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!