back to the drawing board...

Deepest apologies to our four (now three) dedicated readers for not posting lately: weve been quite busy! We sold our house, held a garage sale when it was literally 110 degrees in the shade, rented an apartment downtown, washed our hair several times andhmmm what elseOh yeah, I nearly forgot: We fired The Architect.

Call us naïve (and indeed we may be naïve on these architectural matters), but we expected that after a year and nearly nine grand of our hard-earned money we would have working plans for our new home. Instead, we have nothing. Well, except the realization that The Architect isnt real good at designing a home that fits a budget.


We nearly (and in retrospect should have) fired The Architect back in June when it became clear that he was in a budgetary distortion zone with the design of the house. We loved what he came up with, but expressed from the get-go concerns on what it would cost to build. He assured us that he was watching cost and that part of his job was keeping us within budget. Well, OK: that sounded good. After all, hes The Architect and thats why we hired him. After several more design meetings over a few months, the house crept up in square footage from about 2,850 to over 3,000 square feet. I called timeout and insisted we talk budget since my simple calculations with his build costs showed that we were WAY over our allotted buckage. The Architect resisted at first: We havent done elevations yet! We havent chosen cladding! Call me demanding, but I wasnt interested in seeing elevations for a house I was already pretty sure we couldnt afford. After more detailed calculations, the final tally was (drumroll please): more than 100K over budget.


After a bizarre conversation where it was clear The Architect saw no problem with designing a house way out of his clients budget, to his credit, he shrunk the house on his own nickel to fit our dollars at his estimated $125-a-square-foot build cost (with an additional $15 a square foot for a higher end finish-out and cost cushion). That self-inflicted redesign was a prerequisite to not canning him. After several weeks of tweaking the redesign, he thought we should start talking to builders to get estimates on build out. This was, in part, driven by a concern he had that his cost per square foot estimate was too low. He was right. After speaking to a number of builders the build cost came in at $160 to $180 a square foot: thats $50,000 to $100,000 over budget with the higher number more likely (from a builder who can build affordable green modern). Were not willing to live without a garage and with a house without a soul (Formica countertops? Builder grade finish out? Hardie as far as the eye can see? Pooping in recycled Folgers cans? [OK, I made that last one up]). And because the current design cant be shrunk anymore, we were facing an inevitable redesign.

How does that saying go? Twice bitten, thrice shy?

I think this budget business alone wouldnt have necessarily warranted a pink slip, but the less-than-satisfactory design process left me loathing going back to the drawing board with The Architect (I was often left wondering after disagreements on cabinets, colors, cladding, flooring, green features, and whether or not we should have a garage: "Whose house is this exactly?" As one of the builders said: Its your house, but its the architects art project.).

So what happened? I dont know since we never got explanations for why stuff went wrong (these are things to be ignored, apparently, and/or blamed on the client). My theory is that while The Architect thought he had designed a house that could be built affordably (simple volumes), the crenulated design greatly increased surface area and thus the amount of cladding, windows, and framing. That greatly increased costs.


Currently, were licking our emotional (and financial) wounds, doubly deep because knowing what we know now about how much it really costs to build (and how goofy architects are), we probably wouldnt have sold our house and done this. Nevertheless, here we are, homeless (so to speak) with a hunk of land in north-central Austin. Forward we must plod.

I mentioned earlier that weve ended this design process with The Architect with nothing. Thats not entirely true. Weve earned a Bachelor of Arts in the Architectural School of Hard Knocks. Heres what weve learned during our tutelage:

1. If early in the relationship the architect does something disturbing, bail. You dont have the time (or money) to deal with it. Trust me.
2. Talk to builders early and often. Dont trust the architect to know what it costs to build. As one builder told us: Architects often think something should only cost x instead of y, but that doesnt change the fact that it costs y.
3. Strongly consider (a) working with a design/build firm [where, presumably, the hapless architect can wander down the hallway and ask Ole Hank how much a two by four costs] or (b) bringing a builder to the table during the design process. However, were getting the sense that (b) may be easier said than done with a traditional builder...
4. Dont let the architect push you around. As a friend of a friend told us while touring his architect-designed home: You have to dominate your architect. I strongly prefer not to dominate anyone, so the need to dominate is a deal breaker. In that case, when interviewing architects, ask him about how he works collaboratively. And when he doesnt deliver (this will be clear early), see #1 above.
5. Choose an architect with a real office. A real office, while it doesnt guarantee competence, at least indicates the architect is successful enough to not work on your plans on the kitchen table in competition with a bowl of Fruit Loops.
6. Choose an architect and/or a firm registered with the American Institute of Architects. Again, not a guarantee of competence, but at least theres a hoop to jump through.
7. If the architect has a huge ego, its a warning sign of troubles ahead. During a recent home tour, we congratulated the lady who architected the house. She blushed and explained that the homeowners and builder needed to share in the congratulations since it was truly a collaborative project. I nearly bawled.

Heres to hoping we dont earn a Masters degree

[photo by mwah]