How much for a unique house?
December 31, 2008 9:13 AM   Subscribe

How much does it actually cost to commission an architect to design an "interesting" home?

[First, let me apologize to the architects who might be reading this: my job, too, involves a lot of questions from people who misusue terminology, bear wild misconceptions, and just generally don't understand the basics. Still, I tried Googling, I swear!]

I'm curious about a ballpark figure. I'm sure the price is variable, but I wonder (aside from the obvious, like the size, the location, and the architect's reputation) what the variables are? I'm not thinking of hiring this generation's Frank Lloyd Wright or anything; I'm just curious about how much "extra" it would cost to build a one-off home that looks a lot different from the standard American styles (I've paged through a couple issues of Dwell recently and liked a lot of what they featured). If this is too broad a question, could you show me some examples of recent, interesting houses and roughly how much they cost the owner?

As you can probably tell, this is just idle curiosity. Still, I think building a home someday, somewhere is on my list of far-off life goals, and I'm starting to wonder just how far-off it'd have to be.
posted by electric_counterpoint to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The variables are endless; what it costs depends upon what you want the architect to do.

The AIA has a booklet called "you and your architect" which is vague but it answers some of the basics. For example, the section "compensating your architect" talks about different fee structures.
posted by gyusan at 9:30 AM on December 31, 2008

It wouldn't cost you anything to call any of these firms yourself and get an estimate, especially if you have an area or a piece of land in mind. They're hurting for business and will probably be glad to help you out. The answer you get would probably be more accurate than the price of a home built a few years ago during the housing bubble.
posted by Alison at 9:43 AM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Googling around tells me it's 5 to 15% of the total construction cost.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:00 AM on December 31, 2008

You can also hire a draftsman who runs his plans through a proper architect for sign-off. One of my friends works this way.
posted by troy at 11:17 AM on December 31, 2008

I agree with MrMoonPie: for a architect, very roughly 10% of the total project cost. If you already have a design in mind and don't want to do anything too far out, then a draughtsman is probably a better choice. You tell her what you want and she'll draw the plans for you for a reasonable hourly rate, with the total cost likely around a couple thousand dollars. If you need engineering work done to size footings, beams, or what have you, then you'll have to hire an engineer, at extra cost.
posted by ssg at 11:58 AM on December 31, 2008

A common misconception being made here is that the only thing an architect (or their stand-in, like a drafter or engineer) would do in the course of designing and building your home is to simply draw things. Sure, they can just do that, but as others are saying, if all you need is somebody with a pencil an architect is going a bit overboard. The architect's typical total responsibilities would also include helping to select a contractor, helping to select any additional consultants (like engineers) and overseeing their work, dealing with all permitting from the building department, and overseeing construction. The main purpose of the architect is as your advocate to make sure you get the house you want. Sometimes architects will work harder to make sure that you get the house they want, but that's more of a case by case thing.

But yeah - the total fee will end up being about 5-15% of the total construction cost. A more detailed, elaborate building will push it towards the higher end, while a simpler one will be cheaper. Sometimes building department requirements will elevate the costs.

You can also hire a draftsman who runs his plans through a proper architect for sign-off. One of my friends works this way.

Sure, but part of the fee your friend gets is probably going to the architect who stamps off the plans. That stamp carries some liability along with it.
posted by LionIndex at 12:13 PM on December 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

Be careful with the idea of an interesting home. Charlevoix has several examples of Mushroom houses. Up there they can be appraised and financed because there are others like them and a proven sales history that allows a value to be established. But if you stick one of them in another city, the appraisers won't know what to do with it and will have difficulty finding a value for it, so good luck trying to finance it.

The problem can be even more commonplace. If you place a two story house in an area that is almost exclusively bi-levels and ranches trying to reach a solid value on it can be difficult as well. Neither of these situations will be a problem with current construction loans but they may be a problem when you try to get your end loan or sell it. There are ways to overcome the problem of uniqueness but you should be aware that the current financial infrastructure views houses as commodities and commodities that aren't fungible aren't commodities.

That being said I think it's a totally worthwhile idea to get a good architect to design a house for you rather than buying a spec house whose design was crapped out and mirrored based on construction cost and time. I grew up in a house specially designed by an architect for the lot and the family within and now, as I grow older and live in different houses that aren't up to the same standards, I noticed all the subtle little things that made it a very good house.

My limited experience with architects suggest to me that the 5-15% of construction cost is how the fee structure works where I am. It could be way off from where you are but it does give you an idea of the cost.
posted by 517 at 12:18 PM on December 31, 2008

There is the cost of architectural fees (10-15% of construction costs), but there is also the inevitable additional cost associated with building a "custom" house, which you would experience even if you work directly with a contractor and a set of plans off of the internet -- you will inevitably find yourself unwilling to select materials, products, plumbing fixtures etc that are the low-end fixtures that a contractor would select for a "spec" house, and the final cost of the house will escalate. It is a million small decisions, each of them totally defensible, (get the more efficient windows? absolutely! real hardwood floors instead of cheapie composite stuff? definitely), but that will quickly break the budget, unless at the outset you can clearly explain to your architect and/or contractor the "level of finish" and assumptions about quality that you want built in to cost estimates.

A good architect (or contractor) can help you prioritize where to spend your limited dollars once they understand your priorities -- do you want to spend it on energy efficient features to reduce the operating costs? spend it on the finish surfaces that you walk on and interact with day-to-day?
posted by misterbrandt at 1:19 PM on December 31, 2008


No, really, I'm not being flip. I know an architect who charges a flat rate -- he's done enough work to know how long jobs will take him -- and he told me it would cost $3,500 to design a house.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:58 PM on December 31, 2008

TCITL, more than double that for us, through a friend, for a 2000 sq ft house. It was $5,000 to get someone to lightly modify one of their office's standard stock plans (which we opted not to do).

What you're paying a good architect for is taking your nebulous ideas and translating them into a workable reality which still is aesthetically pleasing and practical while embracing your enthusiasms. A good architect should ask you about your budget, your property, your dreams, etc. and help steer you to a good solution, or tell you that frankly it cannot be done. For example, if you dream of 3000 sq. ft. of house and have a $200,000 budget, there is almost no way that can be accomplished here in the Seattle area.

That said, there are architects who are enthusiastic about small homes/tight budget projects, just as there are those who specialize in enormous places for those who can afford them.

If you can find something in a plan book which is close to what you're dreaming of, you probably don't need an architect--find something close, and get a draftsperson to modify it. But if that's not going to cut it, you definitely need to refine "interesting" to know who you want to be talking to.
posted by maxwelton at 6:50 PM on December 31, 2008

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