The hows and whys of choosing an architect
by Murray Arnott
Murray Arnott Design
56 Yarmouth Street
Guelph, ON N1H 4G3
So you have decided to build a custom log home!
How do you go about designing it? While many log home companies provide
some form of in-house design service; a minority have architects on
payroll. On the other hand, most independent architects and designers have
had little or no experience in designing log homes.
Almost every builder has recited horror stories
of receiving log home plans from reputable architects with no log home
experience that became a nightmare for the builder and owner. On the other
hand, I often receive feedback that the plans of most log home companies
lack creativity and imagination. I believe it is better to have an arm's
length relationship between the architect and the log home builder.
While once a rarity, there are now many architects and designers
specializing in the design of custom log homes.
The nature of the design process itself is one of
the reasons I highly recommend retaining an experienced and competent
design professionals. Good design is more than simply arranging a group of
rooms. It is a fine blend of art and science. If a design leans too much
towards either the technical side or the aesthetic side, the resulting
home may be compromised. Not only should architects be experts in the
construction process and materials, they need to have a fine-tuned sense
of balance, proportion and form. They need to understand individual and
group psychology and the effect of space, form, light, etc. Of course, log
home design professionals need to understand the limitations and
possibilities of working with logs.
I recommend that anyone designing with log be a
member of a major log building association and fully understand industry
standards and practices. They should also be familiar with a large number
of log building companies so that they can help in the process of
selecting the best log builder for your project. Finally, they should be
familiar with construction costs, including labor and materials and, in
particular, the costs of different methods of log construction.
When approaching prospective architects, clarify
your expectations. What role do you want them to play? The design and
construction of a home involves several distinct phases or areas. First,
there is the conceptual or schematic design, then design development and,
finally, the construction documents or "blueprints" and
specifications. Do you need advice on materials, finishes, fixtures and
cost estimates? What about selecting and hiring a builder? Do you need
them to supervise the overall construction or administer the financial
progress of the project? Some architects may prefer not to be involved in
the construction supervision and administration and others will not become
involved without the ability to supervise or administer the construction
of your home.
The following information may be helpful to
- Do you already have the land? It is highly
recommended not to start any design until you actually own the land,
although an architect may be helpful in selecting your lot.
- What is the approximate floor area that you
think you will require? If you don't know a gross figure, then take a
moment to go room by room through your wish list, add up the numbers
and add another 25% for wall thickness, circulation, etc.
- What is your budget? Does it include site
costs such as water, septic, driveway or amounts for the design,
surveying, construction insurance, etc.?
- Do you have a preference for manufactured logs
or handcrafted logs?
- Do you already have a log builder or general
contractor in mind?
I recommend that you write down a wish list: each
room with its suggested size and features, together with some general
notes on preferred materials, features, etc. A clipping file organized by
exterior and interior and broken down into rooms or elements can help the
architect obtain a clearer picture of your expectations.
Of course, you will want to know what it is going
to cost to have your home designed. Even though it may add to the overall
cost of your home, hiring a competent design professional is worth the
cost, for several reasons. Firstly, the value of your home, both
indirectly in terms of your enjoyment and directly in terms of financial
value, should be considerably more.
Moreover, because log building costs are higher
than conventional construction, careful and efficient planning can reduce
costs considerably. For example, if good design reduces your required
floor area by a few per cent, you have probably already saved the
equivalent of your design fee. In addition, a good design professional
will save you money through less mistakes and advice on everything from
materials to builders. There is no easy or magic formula for calculating
what it will cost to design your home. Because very home is unique and the
scope of work is different, homes of equal floor area can require vastly
different amounts of design and construction involvement. Essentially, it
all comes down to the number of hours that the architect will be working
for you. It has been my experience that the ability of clients to make
clear and firm decisions influences the amount of time incurred on a
project far more than my ability to do the design. The more information
you bring to the architect and the more you clarify your expectations, the
more accurately the fee can be estimated. There are three general
approaches to determining fees:
- Flat Fees:
By the square foot doesnąt account for the idiosyncrasies and
complexities of each home nor your individual needs. A fixed quotation
is also usually tied to a set number of reviews, so you may not have
the ability to make changes after the development of your design
commences. Because flexibility usually yields better design, two other
methods of fee determination are common.
- Percentage of Construction Cost:
This method is regularly used by architects because it is a fairly
accurate correlation to the architect's involvement - the more complex
the home, the more design input and the higher the construction cost.
This is sometimes seen as a disincentive to keep costs as reasonable
as possible. Of course, the architect will need to administer the
project from start to finish and the final fee won't be known until
the project is complete.
- Fee for Service:<
I use this method, usually "by the hour", for two main
reasons. Firstly, it accurately reflects the time spent and is,
therefore, a fair representation of actual costs. Secondly, trust is
implicit in the arrangement. Because a great home involves a sound
level of trust between the owner, the architect and the builder, it is
necessary at the inception of the project anyway. Furthermore, it
provides greater flexibility in the scope of services, which can be
reduced or increased as the project progresses.
Once you have identified one or more architects,
you may wish to investigate them further. Look at photographs of their
work or, if possible, visit one or more of the homes they have designed.
Try to speak with previous clients and/or builders. Tell the architect
about your vision and ask them about their approach to design. Architects
should be good listeners and more interested in what you are looking for
than trying to push you in a certain direction without very good reason.
Among other things, they should be trustworthy, honest, patient and
Contracts with architects vary greatly. They may
be a reflection of the complexity of the scope of work or method of fee
determination. I prefer simple contracts that clearly identify the
location of the project, the scope of work, the determination of the fee
and the timing of payments. The latter will vary with the fee method
chosen. Billing is usually done at the end of a monthly cycle or is tagged
to completion of specific phases of the project. Financial institutions
usually will not advance loan funds until the plans are complete so the
design fees normally have to be paid for up front. Because it is often the
first expense incurred in a project, many people are reluctant to hire an
architect. The feedback I have received from those that have preferred to
go it alone or have reduced the scope of design services is usually one of
regret. Select a good architect, get a great design and reduce your
This article is reprinted from Log Home Living
Magazine, copyright Home Buyer Publications, Inc. 4200-T Lafayette Center
Drive, Chantilly, VA 20151-1208
Reprinted with permission from the author.