Dilemma with Architect

kymikeMarch 25, 2011

We have been working with an architect for about 9 months now. We are building a passive solar house on a 5AC lot. We started the planning process last summer letting the architect know what our budget was and what we wanted to have in the house (hopefully our retirement house). Around Thanksgiving, we had final agreement and the architect then finalized plans to send to multiple builders for bids (we want to go cost plus). Bid packages were sent out to builders in early February with bids due back in early March. Three builders declined to bid, leaving us with two bids.

The day before the bids were due, the architect calls us and tells us that he has estimated the cost of our house to be about 50% higher than what we told him we were able to spend based on his rough estimates of cost/SF to build. I assume he did this because he had at least on of the bids in hands and wanted to let us down easy.

The high bid was more than double our budget of about $400,000. The low bid was 70% higher than our budget and came from a builder that the architect says he has used before. Talk about taking the wind out of our sails.

We are at a loss as to what direction to turn on this. We love the design. We don't think that we have anything outrageous in the design (2400 SF ranch with full, partially finished walkout basement) or finish (brick exterior, tile/hardwood on the main level and carpet in the basement). We have looked at homes with comparable finishes to what we specified in the plan that were at about our budget level.

We assumed that our architect should have a good idea of what a house costs to build and should have designed this within our budget or told us up front that what we wanted to build was not within the budget we set. Now we are out quite a bit of money for his time and have nothing of any real value (other than a drawing that maybe another builder could try and get close to within our set budget). We are terminating our contract with him since it appears that what he has designed will take quite a bit of rework to get back to something that is within our set budget and I can't see paying him any more money (he has offered to discount future fees by 20% as a "goodwill" gesture).

Has anyone else run into this issue? Any advice on what direction to turn? We are going to meet one or two additional builders to get another opinion on whether or not we can build this house (or similar) within our budget.

We have not contacted an attorney about this. My re-reading of our contract does not seem to place any legal responsibility on the architect to design something within our budget (though I think that there is a professional responsibility to do so).

Rant mode now off!

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Hi kymike1,

We've experienced something very similar -- twice actually. The first time was for a kitchen remodel. We had a budget of $50,000 and were working with an architect friend of ours on the design. The bid we received for the initial plan was $135,000! We were of course fairly well shocked and ended up with a much different design (that we still liked) in the end.

The second time was just recently with our custom house project. Working with a different architect this time, we solicited two bids. The "low" one was 35% over our budget, and the "high" one was 77% over the budget. We were somewhat lucky in that we were able to find some cost savings that made the low bid doable at least.

I've often wondered (sometimes profanely) how an architect with so much experience designing things and seeing what they cost to build could be so off when it comes to designing within a budget. I don't doubt that it was important to our architect for the design to be within our original budget, and we discussed that budget as it related to the plans many, many times. The best I can figure is that he views his primary responsibility as designing a house that will meet all of our needs -- one that we'll love -- and that budget concerns end up secondary. I guess it must also be a lot harder to know what something will cost (until you bid it) than it seems like it should.

In any case, I'm really sorry that your design has turned out this way.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2011 at 1:19PM
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Are you saying you received a bid of $680,000 for a 2400 sq ft plus walk-out basement? Are you talking about a total of 4800 sq ft? You could try posting the plan here to see if others can point out what parts of the design are leading to the higher than anticipated cost. Unless, of course, the higher costs are for preparing the land. Do you know where the big discrepancies are in the estimate versus the bid?

    Bookmark   March 25, 2011 at 2:33PM
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We are in a similar situation - we just got a building permit for a house we have been designing since last summer. The original estimates for our home - based on our chosen builder, and our designer, were all within our budget - Now that we are ready to build and sign a contract the numbers have come back 30%-50% higher...

I expected some upward movement but not 30%-50%. We are currently bidding it out, and while I don't think we will get back to our budget, we are hoping to get half way there.

We are not using an architect - we are working with a designer with a fixed fee. When I talked with him about our budget problems - reminding him how often I was mentioning that it was imperative throughout the design to keep cost low - he was surprised at the cost increases, but feels with some tweaks we can reign in the costs.

We are changing some of our window profiles and simplifying the layout of the windows - with no changes to the structure or floor-plan.

We are working on lowering our heating costs - limiting the radiant upstairs, getting rid of Warmboard, adding a mini-split, or using a few baseboard heaters upstairs.

We are doing simpler finishes and cabinets - plus things like laminate in the laundry room, prefab granite tops in baths, low cost tile...

Some high bids we have received the contractors assumed we were going high end based on the "look" of the house.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2011 at 5:58PM
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Most architects have lost touch reality shortly after or perhaps even before leaving college. They are never wrong, just ask them. I have dealt with several and have seen some huge boo boo's that someone else ended up paying for. I'm sure there are some good ones out there, I just have never met one.
Hopefully there are some here! :)

    Bookmark   March 26, 2011 at 3:46AM
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Our archtitect initially drew up preliminary plans. We then took those plans to about half a dozen builders to see if we were on track. They were unanimous that it would cost 20% more than we could afford to build it.

So one of our interview questions naturally became, "What can we do to reduce the cost 20%?" We got some good ideas from that. One builder pointed out that we basically had a porch on every elevation, so we eliminated the deck on the back. Another builder suggested that we put the master suite on a slab rather than have a basement under it -- another good idea. One builder actually said when asked "What would you do if this were your house?", "I'd find the other 20%." We did not need to talk to him any further. And one builder went back to all the subs who had priced the pieces of the build and said, "If we want this job, you'll have to drop your price by 10%."

Guess which builder got the job?

Since then we have been very diligent about the budget and looked for bargains everywhere. In spite of going 100% over budget on retaining walls (you just can't tell how tall they will really need to be until you dig for footers), we are just 3% over budget so far.

Initially, we were very dismayed and felt the architect had designed a house that we couldn't afford to build, so I know how you feel. I think it's a fairly univeral experience. We were fortunate that our architect's method is to test the waters with preliminary plans before putting in the hours to draw the full permit set.

Good luck to you going forward. I hope that sharing our experience will help you think of some way to cut costs that you hadn't thought of before.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2011 at 8:08AM
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We did something similar to Buckhead. I sketched a house / plan and took it to an architect to have him get it on paper so that we could start making changes and modifications. I was appalled to see this preliminary draft was $5000 --- literally getting my sketch on paper. At that point I realized it was going to be very expensive to get this plan perfect for us. We decided that we should take the plan to a few builders to have them estimate the pricing. It was over $400,000 out of our budget. We ended up scrapping the house altogether because it was just very inefficient and to save money we were going to have to cut just about everything. In addition to scrapping the house plan, we scrapped that architect too! We ended up starting over and simplifying the shape of the house, and with a different architect. This one crept up in price as well, but at least it crept up because we added features, not because the shape was expensive with no "features." Secondly, we took the plan to several builders and asked them to cut the price down by another percentage, and the builder cut his percentage down to 9%, to get the job. This all helped. We are in the same boat about retaining walls, and we went over in electrical, but I have been working really hard to find what I want, but at a better / budget price. A builder who is willing to let you do this is great.

I think it is always a good idea to take a step back during the design process, to price what you have designed. It is very frustrating to have your dream house designed, and mentally complete, only to find out you can't afford to build it!

    Bookmark   March 26, 2011 at 11:14AM
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Even if an architect is not overseeing your project, he should have experience in overseeing others so that he can spec and design it according to the budget you provided.

Assuming this is a fixed price contract, a $283 sf low bid seems out of line for typical high end finishings and structure. If this is a cost-plus arrangement of some sort, it's way, way out of line.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2011 at 3:02PM
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This is such a coincidence - as I logged into GW I was thinking that I should share our home design/budget experience in hopes that others could benefit. We're going through the same thing as other posters: spend months/years designing a plan, get a bid, fall over in a dead shock!

I have been drawing a plan based on a couple we like from internet plan sites. My sister is very knowledgeable about building and drew her own plans so she has guided me along the way. We have our land (40 acres in SC) and have chosen our builder. We put together about 14 pages of specifications based on the plans which included as many details about what we want as we could think of. We included everything from including a generator and what is to be wired to the generator, to where the light fixtures will be and what they will be, how many different paint colors we want throughout the house, flooring types, placement of every appliance and the voltage needed (i.e. 240v), the quality level for cabinetry, dimensions of trim, on and on.

The builder gave us the estimate which is about $85,000 more than I had hoped. But the specifications I gave him were all the bells and whistles - everything on my wish list. In our meeting with the builder we talked about ways to get closer to our budget.

Obviously cutting square feet is the best way. He pointed out that cutting area from the middle of the house results in more savings than just moving an exterior wall in by (x) feet. So we will take a foot out of the house front to back and another foot side to side.

We have designed a full, walk-out basement. In our meeting at our property, the builder suggested how to place the house to minimize the excavation. We moved the site back to take advantage of a knoll so that we won't have to move so much earth. He also suggested that we keep the finished part of the basement at the back of the house and not excavate for a full basement.

Another suggestion he made was to make modifications to the house to make the roof less complex. Complex roof lines waste lumber and take more hours of labor.

The point of all this is to suggest that meeting with a knowledgeable, helpful builder in the design process can help to keep plans within budget. I have learned SO much about balancing design with building costs. On this forum so many of us focus on the layout - getting the closets right, getting the laundry room located convenient to the bedrooms, making the kitchen workspace just how we want it, that we don't take into consideration what it will take to physically build the structure. And how many of us even know how to think that way? I sure didn't/don't! (When I planned our finished basement design I didn't even think about load-bearing walls! What was going to support the main level?)

Designing and building a custom home is a difficult, time-consuming, sometimes heart-breaking labor of love.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2011 at 4:12PM
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As you can see, this happens a lot. I don't think many architects actually administer the build of residential housing any more (usually this is just more money and not in the scope of the design contract), so I think they are pretty out of touch with what things cost to build.

The recommendation made to me (unfortunately after we had already gotten deep into designing a house) was to get the builder on board early in the design process. He can help you make decisions based on the cost. We have a walkout basement with a raised brick terrace. We had no idea how much this would cost to build - the structural steel costs more than my car did! This is the sort of thing a builder could identify before it gets written into the build.

Sorry about your experience!

    Bookmark   March 26, 2011 at 5:56PM
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Out of touch is right! Architects get our money up front when we're all gung ho to build our dream homes and the reality of cost hasn't actually set in yet. Our architect designed us a home that came in at 35% more than what we had told him. We were able to work with our builder to reduce the cost slighly but in the end we are building a more expensive house than we had planned. Luckily we had set a budget that was well below our financial means.
I am not that impressed with our architect at all. I cut him out of the project after we broke ground. His fees became laughable and I saw little value in keeping him around. Luckily we have excellent builder and I have been heavily involved basically taking on the role of architect. It's too bad so many of us feel screwed by our architects, it doesn't help the rep at all.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 2:07AM
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I just had to chime in the same thing happened to me. I have built recently so it was easy for me to look at his sketch and tell what was going to cost money. Money going to things we just didn't care about. So I was able to cut things without running it by my builders.

Designer/architects want to build a pretty house. Making a house pretty costs money and doesn't usually add to the function of the house. I am getting ready to build a very basic house and I tried to convey that early in the process. But he still put huge picture windows in a hallway to make the front elevation look good (opposite side to the view). Easy enough to delete but other things are not.

There are a lot of architect bashing threads over time. I am sure that there are many that take costs into account and know what things cost to build. But it generally doesn't seem to be their MO.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 6:06AM
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Very interesting thread. When we were looking for a lot, we already had am architect and landscape architect on board, but also had a builder that we were considering, but had not yet hired (we paid him a fee - he didn't ask for it - but we wanted to compensate him for his time). Mainly, because our area has such tricky topography (creeks, lots of hills and valleys), we wanted to know what hidden costs were involved in the lots we were evaluating - mainly extra grading costs, issues with set backs, etc. It was very helpful to have the builder's perspective, which was far more accurate in assessing additional grading costs.

When we started the project, we hired a builder (the same one who helped us find the lot, although we considered 2 others too) very early on. He attended all of our early design meetings, and from the beginning would give us a perspective on cost. He would not make judgments or comments on the design, but would tell us when we could make simple modifications to the design and achieve a more cost effective result (like, making the stairs straight lined instead of curved; making the garage straight instead of lots of corners). He also gave us a heads up at the beginning of the project that the type of house we were putting on paper was not the most efficient way to design a house (it is L shaped, not a rectangular box).

Even so, when we got the budget so we could do our construction loan, it was 20% over what we wanted to spend. So, we worked with our builder and architect to tweak things to get the budget down. We had a huge saving by moving the house forward, and making the basement a well instead of walk out - all my builder's idea.

I have heard about 2 situations recently where the client was clear about their budget, but the house ended up being twice the budget when bid out. In this case, the architects ended up redesigning the houses (under pressure from the client) with no charge, to make it fit more within the budget. I can see both sides of this situation. On the one hand, the architect should keep the budget in mind when designing a house. On the other hand, there is a natural tendency for both clients and architects to capture 'the dream', the wish list. Also, architects have general ideas of how much things cost, but not the detailed awareness and knowledge that a builder might have. On my project, it is the builder who is doing all of the negotiations, managing the subs, managing the budget - not the architect. The architect probably has a high level awareness of what we are spending, but we really don't go to him with numbers unless we are over budget on something and trying to manage that situation.

Now that we are 9 months into the process, things have gone pretty smoothly (with one major supplier issue that delayed the project, but is now resolved), I think because we did so much design work early on, aggressively managed our budget the entire way (both in setting it, and during the house build), made our decisions early on, have not changed much during the process. We are under budget too!

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 6:37AM
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Well, I guess that I am not alone in having these issues.

We have not approached the architect yet to ask him to redesign on his dime to fit within our budget. We may do that.

Yes, we had the lowest bid of about $680,000 to build a 2400 SF ranch with full basement (only partially finished). I will add that we also had 2 screened porches under roof as well as a pretty large Trex deck on the back of the house plus a basement under our garage (though with the fall-away lot we have, there was minimal excavation for the lower level and adding it only added about $25,000 which was cheaper than building a separate shop building). We will also have the cost of a long driveway and septic, which adds about $15,000+ to the cost.

Right now, we are talking with a couple of builders to see if they have ideas to alter the plans to get us the look at our budget level. We have looked at online plans, but it is very hard to come up with something we like since all other plans are being compared to what we have as our current design.

I will get a couple of postings up to show floor plans and elevations.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 10:26AM
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Our experience was similar to athensmomof3. We made some floorplan/elevation decisions that cost us quite a bit without realizing it. I think the way thingsthatinspire did it is ideal. We did manage to cut about 10% of our budget by cutting certain perks-outdoor fireplace, power gated entry.

OTOH, I do think architects should have some idea on budget!

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 10:45AM
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Here are pics of what we had hoped to build.

Here is a link that might be useful: House drawings

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 11:10AM
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"My re-reading of our contract does not seem to place any legal responsibility on the architect to design something within our budget (though I think that there is a professional responsibility to do so)."

Sounds like a standard AIA contract.

It is written solely to protect the architect.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 12:33PM
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What part of the basement level is not being finished? The plans show most of it finished, with just the mechanical, storage and workshop areas not finished. What is the heated square footage of the basement?

Also, do you have the north and east elevations? What I am seeing now has lots of windows and doors, which can add up fast.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 12:40PM
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About 1700SF in the basement is finished. I don't have elevations for north and east. There is a deck off of the main level on the north. About 5 windows on the east (3 upstairs and 2 in the basement). There are lots of windows and doors. Total window allowance is $30,000 (Anderson). A good portion of that is on the south side.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 4:31PM
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So, 2438 sf on the main level plus 1700 sf in the basement equals 4138 heated sf. Then you have a large covered deck on the north side, covered porches on both the east and west, lots of windows and doors and a 3 car garage with a basement. It sounds lovely, but I don't know how you expected to get all that for your original $400,000 budget.

Simplifying the basement and taking out some of the corners and angles would bring the cost down, but IMO the only way you are going to be able to get down to $400,000 is by making the house smaller. Not fun. I know some of what you are going through because we are also in the design phase, but like thingsthatinspire from the beginning we worked as a team with our architects and our builders, which meant we had to cut our square footage before our design was complete so I wouldn't fall in love with a design I couldn't afford.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2011 at 7:56PM
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Epiarch Designs

there is always architect bashing on this forum, but then again there is also a lot of contractor frustrations as well. I do have to admit, I am quite amazed though at some of these stories of being so over budget. Maybe its more of a residential thing vs my experience in commercial, but I would still assume your architects SHOULD have a better better idea of what things cost. On the flip side, sitting down with clients, it is always add add add, and never take away. They want the size, they want the views, they want the peaked family rooms with walls of glass, they want the granite everywhere. Then they see the budget and are shocked. However some of these numbers and sizes do seem like the architect should have known a large house with top end features will cost more then $98 sqft....150-170 min most likely. I deal with budgets everyday, however we also rework, negotiate and redesign items to fit budgets on our dime if things are drastically over budget due to our oversights.
It sounds like you need to have a discussion with your architects on reworking your drawings to fit your needs. However you MUST realize that you have to make sacrifices on space, finishes, and "wow" factors.
These are some differences between drafters/contractor design builders and architects. As someone mentioned, we care about the look and the feeling within the spaces. However a good arch should know how and where to spend the money, and reduce in other places. It really is too bad of the experiences some of had on here. Unfortunately it gives the profession and bad and "uneducated" rep.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2011 at 11:32AM
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I do think that perhaps you are to blame for some of this overbudget shock. Your initial budget was extremely low for a even a stock cookie cutter build of the size you indicate, while your wish list was well into the luxury range. While your architect should have told you that from the beginning, (would you even have begun the process if he was that blunt with you, I wonder?) you shoulder some of the responsibility for not educating yourself enough about what things cost. You now have to redefine your dream or come up with additional financing. The house will have to be substantially reduced in size and features to come in at your budget. It won't even be the same house. You might as well start over if you can't bring additional funding to the table.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2011 at 1:07PM
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Our biggest issue with our over budget project is that we had a builder on board who actually lowered his cost estimate after we completed the plans for permits - that was a nice bonus at the time.

Now though his price is over 33% higher and he hasn't finished getting all his numbers lined up...We won't be working with him now.

I would love to get into the $150-170 sq/ft price range as that was our original budget - We have had quotes well over $250-300 sq/ft, but have a decent proposal at around $180 we are fine tuning currently.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2011 at 1:19PM
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Epiarch Designs

other things to consider for people over budget...step back and take a look at the project as a whole. Are there things you can do to roll up your own sleeves and do some DIY to reduce costs? I know many people want nothing to do with it, but there are also plenty of tasks people can do to save money. Building isn't rocket science. Obviously there are areas that require lots of skill and experience, but there are also many areas that do add a lot to the cost, but could easily be done. Painting is usually the first area I recommend someone tackles. Often times you can also talk with the contractor and see if there are things you can do to help them and reduce some costs. Things as simple as trash and site clean up can reduce costs. A lot of times caulking or insulating can reduce costs depending on what types of insulation you select.
They also always need grunt work and labors on the site. They need people to bring them wood, sheathing, supplies, etc. If you can help them in those ways, you can help reduce time for them and typically save money as well. Just talk to them about any ways you can help, if you have time of course.
Also look at spaces or finishes/things within your space that could be done at a later date. Have a big bonus room over the garage that costs $20k to finish off? can this wait and finish 5 years down the road? Basement spaces as well...not finish some of it just yet?
Look at finishes and things such as trimmings. Wood trim is expensive. A lot of new homes go over the top on crowns and other casings and moldings. While it does look great, it is purely cosmetics. Maybe hold off on the crown moldings for a while or not at all. Maybe reduce or wait on the elaborate custom built tv entertainment cabinetry.
Point is, there are always ways to save before starting to chop up the house with its size. However that is usually the fastest way to reduce costs substantially.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2011 at 5:54PM
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Our wish list was basically low maintenance, accessible (wide doors and hallways, no steps up from garage to house) and energy efficient. We provided a budget and put the architect to work. His design was pleasing to us, but obviously not within budget.

We are working with a builder who is trying to take the flavor of the architect design and make it fit our budget. Not sure if we will take anything back to the architect for final rework or just cut our losses with him at this point.

I like the idea suggested above of choosing a builder and having the builder involved in the discussions with the architect to keep the architect grounded in reality of the cost to construct a house.

I am certain that we will end up happy with what we end up building. We are just taking a different path than originally planned to get to the final product.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2011 at 8:39AM
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A builders input would certainly be helpful but complex roof lines, angled garages, bump outs in any direction (i.e., anything other than a rectangle or square), lots of big windows and doors, etc. all add a lot of expense. Your plan looks very complicated on paper and I think that is where the expense lies.

I know of several folks who have saved money by straightening out their garages. Can you put part of the house on a slab (you say the basement will be partially finished)?

Good luck! I know this is frustrating!

    Bookmark   March 30, 2011 at 2:45PM
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Hi, after going through all the post and all the complaints and disappointment that everyone have had, I want to apologize for what has become the field of construction and architecture, disgruntle clients and overly abused consultants. I am a project manager working at an architecture firm in New York City. For future clients who's thinking about hiring an architect. Always tell them you want $100/sqft. Even if they say it's impossible just do it and insist on it. Construction cost is usually +15-20%. NO minus, just plus. It's actually extremely difficult to price a project during the design phase due to construction factors such as soil condition. Extra excavation alone can add tens of thousands of dollars to your project. Soil is usually tested prior to construction. Contractors will charge thousands of dollars for this ASTM certified test. I just want to give you guys a heads up. This is why I recommend not trusting your architect (unless you know him really well and he's really really good cause trust me, I've met a lot of architects who don't know what the hell they are doing and a bulk of my projects are fixing up their idiotic mistakes.) Make sure they have a license and even so, it doesn't mean anything. This is a 'Buyers Beware' kinda thing. WORK CLOSELY WITH ALL YOUR CONTRACTORS. Architects are usually the leaders in the project but you are the client! You deserve to know what's going on as well as being educated on the process. Be the leader of your own project and your own dream home. I only say this because finding a good architect is like looking for a good mechanic(OOPS). And don't let those stupid architectural phrases and construction talk intimidate you. ASK QUESTIONS! And I promise you that you'll get more out of your architect and you'll be able to cherish your future home more cause you were apart of the process in designing but also building it. If you guys have any questions about the construction process or the legality process of buildings, feel free to post it here, I'll come back to this website once in a while to answer your questions. It definitely pains me to see people being mistreated in the field of architecture....

    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 10:49AM
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kymike1-Please read this in time~~~
I just saw your message. Please check your local Department of Building about changes during construction. You probably had to go through plan examination in order to get your construction permit. If you make changes from the approved plans, during inspection after the construction, the inspector can deny you a sign-off and you'll have to go through another examination process for the changes (which means you have to revise your plans to match the as-built) and if they deny your changes... it's not good. You'll have to change the plans and the as-built. WHICH WILL COST A LOT OF MONEY AND TIME. Please check with your local department of buildings about this. Tell them about your condition and how you are making changes. They should be able to advise your properly. Ask your contractor and ask ask ask!!!

    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 10:59AM
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I have not yet made it to the permit stage. The plan as drawn just cannot be done within our budget. Right now, we have told the architect to stop all work on our project as we look at other alternatives. TO his credit, he did, on his own time, prepare an alternate floor plan that reduces the size of the house and eliminates one of the screened in porches. Even with this, I don't think that he ever got the message that the SF was not the real issue. The real issue was the specs for foundation, trim, garage under separate roof, etc. were all above what a good quality, custom home should be.

We may or may not go back to him to update his prior work depending on what the builders we are talking with can come up with.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 1:00PM
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Epiarch Designs

kymike1: What do you mean the specs for the foundation, trim and garage are all too high? It does not seem like these types of things would add hundreds of thousands...

    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 2:52PM
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Mike, if you like the design, you should definitely try to get as much as possible from the architect before terminating the contract.

You didn't mention the specific terms of your contract but an AIA contract would require an architect to give you a preliminary construction cost estimate at the end of the schematic design phase, at the end of the design development phase, and again at the end of the construction documents phase taking into account changes in the design and market conditions. Obviously, it would have been the second estimate that would have alerted you to a problem in time to resolve it.

Making the architect liable for bids that exceed an initial budget or a preliminary estimate isn't in any standard contract form I have seen but an owner can certainly propose that such a requirement be added to the "other conditions" section. Some states add clauses like this one: "In the event the Architect's final project cost estimate exceeds the stated cost limitation, the Owner may require the Architect, at no additional cost to the Owner, to consult with the Owner and to revise the design so as to obtain a final project cost at or below the stated cost limitation." Notice that even this kind of requirement doesn't mention the actual bid amounts.

If the architect gave you estimates that were not timely or were grossly inaccurate it would be reasonable to ask him to redesign the project at no additional cost to you, perhaps in collaboration with a contractor. It would be more effective if the two of them worked together instead of you being the go-between.

You should consider that 2 bids out of 5 requested may not be representative of the local market. It would be helpful to know why the other three did not bid. You should avoid involving a lawyer until you can demonstrate conclusively that it is not possible to build the house within 15% of the most recent budget/estimate and that the architect has refused your request to modify the design for free (or perhaps at his true cost).

Another issue you should consider is that super-insulated, passive-solar house designs often have deeper wall cavities, more insulation, larger glass areas, taller spaces, larger structural spans, and thicker concrete/masonry walls than conventional designs so they can be considerably more expensive and not all contractors have enough experience to bid them properly.

Before you terminate your contract you should get the architect's written permission to not only use the drawings for your project but to modify them, perhaps even getting full ownership of them and a set in editable format with his name removed. Consider offering him the choice of giving up ownership of the drawings or redesigning for free.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 12:18PM
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I do think the square footage in a very large part drives the cost of the house. You have added other costs inherent in your type of build, including large windows, multiple offsets and jut outs, angles, etc. which are probably there to take advantage of the passive solar aspect but also cost a lot more money. I know of several people who have cut costs of their houses signficantly by straightening out all the jutting angles and offsets. Some other cost saving measures are mentioned above. Good luck!

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 1:17PM
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Renovator8 - thanks for the observation. you are either an architect or have worked with one more than once. This is our first time working with an architect and I guess that we trusted too much in his ability to deliver a product within our stated budget amounts. Much of the design was at his suggestion (screened porches, exterior trim decorations, formal entry room) incorporating the items that we had listed as "needs" when going into the project (one story, walkout basement, 3 car garage, great room concept, kitchen pantry, accessible, low maintenance, energy efficient, recreation room sized for full size pool table).

Complicating the design somewhat over floorplans seen on many internet sites was that the entry faces west, but we needed south-facing glass for passive solar effect and the lot falls away to the north, which also has the best views. Most plans would have the front or rear of the house with the highest glass area versus the side of the house.

I do agree that the contractors chosen did not appear to have the ability to correctly bid this job with some of its designs. The builder with the highest bid (double our budget) seems to disagree with a lot of the architect's specs as the right way to construct a house. This most certainly has to be related to him beig set in his ways as to construction methods.

The architect did, on his own initiative, redraw the floorplans to a smaller size in order to satisfy his curiousity as to whether or not the plan could be downsized. The redrawn plans, however, did not consider the HOA minimum SF requirements. Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle. We continue to work with builders to see if they can take the flavor of the design and come up with something that is within our stated budget.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 3:59PM
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lzerarc - The foundation did have a few odd angles, which according to builders, increase the cost. One builder mentioned that calling for a 9'6" basement wall increased costs as standard forms are 9' and additional labor is involved in setting additional forms to allow for the additional 6".

Azek trim (or similar) was required in the specifications. Builders that I have spoken with don't like this as a material due to expansion and contraction issues. From what I have read on this forum, it seems to be highly regarded by those who have it. This supposedly added quite a bit of cost to the exterior trim over wood or vinyl-wrapped wood.

The garage placement had it over a section of the lot that falls away from the main level. This would require either a lot of fill to create a stable base. The Architect suggested that we could create a basement under the garage requiring a more robust floor for the top level (either pre-cast concrete or concrete poured over corrugated metal base with heavier-duty floor joists). This added about $20M-$30M over a typical slab floor, but was cheaper than building a separate stand-alone workshop. Also, the garage is joined to the house through a breezeway, giving the garage no shared walls or roof structure with the house.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 4:12PM
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It is important to interview the previous clients of an architect in order to understand what he/she is used to designing and at what cost. Most people tend to revert back to what they know best and your architect seems to be trying to design a cheaper version of his previous work and it didn't work out well.

Often it is the "good ideas" that run the cost of a project up and a good architect will have plenty of them to offer and then it is very difficult to give them up.

The first thing I would do is find a good independent HVAC designer and determine if the passive solar features are worth the additional cost and if they deserve such a prominent place in the design program. If the realistic pay back time for passive solar features is greater than 10 years I would consider taking advantage of modern high efficiency HVAC equipment, good insulation, and energy rebates and try to site the house to reduce costs, take advantage of views, etc.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 6:23AM
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Epiarch Designs

It sounds like your architect really failed to listen to the client. I would be disappointed as well, and do not blame you. Obviously without knowing the program and his plan, I can not comment further.

Couple things to add on efficiency....one thing to remember is your shell of your house is what separates you from the world. bad things are out there ranging from weather, wildlife, other people, etc. Do not skimp in this area. Reduce finishes or sqft if needed. But do not reduce the shell down. However do research more efficient means of hitting TIGHT construction with strong r values relative to your area's requirements. Most people jump at spray foam and think they are greatly increasing the efficiency but the costs are so high. Urethane spray foams are one of the most expensive ways to insulate the house. It does air seal the stud cavities very well though, and offers the highest r per inch, however it does not address many other things in the construction that can be addressed as a whole for a much lower price. It does not address thermal bridging, attic insulation and air sealing, sill and top plate air sealing, rim joist thermal breaks and air sealing, etc. I do not know the 'energy efficient' design, nor am I assuming anything, but most "energy efficient" plans people post are barely energy code minimums.
What I am getting at in a very long winded way is, keep the funds in the shell, the sealing, the insulation, the window (to a curtain extend). These are the only areas that will pay for itself and save you money, as well as better indoor air quality and health of your family.

I would also be curious as to your architects passive solar design elements. Judging by the little I do know of him, chances are it is really not passive solar at all. Adding windows on the south definitely does not apply. A lot more to it then that. Correctly designing and having passive solar attributes should NOT really affect the price.
If you would like you can email me your plan and I can take a look at it and see if there are any areas that jump out at me, or perhaps areas that could be changed to be more efficient energy wise and possibly reduce your budget.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 9:09AM
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lzerarc - There is a link to the house plans in kymike1's 27 Mar 11:10 posting.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 2:35PM
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One odd comment that I received from a builder was that code now requires low E windows, so that I would not get solar impact from the sun during winter anyway. Can anyone confirm that comment?

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 4:46PM
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Epiarch Designs

Just because it is low E glazing does not mean it can not be tuned for south exposure glass. You can still have low e glazing but also have other sun enhanced glazing and easily get SGHC values .45+. They should also not cost any more to have higher SHGC windows then typical "Energy star" ones, which are pretty low usually and not as ideal.
It will take some specing and working closely with the window company to make sure correct windows are used for all 4 sides of your house.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 5:48PM
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It is more difficult to find low E, high SHGC windows, but not impossible. If your builder is really having problems, have him look into windows manufactured in Canada.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 7:38PM
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Are you seriously holding up Le Corbusier, Antoni Gaudí and Filippo Brunelleschi as architects who were able to stay within their clients' budgets?

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 11:54AM
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This thread should be required reading for all aspiring architects. I wish there was a way of having them get real world construction experience. With that being said, they can play a crucial role in designing ones home. Knowing how to use an architects services can save you far more than they can cost you. Some good reading related to this is: What your Contractor cant tell You by Amy Johnston.

Renovator 8 has some wonderful insight but I take heavy exception that Passive Solar and Energy Efficiency is more expensive. Having the right Builder and/or Architect is crucial for this but it can easily be done at no additional costs compared to conventional construction.

thingsthatinspire approach seems to be going well for several reasons but one of them especially stands out to me as a builder. Paying a fee to his builder in the design process even though it was not asked for. This kind of gesture of good will has a very powerful effect. A requested bid or insistence on lowering a Fee can have the opposite result.

Very curious as to what kymike is up to.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 1:02PM
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Here is my update - we could not get comfortable that what had been designed could be built for what we had budgeted. We dropped the architect and went with a large local builder who had stock plans that we could modify to get most of what we wanted. We did not end up doing passive solar.

We have a basement poured and framing will start this week. This was an expensive lesson for us. Hopefully others can learn from our mistakes to have a builder on board during the design process to keep the architect grounded in reality as to what it actually costs to build and what materials options are.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 10:29AM
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"You didn't mention the specific terms of your contract but an AIA contract would require an architect to give you a preliminary construction cost estimate at the end of the schematic design phase, at the end of the design development phase, and again at the end of the construction documents phase taking into account changes in the design and market conditions. Obviously, it would have been the second estimate that would have alerted you to a problem in time to resolve it. "

Estimates are often just guesses until bids are received from the folks who DO the work.

"Most architects have lost touch reality shortly after or perhaps even before leaving college."

Most architects never had any touch with the reality of building costs.
They do not have a clue.

They depend on deep pocket customers who do not really care about costs (it's a;; about 'look' and maybe getting in a magazine).

Put then on an actual budget and they crash and burn very quickly (unless they manage to foist the risks and costs onto someone else).

It is not bashing, it is reality.

Write a contract that has penalties for blowing the budget and it might convince folks.

Holding an architect responsible for much of anything is not going to happen.
They have spent a lot of money on their 'model contract' to cover their (you know what).

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 7:55PM
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I have been an architect for 40 years. I have estimated the cost of many buildings large and small. When working for major clients professional estimators were required not architects or contractors. When supervising major projects I have been required to estimate the effect of every change order and if the estimate was off by more than 10% I had to submit a written explanation to the owner. I'm sure there are many architects who lack the skill of estimating the cost of a single family home but it is silly to accuse all architects of lacking this skill unless you are working with architects with little formal training or experience.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2011 at 7:39PM
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Renovator8 - Please don't read into my commentary that I think that all architects can't properly estimate costs. I am just relating my one experience in utilizing an architect to design a new house for me. Since a builder will be necessary in the process, anyway, I am suggesting involving the builder up front to ensure that the architect being utilized is familiar with current materials, building techniques and costs to build.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2011 at 10:52PM
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There's really no one-size-fits-all way to go about designing and building a home. We all share our experiences with each other for whatever it's worth. There are also disadvantages to selecting a builder upfront/before competitively bidding a project. In our case, our architect did a good job estimating and we rec'd bids within our budget range. He is usually involved in projects from conception through completion and has worked with many builders in the area, so he's been an invaluable team member for us. To me it was all about my own due diligence before hiring anybody, architect or builder.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2011 at 1:14AM
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Epiarch Designs

I come from both sides of the fence...being and architect, I can feel defensive about some of the blanket comments. On the flip side, I also have built a dozen homes. While this is not much compared to some on here, it is more then 90% of the architects I have ever met. There are a few people in my firm with real world experience, in the field. There is a signification difference between them and others, even with 20+ years experience. Based on my personal experience, I can say I think it should be a requirement for licensure that all architectural interns complete min. 1 summer worth of infield labor building something. It helps in all aspects of the design process. It helps ground them, it helps with the details, sections, etc etc etc.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2011 at 9:07AM
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"When supervising major projects I have been required to estimate the effect of every change order and if the estimate was off by more than 10% I had to submit a written explanation to the owner. "

Stop confusing large commercial projects with SF house projects.

They are normally very different in scope, risk, and issues.

In 30 years I have only seen a couple of architects that had a clue about actual costs.

Large projects can tolerate the overhead of formal estimating procedures, not so for most SF projects.

Just getting some actual bids to weight costs is often difficult, especially form the folks you would like to have do the work.

They are busy doing jobs, not chasing pie-in-the-sky projects.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2011 at 10:17AM
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brickeyee never passes up an opportunity to insult an architect so I am used to it.

A more important issue to think about is that a price from a builder is not necessarily evidence of the fair cost of a building any more than an estimate from an architect would be. Even an excellent estimate from an architect must contain a contingency for unpredictable market issues like the lack of good bidders which is an important issue when building a residence outside of a metropolitan area and why it is a difficult building type for architects.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2011 at 12:11PM
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uh-oh, here we go again...

architects bashing builders; builders bashing architects; everybody else just wishing all you little boys/girls with your overinflated and overly sensitive egos would just GROW UP and recognize that it isn't always ABOUT YOU unless you make it about you.


    Bookmark   September 20, 2011 at 8:20PM
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