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Anyone worked with an Architect to build custom house?
Old 03-02-2010, 06:11 PM   #1
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Anyone worked with an Architect to build custom house?

Has anyone ever worked with an architect and a builder to build a custom home designed to your specifications, on land that you purchased (not in a development)?

Could you share your experience, please? Did everything turn out as you wished? Was it more expensive than you expected? Any lessons for others to learn from?

Thanks!

Amethyst
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Old 03-02-2010, 07:21 PM   #2
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We rebuilt our house after the Oakland firestorm. We were able to locate the original plans, but they weren't complete, and we had to make modifications.

I did not at all enjoy the process of designing and building. There are too many decisions and things that can go wrong.

For example, we had a short, steep driveway, and the contractor decided to give us some more flat space at the top. This made it so steep, however, that many cars would get stuck (that is, front and rear bumpers would hit the ground). So, you get there to check things, and the driveway is in, and the concrete is set. Literally set in concrete, and it will cost $10,000 to rip it out and do it right. So, we had to live with that driveway for 8 years until we moved.
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Old 03-02-2010, 07:29 PM   #3
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I worked with a designer that the builder had on staff, rather than an architect. I had a good idea of the floor plan I wanted based off a model I'd seen from a builder in a town I used to live in, so it was just a matter of applying the mods I wanted to it, including moving the master BR to a different level, and also tailoring it to my mountain lot.

I think a lot of it has to do with how well you can visualize a house from plans. An architect may build a model for you, or a 3-D sim, which could help. Another key factor is if you know basically what you want. That could mean knowing the basic floor plan, or just how you want to use a house, and what's important (like whether you entertain a lot, have hobby space requirements, etc). If you really don't have an idea, you may be paying extra to custom build something that really isn't customized to you. And changes in the design phase are cheap, but once you start, the builder will tag you hard for change orders, usually for good reason.

You also need a strong enough personality to keep the architect on track and not design what he/she wants instead, and also to work with the builder to resolve problems that come up.

You need to be a dreamer to come up with what you want, but also a detail person because you'll be picking out every light fixture, faucet, floor, etc, and also be making sure that all of the details are correct at they are building it. The architect will be helping work with the builder on these, but in the end you have the most at stake. At some point it's going to stop being a fun project, but you have to stay with it all the way.

Mine was designed at the height of the tech bubble, so I was saying Yes to everything. That wasn't the worst thing, as I sold stock to pay for the house and then the stock got hammered, so the house was a better "investment". So it was more expensive, but part of that was my fault.

Make lists, take pictures, cut out magazine articles, visit other homes, etc, to gather and give the architect info on what you like. More is better, like the architect sort it out. Visit higher end luxury homes because that's were you'll see some neatest features you might take for your house.

Mistakes--a few. My house came out bigger than I need or even really want, which is only really a problem with maintenance/cleaning, and cost to heat. But it's also not as cozy as it could've been. I don't regret the huge windows to my view, but the windows on the non-view side are bigger than needed too, leaking heat, and limiting furniture placement.

I also always wanted a wood burning stove, and for some reason didn't have one put in. I guess I just forgot to put it on my list.

For the most part I listened to my builder on a lot of things, especially materials, such as Hardy Plank for the siding. But every time I go out to my deck and see the warping and splintering, I regret being talked out of Trex decking.

In the end, I try not to dwell on the couple of things I'd have liked to have done better, and enjoy a house that really was made for me. There are dozens of non-standard things that I look at every day or week and still really appreciate, nearly 10 years later. It was worth it, but I don't know that I'd do it again.
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Old 03-02-2010, 07:37 PM   #4
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For example, we had a short, steep driveway, and the contractor decided to give us some more flat space at the top. This made it so steep, however, that many cars would get stuck (that is, front and rear bumpers would hit the ground). So, you get there to check things, and the driveway is in, and the concrete is set. Literally set in concrete, and it will cost $10,000 to rip it out and do it right. So, we had to live with that driveway for 8 years until we moved.
Funny you should mention the driveway, that was one of my victories. My lot drops off quite a bit. A lot of people just put a parking pad up top, and wooden stairs down to the house. I didn't like the idea of walking up and down icy stairs in the cold winter, and wanted a garage, so I took advantage of a flatter area on one side of the lot (which I identified before buying this lot), put the garage up front with a drive of maybe two car lengths, and an enclosed stairway down to the house. The designer and builder didn't seem to grasp the idea in the early plans and I kept pushing, and they got it right. Especially in this year of 100 inches of snow, I really appreciate the mostly level driveway and indoor steps to the house.
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Old 03-02-2010, 07:49 PM   #5
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Has anyone ever worked with an architect and a builder to build a custom home designed to your specifications, on land that you purchased (not in a development)?
Almost - we went with a Certified Building Designer (AIBD) rather than an architect to design a custom home to our specifications. It turned out to be significantly less expensive and we are very happy with the result. We gave the designer a long list of how we wanted the house designed. He also asked us to recall every house we'd lived in (seven) and provide him a list what we liked and disliked about the design of each house. He worked to incorporate as many likes as possible - and insure the dislikes were excluded in our custom plans.

As T-Al said "Trust but verify". I visited the job site almost every day to monitor every aspect of construction. I was fortunate in being in a position to allow me the time to do so and in finding a good builder who worked with me to limit surprises.

If you are building in a rural area (well, septic, etc.) be sure to find an experienced rural builder - not someone who has only built in the city/suburbs.
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Old 03-02-2010, 08:51 PM   #6
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Old 03-02-2010, 08:55 PM   #7
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We had an architect design our lake (soon to be retirement) home. An unafilliated builder built. Great experince for us on both sides. We chose not to have the architect oversee the build.

We started the design process a year ahead of construction. We had a list of what we wanted, and the must haves. We prioritized that list. She asked a number of questions and gave us what we wanted. Fast forward 5 years, and there is very little we would have changed.

A couple things to consider. We got and read a really great book on home building. Sorry, I do not recall the title, but it walked us through a lot of things like really thinking about electrical outlets (getting them placed for example for the fan in the fireplace, and multiple outlets where the TV will go for all the accessory items). Door swinging, handles, materials--really was priceless. The other really big thing that we wrote into the contract of the architect was that the bids for the home had to come within our budget. We did not want to spend the money on an architect only to have the house not be in our budget. She balked at this, but we stuck to our guns- and it paid off-- as the house was about 40% over budget getting several bids. She then worked with us to make the changes we needed to get within budget. Ultimately we increased our budget some too, but we really got what we wanted for not much more.

Once we were ready to build, we really specified in detail what we wanted from the builder. (i.e. painting rather than spraying walls, primer, and two coats of paint of OUR color choice in each room). We also specified that we would be providing some materials, as we did not want markups where we knew we could get things reasonably priced. Our overage on the build was less than $1000, and this was for two items we added. The more detail, the better. Detail everything. Make sure your allowances are realistic. Walk metally through every room and include the detail in your bid plans.

Great time for competitive pricing. Our daughter just built though and had a problem getting the appraisals to meet the loan amounts because the comps were so low. Ultimately, the builder dropped the price to get the job. So if you are financing, you might want to get a pre-appraisal.

Best wishes.
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Old 03-02-2010, 10:12 PM   #8
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I am an Architect (need one? --just joking!!) and my advice is it depends on what you want. If you are really only after a stock house then go with the plan services. It will be cheaper and they provide a good set of floor plans that most builders will be comfortable with.

If you truly want a custom designed home to your needs/wants then hire an Architect. An Architect is your ally in the construction world and can save you a lot of money but he/she comes at a cost. You have to weigh whether that cost is worth it to you. I think it really depends on your personal background. If you have little or no experience with a contractor it will be difficult to discern if what he is telling you is true. An Architect is in your employ and is your advocate and voice during conflicts and interpretations of issues. I would also be your advocate with the zoning/city process--often a daunting task for most people.

I have done services across the board for clients from simple plan sketches only, to complete services including construction administration. It all depends on what you need and want and are willing to pay for. I believe I provide a valuable service for my clients but it is frustrating sometimes as many people will happily pay the real estate agent who sells their house 6% but begrudge the designer anything in that range.

My advice--Whatever budget you have, double it! Well not exactly but it likely isn't enough as most people have not taken into account the myriad minutia involved in a building. And are shocked at the cost of say 20 joist hangers, or 20 hurricane straps, etc that they hadn't thought to include in a preliminary budget for example. Nor are most people prepared for the decisions that are required during the design and construction process.

Also you and your partner need to be in a mental state where you can make decisions and stick with them. Time is money to both the Architect and the Builder. If you can't decide what color to paint the trim and want to see trim painted with several choices before you can make a decision, that will cost you. Your lack of a quick decision will directly translate to dollars as the builder and his sub are not going to paint that trim for free and stick around while you decide if you like it or not. You need to take the professional advice of your Architect, then quickly decide and then give direction to the Builder. If you can do that you will save money, if you can't you will cause huge stress (I mean HUGE STRESS) in your relationship with your SO and it will cost you lots of $$$$.

In my humble opinion most people can't understand three dimensionally what the floor plan means and that is where I think an Architect would be helpful for you as we have 3D tools such as SketchUp and Revit to model the building. It is much cheaper to have me build it in cyberspace then in concrete and wood!

I am not going to tell you that you can't do this without an Architect as it is done everyday. Some more successful then others granted, but hiring an Architect is no guarantee of success in the perfect building that you wanted.

Feel free to ask me anything either her or via Private Message. My experience is more in the high end multi family area, but I have done my share of single family houses as well.

Either way---good luck! Actually my wife and I are in the process of deciding if we want to design and build a new house on a piece of property we own...just this Architect I am working with.......
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Old 03-02-2010, 11:57 PM   #9
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"Also you and your partner need to be in a mental state where you can make decisions and stick with them. Time is money to both the Architect and the Builder. If you can't decide what color to paint the trim and want to see trim painted with several choices before you can make a decision, that will cost you. Your lack of a quick decision will directly translate to dollars as the builder and his sub are not going to paint that trim for free and stick around while you decide if you like it or not. You need to take the professional advice of your Architect, then quickly decide and then give direction to the Builder. If you can do that you will save money, if you can't you will cause huge stress (I mean HUGE STRESS) in your relationship with your SO and it will cost you lots of $$$$".

True true. We worked with everything from drawings to paper cutouts to computer floorplans - and embedded in my brain is the oft repeated phrase, " I'm a very visual person - can't you just build" a portion of the trim or wall or whatever so i can see how it will look? She staked out her claim to the visual and i got to be in charge of substructure. Not cheap, and slow as things progressed in fits and starts. OTOH, our home ended up awful close to what we wanted - and while it would have cost less if we had gone straight through from A to Z vs. ABCDE BC ABCDE, and our relationship was tested, I'm not sure my honey would have accepted the input of an architect. Frankly, I had a hard time with her accepting the input of a musician on our countertop choice while discounting my ideas.

Some friends used an architect for a new home - they gave him lots of input and the result was something I thought had some problems - but maybe it was just what they wanted.

If I were doing a ground-up new home I would go with one of the thousands of already created plans - but maybe that just speaks to my lack of creative nature.
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Old 03-03-2010, 12:16 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by Amethyst View Post
Has anyone ever worked with an architect and a builder to build a custom home designed to your specifications, on land that you purchased (not in a development)?
Could you share your experience, please? Did everything turn out as you wished? Was it more expensive than you expected? Any lessons for others to learn from?
You would think that Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, is rich enough to have a good housebuilding experience.

Think again:
Scott Adams Blog: Building a House 02/25/2009
Scott Adams Blog: Unlearned Skills 10/21/2008
Scott Adams Blog: Versions of Ourselves 12/24/2009

Everyone dreams of creating their vision just the way they want it. But new houses have issues all their own-- settling earth, new technology & products (whether you asked for it or not), and hidden flaws that no one finds until they're living with it for 24 hours/day. Then there's all the issues of crappy construction techniques or just plain mistakes that don't become apparent until the following January at 2:30 AM when it hits 10 below.

I'd much rather move into a home that's 10-30 years old (after a thorough inspection, of course) and rehab the heck out of it.

But if you insist, at least spike your creative punchbowl from these sources:
The Dilbert Blog: Ultimate Single Story House - update
dilbert's ultimate house - Google Search

One more thing: in the perspective of a lifetime of utility bills, an energy-efficient design with good insulation, solar water heating, and a photovoltaic array is pretty cheap.
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Old 03-03-2010, 06:37 AM   #11
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We're building a log house on property we purchased in West Virginia. We had originally talked about using an architect to do something completely custom but found there were many choices "close" to what we were looking for and decided to start there. We did spend a lot of time (nearly a year) talking with log home builders, once we were comfortable with the builder, we started with a stock home and made the modifications which were handled in house, by the builder. We did have an engineer review the changes we made before finalizing the plan and they made a couple of suggestions that were helpful. Foundations are being poured this week so only some time will tell if this process will work out.

I think the hardest thing we'll have to work with is the communication between the builder and my wife and I. I'm pretty visual and comfortable with being told how something will look or with working from a a rough sketch. My wife is completely different and has a very hard time visualizing. We did have the good fortune of having a model home that was of the stock plan we started with that is near by- we have spent many hours in that model talking and explaining the changes we were making and this helped tremendously but as the construction goes forward, I'm sure there will be some moments. I can still picture our builder standing on a kitchen bar stool in the model holding up two large rulers to show us where a loft floor would end up based on the change we were discussing, really wish I had taken a picture!

Here's another example. The excavation for the house is on a hill side looking towards some hills and mountains in the distance through trees. The excavation was completed last week. We went up to the site on Saturday and DW was very upset by the position of the house and the view which had been defined by stakes in the ground for a few months and through many visits. Turns out that once the hole had been dug, she could really see where the picture window wall would sit and the closest hill that can be seen was in the middle of the view where she had expected it to be well to the right. (Think of a wall with 3 large sections, the hill was in part of the center section) This put quite a damper on the day with the worry of what, if anything could be done to fix this and she worried/was upset all weekend.

To me, the hill/view was just about as I had seen it before and the foundation was dug out right where it had been staked. Long story short, I sent an email to the builder on Saturday, we met at the site on Monday morning before the foundation guys got there. They were able to swing the foundation about 5 feet with minimal further digging so all is okay. The good news is we caught this when we did versus after the walls were up. We've worked with the builder for about a year now and when I explained how DW was seeing this, he understood and really had no issue getting it right.

Sorry for the long story/post but guess my point is that being comfortable with whom you work with will probably be as critical as anything you do although setting and agreeing on a budget is right up there. Time will tell if we got it right, best of luck to you whatever you decide.
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Old 03-03-2010, 09:17 AM   #12
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Old 03-04-2010, 06:10 PM   #13
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Wow, thanks for the input. I'm still going back and re-reading your posts. Lots of food for thought here, and plenty of cautionary tales - exactly what I needed. (SarahW, should I conclude that you found the experience so traumatic, you cannot bring yourself to write about it?)

Nords, re-habbing an older home makes sense if you're smart about construction, but unlike many on this board, we are not DIY'ers when it comes to construction. We know our limits there! I'd think an architect and builder would find a total rehab, with its integration of "legacy components," more challenging than a new build.

We want a medium-sized, high quality house on a 2-acre lot. Well, on larger lots, developers tend to build huge dwellings, stuffed with costly features that market surveys say "buyers want," but we don't cotton to. Examples: Enormous open foyers that waste space and heat; "Fiddler on the Roof" staircases (One going up, and one even longer coming down, and one set going nowhere, just for show!), floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinets, whose upper shelves are unreachable even by tall people. And those triangular false-roof-silhouette trims, that rot and have to be repainted/replaced every few years. No thank you.

However, more modest-sized homes on large lots tend to be very outdated, and not amenable to being re-habbed to our tastes. Hard to do much about 8-foot ceilings, for example, without tearing off the roof and starting over.

Maybe a custom house is an impossible dream, but I have several years to work yet, so we'll continue to define our requirements and do research. Thanks again,

Amethyst
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Old 03-04-2010, 07:10 PM   #14
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Nords, re-habbing an older home makes sense if you're smart about construction, but unlike many on this board, we are not DIY'ers when it comes to construction. We know our limits there! I'd think an architect and builder would find a total rehab, with its integration of "legacy components," more challenging than a new build.
I'm not trying to imply that a house rehab should be DIY, rather that you have a more limited set of things that can go horribly wrong and more ability to pick & choose what you want to do and when you want to do it. You also mostly know what problems you're starting with, although surprises can crop up along the way. When you design a home, though, you're starting with a blank slate.

I'd much rather tinker with something than to start from scratch.

Sometimes you can even live in a home while you're rehabbing it.

Here's another book suggestion. Although the "Tough As Nails" title is focused on rehabs, the ideas are just as pertinent to starting from scratch-- the "wine & design" party, the samples & examples of what you want, and the control of the execution. The author gets a little tight on some aspects (having a bank employee witness that you gave the contractor a check?) but she's right on the money about dealing with delays, surprises, changes, and other homeowner-designer-builder issues. It's a great book for starting a conversation about what's important to you and for thinking about how you want to run the show.

If you have time & interest, it's highly educational (occasionally even alarming) to page through just about any book by Rex Cauldwell: "Inspecting a House", "Wiring a House", and "Plumbing a House". "For Pros by Pros" is just marketing talk; the writing is straightforward and the photos are very clear.

http://www.amazon.com/Inspecting-Hou...7751606&sr=1-1
http://www.amazon.com/Wiring-House-4...7751563&sr=1-1
http://www.amazon.com/Plumbing-Pros-...7751588&sr=1-2

If you're putting in a well or a septic system or an above-ground electrical service connection then I'd say those books should be essential reading.
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Old 03-04-2010, 07:31 PM   #15
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I have done it twice, my daughter once: husband is an Architect.

The key when engaging someone to design a home is to understand your needs and to know the the point of view of the person you are engaging. There are some whose experience is tenant improvements... you don't want that person. Some want to build a showcase, others put a lot of emphasis on sound construction. This is the best time to find an Architect, many don't have jobs and are willing to negotiate fees. Designing a home is a very time consuming process because it involves so many decisions and because often a husband and wife don't agree. The couple needs to be able to compromise between themselves and understand that the choice of finishes can kill a budget.

The same thing can be said if you hire a 'designer', however, they usually don't have the knowledge of an Architect. Expertise is needed if you have an 'interesting' site. Some communities will require additional licenced professionals such as Civil/Structural Engineers. Often City Planners fancy themselves design professionals, your representative needs to manage them knowledgeably.

There is no reason why a construction design professional should s**ew up any driveway grade. CAD offers three dimensions today. Before 3-D CAD my husband's projects included were performing arts centers where line of site was critical and everyone got a good seat.

Whatever route you go ask for a list of projects that were completed at least a year ago, and maybe one completed over 5 years ago. You want to know how well the building has stood the test of time and ask the owner about his/her experience.

Preparing construction documents is very important, that is your contract with the builder. The construction design professional must be able to prepare a contract that protects YOU and to work with the builder through the inevitable unexpected construction problems (such as the plumber not allowing the designed grade in the sewer line). There was a builder (now retired) in Portland who had a yacht named "Contingency". Change orders are costly.
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