Sometimes You Don’t want to Build is about the honesty an Architect must default to when discussing potential projects with possible Clients.
What are we talking about? How about this: we got a call a few days ago from some nice Ms. Something or Other from east South Carolina. Here’s sort of how the conversation went. We believe it is self-explanatory:
“Hello, I’m looking for an Architect to complete my drawing for my idea for my house.”
“Oh? so you have it all worked out?”
“Oh yes, I scribbled it on the back of an envelope. 1-story. All you need to do is copy what I’ve done and then you’re done in no time at all.”
“So can you help me? I Googled things for a whole month and found these wonderful aerated concrete blocks that I want to build my house out of. You just need to show where the hold down anchors go and be responsible for that.”
“Okay. So if you have the architecture all worked out, have you considered contacting a Structural Engineer in your area, and having him do this for you?”
“Well, I’ve contacted several Architects, but none of them wants to help me.”
“Would you like me to explain why?”
“Alright. You call experienced licensed professionals like Architects, and then tell them that you spent a whole 30 days researching systems that caught your eye and then you scratched out a not-to-scale plan on the back of an envelope, and now you believe you have done 90% of the Architect’s job, so you won’t have to pay the Architect much to take legal responsibility for an exotic structural system, right down to specifying the most critical attachment points. Does that about sum it up?
“Why, yes, it does.”
“Okay. Let’s put this another way: suppose you needed a heart operation. Would you research the procedure you are going to have online for perhaps a day or two, think about it, do some scribbling, then go to your surgeon’s office with your sketch, then tell your Doctor how you want him to perform the operation and how you think it could be done better and faster, so he should charge you a lot less than he and his hospital normally do?”
“Well of course not.”
“I would hope not. You are doing the equivalent of that when you approach Architects this way.”
“Oh my, I had no idea.”
“Yes ma’am. No Architect is going to be interested in assuming 100% of the liability for your project, being paid for 10% of what they would normally charge, then have to spend hours trying to talk you out of what you have scribbled and why the front porch steps you drew 18″ wide by 2′ long won’t really work to get you from the house down to the ground, and why the 12″ wide front door you drew won’t allow you to walk through it. It is a classic mistake, by lay people: drawing things about half of the size (or less) than its real dimensions. No self-respecting Architect is going to want to go through the time it’s going to take to get this on-track. Also, there is a huge misconception that all you need to build a house is a floor plan. That is incorrect. You also need a Site Plan, Elevations, Building Sections, Wall Sections, many details, Finish Schedule, Door Schedule, Detail Plans, Cabinetry, Electrical, Structural Foundation, Structural Framing, Specifications and more. It doesn’t get done in a day. It’s a very complex task: designing a home. And while we’re at it, let’s do the budget analysis. How much money do you think this new house is going to cost you to build?”
“Well, there was a handyman down the street fixing a neighbor’s back porch door and he said he would build my new home for $85 per square foot.”
“Ma’am, I can tell you that is not a realistic cost of construction for a new house, especially one all on one level. Did you show this person your plans?”
“Excuse me? What plans?”
“I thought you said you had this drawn all out?”
“Well, not exactly. I sort of doodled on the back of this envelope that had my power bill in it…”
“Okay, so this handyman, did you show him that?’
“Well, er, no.”
“So what is this Builder person basing his price on?
“Oh, I don’t know…”
“Ma’am, what size home and what construction budget are you planning?”
“Well, I was thinking all one story, 1,100 square feet and $100,000.”
“Alright, thank you. Your budget = $90 per square foot. That’s still far from reality. In this part of the USA, a custom home project (not including fancy construction systems) go from perhaps a low of $165 per square foot, to $200 per square foot, to well over $300 per square foot, depending on what you want and what you can afford. Most people think they are going to get their dream home for $100 per square foot and that is totally unrealistic and you are even below that. I’m sorry to tell you: it’s just not going to happen. May I ask what is your economic condition, savings and such?”
“Well, we’re retired, my husband takes lots of pills these days, we have no savings at all and live from social security check to check. We live in a mobile home.”
“Okay. Ma’am, I hate to be the one to tell you. You really should not be even thinking about having a custom home designed and built for you. You are going to end up in so much financial trouble, your dream will turn into a nightmare and you’re not going to have any way out of it. DO NOT DO THIS, PLEASE.”
“Oh, but I’ve cleared the land and installed the septic system…”
“STOP. Don’t invest any more of your hard-won income into that land. No one else is going to care. Sell that land now, and think about selling your mobile home, then consult a local Real Estate Broker and find modest homes in your area that you can afford and enjoy the rest of your life there.”
“But don’t you want to design my new house?”
“Yes ma’am, I would love to design your new house, but I would feel terrible taking your money, knowing in my heart that you’re never going to be able to afford to build it and I would have taken your money for no good advantage to your benefit. I wouldn’t be able to sleep well at night if I did that.”
“Well, what about those modular cedar homes with large glass windows?”
“Please listen carefully to me. I’m not trying to be rude. You’re not going to be able afford to build a home. And if you think that you’re going to go on Google and find things that my 52 years of architectural experience haven’t already found and either discarded or improved upon, you are kidding yourself. Just like if you got a DUI ticket, you wouldn’t go into your Attorney’s office, with printouts of ways you want him to represent you to the local judge, to keep you out of jail. Same thing. Your little bit of Googling is not going to replace 21 years of formal education, 10 additional years of internship, multiple licenses and decades of experience designing projects in the real world. Just like when Arthur Clarke responded to his fans trying to sell him ideas for science fiction stories: “I’ve already thought of it.” Please do not do this. You’re not going to outsmart any of the Contractors who might build something for you, or even your Handyman down the street (who may not have a license to build anything for anyone for $85 or whatever). And by the way, the most expensive way to build a house is all on one floor.”
“Why would that be?”
“Because you have twice the roof and twice the foundation of a 2-story house, which is by far more economical to build.”
“But I don’t want a 2-story house.”
“Yes, ma’am. I understand. Which is why you can’t afford to build this. But fortunately, in this market, a Real Estate Broker can probably find you several options for one-story homes that you might be able to afford, and they all come with a known, fixed price, that you can often negotiate lower, which you really can’t do with a custom made house.
“Because, your Builder has no incentive to discount his work or materials. Construction is on the rise and Builders are in demand. They are not going to build you your dream home in the most expensive way possible for the unbelievable price of $85 to $90 per square foot, when they are building mansions for other people for over $200 per square foot. Does that make sense?”
“Well, I suppose.”
“Look, I really hate to pop the dream you have, but the worst thing I or anyone else could do to you would be to feed your illusions of getting a spectacular dream home for half or one-third of the going construction rate. The sooner you understand your vulnerable economic position, the better off you’re going to be. I really am sorry, but you need to call a Real Estate Broker, not an Architect at this point. Here I am turning down work, but that’s the ethical thing to do.”
“I appreciate your honesty.”
“Yes ma’am. You’re welcome. I feel terrible, if I’ve in any way offended you, explaining the realities of your situation…”
“No. I needed to hear that. My husband’s been telling me I’m crazy.”
(chuckle) “I wouldn’t say that. Perhaps simply wanting what you want and wanting to have the best possible circumstances possible for you and your husband. But you know what? Construction has a nasty way of becoming more expensive in the way of unknown surprises. What you think your costs are going to be will end up being far more, and with what you’ve told me about your financial situation, you can’t handle that. So, once again, for your own good, don’t attempt to build something new at this point. I wish you the best.”
That’s it. Was the Architect mean? Rude? Or was he telling the caller what she needed to hear to jolt her out of a trajectory that could have killed her and her family? Hopefully she has called that Real Estate Broker and sold her property and finds that cozy retirement home.
Sometimes the best advice an Attorney can give a possible future client is to say: “Don’t break the law or do the thing that’s going to make you have to hire me and pay me $400/hour.” And so, with an Architect, once in a big while, their wisest counsel may be to not have their possible Client’s unrealistically low-ball dream home designed and attempted to be built for sub-par construction pricing, but rather look for an existing house that meets their objectives as best they can. It doesn’t feel good, turning away work, but it would feel worse knowingly taking advantage of someone, knowing that their goals are unattainable. Always tell the truth about construction pricing and what the various levels can buy.