Thursday, April 01, 2010

A Tale of Two Houses

$8,000 sounds like a lot of money. And it is. But let me show you one small example of what that money represents in terms that all of us can appreciate.

I had two architecture clients. Both client sets were a husband and wife team who chose me to design their new custom homes for them. Both had budgeted about $650K for the construction costs of their dream homes. And both couples had champagne tastes that had to be constantly moderated. Because although $650K sounds like a lot of money, and it is, in the custom home construction world, it doesn't go as far as one might hope.

The first couple knew exactly what they liked and what they wanted. Both husband and wife were quite opinionated, which actually made designing for them both fun and gratifying. And though my architectural fees are at the low end of the spectrum among architects in terms of percentage of construction cost, which mattered to them, they also talked to a number of architects beforehand, and determined that my design style was most appropriate to their own preferences. Selecting me as their architect was a double-win for them!

After we signed the contract, my fees were never an issue and they paid quite promptly.

The second couple only had a general sense of what they liked, and had a very difficult time both communicating their aesthetic preferences to me and evaluating anything I designed for them. I showed them lots of examples of my work and aesthetic preferences, but they seemed to prefer something else. They just couldn't tell me or show me what it was. Honestly, I'm not sure why they selected me as their architect, as they weren't communicative about any of their priorities when making decisions... though I was and am grateful that they did.

The husband of this second couple was also, like the first, quite confident... except that he was also outspoken that he could do my job if only his wife would let him. Yeah, right. That attitude will endear you to any professional you hire.

Nevertheless, as we proceeded with design, it became clearer and clearer that the second couple's champagne tastes were no match for their desires for an imported beer budget. Such that after I turned the drawings in for permitting and for bidding, they informed me that, in order to save $8,000 in architectural fees, they would cut me loose and do all the construction observation and management themselves.

This meant that Mr. Know-It-All would be up against the contractor himself, rather than relying on his architect to ensure that his dream home was built to design specifications. This also meant that although I would have literally worked four to five hundred hours for him during construction for that measly eight grand, he would have to do it all and decide it all himself.

What do you suppose happened with the two houses?

The photos above are perfect illustrations. Look at the two photos and compare them. Would it help if I told you that the two stairways were designed and detailed to be practically identical in terms of treads, risers, newel posts, rails, stringers, and balusters?

Look closely, I'll wait...

The floors in the top photo haven't been installed yet, but everything with the stairway is complete. That stairway is for the first couple, and except for the 8" square post at the bottom which varies in design with the second house, it has all the features EXACTLY as I designed them for both houses and EXACTLY as both clients wanted them.

But the second stairway does not actually HAVE them, you may have noticed.

The top stairway has a darker accent stain on the treads, as well as a few accents on the newel posts at the landing above. There are a forest of balusters, three per tread, and they are stained natural wood.

The second stairway has skinny, untrimmed, undetailed newel posts, thin railings, only two painted balusters per stair tread, and no stringer, which is the diagonal trim board running alongside the wall under the stairs.

See those differences? Again, I drew them both with the exact same details and specifications. And yet, all those changes were made by the second home's contractor to save himself some money, while the poor hapless homeowner probably doesn't even know what was compromised when he decided not to keep his architect on during construction to ensure that the contractor didn't cheat. No, I'm not going to tell him either. It's too late.

I only saw the photos of the second house very recently, after construction was complete. Except for this photo on the right, which turned out quite nice but is the only exterior the client has sent me so far, I am sick to my heart. Because I'm sure the whole house is filled with similar compromises.

I chose to be an architect because I want to design beautiful things that get built the way I design them for deserving and discriminating clients. That's why they wanted an architect-designed custom home, after all.