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Architects as Costly Stumbling Blocks?


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Mary's Forum Posts: 101
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By Mary in PA on 6/20/2009


Did anyone work with an architect to design plans and take them to a builder (or to the various subs) only to find out that it was impossibly beyond their budget?


- If yes, how did that happen? What did you do? What suggestions do you have for avoiding the problem?

- If no (i.e. your architect nailed construction costs), what planning or discussions did you have with the architect to reach this good result?

 

Background:

I’ve talked to two people who made this claim, although neither was O-B'ing. One gave up on their construction project, the other scrapped their architect’s design (already done and paid for) and used the builder’s in-house draftsman to design a similar, but slightly smaller house that the builder knew he could do within their budget. Both of these people (separately) cautioned me against using an architect for this reason.

 

I think this problem might be more likely in cases where the architect is NOT going to be working through the construction phase (i.e. will do the drawings and hand them over to you to find a builder or do an O-B). The architect is already done-n-paid and you’re just starting to get real bids... and that’s when reality hits you square in the wallet (or pocketbook as the case may be).

 

I accept that an O-B should do upfront research and should be realistic in their needs/wants vs. budget, but this "over-cost architect design story" is one I’ve heard often enough to concern me... especially given the costs of their fees. I’m inclined to want to use an architect to help us get the most usable space from our small (under 2,000 sq ft) house... but we also have a limited budget and are not looking for a luxury showplace home. I’m concerned that the design will be for a house that is more expensive (construction costs) than what we want to spend.

 

Thanks!

Mary


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By David in Greenville, SC on 6/21/2009


Hey Mary,

In your post you made three statements very critical to your overall design. One was to keep the house under or around 2,000 square feet. Another was you didn't want a luxury showplace. And, finally, that you have a limited budget. Knowing these things a good residential-focused architect should be able to design the home you have in mind while controlling costs. However, a good residential designer given the same set of parameters will likely do as good a job as an architect and will almost certainly be less expensive.

In fact, based on the homes I've seen where I had knowledge of whether the designer was an architect, residential designer, or another source, in all but one case the residential designer or "other" source gave a more usable and functional house for the money. Don't be fooled by claims that architects will by default do a better job with siting or aesthetics either. Even in cases where an architect might bring a little more creativity to the process the fact is almost always that the price of this creativity will bust a modest budget. Or, require a sacrifice of some other desired featured to meet budget. I am not trying to slam architects here, because they can be a valuable resource, but for projects where bang for your buck are concerned there are other competent design professionals who can serve you better.

However, as you mentioned in your post, you have a responsibility no matter who you choose to design your project to do a couple of things. First, you must be clear and specific on your budget as this sets the stage for everything else. Second, you must be able to give as specific information as possible to the designer as to what you need. What you want and how you would like to use your home? Other things to consider might include: Do you intend to sell in the future? Do you plan to add on? The more ideas and specifics you can give, the better the end result is likely to be. I hope that helps a little bit. I'm sure I've left out something but if you have any more questions just ask.


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By Pat in Arnold, CA on 7/1/2009


In my opinion, architects are not in touch with the cost of things like builders are on a daily basis. Consequently, we went through our builder who is doing the SIPs and ICFs to finalize our concept and construction drawings. He also stated he saw too many times people coming in with their architect's plans, to discover it was way out of their price range.
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By Faye in Marseilles, IL on 7/1/2009


Mary,


     You are looking for a small average home and have budget concerns - have you considered looking at stock plans? There are literally thousands and thousands of great stock plans out there and for a fee they will also give you a cost to build estimate. That may be a much less costly way to go. You can even have your builder take a look at the print online prior to purchasing the print. It should give him enough info for a ballpark estimate.

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By David in Greenville, SC on 7/2/2009


Hey Mary,

Assuming you're still reading this forum, I have a little bit to add to what Faye suggested about the stock plan route. Certainly stock plans can give you guidance on the type of layout, features, and general style of house you would like. They can be helpful in giving a potential builder insight on what you are trying to accomplish.

However, stock plans are just that, stock. Otherwise known as generic. Any cost estimates based strictly on generic plans will return generic estimates that may or may not reflect what the actual cost to build will be once you have made specific choices about a myriad of things need to get a more accurate estimate. What interior and exterior finishes will you choose? What type of HVAC system will you have? What type of lighting, plumbing, and appliances will you select? What will need to be done to adapt the home to your site? Those are just a few considerations. You will also have to make sure the plans meet code for your area. If not then you will have to have them modified so that they do.

No disrespect to any of the many plan magazines or posters here who may have used them. But stock plans are rarely useful for more than just gathering ideas. In reality, the only time you will save money using stock plans is when you use those plans a local builder already has on hand and has done the code legwork beforehand. Otherwise, you will have to buy a set of plans at significant cost. Generally several hundred dollars and up. You will have to have them inspected for code compliance. If they don't comply, you will have to have them revised until they do. At the very least you will have to modify the home to fit the site and generally you will probably want something changed about the layout. Whether that be traffic patterns or room sizes. All this costs money. A good residential designer or even the builder's draftsman could likely come up with a similar site specific and code-compliant design for the same money or less than making a stock plan work.

As always there are exceptions that go both ways. However, anyone considering building their own home typically has some specific ideas about what they want and what they don't. And, again, typically a stock plan won't meet those ideals without enough modifications and expense to equal or exceed what could have been done from the start with a good designer and a good grasp of what you, the client, need and want.


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 7/3/2009


Let's not paint all architects as out-of-touch. Certainly for a high-end luxury palace type application an architect is a requirement, but in these situations money becomes secondary. However not all architects focus on luxury and high-end design, many focus on the lower end of the spectrum including subsidized housing and low-income design. If you are intending to build as frugally as possible, and to use your building materials to the maximum extent, I would suggest you also need an architect. However, this likely wouldn't be the same architect you would hire for your high-end luxury palace either.

As with any subcontractors you hire, you need to check out their work, get references, and follow up. If the clients identify that the architect drew them great plans out-of-touch with the cost of construction, I would cross that architect off my list and continue searching.

On a side note, when I was looking for plans, I interviewed both architects and residential designers. The highest cost proposal came from a residential designer, as did the lowest cost proposal. The architects weren't necessarily more expensive than residential designers.

Also, when my architect developed his preliminary plans I shared them to various subs to get their input on design changes to make their jobs easier. When it came time to build, almost every sub identified that this was one of the first houses they had ever seen plans for that specifically included their needs in the design, although this was a function of my action more than the architect.


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By Joe in Hermiston, OR on 7/3/2009


Has anyone thought of or used a high-school architecture class to do most of the preliminary design work? Then go to an architect or designer to ensure code compliance. This would seem to minimize the expensive time an architect would charge for the whole thing. Just a thought.
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By Mary in PA on 7/3/2009


Varied and informative input – thanks to everyone for your time. I have been following the posts here, but deliberately didn’t chime in because I wanted to listen to what others had to say.

 

This is roughly how I came to be in my current spot:

-         (several yrs. ago) spent a lot of time reading about design, what is good, usable design, trends in design, etc (been doing this ever since)

-         (2007-'08) spent massive hrs reviewing stock plans from many sources, didn’t find what suitable plans

-         (2008) half-hearted investigation into working with professional designer/architect, but not sure our ‘little’ project (under 2,000 sq ft house) merited it

-         (Jan 2009) decided to design my own plans, spent many hrs. & diligent effort; got bogged down … project needed compromises but not sure which one(s) were best, not sure about cost implications of decisions… risks looked too high for this path

-         (April 2009) investigated (again) working with professional designer/architect, selected architect, started working with him, getting cold feet (but still very early in the process)

-         Started this thread on O-B board.

-         Reconsidered the idea of stock plans, reviewed library of plans again with fresh eyes and more experience than back in '07 … but still don’t see that meeting our needs (or could be tweaked to do so)

 

I’m hoping the architect will make a design for us that:

-         fits the daily and seasonal flow of our lives

-         makes the best use of our site (30 ac., with varied views, strong winter winds)

-         uses the construction budget efficiently to get best value

-         accounts for ongoing living/maintenance expenses (tradeoff between build cost and long-term costs)

If he can do these things, I’m willing to pay him well – it’s worth it.

 

I also have fears – mostly about whether or not the design will be within reasonable range of our budget. Even though I had a frank discussion with the architect about my concerns in this area, it seems that the proof of this isn’t really knowable until you have the design (or at least the major concept) and get some input from builders/subs. The whole deal seems somewhat a leap of faith, and I guess it is.

 

Time will tell.


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By Faye in Marseilles, IL on 7/4/2009


Mary,

     I ended up doing my own print with a draftsman because my home has an indoor pool and that is a very unique design to find. When I started checking into architects/designers several years ago - I thought they were quite high. Would you mind giving us an idea of what yours is charging you and how it is paid? Is there a retainer upfront, paid by hour, or square footage?  I think most people are very unfamiliar with this phase of planning and are unaware what costs should be.

Thanks, Faye

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By Mary in PA on 7/8/2009


Faye,

 

I think the range of prices/fees for professional designers might be something like the range of money a person could spend on a car - there is something for every budget and taste, from the luxury sports car to the used tin box on a lawnmower engine. Even in my brief research, I found a range of fees and services. And just as with any other purchase, the amount of the fee is not always an indication of the value ... and then sometimes it is. All depends, right?

 

Here are some examples from my local research:

 

- Designer 1: fee for initial meeting, certain amount per sq ft for drawings, then an hrly. rate for any edits (hrly. rate $45/hr)

 

- Designer 2: initial meeting (no charge) at which estimate of total sq ft would be determined, then total estimated price be set forth in proposal and 1/3 due upfront before any further work, balance due based on sq ft and edits rounds as work progressed

 

- Architect 1: charged as a percentage of the project costs and offered full range of services down to helping with interior finishes and working with GC on-site (this is the luxury sports car option), percentages were around 6 to 8 percent of the total project; cost would be provided in an proposal with a payment schedule (initial meeting was at no cost); if you're doing a small project, expect to be paying on the higher end of the percentage scale

 

- Architect 2: charged straight hourly, $58/hr, invoices provided as worked progressed along, generally seemed like a loose arrangement with no upfront proposal on estimated costs

 

Of course these fees are at a specific time and place, and could change a lot over time and in different locations. I think the bottom line is the services are out there and pricing varies – just like for plumbing, electrical, foundation work, interior design, landscaping, legal, or whatever else. Just as with any aspect of owner-building, it is an area to research and for each person to decide if there is enough value added to warrant the fees/costs involved.


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By Faye in Marseilles, IL on 7/8/2009


Thanks for the info, Mary. I am surprised that the cost of the designers aren't much lower than the architects. Good luck with your plans and let us know how they come out. 

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By Bryan in San Jose, CA on 7/23/2009


It seems there is some confusion as to what having an architectural license actually represents. Being a licensed architect means the person has met the minimum requirements to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Being an architect does not automatically make someone a good designer. In fact, you could be a horrible designer and still be a licensed architect. Architects are required to design schools and hospitals by most building codes, and a licensed architect or engineer is required to design most commercial and industrial buildings; not because they are good designers, but because they have demonstrated, through their license, that they can protect the public.

With that said, being an architect does not make someone out of touch, it does not make them a good designer by default, and it does not automatically make them more or less expensive. As in most cases, consumer beware. Do your research, check references, look at portfolios (an often overlooked step), ask lots of questions, and make an informed decision before hiring an architect or designer.

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By Jeff in Hartland, WI on 8/2/2009


Mary:


I started out also wanting an architect. But at the time, I had trouble finding one who was interested in doing a "small" residential project. When I did find one, he was booked for at least six months. The fees he quoted would have been several times what I paid the designer I did hire, who charged a flat fee based on square footage. I was extremely happy with the designer. Today, it may be that architects are hungrier because the housing crisis hit them as hard as it hit anyone. Or it could be that architects in your area are more accessible than in my area. 

When we started the project, we did a little bit of research on housing costs in the area. The average cost per square foot from builders in this area was about $150. I figured we would save about thirty percent by building ourselves. So we looked at the amount we thought we could afford, divided it by the target building cost, and we came up with about 3,000 sq ft. We worked for several months with the designer. The house went from 3,000 sq ft to 3,450 sq ft by the time we finished. So the house had gotten bigger, but the budget stayed the same.  Regardless, I put the plans out for bid by multiple builders. The lowest bid was 20% above our target. 

To make a long story short, we did do the contracting ourselves. My goal was to build the house for $120 a sq ft. The final cost was more like $130 a sq ft. But we still brought it in cheaper than our lowest builder bid. 

So why the long explanation? One approach you could take is to figure out your target cost, decide on square footage and make sure the house can generally be built in your area for that price. Then decide for yourself what percentage you think the design is worth. Is it 1/10th of one percent? Is it one percent? Ten percent? Remember that every penny you spend on the design is a penny you aren't spending on building. But if you don't spend enough pennies on the design, you'll be spending more later due to changes, mistakes, etc. It's really all up to you.

Jeff

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By Steven in MN on 10/13/2009


I've interviewed a few architects for my home, and they are quoting 8-10% of build cost. I'll need some input for a passive-solar design that has a terraced lot w/a significant drop between levels; but whew, that is a lot of money for good design.

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