re open Monday-Thursday: when calculating “business days” for plan review turnaround time, exclude all Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.
  • We review plans on a first-come, first-served basis: there’s no “fast-tracking” of projects, and if your plan needs subsequent reviews, you start over in the process.
  • We require commercial projects to be stamped by a state-licensed design professional: the Building Division will not review your plans unless they are stamped by a state-licensed design professional.
  • We offer free help: we have tools and staff available to help project managers navigate the City’s processes; taking advantage of them will help make the process smoother!


If you’re not familiar with design and construction projects, prepare for some sticker shock. Commercial design construction projects are notorious for taking longer and costing more than expected. In part, that has to do with the complexity involved. Other factors include client-directed change requests, surprises, and market factors like labor or materials shortages.

Take this into consideration when you review bids from different professionals. A low bid might reflect the professional’s lack of experience at the true costs involved with similar projects. If you receive a bid that’s much higher than the others, take the time to ask why.

Oftentimes when you think you’re saving money on the front-end, it’s going to end up costing you on the back-end. Because time is money. The more time you must spend wading through the process because the professional you hired missed an important permit requirement or mismanaged the process, the longer it will be for you to move into the space. That in turn may cost you in terms of lost production time, rent on a building paying rent for a building you do not yet occupy, etc.

If every month you’re not occupying the space is costing you $3,000 – $4,000, then the $10,000 you you’d pay for the right professional would be well-worth it if the architect can help you avoid lost time.


The last step in your due diligence process is to check references. Below are a few questions to ask – and some red flags to listen for in the answers

Were there unexpected challenges along the way? When did they develop and what caused them? How were they addressed? Every project is bound to have bumps along the way. By asking this question, you’re assessing a firm’s ability to identify challenges early in the project, rather than once construction has started or during final inspections. You’re also assessing how well the firm can deal with nasty surprises. Listen to where blame is laid. Was it the result of too many building requirements? Was a specific sub-contractor responsible? Or was it the result of forces outside of anyone’s control (i.e., natural disaster, economic changes, investor problems)?

In terms of time frame and budget – how close were the estimates vs. actuals? If the project ran over, what was the reason? Project overruns of five percent or less are not unusual or necessarily alarming. Anything more than that, and you need to probe further. Ask what caused the overrun and, if possible, determine at what point in the project the overrun happened. Did the permitting process take longer than expected? Was the regional increase in construction costs a factor? Did the project fail any inspections, causing delays?

If the reference is from a project within the City of Petaluma, ask about their experience with the City. If the reference liked working with the architect but felt like the project was not handled well by the city – that might be a red flag about the professional’s project management skills. With few exceptions, the City has well-defined requirements and processes, with published turnaround times. As noted before, we also offer numerous resources to help professionals and clients understand and navigate through our processes. It might be prudent to ask for another reference or do additional research before making a hiring decision.


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