Designing a house is easy, anybody can do it … at least that’s what most people think. The reality is that there are literally thousands of nuances that when all added up make the difference between a house that suits your needs and one that simply keeps you from getting wet when it rains. This is what we will be discussing today in Episode 79 “Designing a House”
[Note: If you are reading this via email, click here to access the on-site audio player]
Discussing the process – phone calls jump to 4:37
If you are a practicing architect, I can guarantee that you have received a phone call where you were asked the following question:
“Can you draw up plans for me?”
In these moments I imagine that doctors feel the same way when a patient comes into their office and proclaims that the patient has self-diagnosed themselves and all they need from the doctor is a prescription. How many times do you think that happens? I bet it happens all the time.
When I get take those initial phone calls, I typically spend my time talking about two things:
- the process
- how much I cost
Whenever an architect sits down with a new client on a residential project, the first thing that should happen is a conversation about project goals and requirements. It is during this initial conversation that we work to determine exactly what this project should accomplish … and keeping the rain out is generally assumed and isn’t the sort of question I am talking about. During the beginning stages of programming and schematic design, the way this process works for me is that I prepare a series of rough sketches that show the general arrangement of rooms and their placement on the site. I generally like to assemble all the information I have collected during the programming phase and start blocking out initial diagrams that describe the physical parameters of the project. Normally this is in the form of quick sketches and the homeowner would approve these sketches before proceeding to the next phase – which is Design Development.
The schematic design and programming phase is typically my favorite because there is such a social aspect to the collection of the material needed to do a proper job. It’s important that I have a real working understanding of how the house will ultimately be used so that we can create a finished product that supports a family’s lifestyle. Since I tend to sketch when I talk, drawings and diagrams are typically created in real-time, right in front of the client, which reflects our conversation.
How architects charge for their services jump to 10:25
When it comes to architectural fees for residential projects, I like to tell clients that everyone needs to have skin in the game, that both architect and client are accountable to one another and while we both have something to gain, we both also have something to lose. I have spent considerable time over the last 20 years in my efforts to develop alternate ways of setting up a fee structure that helps the client feel like they have more control over the architectural fees that could be generated while giving the architect the opportunity to plan for and cover their expenses for the services they are providing. One of the issues that we come up against all the time is that during the interview process, most clients have just a few things to base their selection criteria on – design style, personality, and professional fees. More times than not, we don’t struggle with the design style and personality portions, people are generally familiar with our design style and because most people tend to find me after reading this site at length, I think I present myself as a fairly likable person. That just leaves the last bit – the architectural fees.
I have talked and written about architectural fees a lot on this site and yet they can still be elusive to fully understand since I describe them in a fairly generic sense. I even recorded a podcast dedicated to discussing architectural fees that you can find here (019: Architectural Fees)
In the episode (and the accompanying show notes) we discuss:
Hourly: Just like it sounds – there will be an hourly chart for different level positions such as administration, drafting, project architect, partner, etc.) and you are charged that rate for the time spent.
Per-Square-Foot: I find this method unreliable and unreasonable. There are too many moving parts to assign a per-square-foot fee value to design and producing documents that could be used for bidding, permitting and construction.
Blended rate: This is something that we do more often now simply because I have more people in my office and a wider range of specific skills. Rather than $90/hour for one person and $250 for another, we have a flat rate that we charge for everyone … eases out the highs with the lows.
Combination Fees: Basically, it’s a combination of the hourly and the fixed fee. The unknown and heavily influenced client portions are set as hourly fees and the fixed “architect-control” portions of the job are done for a fixed fee.
Percentage of the cost of construction: These percentages vary by firm but generally fall in the 8% to 15% range. This is our preferred method of determining our fee but one of the things that can always cause confusion is what exactly counts as part of the cost of construction. Also, the variance between the low-end of the percentages versus the higher end is typically a result of the services provided, NOT the quality of the work.
Clear as mud, isn’t it? The reality is that at the end of the day, there isn’t much difference between all of these different methodologies, it really has to do with what sort of billing strategy brings you the most clarity, and therefore comfort.
Starting a Residential Studio jump to 21:05
Now that we have a residential studio here at my office, I am working with a small, select team of hand-chosen people, and we are going through the process of teaching them how to do residential work. This isn’t anything new – we did this all the time at my last office, but the difference here is that I have some extremely experienced people who wanted to get involved in the residential studio who have years of experience on commercial projects and they are quickly learning that (at least in the Bob Borson way of designing a house) that you have to think about how something is built at an incredibly nuanced scale much, much sooner than you would on a commercial project.
I talk about it fairly often on this site – sometimes I feel good about it and sometimes I don’t, but I basically feel like I am a very good designer and I tend to focus on the cost and constructability of my projects. There are times when I think my focus on the cost and constructibility portion limits my creative process … but then I think about what I would want if I hired someone to design and document a house for me.
What makes designing a house hard? jump to 31:16
There are all sorts of reasons why designing a house can be hard, and just because you’ve lived in a house does not mean that you would actually be good at designing one. There are nuances that separate good from great and those are the moments that architects live for creating.
- Sometimes there are mixed goals between the “shareholders” – what one person values is disproportionate to what their partner values. This is probably the most common challenge that we address during the design process.
- Failing to consider lifestyle and focusing on “checking the box” – we want everything to work in concert together. This is truly the embodiment of when a thing is greater than the sum of its parts.
- Understanding what rooms are the most important for your life – I wrote a post back in Feb 2010 called “Clients and Online Dating” back before anyone knew this site existed and that post focused on the idea of “what you want” versus “what you think you want” versus “what you actually need”. Despite the fact that nobody read that post, it comes up on every single job I have ever worked on.
- Understanding the flow – how you move from space to space. What exactly defines a space in the open-plan concepts, how do you identify spaces without actually putting four walls around it?
- Considering the land around the house – creating outdoor spaces the support the actual space they serve, the art of extending views both inwards and outwards, as well as the introduction and creative use of natural light.
If you listened in to the podcast and you are circling back here for the link to see the toilet in the window that’s above the front door of the house (which you would be able to see from the street), here you go, it’s right here.
Designing Special Moments into your House jump to 41:24
Designing special moments into a home are the things that I truly live for creating – there is almost always an interesting story behind them. I really try to create these moments as a way to give the clients something truly amazing and custom, especially when we don’t have an unlimited budget (BTW, I’ve never had an unlimited budget). I tend to focus on these moments here on Life of an Architect when I am deciding what sort of blog posts I am going to write – sometimes they aren’t even expensive, they’re just thoughtful moments and careful execution.
Here are a few of my favorite moments from some of the houses I have featured on this site:
The Front Door Experience – ramp and water feature; I would actually like to have this particular feature at my house.
Steel and Walnut Bench – bench, shelf for guests; this is simply a kind moment from the owner and how she wants to receive guests.
Not Your Typical Modern Wood Deck – this is a great example of a simple concept that was well detailed and extremely well-executed. While it looks simple, it wasn’t, and the reason I like it is the subtle nuance of how your feet sound walking from stone to wood, the temperature of the material (both visually and literally), and the role this section of deck breaks up the exterior corridor as a special moment.
The “Trust Me” card jump to 44:34
In every residential project I have ever done, I have told the client that there will be a moment where I get to play the “trust me” card – that there will be a moment where they want something that I feel so strongly about that I get to slap this card down and I get an instant win. In exchange for granting me this one card, I will not fight them on anything else. If they want something that I don’t think is a good idea, I will try to educate them on their options so that they can make an informed decision. If I do that and they still don’t agree with me, that’s where ownership comes in (their house, their decision) and every client deserves to have it on their project but if I think it’s a decision that will be detrimental to the goals we are attempting, I pull out the trust me card.
Would you rather? jump to 47:51
It’s a good thing that Andrew and I are in agreement on this one or that would have been the end of the Life of an Architect podcast.
Would you rather eat Breakfast for Dinner, or Dinner for Breakfast
I don’t think how I answer this question will influence how others and their answer, but Andrew and I are going to put it out there that the only answer that a human being would say is Breakfast for Dinner. I think we are fairly unflappable about this decision which could land me in some hot water with my wife and daughter since neither of them like breakfast foods … then again, neither of them listen to the podcast or read my blog posts.
Ep 079: Designing a House
Designing a house for someone is a wildly rewarding process and I am extremely happy to be building up a residential studio in my office. I have the best of all worlds since I still work on new project types and have the resources available to me that a larger office provides, yet I am still able to manage a small team of talented architects and work on extremely personal residential projects. The balance between managing design vision, personality types, monetary resources, and construction techniques requires more ability than casual observation would suggest, and hopefully, today’s conversation provided a worthwhile peak into the process.