Scott and Brandon discuss a home plan. (Photo courtesy: Rodwin Architecture).

Scott rodwin Rodwin Architecture/ Skycastle Construction

If you’ve been searching, but can’t find the perfect house, perhaps the solution is to remodel one or to build your own dream home from scratch. The process usually starts by finding a licensed Architect to guide you.

An Architect has several roles
Most people know that the Architect designs and draws a house. But they also:

• Conduct a Feasibility Analysis before the design begins to make sure that the property is generally suitable for what you want to do. This includes looking at things like the maximum allowable size, the permissible massing on the site, floodplain, historic landmark and 20 other critical issues.

• Help you to set realistic goals, understand the project’s constraints and see hidden opportunities. In particular, they work with you to establish a workable budget, schedule and expectations about what the process and end result will be.

• Specify the materials, products and systems and (in many cases) assist you with shopping for things like flooring, tile and plumbing fixtures. They often spend a fair amount of time educating you as to the pros and cons of each option. Not all Architects can provide expertise in all of these areas, so ask the Architects you interview if they do this or if you need to hire additional professionals.

• Assist you in choosing a builder. This can either come through a recommendation to use one, or by managing a competitive Bid among several General Contractors on your behalf. In most cases, the Architect will have valuable suggestions for qualified local builders. Sometimes the builder provides the advice on the materials, products and systems mentioned above.

A few architecture firms are design/build companies. There are advantages to this arrangement in cost and time savings, as well as single-point responsibility.

• Select of a team of consultants: most projects require a structural engineer, a surveyor, a civil engineer and a HERS (energy) rater. Additionally, projects may need an interior designer, a landscape architect, or a variety of other specialists. The more you let the Architect steer the selection of the team, the better the outcome, as they have typically worked together before.

• Manage the project: you can hire an Architect to just draw a set of plans, but the more you have them do, the greater the likelihood of a successful project. The Project Management aspect of their scope of work means that they are taking responsibility not just for the design, but for the overall success of your project.

How do you find the right Architect for you?

• Most people search websites and portfolios online, or get a recommendation by a direct personal reference like your Realtor. Also look for third party “Best of” lists and check the firm’s online ratings.

• Some Architects have a singular style and some work in whatever style their clients prefer. Find out which one they are.

• Boulder is an unusually restrictive and complicated place to build and it is critically important to hire an Architect expert in the local codes and process. In particular, our sustainability codes (green building) and our Planning & Zoning are among the strictest in the nation – they can easily stop a project in its tracks if they aren’t properly understood at the outset.

Contracts and business: There are several common types of contractual arrangements:

• Fixed Fee – if you know the full scope of the project and the work requested, you can obtain a Stipulated Sum contract from the Architect. This can be modified by mutual consent should the project scope change in the future. This is the most common type of contract with new homes (from scratch or scrape). It’s uncommon with remodels. This type of contract typically lists all of the anticipated tasks they will perform in detail.

• Hourly (also known as Time and Materials) – pay as you go. On the plus side, you only pay for the work that you need and you get to direct what work you want. On the down-side, you don’t know what the top end will be and the Architect’s fees are often more expensive than most clients imagine. If expectations are not discussed at the outset (the total estimated fees) it can lead to conflict. Note that most remodels are done as an Hourly contract as it is impossible to know the full scope of work at the outset (there are always unpleasant surprises inside the walls).

• Percentage of construction cost – this ties the Architect’s fee to the cost of the overall work (which makes proportional sense), but some clients don’t like that it appears to incentivize the Architect to design expensive construction (in reality, the Architect’s main responsibility is to design to your budget and most take that seriously), and again, you don’t know what the top end will be. Note that the percentage will typically be much higher for remodels than for new construction.

Things to look out for:

• Big egos and rigid ways of working: This is your house and your preferences should rule. A good Architect asks lots of questions and is interested in what you like, how you want to live and how you like to make decisions. At the end of the day, the best Architects are the best listeners.

• Be aware that just because something is in the firm’s portfolio doesn’t mean that the Architect you will be working with was responsible for that project. The Architect may have left the firm, and even if they are at the firm, they may not be working on your project. Note that many houses are produced by a small team (Principal Architect, Project Manager, Job Captain (senior draftsman/designer) and a Junior designer/draftsman.)

• Architects are not always great at predicting budgets. Get a builder involved during the design process to help.

• Scope creep: This one is not the Architect’s fault. Everyone wants more house than they want to pay for and an Architect is happy to help their client envision their most ambitious dreams. The most common and dangerous way this happens is scope creep – a few more feet of space, a steam shower here, a new stone wall there and “hey, how did we end up 30 percent over budget?!?” Well, you asked for it. Be clear with your Architect which rules: your budget or what you want. They will need that guidance to successfully steer the project.

Creating a custom home (remodel, addition or new) can be one of the most stressful, risky and expensive projects a person will undertake in their lifetime. But if handled correctly, it can also be one of the most rewarding and enduring. A custom home can be an expression of your personality and a support to your life in ways you might never have previously experienced. Don’t skimp on the Architecture. There’s a truism in our profession: “It costs one dollar to design it right on the drafting board or $10 to fix it in the field.”

By Scott Rodwin, AIA, LEED AP. Scott is the owner of the Rodwin Architecture/ Skycastle Construction, a 12 person, award-winning design/build firm specializing in high-end custom green homes in Boulder. E-mail scott@rodwinarch.com or visit rodwinarch.com.