Selecting an Architect (and more) for your Dream House

Excerpts from a talk given by Marc Appleton at the Pacific Design Center
For the John Aaroe Realty Group

There is a delightful film from 1948 called “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” directed by H.C. Potter and starring Carey Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvin Douglas. Reginald Denny plays the challenged architect. Although it’s over 60 years old, it’s still an entertaining rendition of what can go right and wrong and reminds us how blindly optimistic we can be in the early stages of the process of building our dream houses.  I often refer prospective clients to the film and feel that I have at least given them fair warning.

Two other pieces of advice I give anyone who is planning on building their dream house:  (1)  Know going into it that every house involves some sort of compromise and usually some unexpected challenges, and (2) there will be at least one week during your project you’ll wish you never undertook it, and whatever structure you managed to erect you’ll pray will burn to the ground.  Push through the week.  As Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Despite these warnings, many people yearn at some point to have a custom residence designed specifically for them.  You might be one of these potential victims.  Whether it’s a fixer-upper, or a new house from scratch on vacant land, perhaps you have decided it would be good for you to build your “dream house.”  Maybe you’re on the brink of buying property to renovate or remodel an existing house or build a new one.  So far no one has been successful in talking you out of embarking on this idiotic adventure, despite the pitfalls of the expense, time and emotional trauma that usually accompany the anticipated joys and rewards of custom home building. 

 

I.  THE ARCHITECT:

If you are still undeterred, the consultant to engage after your Life Coach, Business Advisor and Real Estate Agent would be your Architect. I would suggest that ideally you hire him or her on a consulting basis before you buy property, or at least while you are buying it, so the architect can help you evaluate the potential pluses and minuses of the particular properties you are considering. This is especially true of a renovation or remodel of an existing house. Sadly most people don’t think about hiring an architect until after they have purchased the property, which could be somewhat akin to learning to paddle while your boat heads towards the falls…or learning about contraception in the third trimester.  Choosing the right architect is a big commitment, involves many considerations, and like any other relationship, a degree of chemistry, so be sure to interview more than one suitor. 

When hiring an architect, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “What kind of architecture do I like?  Contemporary or traditional?  What sort of lifestyle – and setting for that lifestyle – is going to fit me best?”  Long before you actually start interviewing architects, cut out and collect architectural images and photos of what appeals to you.  Don’t fret if they are inconsistent.  Part of a good architect’s job is to reconcile differing opinions and even styles – much like a good therapist does with emotions. 

A word of advice for couples, however.  If the foundation of your relationship is shaky, don’t think the foundation of your home will be much stronger.  Architecture, no matter how good it is, can’t solve marital differences; it will likely only bring disagreements which are simmering to a boil.  I know of one couple whose aesthetic disputes nearly always resulted in a chopping down of each other’s family trees: “Only you would think that kitchen is nice – cause you’re from Scranton!” would typically be met with something like, “And why would we possibly have a butler’s pantry if we don’t have a butler?!”  “We have 4-wheel drive and you don’t use that either,” she might reply, and so forth.

Designing and building a home requires that you as a couple ultimately agree on the big things, even if you bicker about the little things, like sisal vs. coir vs. jute.  It requires that you both can decide together and, ultimately, mutually concur. Couples who believe that as long as she gets her kitchen or he gets his den, everything will be ok. Not true! It simply means you have managed to segregate rather than resolve your differences.  Rumor has it the actual tiff that precipitated the split between Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston was over Mr. Pitt’s choice of toilet for a home they were designing.  Suffice it to say it appeared their whole relationship went down the loo from there.  And if you don’t think I’m serious about making sure your house is in order before ordering your house, there is one architectural magazine where it’s fairly well known that by the time a couple appears on the cover, they are typically no longer a couple.  Perhaps this is why it may be preferable for one to appear on that home design magazine cover with their children or dogs.    

But I digress…So, when you have a sense of what kind of architecture you want, then start looking for an architect. Entertain architects whose work demonstrates that they have a chance of achieving what you want. Another good rule is hire a busy architect.  It is often more prudent to wait for a booked architect than roll the dice with an unknown quantity.  Yes, you could get lucky with an unknown or a neophyte…or they may be unknown for a reason. 

When selecting an architect you should also check references from their previous clients.  Ask how well the architect responded to their expectations and needs, how professionally he or she handled the design process, were design challenges met with tantrums, outbursts, or curling up in the fetal position?

Henry Ford famously said buyers could purchase his Model T in whatever color they wanted so long as it was black.  In like manner, there is a common misconception that because they are trained professionals, architects will be aesthetically flexible and responsive to your stylistic predilections.  Some can be, but with others, whatever stylistic tendencies you see in their portfolio are likely to be what you’re going to get no matter what they say, so make sure what you see is what you want. Of course you hope for inspired creativity, but you are going to be living in this house, not your architect, unless you’ve already left your spouse for your architect, in which case you can skip over this next section on architectural fees – hopefully if you’ve bought the cow you’re getting the milk for free.

For those of you not the beneficiaries of free milk, you need to know up front what sort of contractual arrangement your architect suggests or prefers.  When your architect shows up wearing a $50,000 timepiece, it behooves you to research if you can afford her or him.  Was the Audemars Piguet a gift from grandpa or just the happy result of change orders from their last gig? 

Know going in that what one can spend on a home is virtually limitless: in Mumbai, one tycoon recently completed his 27-story, single family residence at a cost of one billion dollars – while here, stateside, the time share mogul David Siegel attempted to build a 90,000 square foot Versailles in Orlando but went broke in the process.  So if you haven’t done it already, you should start outlining all the related project costs that are likely to be involved in realizing your dream.  A seasoned architect or business adviser can assist with this, but essentially the costs can be analyzed as follows:

 

II.  HARD & SOFT COSTS:

The HARD COSTS on your project refer to the physical things as well as the labor to accomplish them.  These include:

  • Land Cost
  • Utility Costs (water, gas, power, telephone, TV)
  • Well Drilling and Installation (if needed)
  • Septic System Installation or Sanitary Waste Connection
  • Demolition Costs
  • Brush Clearing and Site Grading
  • Construction Cost (including Contractor’s fee, overhead and profit)
  • 10% Construction Contingency (not for Owner’s design changes)
  • Site Development & Landscaping Costs (planting, irrigation and landscape lighting)
  • Interior Furnishings and Fixtures (furniture, fabrics, carpets, wall coverings, special paint finishes, window treatments and decorative light fixtures other than recessed fixtures)
  • Lighting Control Systems
  • Audio-Visual Systems
  • Telephone Systems
  • Security Systems
  • Water Treatment Systems
  • Fire Protection Systems
  • Backup Generator or Alternative Power Systems
  • Other Expenses Related to Completing Construction

And now a word about SOFT COSTS.  These generally refer to the costs associated with the non-material aspects of your project.  There is nothing “soft,” however, about how these costs can impact a budget, and they are often overlooked until too late.  An airbag is “soft” too, but not when it hits you.   

I once had an interesting conversation with a cab driver in Las Vegas.  I asked how many gamblers left town with a “plus’ in the ledger column.  He said for every twenty parties he drove to the airport, seventeen were “down,” one claimed to be “up,” and two more thought they were up until they calculated all the costs and then admitted that they were net down, as well. 

Likewise, glossing over soft costs in one’s budget is like calculating the cost of your hotel room without including room tax, resort fee, overnight parking fee, room service and minibar.  Or, perhaps more aptly, pricing one’s plane ticket without including taxes, the Department of Transportation surcharge, airport fees, meal and baggage fees, and the extra fee we now pay for a seat that actually reclines perceptibly. 

An acquaintance of mine recently used a very well-known interior designer on his house and told me that just the shipping fees on his project totaled half a million dollars!  As you are about to see, the list of soft costs on a construction project can be dauntingly long, and the following is by no means an exhaustive one:

SOFT COSTS:

  • Real Estate Fees/Escrow Expense (including property taxes and carrying costs)
  • Attorney’s Fees & Expenses
  • Agency/Code Consultant, Expenses
  • Property Surveys
  • Architectural Basic Service Fees (including fees to date + structural engineering)
  • Architect’s Reimbursable Expenses
  • Architect’s Additional Service Fees
  • Landscape Architectural/Design Fees
  • Interior Design Fees & Mark-Up Shipping Expenses
  • Lighting Designer Consultant Fees
  • Planning Consultant/Expediter Fees
  • Electrical Engineering Fees
  • Mechanical Engineering Fees
  • Structural Engineering Fees
  • Civil Engineering (grading and drainage) Fees
  • Soils and Geology Testing and Report
  • Septic System Tests and Engineering (if needed)
  • Agency Approvals and Building Permit Fees
  • Temporary House Rental
  • Moving Expenses
  • Other Project Expenses not directly related to the actual construction

Many architects include some but usually not all of the engineering in their fees, so be sure to ask.  It also doesn’t hurt to ask to see an architect’s sample invoice from a previous project.  Doesn’t hurt to ask, though it may hurt to read. 

Most Owners generally not only underestimate how long things are going to take – the design, approval and permitting process, as well as the construction phase – but they underestimate the Hard and Soft Costs because they fail to include all of them in their initial budgets. They often do this because they have heard their friends brag “we just finished our house and it only cost $200 per SF.” First, this is unlikely unless the house happened to be somewhere in rural Wisconsin or built by volunteer materials and labor from Habitat for Humanity.  Second, was $200/SF the cost of just the actual construction of the house itself, or did it include all the contingent hard and soft costs?  This is often the fundamental fallacy of “pre-fab” construction.  Pre-fabricators will show you a design they claim costs so much per SF, without mentioning that the site prep, foundations, utilities, installation and transportation costs for a pre-fab may cost as much as the actual structure. 

Another reason clients underestimate costs is that they are psychologically inclined to. They have to be optimistic. If they were conservatively pragmatic and realistic about the costs in the first place, most of them would be deterred altogether from building a custom house and do something much more sensible with their money, like play roulette or invest in a restaurant or in pyramid schemes.  Some of humanity’s greatest architectural achievements would never have been voted through or attempted were the true costs known up front – this helps explain why Boston’s $21 billion “Big Dig” was originally projected to cost one tenth that figure. 

Finding out about unforeseen costs during the process is uncomfortable, but may be easier to stomach in little bites that nibble away less obviously at one’s budget. If you can, however, face facts, and confront the overall budgetary reality early.  Itemize the process and costs as thoroughly as possible – from real estate purchase through design and construction to final landscaping and furnishings… and be sure to include the soft costs…because you will realize that they actually aren’t as “soft” as you thought, and can sometimes comprise 30-40% of your overall budget or more.  We don’t all have the benefit of taxpayer money and government subsidies to back our own personal Big Dig. 

 

III.  YOUR PROGRAM:

When you think you have decided on the right architect, but before you have your first design meeting, sit down and write out what architects refer to as the program. Your program is your ultimate “wish list.” It’s everything you want in the house: all the rooms and spaces, the relationships between them, how small or big they are, the safe room, the pilates studio, the “safe” pilates studio, not to mention the personal shrine to Jimmy Choo or the golf simulator.  It’s also everything you want on the outside – terraces, porches, patios, gardens, pools, and landscaping elements. It’s all of the objective needs, but don’t forget to include subjective expectations as well.  This is where you flex your personal wishes, dreams and feelings.  After all this is what you’re paying an architect or designer for rather than just buying something off the rack. 

A word of caution, however, about building anything too idiosyncratic.  No matter our intentions, very few houses we build “for the rest of our lives” do we actually remain in the rest of our lives.  That’s why I advocate never completely disregarding the concept of resale somewhere down the road – life changes, the unexpected happens, and our needs change.  And if that day eventually comes, you don’t want your potential buyer to be a needle in a haystack.  No one can deny the grandeur of Hearst Castle, but did you know that at the end of Hearst’s life, his estate had a hard time literally giving it away?

I would also caution against design that is trendy.  Parlor rooms have gone the way of the parlor trick, and the memory of fainting rooms is becoming more and more faint by the day.  You never want to live in a home which, 10 years from now when Will Farrell is making a movie lampooning this era, the producers ask if they can film at your house. 

If you have collected and cut out images and photos of the kind of architecture and architectural elements that appeal to you, include these with your program.  Some architects may not relish being handed a folder or a shopping bag of all the magazine clippings you have collected since there was a Bush or a Clinton in the White House, but hand it to them anyway.  After all, you’re paying them to edit your needs and desires, and if they aren’t, you should have your needs met elsewhere.

The program is the foundation from which the design of the house evolves.  At the end of the initial Schematic Design process with your architect, the plans and sketches should generally reflect and accommodate your program and expectations.  In this initial schematic design and planning stage, we typically urge our clients not to compromise their program prematurely but to explore their dreams.  It may very well be that your target was an affordable 5,000 SF house, and by the end of your Wish List, it’s 7 or 8,000 SF, but remember, it’s still on paper. If you have to scale back at this point, at least you’ve explored all of your wish list and will be better able, with your architect’s assistance, to prioritize and cut back. This is when you start saying to yourself, “maybe we don’t need that enormous subterranean gym – maybe I could just join a gym.  Maybe the home theatre doesn’t need to be IMAX.  Maybe Mom can stay at a nearby hotel when she visits, and so on.    

 

IV.  THE INTERIOR DESIGNER OR DECORATOR

If you haven’t selected an interior designer or decorator yet, and you want and can afford one after parting with a substantial portion of your budget to your architect, you should consider bringing them on board to consult on the plans fairly early in the Schematic Design phase, along with your landscape architect or designer, should your architect not provide these services.  It’s not that you need to get into great detail at this stage with regard to the interiors or landscaping, but you want these other aesthetic consultants to comment on and, hopefully, endorse the Schematic Design direction and plans.

One of the most frequent and significant adverse impacts on the eventual project schedule and cost is untimely or unprofessional input from the interior designer.  After your plans are set, you don’t want the interior designer recommending you move the fireplace to the other side of the room, or that the kitchen is in the wrong place or the Master Bedroom needs its own living room furniture. This kind of input should happen sooner rather than later, while the schematic plans are evolving.  It may take some insistence on your and your architect’s part to focus the interior designer’s suggestions this early on and get them to “buy into” the schematic architectural design, but it is strongly advised.

Be aware that some interior designers – especially the more celebrated ones – don’t often limit themselves to the interior furnishings but have something to say about, and often like to control, a great deal of the architecture and landscaping.  Sometimes they bring good ideas to the table.  And sometimes they want to redesign the table if not replace it completely.  Speaking as an architect, try to rein in the interior designer a bit and manage this redundant intrusion gracefully but firmly, or things can get messy and, as is often the case, still more expensive.

For many architects, the interior designer can be the “interior desecrator,” wreaking havoc with their sensibly developed plans.  Two collaborative chefs in the kitchen can make for a good meal, but generally only if they’re working on different parts of the meal.  Two people rowing a boat together go fast; two people rowing against each other go in a circle.  I think you get my point.  Cooperation amongst the trades is critical; how Shaq and Kobe dealt with each other was the difference between a championship, a sinking ship and an abandoned ship. 

Be sure to establish your interior designer’s and landscape consultant’s budgets and scope of work early on when they are first brought on board, but the point of including them in the preliminary design process is to get their suggestions on the architectural plans early enough for them to be included and the design revised to reflect any beneficial changes. When good ideas enter too late in the process, it is typically time-consuming, awkward and far more costly.  Of course we realize interior designers often see the architect as the fly in the ointment…the difference being, of course, that we’re right and they’re wrong.  

 

V.  THE GENERAL CONTRACTOR

After you have accommodated final revisions to the Schematic Design, (a phase that’s generally about 15% to 20% of your architect’s total services and fees) this is when you and your architect should invite two or three qualified, licensed general contractors not on parole to provide itemized preliminary construction cost estimates.  Caveat emptor: bad contractors are often good fiction writers.  Beware of bids that are too good to be true. 

Picking a good GC requires conscientious research and due diligence just like choosing your architect, designer or spouse.  Maybe you already have a pretty good idea who you think you want to use as your contractor, but you should still get a couple more bids to keep him or her honest – not to mention it’s always good to have a backup contractor and crew in the on-deck circle. 

As in your architect selection, always check references on contractors.  Ask them for the names and contact information for the owners of the last three or four houses they built, and call them.  Ask the owners if the contractor was efficient, on time, tidy, well organized, and built a quality product.  Ask the contractor to introduce you to whom they are thinking of using as superintendent on your project, and whether your project will be that person’s sole full-time job and responsibility (very important).  You should ask how frequently the GC will visit the job site and possibly even build this frequency and the full-time superintendent into your contract.  In addition, a licensed contractor’s performance record can be verified with your state’s Department of Consumer Affairs or Contractors Licensing Board to see if there have been any complaints, claims or restraining orders issued against them.  A good contractor is as if not more important to the success of your project as any of the other players, so make sure you diligently research them. 

 

VI.  CONCLUSION

I have tried to address a few key areas frequently overlooked when planning your dream home and at the start of the working relationship between you and your Architect.  As mentioned, every project entails some concessions, some sort of compromise somewhere along the way to someone or something.  The billion dollar single family residence in Mumbai has three helipads which all lie dormant, thanks to a no-fly injunction issued by the Navy of India.  The junk bond titan Ira Rennert got to build his 100,000 SF “Sand Simeon” in Sagaponack – but battled neighbor protest every step of the way, and it took him years.  So yes, building your dream home can be epically rewarding or massively humbling.  It is typically both, but you will get better results and have more fun in the end if you come better prepared from the beginning.

Bon Voyage and good luck!