The owner who’s getting set to build a new house often assumes she or he will be working with an architect. But architects actually design only a fraction of the single-family homes built in the U.S. every year. High-end custom homes tend to be the ones designed by architects. Here are three alternatives, with links to in-depth articles about the first two of them:
• Stock plans: For a complete new house, a pre-designed off-the-shelf plan can be the least expensive way to go. Theoretically, you can acquire a set of plans (or, more accurately, the right to use those plans) for less than $1,000. And one startup company actually offers up green house plans for free. Stock plans aren’t practical for renovations or additions, of course. And they do limit your ability to customize the house to meet your needs — a particular issue when it comes to making the house more energy efficient and making sure the house fits your site.
• Design-build: Over the last 30 years or so, homeowners have increasingly relied companies that perform both the design and general contracting. In most cases, a design-build outfit — which may not have a fully trained architect on staff — isn’t going to provide the depth of design and service you’ll get with a licensed architect. After all, the bulk of design-build companies are owned and run by contractors rather than by architects. Many architects argue that there’s an inherent conflict of interest between having the builder also employ the designer, especially if you’re looking for the architect to help oversee the the construction phase. On the other hand, design-build projects tend to be completed more quickly and for less money than projects involving a separate architect and builder. One guideline: If you have a pretty solid idea of what you want and a lot of confidence in a particular design-builder, a design-build approach might work well for you.
* A designer supported by other professionals: This scheme can give you a great deal of control and can cost significantly less than a licensed architect. But it also can be risky. It’s the closest thing to DIY on the list of options in this article. Perhaps you’ve had some design experience yourself, or maybe you have a very good idea about how the house should be built. Many “designers” (preferably, fully trained but unlicensed architects) will detail and draw the plans with you on an ad hoc basis; if they’re good with AutoCAD (computer-assisted design) and have an updated program, they can produce plans that are every bit as professional as a those from a big firm. One big drawback is that the designer can’t stamp your project with a professional seal for structural integrity, which means you may have to hire a structural engineer to review the plans, tweak them if necessary and stamp them. The engineer’s review should cost a fraction of what you’d be spending on a licensed architect; if something goes wrong, however, the engineer isn’t likely to be as broadly or clearly liability as a licensed architect would have been. Another concern is that the designer probably doesn’t have the depth of experience of a licensed architect. Although there are some mighty fine professionals who simply haven’t taken the trouble to do the test, there’s something to be said for that credential — it’s a quality assurance, of sorts. You really don’t know whether the designer knows local codes, for example. the experience wner sketches out the design him or her self, and works with tradespeople as well as a structural engineer to ensure that the building is sound and meets code. Then, a draftsperson produces drawings on CAD. Unless your project involves a very simple renovation or addition, or unless you have a fair amount of experience working with architects previously, I’d recommend strongly against this approach. You’ll more than likely going to end up needing help from various professionals, and then waste a lot of time trying to sort through the different advice from each of them.