Before we actually chose the land I wanted to work with an architect. The hope was that the architect could weigh in on land options and site orientation. My husband and I have strong aesthetic tastes and wanted a home that really matched our sense of style (okay his sense of style. I’m not known for having style). I also feel strongly about green building design. I’ve been an avid reader of The Green Building Advisor which posts articles about sensible energy design. There are a lot of ways to go about it, from LEED certification or Passivhaus certification to Net Zero goals. So I called a few architects with those ideas in mind.
You find out quickly that architects are expensive. Their usual going rate is approximately 10% of the final house cost. Just… think about that. Remember that custom houses are frequently on the high end of costs and you’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars. But we knew this was what we wanted to do instead of utilizing a house kit or stock house plans or builder plans.
We chose a lovely architect. He’s amiable, calm, and thoughtful. He’s also old school and draws actual blueprints still. This was endearing to us. We agreed to work together and he actually visited both our house and the land to get a sense of how we live, our space requirements, and how the house might fit onto the land. Really incredible service.
He started coming up with plans. They were nice but not quite what we wanted. I don’t blame him fully for this. I think we were having a lot of trouble balancing quality of materials, size of the house, budget, and green energy design. There are a lot of things that give a house character but create energy loss like heated space above unheated space, multiple angles in the floor plan, and excessive windows. Other things are beautiful but very expensive like stonework, turrets, or steep roof pitches. And other items were on my avoid-list because of an increased risk of structural problems like complicated roof lines and bay windows.
The first drawing provided on a beautiful blueprint
We went through several house styles and settled on one we liked best. The flow of the house was good and we liked the size and feel of the rooms in the design. I had reservations about the energy design of it but was willing to keep going with it. We made changes and he dutifully incorporated what we wanted while setting limits when he thought we were making the wrong choice. He made window schedules and detailed the door frames. We were… mostly pleased. There was still this nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite what we wanted.
We had a few of these crises during the project and had chosen to keep going forward. I felt that it was due to the medium of the project (two dimensional paper) that made it difficult for me to love it. Justin even made a model out of foamboard and cardboard so we could visualize the final design. We discussed siding colors. We worked with our architect from start to finish over about 18 months at a slow pace meeting once every month or two. We finally got to the point where we could ask for bids. Even though I had gotten to the point of realization that this house was not the one we wanted to build, I felt it was important to get through the bid process to know what it would have cost.
Justin’s model of the front side with a TARDIS for scale
I tried to get a bid from three companies. I actually never heard back from one to schedule with them to look at the plans, a second company looked at the plans but never gave us a quote, and the third one did quote us a rough estimate. Without the site work, septic, and well, the quote was actually quite reasonable. It just wasn’t the house we wanted.
I felt bad about having spent all that time with no tangible result. I do feel it was a really useful process for us but it hurts to spend that kind of money without the design of your dreams. We paid the architect fully during the project for his time and hopefully he felt he was appropriate compensated. I did chicken out and make Justin speak with him about not building the house. He told Justin he knew we were hesitating and we were making the right choice not to follow through with it. I owe him a drink and a chat one day.
So we walked away from it. We regrouped and thought about what we wanted. We went back to looking at stock plans and house kits and timber frame homes etc. I was tentatively interested in a stock plan but it seemed like giving up on something close to our hearts.
In December of 2015 we started a new search for a new architect. I intentionally decided not to let them know that we had worked with a previous architect unsuccessfully. I felt like it was the kind of thing that would scare off a second architect. I didn’t want them wondering if we were unworkable. I know there are definitely benefits to being up front about it though. We agreed to approach this architect very differently than our first. This time we have very strong ideas and came with a specific vision. We’re only a couple months into working with the new architect but we’re feeling optimistic. For the first time we’re really excited about the design.
I’ll let you know how it goes.