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Working with an Architect for Home Design
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Architects recently geared up a national advertising campaign to enhance the image of the architect as a valuable partner in the creation of architecture. Sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.), the campaign, which is now in its second year, also expects to increase public appreciation for A.I.A. credentials and provide contact information for A.I.A. firms.

?The campaign is oriented more toward institutions, commercial clients rather than residential,? said Robert Mackfessel, A.I.A., president of the Dallas Chapter of the A.I.A. ?But the message is the same?architects offer a wide variety of services. There?s a perception out there?just bring in an architect if you want some blueprints drawn. But, an architect can help in many other ways in any kind of a problem with a building or even thinking about a building or a house or an office or a school.?

?There is also an impression that architect designed homes are inherently more expensive. I don?t think that?s true at all,? Mackfessel said. ?An architect can actually save a homeowner money. They do it through a more efficient way to layout the house so you can build less space to meet your needs. And they are often creative with using materials so that you get the most impact of dollars.?

?At the same time, a custom home is inherently more expensive than a mass produced home. Yet, if someone had $80,000 to spend on a home, perhaps, rather than going out and buying a builder home for the cheapest possible dollars per square foot, it might behoove them to spend some of that money on an architect and build a smaller home at a much higher quality.? Put another way, building an $80,000 home today to meet the needs of the homeowners just might require the creativity of an architect.

?Even builder homes will have an architect involved,? Mackfessel said. ?The plans fit a large number of life styles as defined by the client, which will be the builder or the developer.? In many of these homes, there exists an anonymous transaction between the architect, builder, seller, and the homebuyer. So, the prospective homeowner has little input, except perhaps with the color of the wallpaper or carpet.

?There is some latitude in construction of those homes if you get into the process early enough,? Mackfessel said. An architect can give some advice that will make the design built home economically effective to the homeowner?s needs. ?But if you wait until it?s all done except the paint, then there?s not much you can do.?

An architect working directly with the homeowner makes an altogether different situation. Working as a team, the homeowner and architect relationship can begin anytime along the many stages of the building or remodeling process from the initial discussion phase, to the schematic design, design development, construction documents, hiring the contractor, and construction phase. Although a full-service relationship is the more traditional procedure, architects can provide as little as a few hours with the plans for a home to be built in a development, for example.

?I think the time to use an architect is when homeowners want something tailored to their own needs,? Macfessel said. ?So, we would encourage they (homeowners) bring in the architect as soon as they start.? Meaning?before purchasing the property, if possible. An architect can help analyze the site and spot problems?with soils, drainage, vegetation, zoning, or conversely special situations like a great tree or rock out-cropping way the creek flows.

?Not everyone can afford, nor is it appropriate, to hire an architect?s full services on every project,? said Cliff Welch, A.I.A., president of the Dallas Architectural Foundation. On the other hand, architects who freely give their opinions can be inundated with requests. ?So, we created a way of doing a consultant basis, where we actually go out and charge a very nominal fee to analyze everything and give the homeowners some feedback, regardless of the scale of the project.? In some cases, it?s appropriate to write up a one or two page recommendation while, in others, the project requires additional services.

?There?s so much more to it than drawing a floor plan,? Welch said, ?especially if you?re in restoration or adaptive rescue. Often, what was done 20, 30, 40 years ago was a much higher quality than we can afford to put into many of those houses now. I?ve been into many jobs where we got there too late and they?d already ripped out all the old original cabinetry and torn out all the old wood windows. Then, when you start to look at the alternatives on today?s market that you can afford, you see that?s a big mistake. And those aren?t always the things that show up on the floor plans.?

?Most people do not or cannot understand plans,? said Dennis Stacey, A.I.A., past president of Dallas Chapter of the A.I.A. ?They may understand the generalities. But we find that a lot of our sophisticated clients really can?t understand the depth of the plans that they see.? So, the architect, like a doctor or a lawyer, benefits the clients by configuring the designs to a level that saves money and makes the home unique.

So, where do you find the architect? Start with friends or relatives who have built recently?ask them about their experiences. Call the local chapter of the A.I.A., who will provide, upon request, a membership list, helpful literature, and a copy of the 1997 Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct, which will acquaint the homeowner with the architect standards of professionalism, integrity, and competence, and their obligations to the public, the client, the profession, and colleagues. Particularly impressive is the architect?s commitment to neither accept nor make payments, finder fees, or gifts to influence a judgment in connection with a project. Their obligation to ?respect the rights and acknowledge the professional aspirations and contributions of their colleagues? also makes architects plausible resources for referrals.

?I recommend talking to three or four architects,? Mackfessel said. ?It?s very much a part of the process. And it?s in our interest for there to be a good fit?that the client knows what we are like to work with, as well, that we have a certain understanding about their needs.?

?We would like to be hired on the work that we do, on our reputation, and on the job project, ? Welch said, as opposed to the hiring being based on a fee or project specialization on the part of the firm.

If someone likes a particular house with a very distinct style, that person needs to talk to the architect of that home because only that architect is going to come up with that look, according to Mackfessel. Likewise, a realtor with extensive experience in architect-designed homes, particularly in the area that the client is looking, would be an OK source for a recommendation.

But getting friendly with architects could be very productive for homeowners because architects, as a profession, have been generally underused.

?People should actually go out and talk with some architects, and discuss their budget,? Mackfessel said. ?A good architect will tell an owner up front if their budget is realistic or not. Another way to use an architect is just to get some ideas on how to lay the house.?

?Some architects specialize in $300/square foot house and won?t look at a house unless it?s $500,000,? Mackfessel said. At the same time, there seems to be a renewed interest by both architects and clients in addressing issues in smaller, more modest homes and lots of architects willing to work on lower cost homes.

?A good architect will listen to you, the client, and translate your ideas into a viable construction project,? according to You and Your Architect, published by the A.I.A. ?Look for a good listener, and you?ll find a good architect.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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