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Before You Begin Your Project

The information that follows assumes that you have never worked with an architect and plan to build a home. If you have experience with architects, or need an architect for another type of project, hopefully this information will still help you plan your project.

The Site

People often ask which they should select first: The site or the house plan. The answer is always the site. You will want to make sure that your house design is suitable for your site; oriented to take advantage of views, vegetation, and sunlight; and tailored to the contours of the land. An architect can be very helpful in assessing the appropriateness of a site and in the type of house to build there.

The House Plans

The best way to have a home that really fits you like a glove is to hire an architect. The design is a team process: You, the architect, your builder (if you have one) and other consultants. First your needs, your ideas and your site are evaluated and then the design possibilities are explored. This process is different for everyone because no two owners, or two sites, or two architects are alike. But this is where the creative spark germinates, culminating in a custom designed residence.

Naturally, it costs more to have a custom design made just for you -- usually the Architect’s fee is 8% to 12% of construction costs, depending on the services you require -- and it takes more time than the alternatives, such as selecting a plan from a home-plans magazine or from your builder's standard options. But the result can more than repay the effort: A tailor-made home that is an extension of your own life.

A significant segment of the home-buying public wants the level of quality and craft that architectural drawings afford won't invest either the time or the money required for a custom design. These people want the quality that comes with the designer label, without hiring a designer. And in the residential building industry, if you want custom design you must hire an architect. Otherwise, buy ready-to-wear housing.

The hard work that gives a house the kind of beauty that you see in custom designed homes begins long before construction starts: Where a set of plan-book blueprints might be 4 - 6 sheets, it is not unusual for an architecturally designed home to have 20+ sheets, illustrating all the special details that make everything work together as a unified whole.

But it's not really the number of drawings that matters; it's the quality of thought and ingenuity that goes into the design process. People tend to think of house design as something easy and obvious, because we are all familiar with houses and most people have doodled with a design. But for a structure to have both functionality and beauty, it must be molded, sculpted, engineered, and proportioned with an artist's eye. The resulting drawings and specifications are simply the means to record all of that planning and communicate it to the builder (and in most cases, to the Building Department).

Building Materials

Wood frame construction has been the unchallenged norm for residential building for a very long time because of its satisfactory performance, availability, and relatively low cost. Wood is a renewable resources when planted and harvested properly, however, over the past few years, volatile wood prices and declining quality of framing lumber have raised serious concerns regarding the use of wood as the "only" option for residential construction.

Today’s framing lumber is less dense and has less resistance to rot and insects than the lumber of the 1950’s. Compare 2x4’s from an old house with today’s wood and see what you think. Engineered wood joists, beams and studs are now used in addition to regular lumber.

Consider alternative materials for your home construction. There are dozens of choices (see Recommended Reading). Some of these options will cost more than wood framing. Many are more labor intensive. And, in the home building industry alternatives to “business-as-usual” are given an up-charge by most builders. That’s one good reason a contractor, experienced in your type of construction, should be on your team. I recommend "green building" alternatives for the following reasons:

• Natural materials (connect us to the earth / nature)
• Permanence (including strength, fire resistance and resistance to decay)
• Energy efficiency (mass and insulation)
• Ease of maintenance (less long-term upkeep costs)
• Health (including low toxicity, no off-gassing and resistance to mold)
• Aesthetics (is in the eye of the beholder...)

Once the choice is made to use an alternative building material, your architect can help you find (and contract with) a builder who is experienced in similar types of projects. One way that costs are kept down, no matter the materials, is by efficient design. A house doesn't have to be overly large to feel spacious and comfortable.

Why Use An Architect?

Besides the reasons discussed above, one reason you should hire an Architect is to be your advocate during the construction process. Many experienced Contractors will only work for Owners who have Architects. Their experience is that their clients are dissatisfied during (and after) projects that are built using incomplete, skimpy plans. In those cases it becomes the Owner’s responsibility to work out details with the Contractor. Unless you have an unlimited amount of free time, have a good knowledge of the construction process - and your Contractor has no other projects underway - hire an Architect as your expert, your advocate during the construction process.

Recommended Reading

A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
he best book about understanding and using space

House by Tracy Kidder
How the owner, architect and contractor see the building process

Prescriptions for a Healthy House by Paula Baker-Laporte
The healthy house reference

The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka
Creating a house with less space, with high quality of life

Dwell Magazine
For those with Modern taste

© 2017 by Guy Rollins