Architect communication problems

BridgetJones410March 4, 2013

We are suppose to be building a house this year with an architect that we have been working with since last year. Our relationship with her has been going downhill however since last year and we do not know what to do at the point we are at. We love the house she has made for us (minus one window she doesn't seem to be listening to us about), but everything else is not good. We'd welcome some ideas /suggestions on a polite and firm way to get our points across to her without making her feel "disrespected", nor for her to speak back to us in a condescending way.

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First thing I would do is insist the window be changed and not budge about it. We had to be very firm (though polite) with our architect on similar issues. To a point that I now enlist our builder, who has built several of our architect's homes and sits in with us on meetings, to deal with it when we ask for a change that he continually refuses to make. Interesting that you have had the same problem. Can you enlist the builder's help?

As far as moving forward, I don't really understand what you mean by "getting your points across." If you feel like she isn't listening to you, I'd just tell her that - say that you love the home she has designed for you, but then tell her why the relationship isn't working, and just point-blank ask her what she thinks you can do on a going-forward basis. That's essentially what we had to do. Otherwise, I'd recommend paying her for the design/single-use license and hiring someone else to oversee construction if you don't think you can have a positive relationship - no reason to make the process any more painful than it already is!

    Bookmark   March 4, 2013 at 11:00PM
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To advise you I would need to know more about the architect and the history of your relationship than is possible in an online forum.

But I caution you that if you love the house she has created you should listen carefully to her reasons for not wanting to change a window. If you want us to advise you about that you should post the plans and elevations.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 6:51AM
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Thank you both for the advice. There have been a few things that we have struggled with since the beginning, telling and showing her over and over again what we want, but she does not always listen to us. If there is a good reason for her doing what she wants she is not informing us. The window I was referring to is a pass thru from the patio to the dining room, it was a perfect size beginning of Jan. She then enlarged it and raised it to match the height of the other windows. All she said about it was "you want the window alignments to match along the top". She did not say nor did we see anything online that states that they must line up. We want a longer, narrower window that that is lower and will have a hydraulic lift opening to a 90% angle. We feel that it will aesthetically look better. We have researched this and our folding doors and decided on the company that we wish to go with for this which was another problem for her. This is one issue, there are a couple of others that we are still trying to get through to her on that we thought had been explained and decided on long ago, that is not working out as we thought.

As for speaking to our builder we would love to. We are 98% sure we would go with "her builder" but we are not allowed to talk to him or anyone else on the team. EVERYTHING is to go through her, but she feels like it is wasting everyones time when we ask questions, she can't answer them, and refuses to find out.

She also states that we are by far the most difficult customers that she has ever had which I cannot imagine unless someone really wants to go into a project with a blank check, or wants to go through the hassle of removing things afterwards.

By the way the window as she has it is posted on page 8 about 3/4 way down under "floor plan opnions" by daviddj, last post, not zoomed in but that is what she has now. It is 6x5, we want it more like 7x4 which is what it was.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 12:56PM
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Can you link to your floorplan?

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 1:48PM
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It is common for windows to have a common head height. But, there are no aesthetic laws or police which say that this is essential or mandatory. But it is certainly more expected on historical and traditional forms of architecture. Modern or contemporary architecture, on the other hand, are often characterized by windows of varying shapes, proportions and locations. So what type of house is yours?

It would help to see plans and elevations of your design.

Your description of the window, with a hydraulic lift, is a bit hard to follow verbally, but it certainly sounds unusual and out of the ordinary.

FWIW, you do sound rather strong and fixed in what you think you want. Maybe its just the way the posts are written without being able to see or hear anyone in person.

From your characterizations, it doesn't sound like this project is going well at the moment, and without some change on everyone's part, it may not go much better in the future.

Good luck on your project.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 5:25PM
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By the way the window as she has it is posted on page 8 about 3/4 way down under "floor plan opnions" by daviddj, last post, not zoomed in but that is what she has now. It is 6x5, we want it more like 7x4 which is what it was.

So this posting

And these images?

Yes, I can see why she is stating that the windows should be aligned at the top.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 5:41PM
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Sophie Wheeler

Top alignment height is important to keep consistent. It's less important the the lower heights be the same. Proportion is also important. And what you are suggesting seems out of proportion. Long term engineering would also seem to be suspect in that type of window. All reasons to listen to your architect. They aren't there to just translate what you want to paper. They are there to advise you and help to create something that is both functional and pleasing in appearance that will stand the test of time.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 8:02PM
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I'm just going to chime to get on this thread since that was my wife posting.

The window has not really been that big an issue. It's just the most recent. It's just one of many little problems none of them by themselves are big a deal, it's that when you add them all up. It has made made what we thought would be a fun experience into something not so fun. Most of the our problems are more with money issues (shocker) then design issues. When we say we can't afford something, or we want to purchase some materials ourselves (like appliances, cabinets, fixtures), or we don't want to pay for the services of one of her preferred "consultants" it always turns into an argument. Do you really *need* a MEP engineer, landscape architect and energy consultant at $10,000 a pop to build a nice home. It's got to the point where we're scared to ask questions because we don't want to start an argument.

oh well ... thanks for letting me vent :)

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 8:22PM
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Goodness gracious, take control of your project! And don't forget, or let those who you employ forget, that you are the one in control. The best architects are very opinionated and take ownership of a project. You always want that from an architect; you want that "buy-in". To a somewhat lesser degree you also want that from everyone else that works for you. That is how you get the best out of any professional, be it an architect, civil engineer, or trade person (carpenter, mason, HVAC technician, etc.). But there has to be a line that is not crossed between those who are employed and the person who is employing - the owner. For better or worse the person writing the checks and paying the bills has final authority on design and cost issues. I rightfully claim that authority when I employ professionals who help me build projects I will own, and I respectfully cede that ultimate control to those owners who employ me to build a custom project for them. When everyone enters into a project with mutual respect for each other, design and cost issues tend to work out in a non-confrontational manner.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 9:29PM
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now just to clarify, this is the type of pass-thru window we were talking about

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 10:07PM
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Gosh, this is such a wonderful design--I'm sorry to hear of the travails that have taken place. I was impressed with this house when I first saw it and I'm still impressed. It takes a rather simple envelope and a tight site and makes something very special and wonderful, that should be a long-term joy in which to live.

I wonder if it makes any sense, at this point, for everyone possible to take one giant step backwards, regroup and make a commitment for the necessary give and take that makes teamwork successful?

Teamwork is not about someone "taking control". Teamwork is about whomever can best lead in a specific situation to do so, and the other team members supporting it. Circumstances change, and so does the leadership on a true team.

That's one heckuva window, I agree. And it looks frightfully expensive, especially if costs are an issue. I love the look of it, but it certainly makes me wonder if you feel you are being nickled and dimed financially to death, why you are ready to spend whatever it takes for this window, when sliders, casements or even double-hungs would also work (and be consistent with the rest of the fenestration).

Perhaps this is just an example of you and the architect, each butting heads over a variety of issues? If so, is it time for the step-back? It really is a wonderful design which you should enjoy for a very long time.

Good luck on your project!

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 10:27PM
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Do you really *need* a MEP engineer, landscape architect and energy consultant at $10,000 a pop to build a nice home.

Not for the plans you've put on line.

My sympathies. Nobody worse to work with than an architect with a vision.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 10:36PM
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Bridget & DaviddJ-are you in NC by chance? Sounds like you're dealing with our original designer--in-house referrals/contacts for all these extra things like MEP engineer, landscape architect, energy consultant, builder, etc. You likely don't need all this. And I would run far, far away from this designer's builder. Find your own.

Here's the thing-- every time you meet with her, it costs you $$, then the changes/tweaks you request cost you $$ (by the hour that you are not there to verify--did it really take 3 hours to the tune of $225+ to change the height of the kitchen window?!?), then you meet again to review the changes you requested were made and it costs you even more $$. Just to find out that she not only didn't make the changes you asked for, but she changed some other part of the plan based on some whim she had(?!?!), which then costs you $$ to have her fix. It's a virtual money making scheme that will never end if you don't stop it right now. And all those helpful contacts she has that you just have to have to build a good quality house?--Can you say 'kickback' or 'referral fee'?

Next steps:
#1-Read your contract to see who owns the plan--you or her.

#2- If you own them, get the most recent digital CAD file in your posession and terminate your contract. If further structural changes are needed, find a new designer/architect who is willing to review the current plans for structural integrity and make the changes you desire.

#3- If she owns them, call a halt and take what you have to several builders who have experience altering plans on-site (minor alterations), get bids, check references and go see houses they have built or are building right now. Once you find a builder you have confidence in who has reviewed everything, tell her to put her final stamp on the project and release the final plans & then cut all ties. Do not take any builder referrals from her.

#4- If she owns them, and when you take them to builders you find that they are not sound structurally, you may have a potential legal leg to stand on to get some if not all your monies back. Afterall, you will need to start over with someone new at that point. Thankfully, you've been through the worst of the design process and should be able to rough draw (if nothing else) what you're looking for to a new designer/architect and have it done quickly and much more economically.

#5- Don't let her spec appliances, tile, brands, etc. That's not her job unless you let it be (and every time you make a change, she gets to charge you $$ again!). A kitchen designer with the cabinet company will help you handle appliance sizes. Use the appliance or kitchen forums here on GW for recommendations/pros & cons on the different brands in addition to going to appliance stores of your choosing. Same goes for plumbing fixtures, flooring, lighting, etc.

#6- You as the owner should be able to buy any aspect of the build yourself. Many builders make money off you buying through them--they tack on another percentage. Typically they say it covers the "insurance" on the product (i.e. if a faucet fails that you bought through your builder & their sub that ruins the cabinetry and floor below, they cover the cost of replacing everything vs you buying the faucet that failed which they will not cover at all even though they installed it). You can take that or leave it, but know that a builder will typically build that lost income in somewhere else. I'm guessing she told you to let her spec all those things as she may get a kickback or it adds to her bottom line. She probably told you that it makes it easier to get bids as everything is specced on the plans--not true. You can make your own handwritten list and have it added to the builder contract so that your interests/preferences are documented as being part of the total original bid price (or not if you decide to buy them yourself).

I know this is frustrating and I feel your pain. Good luck to you & keep us posted.

--Those are cool windows by the way!!--

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 10:57PM
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#6- You as the owner should be able to buy any aspect of the build yourself.

Then why engage a builder in the first place? Frankly, I can't imagine what kind of nebbish would tolerate the client dictating their choices of suppliers and trades whenever it struck their fancy. Uncle Lou doing the drywall and the latest EBay bargain. I'm walking!

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 8:01AM
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Sophie Wheeler

You eve own a hatchback that had the gas shocks fail? And then need a prop to keep it open while you loaded in the groceries? That is what I see with that window. One VERY VERY expensive hatchback window with two gas cylinders that will fail rather quickly due to the size and weight.

As for the other issues, the location drives a lot of those costs. Some locations do REQUIRE MEP plans. Check with the municipality. The more into red tape that they are, and you're in a location famous for that, the more money you have to spend on things like that to satisfy the municipality.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 8:06AM
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Annie Deighnaugh

My architect and I butted heads many, many times over the years of designing and building our home...sometimes he won, sometimes I did. For probably 95% of the time, I'd say the best decisions were reached. However, we always talked and discussed and communicated with reasons why we chose certain things. Our discussions were never personal and always focused on the project. We often disagreed but never disrespected the other. We also gained respect for each other's point of view and ended up with a great collaboration.

These comments are more concerning:
...she does not always listen to us...
...for her to speak back to us in a condescending way....
...If there is a good reason for her doing what she wants she is not informing us....
...she feels like it is wasting everyones time when we ask questions...

You are the bottom line, and regardless of what her vision is, it isn't going to happen without your approval and your check. So I would make that point clear that it is her responsibility to take as much time and effort necessary to explain things to your satisfaction or the project will not move forward. If she can't work with you under those conditions, then I would ask her how much she wants to license the drawings she's made for your use and move on either directly to a builder if they are far enough along, or to another architect....

And frankly, whenever I've found someone speaking to me in a condescending fashion over questions I asked them, it was often because they didn't know the answer and lacked the self confidence to admit it....not a good sign at all.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 8:55AM
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Disagreement on where we want to spend our money seems to be the cause of most of the problems. We want to spend it on things like the pass-thru, a folding door, and radiant heat. She would like to spend it on kitchen cabinets, MEP engineers, landscape architects, energy consultants, and energy certifications.

We received quotes from Solar Innovations for both types of pass-thru windows. The folding door she drew was around $3,200 the 'hatchback' type window was $3,800.

Going to Solar Innovations was an issue because it wasn't one of her builders suppliers. We though the whole point of custom home was you could get whatever you wanted. It seems the reality is you can get whatever you want as long as it's from Ferguson, Marvin or Jeld-Win, you know one of the big national companies.

FYI ... the pass-thru picture we posted is from Courtney Cox's house, so yeah her version of this is probably is really expansive.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 9:31AM
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Seems to me there's a lot of "take it or leave it" and "I'm the one in charge" talk here. Perhaps it just the personalities showing themselves, or perhaps it's just the way that the printed word sometimes comes across as dogmatic. I dunno!

As I said earlier, it seems to me this is a wonderful house and that, as in many such situations, conflict resolutions is a 2-way street since, in many cases, the cause(s) have been from all parties, not just one. For example, I remember the owner's previous posting and responses about wanting a folding door. Now its the hydraulic window.

IMO, mydreamhome's advice borders on being dangerously misinforming and damaging to any sort of homebuilding relationship. Shooting from the hip often wounds oneself first.

But it's the owner's call: reasonable conflict resolution or "it's my way or the highway". I hope, for everyone's sake, it turns out well. Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 10:01AM
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Is it possible that she's out of her comfort zone, and that's why she's pushing you away from some these things? When we've asked about some unusual things, our builder has been quick to let us know he's never done that and he couldn't quote us a cost. Because we're working with a fairly tight budget, we always dropped the idea at that point. Some other unusual stuff has either been no problem (like our impact resistant roof) or we've figured out a work-around.

FWIW, we've got a couple things in our plans that aren't available through our builder's suppliers (a custom Japanese style sliding door system and a specific wood stove) and the solution is that he's setting us up as a supplier and we will order and pay for these items and then get reimbursed (so the costs can be rolled into our mortgage). However neither of these things are a key part of the structure of the house like windows are. And if the window installer is balking at working with the materials you're asking about, that might be the problem.

There would be an advantage to you to choose among materials with which your builder is familiar where possible. You don't want anyone too far out of their depth.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 10:05AM
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In a build where you are expressing concerns for cost, it would be worrying to me as a design professional to have a client independently choosing very expensive components. Especially components that are critical to the weathertight integrity of the home and with which I and any subs were unfamiliiar with. If this was a budget is no object situation, then that's a scenario where all of the pros have the chance to do their research and educate themselves, and in the case of the subs, charge extra to work with unfamiliar products.

When budget is a concern, using the tried and true in a creative manner is the way that you meet that budget. You will always pay a premium for labor for the unfamiliar or unusual. I think this is a point that either your architect is failing to properly communicate, or else you are failing to adequately take to heart.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 10:19AM
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It can be frustrating if you feel that someone who is "on your team" is making things difficult for you, especially on what should be a fun and exciting project. I think that an architect can be a fantastic designer but not necessarily the best communicator, and sometimes it helps to ask for specific explanations of his/her reasoning to help you make informed decisions. I also can understand why you would not want to keep working with someone who is being condescending -- who wants to pay for that???

On communication: One of the things I remember from the Susanka Not So Big House books is a passage where she mentions sneaking into the design a sitting room off a master bedroom that could be a future nursery for a young couple who said they wanted secondary bedrooms far from the master. We originally were going to have folding doors as you are planning to have, our architect kept postponing working them in, and later we realized that folding doors don't match the style of our house, would require more expensive structural engineering, and are less energy efficient. I think we're getting to the right results, but we could do so with less frustration, and better communication. We are asking a lot more "why" questions now, and it has helped greatly.

PS our architect also "pushed" an energy consultant on us, it turns out we would have needed a rater in any event and the consultant is now one of my favorite people on the team. If you really want to try to save those trees maybe a landscape architect who is also a licensed arborist could help you out?

Good luck, it looks like a wonderful house.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 1:35PM
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Thank you everyone for your input, there has been something worthwhile in everything that has been said. I want to especially thank Virgil for his clearheaded thoughts.

We entered into this project a little confused about the processed and in hindsight wish we would have done some more research, but did want to get in so as not to have our son (who is 4 1/2), change schools once he started. I changed schools many times as a child and it was difficult for me. Maybe we rushed that part a little.

We chose our architect because we liked her, she kept her business small and out of her house, liked the "Not so Big House" idea as we did, and was green. We want to be energy efficient more then actually green, but they do go hand in hand. We asked for 1 thing at the very beginning a tower which she worked in, there was quite a bit of back and forth about that because we weren't happy and that went okay, eventually we got something we are happy with. Not perfect but happy enough. In the meantime our living room had large windows facing the west and backyard. We asked about opening it up to the patio and sent some pictures not knowing they were folding or pocket doors. The quote however from Marvin (which is all she uses) was out of the question for us. We did research on a few other companies without any input given as we went. The pass thru also came up along the way and our architect loved it but had no ideas for us so again we did our own research and tried to come up with ideas all of which were "um, well, I don't know"... nothing constructive or anything which we thought would happen. Last month we took a trip to PA to visit Solar Innovations and see their folding doors which we had 98% decided on. They had also priced us out for our pass thru. We still were looking for something different though and ran into the owner who after talking to for a few minutes says "oh yeah we can do that" followed by a full description of how it would work. They are a small, growing, green, leed certified company that prides itself on their customer service no matter how big or small the job is. These 3 items are the only things we have asked for. In the end it seems to be working out, but it's been very time consuming as far as getting input from her about. These designing items themselves are not the problem. It is the communication during these that was frustrating and us feeling like our comments were falling on deaf ears.

Our communication problems really went downhill when we inquired about the civil engineer. He is in a different state (is certified here though), does not know our county well and neither him nor our architect would give us an approximate cost for his services. This is part of our needing to budget and was very frustrating. My husband called several CE's in our county and got quick and easy estimates. We believed that it would be better to have someone in our county for our CE and thus the fighting began. We were not given any reason why she was so upset except that the other guy was part of "her team". It is our belief that if we do not go with her entire team she will walk away.

We have gone with the arborist she suggested, and, even though she didn't want us to, contacted him about stakes that the CE was going to place (for an additional $500) before he did his work to determine the roots, remove a tree, and do some tree preservation. We were told that he did not need those stakes in order to do his work. You all figure that one out. We are going to sign for the SE when the contract gets straightened out.

It's VERY hard to describe what occurs when we have a phone call and my husband asks a question. We rarely get a straight answer, in fact we do believe that she does not always know the answer to questions, and if so that's ok, she should just tell us and lets find out together.

The run around regarding our questions and the unnecessary costs like the $500 one above are things that are causing our frustrations to grow and when we are not able to get them resolved we just keep asking or questioning. This apparently bothers her.

We are going to try and step back for a bit as recommended, take a deep breath and really give some thought to the agenda before our next phone call. Since our roles have been reversed in this, I will take it upon myself to try and talk to my husband before hand and remind him, maybe even have a code word during the call if things seem to be getting to frustrating for him. We hope that all of these problems can be put behind us for the good of our home.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 4:44PM
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Maybe instead of handling things on the phone, you could communicate via email. That way she could research items she is unfamiliar with before giving you an answer. And everyone can re-read what they have written before hitting send. It might make for smoother communication.

This fancy window that is being proposed - will it have been NFRC rated? That would be important if you are looking for an energy efficient build.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 6:27PM
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Do you ever meet in person? I think it might be easier to communicate if you were face to face.

Honestly, if you have to use a CE you aren't comfortable with who charges far too much in order to keep her services, you might be better off letting her walk.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 7:27PM
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Prior to our last conversation we emailed a list of questions that we had, in addition to the items that she wanted to go over a couple of days in advance. She started off with a long diatribe without addressing the questions individually. Some were answered, some evaded, and some ignored during all of this. She seems to be in her element best in person, that is the best experience that we have had with her, but where she lives is inconvenient for us to do week after week, we have been there plenty of times. We have tried emails as my husband prefers that way of back and forth communication, but she does not. In fact she prefers to use the old word doc to keep track of things and we tried to get her to use google docs, but we don't think that she could figure it out.

As for the window, yes it will be NFRC rated, all of the companies products are.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 7:28PM
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Trust us, we would LOVE to find a less expensive pass-thru window. We just said we wanted a pass-thru instead of sliding door (which was on her first plan) and we sent that picture as something we liked. You know it's pretty much impossible to find pictures online that aren't high end very expensive designs. People don't post budget photos. We were expecting options in all price ranges from the architect and / or builder that never came. All we got was the 6x6 folding door option, which isn't much less expensive then the picture we sent and was actually about 2x the cost if we used Marvin

We are very open to other less expensive ideas (maybe another gardenweb post). I even through of rotating a glass front door 90 degrees and hanging with a chain. Builder kind of chuckled and said he would not build that.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 7:46PM
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From the posters' comments, it sounds like they have already been living with this for a year. If they haven't already tried the 'let's work this out together' route with the arch, then they definitely need to. It sounded to me that they had already done that and keep getting met with resistance & condescension, hence my response to get out of the situation before it costs the poster even more time, money & frustration. In any case, the poster's discussion with the arch should be well thought out before hand and they should have a plan for whichever direction that discussion takes them. From their last post, it sounds like the OPs are working on that right now. All I was offering was the bare-bones basics without any fluff. If that came across a little blunt, I apologize. But in the end, it is what it is, no matter how many pretty bows you tie on it.

Why should the OP be tied down to products for their build that are available only through the arch's builder's suppliers? And the items they are talking about are not cheap products they want to use to save money or even the latest eBay bargain, but elements they feel are integral to the feel, flow and usefulness of their custom built space (emphasis on the word 'custom'). Additionally, it does not sound like they are wanting to control every supplier choice and they have not mentioned having 'Uncle Lou' do the drywall. However, it does not sound like the arch or her builder offer any flexibility on choices outside their normal selections. The extreme difficulties another active member on this forum has had over the past year in building their Georgian home is a prime example of what can happen when you use a builder who does not move outside their comfort zone or offer flexibility. And I will point out that many of the same responders on this thread have given her advice to ditch her builder because of it. Based on the responses the OP has already gotten from the arch/build firm,it does not sound like this is the right build firm for this poster, so why should they continue down that path when there are plenty of other excellent custom builders out there who will work with the OP to make their vision happen?

For the archs/designers/builders on this thread-- I urge you to remember that not all archs/ designers/builders are created equal and not all have the same principles you do. The poster may be dealing with a group of the ones that operate below your standards & only have their own interests in mind and the client is just a means to an end. This board is a great source of information, professional advice, an awesome network of ideas and allows some levelling of the playing field when it comes to the owner's knowledge base while building. For some reason, many builders (at least in my area) absolutely hate GW--why do you think that is? Could it be for the same reasons this board is so great? Moving outside of your comfort zone is not always a bad idea. If it were, we would still be living in caves without all the amenities that are bandied about on these boards daily.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 7:50PM
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