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Your Dream House Too Expensive? Try an Architect's Pre-Designed Plan

Because speed of construction is one of a builder's top priorities, the architect must also wring character and delight from stock materials that are easily obtained and produce designs that can be easily and quickly constructed by laborers who are not always fluent in English or highly skilled. By necessity, the detailing is less elaborate and the plans are less tailored than they would be in a custom-designed house.

As land costs have shot up in the past 10 years, lot sizes have shrunk, presenting builders' architects with yet another challenge. With regularity, they are asked to shoehorn a 2,400-square-foot house with four bedrooms, two stories and a two-car garage onto a one-sixth-acre or even one-eighth-acre lot and eke out privacy for neighbors who are a mere 10 feet from each other. In many markets, 16-foot-wide townhouses are no longer rare.

Firms Offer Home Plan Services

If it's not well known that architects design houses for production home builders, it's even less well known that architects produce designs for home plan services. If you already own a lot and you can't afford an architect's fees, buying such a plan could be an affordable alternative.

Most of the plans sold by home plan services are designed by individuals who may have an architecture degree but are not licensed, creative individuals who migrated into home design from other fields or home builders with a design bent. But some licensed architects do sell their designs this way.

At some services, such as Caddhomes (www.caddhomes.com), the entire portfolio of work is designed by architects. At others, such as the House Designers (www.thehousedesigners.com), many but not all of the participating firms are headed by architects.

Plans done in a studio with no site and no program might seem highly impractical. But Austin architect Donovan Davis said designers necessarily have buyers in mind when preparing such plans.

"They must reflect what home buyers want," said Davis, whose firm, Danze & Davis Architects Inc., designs houses for individuals, home builders and the firm's home plan service. "And they must be easy to build because you don't know who is building them or what their skill level is."

About 90 percent of the time, the plans need to be modified to work on the actual site and to meet the local building code requirements, Davis added.

Though his firm can do it, he advises his buyers to engage an architect who practices where the house will be built to make the modifications. Such a person will be familiar with local codes and, more importantly, can walk the site and determine exactly what needs to be changed.

A motivation for starting the firm's home plan service was to make architectural design more accessible, said Davis, who sometimes steers prospective clients away from spending several thousand dollars on a custom design from his firm and counsels them to look at a pre-designed plan instead. "I'll say, 'You're better off not to spend $5,000 on a custom design with us. Here's a stock plan for $600.' Most people say, 'I'll go with that and add a few little things. ' "

For Fairfax County architect William R. Sutton, opting for a home service plan designed by an architect can be a no-brainer.

"For about $1,000," said Sutton, whose firm, Sutton Yantis Associates Architects, designs all the plans offered by Caddhomes, "you've got a set of plans designed by serious architects that are buildable, look good and live well."

-- Katherine Salant

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And then there are the constraints that come with the territory. Although the architect designs the house, the builder may modify it. The builder determines the type and quality of the materials, although the architect can strongly influence the choices.

The scope and scale of an architect's commission and the impact of the work also differ when an individual client is involved.

With individual homeowners, the architect's impact and concern are generally limited to the adjoining properties. In many instances, owners, intent on their aesthetic preferences, "don't care if their house complements the design of the house next door or not," said Jeffrey A. Lake of Bassenian/Lagoni Architects in Newport Beach, Calif., who works with both individuals and builders.

But with builders, Lake said, the architect's concern extends through the entire neighborhood because he is designing all the houses in it -- typically four or five plans and three or four elevations for each plan. With a large development of several thousand houses, the architect or team of architects may work on the master plan, as well as the design of houses and neighborhoods, in effect designing a project the size of a small town.

For the buyer, another significant difference between the two types of architectural services is the cost. The charge for a one-of-a kind house differs from architect to architect, but most charge a percentage of the construction cost, which can be anywhere from 5 to 15 percent. For a 2,500-square-foot, $400,000 house (this figure includes only the construction cost, not the land cost), the design fees could range from $20,000 to $60,000.

A builder may be paying a comparable fee or even a higher one, but this cost will be averaged over many houses, so the cost to the individual buyer is far less. Santa Barbara, Calif., architect Barry Berkus said he started working with production builders nearly 50 years ago for just this reason. "I wanted to design houses for people who could not afford an architect," he said. "Houses can have a great influence on your psyche, and a well-designed house will enhance your life."

Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

© 2004, Katherine Salant

Distributed by Inman News Features

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