Are architects a necessary part of your small house construction team?
With all the online houseplans out there complete with blueprints, all the people out there with zero construction experience designing and building their own small houses, one would think that hiring an architect is completely unnecessary. There are also inexpensive downloadable computer programs that let you design your own professional-looking floor plan. Heck architecture might even be a dying field, right? Wrong.
Don’t let all that online information fool you into thinking that building a small house is as easy as choosing an online plan and building it. In fact, some of those sites state in tiny print or as an offhanded comment, “these plans may require the approval of a licensed engineer or architect.” Aha! I knew it couldn’t be so easy. Who needs this seal of approval? Your city’s building and planning department so they feel comfortable issuing a building permit. So they know your small house isn’t going to fly away with the next snowstorm and ram into the neighbor’s house. Obtaining this seal of approval is a hidden cost that isn’t so obvious at first (like surveys and soil testing).
Architects provide a range of services and the cost incurred depends on the degree of services you enlist. Average cost estimates range anywhere from 5-20% of the overall budget, and even higher in some cases. With a sample $200K budget, the architect’s fees can potentially eat $10-40K, leaving you with $160-190K for the other costs. Since this is a substantial cost, it’s worth examining.
The all-inclusive architect package generally includes the following:
Pre-design phase: they examine the lot and site conditions, determine zoning requirements, recommend the necessary surveys and soil testing, and basically do all the legwork to determine if your project is feasible.
Design phase: they design the house according to your desire within the budget you give them. If you want the most energy-efficient house possible, they will place windows in certain areas to ensure passive solar heat gain, they will set the required amount of insulation, they will design the roof pitch just right. They also create blueprints for the builder to use.
Construction phase: they provide references for local builders in the area. Once construction starts, they act on your behalf with regular site visits to ensure that the builder isn’t cutting corners or making costly mistakes. (Yes, even experienced contractors can misread blueprints). They ensure things are staying within your budget, and if not, can recommend changes.
Post-construction phase: interior design and landscaping services, as well as arranging for any third-party energy-efficiency ratings you’d like to have done.
As you can see, the architect is your friend. Choosing to hire one depends on you. These are the considerations while making your decision:
1) What is the end-purpose of your small house? For example, if you intend to use it as a rental unit on an inherited piece of land, you might not be picky about its layout and design. A stock floor plan built to standard code could be satisfactory. In this case, hiring an architect may not be worth the investment. On the other hand, if you’re a retiree looking to downsize into this house for the rest of your life, hiring an architect will help you get the biggest bang for your buck.
2) Do you want your house to “be” something specific? I want my house to be at least 80% energy-efficient. Someone else may want it to be handicap-accessible. Another may want it to be the coolest looking house on the block. An architect can help your house “be” exactly what you want it to be.
3) What does your lot look like? If the lot is highly irregular in shape, set on a steep hillside, or extremely small, then these are all very good reasons to hire an expert.
4) Which specific services will you need from the architect? If you have the budget and also lack any homebuilding experience, it might be appealing to hand over the entire project to the architect. On the other hand, you may be an experienced contractor looking to build your own dream home. You may only need the architect for the design phase, since you can handle the rest yourself. For those of us who fall in between, maybe we could use an architect to design the house, create the blueprints, and monitor the construction site, but we are willing to do the rest ourselves, like the preliminary site investigation, interior design and landscaping.
5) Do you have a builder? And how good is he/she? Here’s the thing – many established custom home builders have a stock set of houseplans or are willing to build from any plan you choose. They may have their own team of architects and engineers who help modify any plan to suit your lot. These builders also do everything from start to finish. In my experience here in Pittsburgh, however, these large homebuilders have no experience building small urban infill houses – their preferred style is the McMansion. On the other hand, if you’ve found a top-notch builder you trust, he/she would also be capable of making small modifications to any stock houseplan, get the necessary building approvals, etc. and you would not need an architect.
Speaking of builders, modular and pre-fab small houses are making a splash (ok, a just a small splash) here in Pittsburgh. Stay tuned..