Some jobs need architect's touch

Architects charge fees that amount to 7% to 15% of a project's total cost. But it can be worth the expense if structural changes are needed or if a homeowner wants a unique design.

April 03, 2005|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Mark Seely and his wife decided to build an addition on their 1910 farmhouse in Parkton, Seely sought professional help.

Though Seely is an architect, he wanted someone skilled in residential design who would meld old and new. And with his full-time job as senior director of capital planning and facilities at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, he felt he didn't have the time.

"But it's also the fact that I'm not a residential architect," said Seely.

Seely and his wife, Mary Beth, turned to Baltimore architect Kathleen M. Lechleiter to make sure they got a floor plan that would be functional. Equally important was Lechleiter's ability to "respect the past and scale of the house and not overwhelm it by building a McMansion," Mark Seely said.

Deciding whether to hire an architect to design a home, addition or renovation should be based on a number of considerations, specialists in residential design say.

The type and scope of the project, budget, the architect's style and experience and a homeowner's taste and preferences all have to be factored into that equation.

But as a rule, advised Lechleiter, who works on residential as well as commercial projects, clients shouldn't rely on builders to solve complex design issues.

"If the flow or the use of the room is changing, you want to hire an architect," she said.

"If you're redoing finishes, it might not be necessary. But if you're changing partitions and if there are any structural implications, like taking out stairs, it is."

In addition, Lechleiter said, architects are instrumental in helping a client achieve a design that not only works but fits them, something most clients can't do on their own and many contractors aren't trained to do.

"Quality of design is the greatest benefit an architect offers. Typically it's hard for owners to visualize what they want for themselves. The architect can represent that for them and give them the exact flow and look they want," she said.

What's more, said Seely and other architects, good upfront planning reduces or eliminates the need for change orders during construction, occurrences that not only increase a project's bottom line but may also delay its completion.

None of this comes cheaply. An architect's fees are typically 7 percent to 15 percent of a project's total construction cost, depending on the scope of the services.

On a new home, that fee represents an additional out-of-pocket expense for a homeowner, because unlike using existing plans from a builder, design is not included in the cost of the home or the mortgage.

Cost is one of the reasons that, on average, single-family homes account for only 5 percent of architecture firms' revenues, according to a 2003 survey by the American Institute of Architects in Washington.


Ninety-eight percent of homeowners use tried-and-true plans for new homes or, for renovations and additions, rely primarily on the contractor for design.

Austin Childs, a licensed architect with a residential practice in Monkton, thinks the decision not to hire an architect is often a financial one.

That can be shortsighted, he said, because working with an architect can save homeowners money by tailoring a design to a homeowner's specifications, not someone else's.

"I'm a proponent of not building spaces that you don't need," Childs said. "You don't have to have the same atrium and 4,000 square feet as your neighbor."

Tom Moore, vice president of marketing and sales at Gaylord Brooks Realty in Phoenix and one of Childs' clients, agreed.

"Many of the homes that I see being built are multigable homes and they're expensive. An architect and a builder working together may be able to advise a client that you don't need that and that it adds a lot of money to the process," he said.

Design that fit

In his own case, Moore said, after several conversations Childs designed a home that fit his and his wife's desire for a rustic house with timber beams and stone, but that also had "some foundation in traditional architecture." A set of purchased plans, he argued, would never have given them that.

Others argue that you don't always need an architect to achieve a custom design.

Howard Saslow, a Sykesville builder and pioneer of the design-build concept in the Baltimore area, said that firms such as his give clients the best of both worlds. Saslow designs custom homes for clients, relying on outside engineers and architects when needed, and then builds them.

Saslow conceded that a good architect's design will always stand out more, but maintained that high-quality design is readily available through experienced design-build companies.

"You do not need to have an architect to have a quality, well-built product," he asserted.

Further, Saslow said that while working with an architect has advantages, it can also have drawbacks.

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