The Secret Life of Blueprints

Although there is the temptation to save thousands of hard-earned dollars and abbreviate the design phase by reusing blueprints, purchasing “canned” plans, or hiring an inexpensive “designer”; this approach generally results in an expensive and unsatisfactory project.  Misplaced structural pieces; windows that don’t fit; code violations; time delays; backcharges and extras from the contractor; functional, mechanical, and energy inefficiencies are all symptomatic of a poor set of plans. Your home is specific and unique and its design on paper is the translation of many months of planning, coordinating, and engineering.  This planning phase is what establishes the core value of your home; and in the right hands, the planning phase is the seed for your living enjoyment, comfort, and affordability for years to come. And it is more than that; for the design and execution of these spaces also establishes the physical reality and monetary value of the building in the real estate marketplace.  A well-conceived, beautifully proportioned home, with an effective floorplan, feels comfortable, takes advantage of views, flows well, creates appropriate privacy, and is energy efficient will have a universal appeal.


Why “Canned Plans” Don’t Usually Work

But you’re not thinking that far ahead, and a set of “canned plans” at a very attractive price is seems like the least painful approach.  Unfortunately, you soon discover that few if any of these designs actually accommodate the way you live or accomplish your goals.  The plan that feels right may not allow access to the garage from the required direction; it may obliterate the magnificent view, which is the reason you bought the property; it may not have enough baths or too small a kitchen.  You may buy a set of plans only to find out that the only way it will fit on your lot doesn’t allow for solar panels or that outdoor terrace you had anticipated. In addition most “canned” plans need to be re-engineered for your locale and will need to be reviewed, reworked, and stamped by a registered professional.


Blueprints: A Legal Docmuent

So how can you get the home you want without breaking the bank on plans?  First of all, plans (commonly thought of as “blueprints”) are the communication tool to translate your concepts, needs, and wishes into graphic form at the job site.  Additionally, a well-rendered set of plans gives instruction to your contractor and his subcontractors, materialmen, and suppliers on how you want to create and fabricate the building.  “Blueprints” are a legal document binding these tradespeople to you and form a core part of their contractual obligation to each other and to you.  Thirdly, plans will be required by the local permitting authority and land use department and must be stamped by an architect and/or structural engineer.  They must be drawn to code and will be available to inspectors and all parties at the building department and at the jobsite. A well thoughtout design and efficient set of plans can be the difference between an over deadline, over budget nightmare and a joyful experience.


But how can I afford an architect?……

…Or how can you get the design that you want without breaking the bank?  The key is really to understand what it is that an Architect can provide and to have a full knowledge of how the firm(s) you consider provide services.  Secondly, an architect’s fee is really about his/her time.  Thirdly, you must have an appreciation of your own time availability and a thorough understanding of tasks required of you the client and the demands of this project.  Know your budget and communicate it.  Know those spaces, room relationships, and requirements that you need and provide a solid written “program” from which the architect can proceed. Make a preliminary list of preferred materials, products, appliances, and finishes to be included in the project.  To the extent you are armed with information and can give specific instructions to your architect you will reduce his research, design, and drawing time, resulting in an efficient, unique, and cost effective deliverable package.


A Range of Options

Architects tend to have a range and vast variety of service packages and agreements; yet they tend to boil down to two basic fee approaches.  An hourly billing may make sense for you if the services you choose are very limited such as a small project (i.e. kitchen remodel, deck addition, etc.); or a project with limited initial information such as remodeling an old house.  The other type of service approach is the fixed fee basis and this can be expressed as any of the following: sq. ft. basis, percent of construction cost, or lump sum fee.  Occasionally the two types may be combined where the design phase information is available only to a limited extent but the remainder of the process can be nailed down at some point during the project.


Limiting the Time Spent

So how do you limit the Architect’s time beyond providing preliminary information?   Much of the critical decision making both in planning and in the field must be made by you, the client.  Your willingness and availability to participate in the decision-making process can obviate the need for architect, designer, draftsman, and contractor during this part of the process.  Be prepared to work hand-in-hand with the architect and to be available or at the site for hours each week. The time you can save your architect should translate into an abbreviated design phase and move the project ahead into working drawings.  These drawings then can be produced in a more outline format for you to translate to contractors.  With this approach the architect’s time and services are reduced and limited, constructible contract documents are produced in less time with enough information for building permit, and limited competitive bidding.  The drawings provided give the basic building dimensions and sizes while specifications are provided on a wall section or another part of the drawings. In this scenario, the client takes on the role of interpreter of the drawings after permit submittal and must provide the builder and subcontractors with material and finish selections in a timely manner so as not to hold up the project.  This type of accelerated approach lends itself to contractor involvement during the earlier design and drawing phases and encourages our clients to interview prospects and bring them on board as earl as preliminary design. Although it is anticipated that a creative design process will be undertaken, hours saved during research and drawing phases, and with only “as-needed” participation during the construction phase, an architect’s fee should range from 4% to 7%.


The “Full Service” Approach

For the client with less availability interested in a more comprehensive service, our full service fee approach includes an involved design process; design development with product and finish research and selection; working drawings to include engineering, bidding and/or negotiation; and construction phase with field verification, shop-drawings and contract oversight.  We also provide a comprehensive menu of optional service from consultancies to model building etc. This type of full fee will often run from 12% to 15% and higher.


If you know what you want from the onset of architect involvement, are willing to make endless decisions regarding all aspects of the design not put to paper, and are willing to answer questions at the jobsite at the drop of a hat, you can save a bundle on architectural services!

The Questions To Ask

The Design and Planning of Your New Home

The design and planning of your new home is the most important aspect of a richly rewarding process which will establish the value of your creation.  Your role is key in creating the roadmap to a beautiful, comfortable, safe, and energy-efficient personalized home.  Once a community and individual property have been selected, you can move forward with the programming, planning, and creative phase of the project.  The complications of today’s building program are often best addressed through a team effort; so your next step in the process will be to assemble a team of experts.  Initially, there will be your architect, structural engineer, and builder.  Others such as interior designer, kitchen and bath designer, landscape architect/designer, system designer, lighting designer, media consultant, and energy auditor may follow.  Although the architect will generally be the lead professional, when this team of professionals have the opportunity to collaborate before ground is broken, you will reap the rewards for years to come.  Their blend of experience and expertise can give you insights into the wonderful potential of your home and site that you never would have considered.


The Creative Process Starts With…

The creative process starts with a strong collaboration between client, architect, and builder.  It takes a seamless participation of all parties to bring out a truly vibrant and unique design that will be your special home for years to come.  The right architect will not only have a strong creative ability; but, he will also have the technical savvy of years of experience with design and construction technology.  Architects that maintain a reputation for superior residential design do so because their buildings are stunningly conceived, technically sound, and well crafted within your budget.  As the key member of this design partnership you will need to provide your architect with a well thought out program, an idea notebook, certain relevant site information, and above all, a well conceived budget.  From there the architect will begin the preliminary design phase to create schematic concepts and bring your ideas into focus.  Once your wish list, site and budget have been translated into graphic form, the next stage will address the technical drawings – called “Contract Documents” or “Working Drawings.”  Upon completion of these drawings, work with the contractor will begin and a building permit procured.  As the project moves to the construction phase, most of your involvement may be with your builder.  At this point, the architect acts in your behalf as a consultant to assure that the spirit of the design and intent of the working drawings and specifications are followed exactly.  During the construction phase you may also with to retain your architect to oversee payments to the contractor, review shop drawings, provide more detailed interior design services, and, perhaps, provide communication with the builder.


Your Choice of an Architect

Your choice of an architect to assemble your dreams must be well-considered and most firms will allow an hour or more for this important conversation.  You should be well-prepared and bring relevant site information including the site plot and topography (if available), your program (wish list), square footage information, and your idea notebook and pictures of houses that you appreciate.  The following is a list of informative questions to ask the prospective architect:

  1. What does the client see as important issues or considerations in the project and what challenges does the architect anticipate?
  2. How interested is the architect in this project and how busy is he/she?
  3. What are the steps in the design process and which services comprise the fee?
  4. If the scope of the project changes later in the project, will there be additional fees? How will these fees be justified?
  5. What services does the architect provide during construction?
  6. Does the architecture firm have a specific design style, language, or philosophy?
  7. What information will you need to provide to the Architect?
  8. What unique qualities and experience bring to your project?
  9. In what manner might the architect provide cost evaluation?
  10. What services are basic to the project and what optional services does this firm offer?
  11. Which presentation techniques does the architect offer to explain the progress of your project?
  12. What software does the firm employ?
  13. Who in the firm will represent and design your project?
  14. What is the architect’s background with this type of project?
  15. Does the architect have a list of past clients and references?

Building a Custom Home

Are your needs specialized enough to warrant building a custom-designed home?  The custom home process is not for everyone.  An experienced architect can aid you in making this important decision.  Consider present and future needs, location and budget and allow him to help you analyze all of your requirements. To provide maximum thought to your investment, share everything you can with your architect: your thoughts, notes, sketches, photos from magazines-anything that illustrates what you like.  Tell him about your routines, the way you function in your current home.

By asking wide range of question about your goals, and architect can help you to outline the scope of your project in detail.  Doing so also sets the stage for building cost-efficiency into your project.  By setting parameters early in the process,  we can help you control costs long before groundbreaking.


Marry your wants with practicality

There are many decisions to be made in the planning stages of a building project and during construction.  These decisions will determine how your new home will function, what it will cost and what it may be worth in the future.  An experienced architect can help you make smart decisions about your home’s design that will serve you in surprising ways.  It’s critical to have a realistic understanding of the potential and limitations of your project’s budget.  An architect may propose ways of altering square footage or the type of materials to be used.  A registered architect is especially knowledgeable in marrying your goals with practicality.


Design For Your Future

If you expect to live in this home for an extended time, an architect can: provide flexible design options to accommodate your changing family size or reduced mobility as you grow older; help choose certain amenities that can affect long-term value and resale; propose ways to lower energy cost and house maintenance over the long term; even suggest features such as window options that can protect carpets, flooring, and upholstery from damaging ultraviolet rays.  At this planning stage you and your architect will analyze the big picture and design solutions with the long term, in mind.


Visualize the design

Once you define what is to be built, your architect can help you visualize the design possibilities in a number of ways.  Using rough sketches or computer programs, the architect can show you the general arrangement of your new house and its effect on the site.  While not finished construction documents, schematics are visual representations meant to show possible approaches for you to consider.  These concepts are then refined until a solution is developed that meets your needs.

After your approval, the design is developed even further.  Your architect will prepare detailed drawings through plans, elevations, sections and details to illustrate all the spaces to be built in their correct proportions.  The materials and finishes to be used are analyzed and included in the documents.

Consultants are often called upon to enhance the scope of the project depending upon individual requirements.  A structural engineer will be a part of this team.  Other professionals such as electrical engineers and systems analysts, interior designers and landscape architects may be essential to a truly successful dream house creation.


Schedule of the work

After the design phases are complete, bidding, selection and construction phases ensue.

Your architect can assist you in selecting the contractor best suited for your project.  He will help you analyze the many considerations to be taken into account during this phase of the work..  Price is important, yet time and timing, availability, reputation and relationships with subcontractors and material men are all significant.

Your architect has been through the construction process many times; during the construction process depend on your architect as much as possible.  An architect can help anticipate problems so that your decisions are followed, construction is carried out efficiently, and the project is kept on track.


Want more detail on the process?

 6 Steps To Building your Dream Home