Architect vs Design/build

vatoflMarch 10, 2012

Hey everyone, new to the forum here and know that the info gained here is going to be indispensable.

As the title of this post suggests, we are conflicted on whether to use a design/build firm or an architect to build our reiterment home in Florida. So far we have only contacted design/build firms and the disparity in initial estimates is quite ridiculous (nearly $1million!!!). We work hard for our money and don't want to get taken for a ride. The significant variation in price is making us second guess our initial inclination to go with a design/build firm. We thought that we could save money by cutting out the architect's fees, but it now seems that some of these design/build firms are taking advantage of us managing the build out of state.

The whole notion of contracting with an architect and having contractors bid on the project is looking more and more attractive.

We are just worried that all the bids will come in over budget and we will be stuck. On the other hand we are thinking that if we let the architect know our budget, we might be able to design a house that contractors will be able to build for a lower price and we could potentially offset the architect's fees.

Is this reasonable?

Any insight will be greatly appreciated.


Some additional info. We are building near the water so the home and pool area needs to be elevated either on a stem wall or piles depending on the results of the soil analysis.

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So what's a million bucks buy you in Florida these days?
How many square feet? Does this include the land?
I have a question about managing "out of state"? You aren't using a builder from VA to build in FL are you?

    Bookmark   March 10, 2012 at 9:50PM
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Trying to build around 4500sq ft. We are not going to use a builder from VA. Since we do not yet live in Florida, we will not be able to travel to the site every week.
Any opinions on going with design/build vs architect?

    Bookmark   March 11, 2012 at 9:02AM
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Sure. Most people in the trade specialize in what they do. They generally want a "piece of the pie" so to speak. I'm not sure of southern guys, but here typically they want 10 to 15 percent of the estimated job total. That can be a significant amount of money. So the question is this- Do you want your builder to police himself? Do you want the architect firm to check on progress and workmanship? For someone in your situation, that is, not being in the state, I'd recommend the architect. He or she will generally watch out for YOUR interests. As far as letting the architect know your budget, I'd tell them somewhat lower than you plan on spending... You can't be unrealistic, but, it will give you some cushion for the unexpected. Just my opinion.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2012 at 9:39AM
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There are really far more options that a design/build firm vs an architect. A true architect costs a lot of money and can supervise the build. I personally think for most situations, this is overkill.

You can hire a designer for $1-$2 a sqft and then bid out the builds. You don't need an architect.

If you don't know prices really well, then a design/build firm seems like a bad idea. Are you really saying that the estimates varied from $1M to $2M?

4500 sqft should not be over $1M in Florida unless you are going way out there. Of course, not including the land.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2012 at 12:24PM
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You may find this to be an interesting read:

It's about a guy trying to decide whether to use a DB or GC in Colorado.

That being said, if you're out of state during construction, employing and architect would give you the advantage of having someone on your behalf to do construction observation. With a DB, it's really up to you to oversee construction.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2012 at 12:48PM
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I couldn't find a ready made plan to fit my criteria. An architect seemed like a lot of money, so I found a builder who used a draftsman to put my ideas on blueprints. I looked at a lot of model homes, thought about what I liked in my own house, paid attention to height, space, the "golden rule".
I had to fight a few times with my builder about how something was supposed to look, but I get a lot of compliments. even my cousin, an engineer, stated that my design was better than a lot of his architect friends.
So if you have specific ideas, and want to put in the time, you could have a plan to take to a few builders for estimates.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 10:45PM
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In my experience I've determined that you can definitely save $10,000 to $20,000 in architects fees so long as you are willing to pay $100,000 to $200,000 more for the cost of construction.

What do I mean?

The key problem with going the design/build route is the lack of competitive bidding for the construction phase. With almost all design/build firms, you pay them for schematic design and then for construction plans, then you can only use those plans if you hire them to build your house.

So you've paid them tens of thousands of dollars for the plans and they have you over a barrel; they know that they are the sole source bidder and, therefore, they have no incentive to give you a competitive price on the build. You either pay them the inflated price they quote you for construction, or the money you spent on plans goes down the drain. Psychologically speaking, most people won't walk away from the 'investment' they've made in construction plans (even though it is a sunk cost). The design/build firms know this.

Alternatively, you can hire an architect (or designer) on a fixed fee basis to provide schematic design and construction plans for about the same price* as what the design/build firms charge. You can then take these plans and bid them out to several contractors.

I believe you are much more likely to get significantly better pricing on average from these competing contractors than you would get from the sole source design/build firm. In fact, the savings in construction costs is likely to significantly outweigh any additional amount you pay to hire a separate architect to design your house.

*Architects fees vary based on whether you are hiring them to oversee the construction phase. You'll pay less if you just want the plans made, more if you want them to make periodic site visits and inspections to make sure work is performed according to plan. With regard to fees for plans only, I've actually found the design/build firms tend to charge no less than what you'd pay to your own architect (after all, they likely just serve as the middle man between you and an architect that they hire to draft your plans - adding a fee for the overhead, of course).

I highly recommend you buy and read this book, which deals extensively with the question you have...

"What Your Contractor Can't Tell You" by Amy Johnston.

Hope this helps!

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 12:40PM
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Good info. Thanks for all the responses. We are starting to lean more towards an architect in order to keep the builder honest.
Thanks again.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 1:15PM
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I would also suggest you ask the builders for fixed price bids (with detailed allowance amounts for various finishes such as sinks, appliances, tile, carpet, lights, etc.). Going back to incentives again, if you bid the project on a cost plus percentage fee basis (or even a cost plus fixed fee basis), the builder will not have any incentive to keep your costs down and may have an incentive to give you an artificially low cost estimate just to get the job. Again, this is all covered in that book. The best $20 investment you'll make in this whole process.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 1:36PM
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It should not be a question of cost. If you are building from out of state you must hire someone local to oversee the project for you. That person might as well be an architect since in order to get reasonable prices you need a set of design documents so you can bid the project competitively.

In this circumstance, if an architect can't save you enough to pay for his fee, you hired the wrong architect.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 8:39PM
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