This past Friday we had our first meeting with Architect 2d (I feel like we need to hold him down and brand him with his “serial number” so he can be identified later in case he shows up in someone else’s pasture…). This first meeting included a discussion of budget, a signing of the agreement, and a couple action items for us. I still need to post about budget concerns related to resale value (still thinking things through…), but here’s the approach we’re taking: We have a “core budget” that we’re going to use to design the house. By “core budget”, I mean a budget to build a house with typical, generally-expected amenities. The core budget was guided, in part, by a guesstimate of the market price of the house or what a spec builder would shoot for in building a house. Then, on the side, we have a “gewgaw budget”. The gewgaw budget includes those things you wouldn’t likely see on a spec house but are things we want in our house. The gewgaws are also items that don’t necessarily add value to the house, at least not at a one-dollar-of-value-to-one-dollar-of-cost ratio.
Following this approach, the architect will develop the design within the limits of the core budget rather than the “full potential budget” or the “I’ll-rip-your-eyes-out-with-your-T-square-if-it-goes-over budget”. Given our personal experience thus far and based on what we’ve heard from friends who’ve worked with architects as well as architects themselves, architects are generally terrible at keeping your house within the budget. To a certain degree, this is part of the process: A good architect will be striving to get the most design bang for your buck and will be pushing the (building) envelope (and hence the budget) to get there. Therefore, you can pretty much assume that whatever they come up with, it will be higher than the target. At that point, it’s “just” a matter of how much higher and how to address the higher number (such as add more money to the mix, cut features and finishes, find a different [possibly less capable] builder, redesign, fire the architect).
When we interviewed architects, we specifically asked whether or not they consider cost during the process (“But of course!”) and how well they do once bids comes in. We heard numbers of plus or minus five percent (although I’d wager things lean toward that plus). Of course, architects are not going to tell you they suck at making those cost estimates (for example, I doubt Architect 1.0 tells potential clients he overshot our budget by 60 percent the first time he designed our house and 45 percent the second time). Therefore, putting a strong you-defined budget bound on the architect at less than the “full potential budget” or the “I’ll-rip-your-eyes-out-with-your-T-square-if-it-goes-over budget” is a good idea (although it doesn’t guarantee results...). Another good reason for clearly defining a “core budget” is to ensure you don’t lose features you really want to “value engineering”, the process of cutting amenities and finish to get the project to fit your budget. Yet another reason is having a built-in contingency fund in case things go awry during construction (for example, if concrete gets more expensive because someone’s building an F1 race track just outside of town). And finally, in terms of resale value, you get to make eyes-and-wallet-wide-open decisions on gewgaws you want that may not add resale value.
I came up with this approach by my little ole self, so who knows if it will work. On the other hand, this approach seems rather obvious, so surely someone else has done it. Nonetheless, time will tell…
Once we had an understanding on the “core budget” and how gewgaw decisions would be made, we signed an agreement with the architect, wrote him a check for the retainer, and talked about starting the design phase. As part of “programming” (figuring out what activities the house needs to accommodate), the architect emailed us a questionnaire with about 150 questions. (As an aside, I started reading a book titled “The Architect’s Guide to Residential Design” last week, and it is HOLY CRAP!!! poop-in-your-pants good. Even better, it’s clear that Architect 2d, to his credit, has read and taken to heart what is in this book. Stay tuned: I feel a haiku coming on…).
You might be saying to yourself “Holy what-the-hell-happened-to-the-Saints last night! That’s a lot of questions!” (My bride said “I hope you’re taking the lead on answering those.”). In my opinion, long, detailed questionnaires are good things. Very good things (but not necessarily poop-in-your-pants good: that’s a whole different level of good). There are lots of decisions to be made and tracked, so the process begs thoughtful documentation. As a side historical note, Richard Neutra was famous for sending clients long, detailed questionnaires. Good for him. Perhaps he was the first.
And finally, the architect asked for a copy of the survey with topography and trees. Fancy that.
So it begins again! Having gone through this process once before, it will be interesting to compare and contrast. And it’s exciting to start dreaming of our new home yet again…
[photo by mwah, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas]