Choosing an Architect over a Home Designer or Builder
I was asked again today to explain why a potential client should pay an Architect higher fees and use an Architect over a home "Designer or "Builder". I like to use the analogy of things that we buy every day to describe my services compared to a “Designer” or “Builder” produced home design. It's like buying a coat from Walmart vs. a brand retailer like Nordstrom. Or it's like contemplating purchasing a Ford vs. an Infiniti or Lexus. Both scenarios can provide you what you are looking for and meet a need. One will always be cheaper than the other. The more expensive product will always outlast, outperform, and be an overall more thoughtful, complete and better quality product. You will most likely also get a level of customer service and support from them that you would not get for the cheaper products. That is ultimately the difference we all are contemplating here. My perspective is that if you would choose quality and longevity and unique creativity for a coat or a car, why would you not do it that much more for a home that will most likely be your greatest asset and the most important part of the expression of who you are. The same argument applies to the selection of General Contractors. You get what you pay for!
I always encourage Clients to do the following things when beginning the home design and construction process.
1. Lot Selection - First, make sure you have a buildable lot. So many people buy a lot because it looks great but don't think about pitfalls that will end up making a lot too costly to build on or unbuildable altogether. Look for major grade changes, setback and height requirements, soil conditions, water and sewer or well and septic locations and other unique site requirements. Get a current survey that has grading and tree or other physical locations that need to be avoided. An Architect can be worth the fee right here in step one. We always want to be in on site selection if that is an option as it has huge implications.
2. Find an Architect - Look for one who can help you figure out your style and who is able to do more than just copy an image you like. I have found that 9 times out of 10 an image is selected for what it represents, more than what is actually there. Color, feeling, texture, light quality, etc. Find someone who listens to what you want and comes up with a creative way to express you while still producing a design that makes sense, captures a style, uses innovation and shows quality. It is said that the devil is in the details. Big picture and overall concept are great but details make or break a design. Half of the design fee is spent in this paragraph. This part is really what sets us apart from everyone else and is crucial to a beautiful outcome.
3. Involve a Structural Engineer! - The fundamental to the human body is the skeletal system. With a poor system, the body fails. A house is no different. It does not cost that much more to use an engineer to design a foundation and framing package. With more and more stringent building codes, this is becoming even more of a necessity. This should also involve getting soils testing done. For a small fee you can have soil bearings taken for your site and get a report back indicating what kind of soils you have and most importantly...what kind of foundation options you should use! This can save money and also prevent many headaches and future lawsuits. The large tract home companies use an engineer to make sure that their cookie-cutter homes will stand up. Why wouldn't you do the same thing for a custom home with more complexity and more unique loading situations?
4. Engage a trusted Builder or General Contractor early on as a part of the team. - This has multiple facets. First make sure they respect what an Architect has to bring and make sure that the potential team is fully acquainted and comfortable before solidifying any agreements. You can have two great service providers but if they are like oil and water, the road will be bumpy and make you all hate the process. If you find a good builder, that entity or individual can bring good insight into construction details, help price the project along the way, assist in materials selections, and work through design solutions with the Owner/Architect team that will augment the final solution to be even richer. As design-centered beings, Architects often have great ideas, but the contractors have experience building our great ideas. Sometimes our stuff just doesn't work the way we envisioned it. With construction insight, a detail can be generated that both captures the design intent and saves money and headaches on the construction side. This is true Design-Build. This early relationship building also helps to warm a contractor up to more unique or progressive design and detailing solutions that the contractor may not have seen before or be used to. Instead of them saying that they didn't price it that way (which will be true) or they can't do it; they have time to work through it and figure out how to rise to this new challenge set before them. This early team approach can also go a long way to preventing costly change orders during construction. It will also prevent design changes during construction that compromise all the hard work on the front end and have unforeseen consequences to the rest of the project. This is a little off topic, but major design changes during construction should never happen! You will regret it either becaise of an inferior product or an empty pocket book.
5. Share your weaknesses with your Architect. - What does that mean? If you can't read a plan to save your life or can't navigate yourself out of a box; let us know. Don't nod your head yes if you don't understand what is presented to you. Designers are visual people. For us, a space is formed in our imagination. Part of our challenge and unique gifting is the ability to present our imaginations to you in a way that shows you why our eyes are dancing with delight at our newest idea. This complexity of translation has dynamically changed over the recent years with the ease of using 3-D design. Since most people are visual, a 3-D image speaks more than 1,000 words. Every time my wife reads me the menu at a restaurant, my eyes glaze over. I just can't ingest audible information very well. Show me an image of a fantastic burger dripping with cheese, bacon, bbq sauce and onion rings and I am all over it. If you are horrible with color, materials selections or any other things, let us know. The more information you share with us, the better. If whomever you are working with to design your home doesn't engage with you on this level or doesn't understand you, you picked the wrong person. Architects are trained to do this.
6. Allow yourself time to do it right. - If you will think of home design as a journey and not the means to an end, you will do yourself a great service. There is a great level of fulfillment when I see a home complete at the end of the design process. It means a lot to me because I understand what it took to bring that gem out of the ground. If you rush this process or skip it altogether by purchasing someone else's process, (packaged home plans) you have short-changed yourself. This does not mean that the design process should be drawn out. It just needs to take as long as it needs to take. That may be a month or several years depending on the complexity and Owner needs.
7. Avoid pre-purchased house plans as an END result. - I have worked with these over the years with several clients. It's not that these are bad. The shortcoming is in the fact that a home must be attached to its site and its occupants specific needs. Pre-purchased plans don't always fit the site or the views or the required driveway location! One end of the house might be out of the ground 10' which means you will not be able to get it permitted without first hiring someone to modify the plans to work on the site structurally and to be acceptable to the building department. They are going to want to know how you plan to deal with that extra 10'. If you like a "for sale" plan set, I would encourage you to start with it and either work with the Architect who originally designed it to personalize it to you and your site (which will cost extra) or find another Architect who can do the same for you. A word of warning here: Architectural design is intellectual property just as an artist's work is always theirs even if you buy their painting. If someone else touches a design, it must be changed enough to be unique to the new designer. Or that original Architect or Designer must be compensated or sign a letter of release letting everyone know that using their design is approved by them. Otherwise you open yourself up to copyright infringement and lawsuits. Just because you paid for the design does not make it yours. This is a little known or understood aspect of architectural design.When I approach my projects, each one is unique and I try to craft every aspect of the space and think about every detail. I also filter that process through the budget and Owner needs and desires so that they end up with a home that fits them perfectly. I have heard many stories about home owners who have used "designers" or "builders" just to find out things about their homes during construction, or after they were built, that they don’t like or didn’t want. They find certain spaces uncomfortable and certain details unsightly.
An Architect has years of formal and ancillary training, testing and knowledge of buildings, codes, space, design and composition. They have spent grueling hours getting trained in the crafting of space, the meaning of space, the manipulation of light, the language of expression and the development and use of details. They understand how materials are expressed through design. Most “designers” on the other hand start by drawing plans or building things. Those aren’t bad starts but that means that the only depth they bring to the designs they produce comes from what they can imagine, have seen done by others, or have already done themselves. Formal training is not everything, but it brings a level of depth that is really hard to achieve elsewhere. This is not to say that they can’t do a good job or come up with beautiful ideas, but the implications for a higher level of design sensibility will not be the same. Some builders have an Architect on staff or they have one that they use on a regular basis. Great! That works.
Architecture and design is incredibly subjective so arguing one path to selection over the other has its challenges. There are also those individuals who have bucked the system and are naturals without an "Architect" designation. I applaud them for their accomplishments and wish them the best. I know some myself. However, that is not typical. Just make sure that you are comparing apples to apples. An Architectural fee can run anywhere between 2% and 15% of construction costs depending on who you are engaging and what part of the country you are in. Builders and Designers will cost less or even be free. Just be aware that they usually roll the design fees into your construction cost. So you are still paying for design to a certain degree. Plan sets can be obtained through books for hundred or just a couple thousand dollars. We just can't compete with that approach because of the level of service that we bring to every project and the quality that we intend to leave you with.
Just remember these things as you choose the path to your new home. Strive for quality where it matters!!! You may need to invest more on the front end, but the old analogy still applies; you get what you pay for!