ArchiTips — Architect Secrets

seeno_evilIs your architect a mystery? The entertainment industry loves architects and routinely casts key characters as an architect. Don’t believe me? Look at all the movies which cast the architect as a primary character. The Brady Bunch, Three Men and A Baby, One Fine Day, The Lake House, Sleepless in Seattle, Death Wish, Seinfeld, There’s Something About Mary,  plus too many others to mention here. And don’t forget the dubious Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Media and America love the architect character. The problem is the architect never behaves like an architect, so you get little insight into the architect’s thoughts, behavior or challenges. So I decided to reveal a few (but not all) architect secrets.

  • Architects do their best problem solving staring out the window!

That means we have to be patient and we ask for yours. Problem solving is not something you make happen. Even though we put ourselves in a creative mindset, it does not guarantee immediate solutions. So it might be hours, days or weeks before I develop a solution to your design. I’d love to say design comes easy so you’d believe I was some sort of creative genius, but creative solutions are like lightening strikes. They happen when the conditions are right! Honestly sometimes I lay on my back, stare at the ceiling and your design pops into my mind and sometimes when I sit up I forget everything so I lay down again. What I’m admitting is it doesn’t come easy and it’s not immediate, but it is a spectacular event and an inspiring creation.

  • Architects genuinely like builders!

Contrary to what you read in many publications or overhear at trade shows, architects and builders like and appreciate one another. The builder-bashing and architect-lynching will wage on eternally because these “partners” lack effective communication – like many relationships. The problem is builders are rarely included in design and architects are rarely included in construction leaving both to guess the other’s thoughts instead of communicating expectations or intent. It’s as simple as the architect asking the builder “how much does it cost” and “can you build it like this” or the builder asking “why did you do it this way”. Instead, the common response is “what was the nimrod thinking?” Whenever you have an opportunity, hire your builder during design and retain your architect during construction to unite the best idea with the economical build.

  • Mainstream media can be the architect’s nemesis!

Television shows such as Extreme Home Makeover, and Design on a Dime (HGTV) mean well, but they undermine our credibility. Many clients think we can build or remodel entire homes in a weekend and can construct everything for <$2,000 and will design it all for free. That’s a slight exaggeration, but there is a perception that grand things can be designed and built faster and cheaper than realistically possible. The days of the $100/SF house aren’t dead, but even Sarah Susanka (renowned architect responsible for the Not So Big series) may inadvertently mislead homeowners into believing those beautiful, smart, but expensive houses are within their reach. Unfortunately, the cash-strapped clients cannot afford the design or construction detailing expertly illustrated in those conceptually stimulating books. My advice is to dream, but be mindful that speed, design and details require time and money.

  • How much should you pay an architect?

How much is finding your dream home or project worth? Recently, a client asked me to design their 2,500 SF dream home on a remote lot with a little grade and questionable soil conditions for $2,000. Before I submitted my service proposal the wife made up her mind that was the max price to design a dream home independent of time, product or quality as if she could pluck her dream off the department store shelf. But what is a dream design that responds to your life, site and whim worth? A seller pays realtors 6% of the sell price to find the right homeowner. You pay your builder 20%+ to build the right home. If you hire a draftsman, they might charge you $1.50/SF to draw your home. Using a $300,000 or 3,000 SF home as an example, you pay the realtor $18,000, the builder $60,000, the draftsman $4,500, but in my example, the architect gets $2,000. Is the architect’s service less valuable than the realtor’s, builder’s or draftsman’s service? What is the right price? The right price is a fair fee you and your architect agree to based on the service you request. It might be $2,000, $4,000, or $8,000. You generally pay less for schematics than full-service design and construction, but grant your professional the opportunity to explain the service and the fee fairness before proclaiming a bottom line. Yes, people love the idea of hiring an architect, but may not know what that service is worth. The most important thing to remember is “you get what you pay for”.

  • What does “green” mean to an architect?

You’ve heard the real estate mantra, location, location location…well, “green” means thoughtful and responsive design and it’s all about location. No matter what synonym you use — “sustainable design”, “green building”, “passive design” “LEED”, “environmentally friendly” It’s about relative location – where you put the house on the lot, where you put spaces relative to each other, where you get materials, how far away you are from civilization, where the wind and sun are and where you get utilities (public, private, self-generated). When the distance between respective locations is small, you created a sustainable, green design. [There are also manufacturing or work factors]. Too many people equate “green” to specific products which cost you plenty of green. Don’t get me wrong…indoor air quality is important and products help, but it’s the things that don’t cost extra, like siting and home function that embrace green building.

  • Architects and attorneys do not get along…because attorneys think their God and architects are!

I’ve never heard any architect say that other than myself and I can’t think of a single incident that would prompt me to say it. I suspect it came to me when I was laying on my back, staring at the ceiling and thinking about your design. That’s the way the creative mind is. It blends words, images and colors in random and inexplicable fashion and you say, think and do things unfit for public consumption…and eventually create a wonderful design.

  • Why do architects draw so sloppy, but write so neat?

We don’t really nor do we intentionally draw sloppy. The shaky line drawings we produce are a rapid sketch technique to illustrate ideas. A picture is worth a thousand words, so we draw free hand to capture, explore and evolve design concepts. Straight-edge lines and today’s CAD programs may stifle creativity because when we produce a conceptual drawing, it’s so crisp you start thinking about light switch placement when we’re still addressing function relations and architectural vocabulary.

I can’t tell you how many people have complimented architects on their crisp and distinct lettering. The most common questions people ask me are “Did they teach you how to letter in architecture school?” and “Why do all architects write alike?” No one teaches us how to do it. It’s something we acquire and we can tell everyon’e lettering apart — to us handwriting is like fingerprints — no two are the same.

  • How do I get a good construction estimate?

The jury is still out, but one thing is for sure; no one knows what a project costs until it’s finished. The industry and most builders will suggest they are better estimators than architects are. I agree that a builder will arrive at a price for your home, but it may not be the right price of your home. The problem is the suppliers and installers estimate prices based primarily on past projects. If you, your architect and builder developed details to save money, but the installer wasn’t privy, you get the retail cost. The builder may have a close and long-term personal or business relationship with his installer, but he probably doesn’t know what estimating factors his installers use. Another problem is the countless trades (usually 20+) on a job site all charging overhead and profit including the builder. It’s almost impossible to lock down those charges. Be aware you will get a price, but it may be the price for someone else’s home. Even the budget estimates you and I discuss are the product of past experience, but it’s important owners know the most important question they ask “how much” is part science and a larger part witchcraft.

  • Why do architects talk funny?

You’re referring to the affliction called archispeak. It is the architect’s dialect peppered with phrases such as functional hierarchy, concept continuity, urban fabric, structural rhythm and juxtaposition to name a few. We don’t talk that way to impress or intimidate others. Archispeak is a byproduct of education, strategy and passion.

Education — Our architecture professors, design critics and project jurors talk that way because those words communicate important concepts that teach us to think about architecture as it relates to man and nature — a responsive and beautiful solution.

The Big-Picture — Those fancy words remind us to think strategically about the entire solution inside and out so we can integrate the complicated structural, mechanical, electrical systems that comprise your home or building with the unpredictable forces of nature wind, water, sun and lifestyle.

Passion — Passion is the innate drama that inspires us to do what we do and spend hours discussing minutia such as a deer path, a family ritual or water runoff and it’s solution potential with child-like fervor and sleddog endurance.

This speech impediment is an architect’s weakness and strength. So, I plead for your tolerance when we inadvertently drift into archispeak and hope you’ll remember it’s just your egghead, dramatic, head-in-the-clouds architect being himself.