Can we build it? Eh...maybe?
April 26, 2008 10:52 PM   Subscribe

Inspired by this thread; has anyone every hired an architect? How do you do it? What sorts of things should I be looking for? How do I go about finding one that specializes in "weird". (By weird I mean, not your standard mcmansion floor plan.) What do architects charge to design a building. And do they oversee the building process as a rule, or no?

I have an idea of what I want; I mean I could sketch it in a rough, childlike sort of way, but I want someone to design things in like hidden passageways and doors that open via strange triggers, and other fun stuff. (My library must open by candle, ala Young Frankenstein, for example.)

I'm still looking for the perfect piece of land, but once found I expect the building process to take a while; core rooms, then additional rooms as funds accumulate.

I don't want it to be another one of the "slap down the foundation, frame the house, poof it's done in 3 weeks" pieces of crap that are going up everywhere now. I'm willing to take a fairly long time and pay a premium to have craftspeople do the work.

But whereas I know how to buy land, I have no idea how to hire an architect, or how to qualify their quality, or what price point to expect for a design.
posted by dejah420 to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I hired an architect for our home remodel. We interviewed 3 (actually 5 people, but 3 firms I suppose). Two were friends of friends, one was a recommendation. I vaguely remember the price being a percentage of the project's total budget, and I think it varied from 8% for the least experienced guy to 15% for the most experienced.

I'm not sure how you find someone that specializes in weird, other than looking for other weird buildings in your area and finding out who designed them. Or you could contact the AIA and use their architect finder, or find the local chapter for your area and ask them for recommendations.

Its hard to qualify their quality, without seeing their work and talking to people who have previously worked with them (which you should absolutely do of course). Also, you will want to feel like the two of you can communicate well. They should totally be OK with looking at your scribbled ideas and taking them from there, that's what we did. I was a prolific scribbler and crazy-idea generator. You are going to need to trust this person to make your ideas work, so communication is key - you should feel that they really listen to you and are trying to design what you want, not what they want you to have. They should also be detail-oriented and a bit anal-retentive IMHO. The amount of detail that needs to be planned out is rather mind-boggling, and you want someone who will nail all the details down (down to the door handle choices) before.

I think that as a rule, they do "oversee" the building process (but not in the same way as the contractor does), by checking in on progress and make sure everything is going to plan. Exactly how often they check is up to you and them to decide, and determines their cost somewhat.

You will also have to go through the same gruelling, nerve-wracking search to find the best contractor. Also, ideally your contractor and architect will at best get along, or at least not want to kill each other. I gather contractor-architect relationships are often somewhat strained during projects, so make sure the two of them appear to respect each other at the start.
posted by Joh at 11:26 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

bah! that should say:
...nail all the details down (down to the door handle choices) before the project begins construction.
posted by Joh at 11:28 PM on April 26, 2008

Not really hitting your main questions, but once you get to the point of checking an architect out with previous clients, it would be a really good idea to find out how they respond to client input, given that it sounds like you have a lot of specific ideas about what you'd like.

From what I hear from people who have hired architects (and I'm an architecture student, so every acquaintance seems to pour out anecdotes), responses vary wildly, although part of that could be down to rapport between the client and architect. It sounds like a really exciting project once you find the right people (especially craftspeople who can execute it just right), though.
posted by carbide at 3:00 AM on April 27, 2008

Best answer: Joh nailed it, in terms of how you work with an architect. I'll add a clarification.

The architect will draw in that hidden passageway or special door in the plans. He/she will make sure that it is not opening up into a blank wall and that it connects between the right rooms.

However, the architect is not going to draw detailed plans for how to build that door that opens with a candle. In order to make the architects plans a reality, you will have to find an adventurous general contractor or GC (who oversees the building work and coordinates the efforts of the various workers...carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc.) And that person is going to have to have at least one extremely talented carpenter on their team who could figure out how to build that door and where to source the parts that make it work.

Begin interviewing general contractors and carpenters early and ask to look at examples of their work, especially things that they have done that are unusual and/or complicated. Preferably in person.

The architect will visit the site to make sure that the GC is following the plans. The GC (in an ideal world) will call up the architect and ask for clarifications when the plans are unclear or when they give conflicting information or when something doesn't conform to local building codes and may need to be changed. The GC will communicate what needs to be done to all of the workers involved in the project, will order the materials, will make sure that the budget guidelines are being met, etc. A good GC is worth their weight in gold and you will probably pay them that.

Best of luck and here is a lead for you on the hidden door.
posted by jeanmari at 4:34 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some more leads for you:

Architects that build smaller, more detailed and healthy homes. A good place to start when looking for someone who is used to designing custom homes well.

Resources for Questions to Ask an Architect and How to Work with an Architect.

The Breaktime Forum on Fine Homebuilding would be an interesting place to get feedback about quality GC's and craftspeople who would be experienced enough to tackle the work that you'd like to do in your area. Lots of GC's and craftspeople hang out there.
posted by jeanmari at 5:07 AM on April 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

The only stumbling block I see is "I expect the building process to take a while; core rooms, then additional rooms as funds accumulate"

Time is money for both you and the general contractor; and a job sitting around waiting for funding does not go well. You lose people who can't wait around for the next part to begin. And workers will not wait around if they don't think they'll get paid on time.

In our area, general contractors oversee the project and will check in with the architect during the building process for any clarifications. Architect fees vary wildly here as well, from a basic draftsman who will draw up plans from a rough sketch for a few hundred dollars to an original design that costs tens of thousands.
posted by shinynewnick at 6:27 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I showed this thread to my husband, who thought you might be interested in a blog written by our friends working with an architect to build an energy-efficient home in the country. (No secret panels, though)
posted by shirobara at 6:52 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know an architect who specializes in "interesting" and is building a sculpted house. Email's in my profile.

Finding a builder is your big chore. Start paying attention to houses being built and who's building them, and see whose work looks like the work you like. Building a weird house will require that you have a good relationship with your builder.
posted by theora55 at 7:20 AM on April 27, 2008

a firm i'm familiar with has a handy page of questions about finding and then working with an architect. here's the link to that page:
posted by andshewas at 8:23 AM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: To clarify; when I say core rooms, and add more later...I don't mean that the house will be unfinished.

What I see in my head, if I can try to explain it in text, is a sort of wheel/spoke plan. Because of the way we live, what would work best for our family is a sort of big ol' greatroom. Lots of light, areas for computers, game systems, TV, stereo, shelves for books currently being read or in queue to be read, lots of room for friends, dogs, cats, and the llama. Ok, maybe not the llama.

It could flow fairly seamlessly into a dining area big enough for a good sized dinner party and a chef's level kitchen. Aesthetics aren't as important to me as function when it comes to the kitchen. My current kitchen is huge, but impractical. I won't make that mistake again.

From this fairly good sized center of the wheel, I envision "spokes" that lead into the bedrooms and other rooms. It would be super cool if I could find a way to put gardens in between the spokes, or work around existing trees, or do something else that helps the house blend into the land.

So initially, I'd want to build the greatroom, the kitchen and dining, mudroom/laundry room, bedrooms and a library room (bonus points for "Put the Candle Back!" entrance) and a studio that has some kitchen elements like running water, sinks, stainless steel counters and a glass cooktop.

But planning for future additions, or additional spokes would include additional bedrooms if needed as parents and grandparents age, or family/friends end up at my they tend to do, or additional library space if needed, or whatever. I'd just like the design to be flexible enough to add on if necessary, without destroying the original look and feel.

I want to design to be as green as possible, both in building materials and in energy use. There's a ton of wind in this part of the country, and the sun is insane. I believe a house in Texas can be built to be almost zero grid energy reliant, or at least I'd like to try.

There's been a lot of great information shared in this thread, and I'm working my way through the links and resources. Thanks gang!
posted by dejah420 at 9:00 AM on April 27, 2008

I've just hired an architect. I found him on the recommendation of a friend, who had just had similar work done to what I'm considering. Mine asks a flat rate, because he's done enough of these kind of jobs that that's easiest for everybody. Some charge an hourly rate, and some do it as a percentage of the finished job (which just sounds insane to me, but that's what a contractor told me).
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:03 AM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: Oh...and for the record; I love doing stuff like tiling. I'd probably want to build time in to the plan to do stuff like that myself. I'm ok with the interior taking longer once the major construction is done.
posted by dejah420 at 9:17 AM on April 27, 2008

Best answer: You might want to pay an architect to design the very final stage home that you could envision, with all of the spokes and additions that are possible. Then have them do another drawing of the house being built in stages. That way, you will size and configure everything (electrical, heating, plumbing, etc.) for the future. Constantly reconfiguring the infrastructure, plumbing, electrical and so on will be so much more expensive in the future if you don't plan for them now.

Consider the design of multiple buildings connected by enclosed walkways or breezeways. Like pods. That might make the infrastructure of your idea easier to execute. By the way, IANAA. (I am not an architect.)
posted by jeanmari at 1:40 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I love doing stuff like tiling. I'd probably want to build time in to the plan to do stuff like that myself.

Make absolutely certain you find a builder who understands this and is comfortable with it. Many of the builders I know see this as the bane of their existence - not to say you can't do a good job, nor should you be excluded from the home building process, but it comes with its share of headaches for the guy trying to keep the schedule moving.
posted by shinynewnick at 5:41 AM on April 28, 2008

Best answer: Joh pretty much nailed it right away, but I'd like to comment on a couple things:

You might want to pay an architect to design the very final stage home that you could envision, with all of the spokes and additions that are possible. Then have them do another drawing of the house being built in stages. That way, you will size and configure everything (electrical, heating, plumbing, etc.) for the future. Constantly reconfiguring the infrastructure, plumbing, electrical and so on will be so much more expensive in the future if you don't plan for them now.

You absolutely want an architect to do this. I've worked on a number of projects that were "phased out", where we had a couple different sets of plans for different stages of the building project, and we had to keep future building elements in mind while working on the current phase. Having the final design for the house done when you start building the little pieces will help quite a bit in planning utility layouts and will most likely help save money by not locating certain things in walls that will eventually be torn out. It'll make things a lot easier on everyone to design the whole thing at first.

Some charge an hourly rate, and some do it as a percentage of the finished job (which just sounds insane to me, but that's what a contractor told me).

I've worked in a couple firms and have done things both ways. My old firm that did primarily residential construction would actually give clients the option between and hourly and percentage-based fee contract, and the projects would be very different based on what type of contract we had--not in terms of quality, but in our dealings with the contractor and what was expected to be in our drawings. I never did a fee contract at that firm, but have worked on a couple at other offices. Note that the residential firm I worked for was extremely high-end, so people had a lot of money to throw around anyway, and your architect won't necessarily be the same.

For fee based jobs, we have a contract that strictly limits our scope of work and describes in detail what services and drawings we will provide, all for a certain dollar number, which we usually base on our estimated cost of construction. If you decide you want us to do something that is not listed in the scope of that initial contract, we'll have to draw up another contract for an "additional service" to cover whatever else you need done at that time, with the contract this time probably based on our estimated hours to complete the work. This type of arrangement is pretty standard in commercial construction where the drawings are part of an actual contract between the architect, owner, and contractor (hence the term "contract drawings"). The contractors make their bids for construction based on those drawings, so anything that's left out for whatever reason is an excuse for the contractor to charge more money for "change orders" since whatever was left out from the drawings is going to cost him additional money to build. This is where the antagonistic relationship between contractors and architects comes from--contractors constantly saying "xyz is not in the drawings!" and architects saying "yes it is!" Architects sometimes feel like contractors make most of their profit on change orders, and the number of change orders in a project basically comes from how many mistakes the architect makes. Anyway, fee contracts can obviously be quite a headache, but make more sense for projects that are pretty much going to be built the way they're initially designed with a minimum of changes from the owner during the course of construction.

Hourly contracts treat the building as a constant work in progress, and there's just the one in initial contract to cover everything--if we work on the project, whether the work is in the initial scope or not, it just gets billed hourly. For the projects at my old firm, this went pretty well, because our final projects were highly detailed and it would have been ridiculous to try to accomplish them with a fee contract. Not only for us, but the owner would have to decide on *everything* in the building before going to bid--from plumbing fixtures to tile samples and layouts. Also, with an hourly contract the owners could make whatever changes they wanted to during construction without having to go through the whole bid and contract process again.
posted by LionIndex at 9:51 AM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you haven't already, I suggest you ask this question of actual architects (I mean, even besides the ones on AskMe). Educate yourself by asking the experts. Anyone registered with the AIA will have some experience and a positive reputation, so start interviewing with some AIA member firms and see where it goes from there.

One thing to keep in mind is that deals that seem too good to be true probably are; design is a skilled profession just like medicine or law, and you pay for quality.

Another thing: you don't want to hire a pediatrician to do your brain surgery. Architecture is a broad and a deep field; very few architects can do it all, so look at their prior work and if you can't imagine them designing your home based on that prior work, it's probably not going to be a good fit.

Ok, another thing: broadly speaking, there are client-focused firms that pride themselves on providing exactly what you ask for, and there are firms that pride themselves on knowing what you need better than you do. The dynamic you're looking for will really affect the quality of the home and your satisfaction with it. Some of the most celebrated designs in the world would never have come to pass if the architect had been willing to give the client what they asked for... depending on your point of view, this is why you hire an architect: to answer to needs you didn't even know you had. For instance, your spoke-and-wheel concept is a perfectly valid programmatic organization, but an architect who understands your needs and challenges your assumptions might discover a better solution than you could come up with on your own. Something to think about.

... and a last thing: most homes aren't built with cash. If you can afford to, great; but it's by no means required. If you do want to finance your home, though, know that a lender will be extremely wary of your phased building strategy. HOAs, if you're in that kind of neighborhood, will freak out, and CC&R's or the building safety department might even prohibit the sort of thing you have in mind. Also, practically speaking, the reason that most homes aren't built this way is that it doesn't work very well. The design will look unfinished until it is actually done, you'll likely suffer through multiple GCs and an endless stream of subs coming and going, you'll pay extra for temporary work that you'll tear down a year later, etc. etc. And do you want to live on a construction site for the next ten years? Better to just rip off the band-aid. You're probably better off figuring out what you can afford to finance right now and get it all done at once (or, at most, leave one wing for future expansion). Money's cheap, relatively speaking, compared to the headaches you'll suffer otherwise.
posted by Chris4d at 3:39 PM on May 2, 2008

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