Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Architect vs. Builder

Architects and Home Builders seem to have a bit of a dysfunctional relationship.  Looking through my lens as an Architect it seems that many builders look at us as a necessary evil; and something to be avoided.  Most builders today still utilize their own in house staff or an outside house plan drafting service in lieu or working with an Architect.  The result is a lack of creativity and variety.  The evidence?  Take a drive through the suburbs and you will see thousands of homes that look remarkably similar, yet constructed by many different builders.  This cannot possibly be a good situation for the builders, because it forces them to compete mostly by price alone.  Not a good way to make a profit.

It seems clear that if the builders want to stand out and get more demand for their products; then one great way to do that is to offer great creative, unique and functional designs that stand out from the competition.  In other words they should create a design niche.  And the best way to do this might be to work with a competent Residential Architect / Designer.

So why does the builder avoid the Architect?  At Ron Brenner Architects I have bumped into many builders over the years and I can pretty much tell you why.
  • Time – Builders don’t make money until they start construction of the home.  Sometimes they don’t make money until construction is completed.  It drives them crazy having to wait for the design process to be completed.
  • Money – Going through the traditional architectural design process costs money.  Builders are constantly trying to manage escalating construction costs – and Architects represent another cost control issue.
  • Attitude – Many Architects look down on the builder; and it shows.  Our field likes to put down the housing industry, yet offers little in the way of assistance.  So why would a builder want to work with us if he thinks we don’t respect him?
There is clearly a huge market share that Architects are not currently tapping into because of the above.  I believe we can gain market share by doing the following:
  1. Try to gain a better understanding the builders’ point of view.  We also need to give them a better idea of who we are and the value that we bring to projects.  We need to get out and start talking with them and learning from each other.  With understanding comes mutual respect.
  2. Modify our process and deliverables for builders to save time and money.  I am not arguing that we should give our services away.  Our services are extremely valuable.  I am only suggesting a modification of our services and deliverables to bring more value to the builder.
At Ron Brenner Architects we a bit of experience with item 2.  I’ll try to expand a bit on that in a future posting.


  1. Ron,
    I disagree with your point that architects are more creative. I don't believe creativity is limited to just those with specific degrees and education. There are many ways to become well educated about design and as you know years ago the preferred method was to learn by doing and from others with respected experience.

    Unfortunately many architecture schools today spend so much time pounding the idea into students heads that whatever they design has to be original that they have no concept of how to work with a builder or homeowner to interpret their needs and dreams. They also spend a lot of time preaching the Frank Lloyd Wright "I'm superior because I'm an architect" theory" which turns off clients immediately.

    Many builders also regard design as a comodity just like buying drywall or concrete and the result is the subdivisions you speak of.

    We can't change human nature but we can sell the value of good design. The builders that get this will be successful. There will however always be a market for those that just want "shelter" and a big screen TV and plenty of builders that are in the business of serving these masses.

    Jim Wright, CPBD, AIBD

  2. I can understand Jim Wright's viewpoint as an unlicensed designer. Looking over his website it seems he is a cut above other unlicensed designers I have run across. I wrote about this in my blog at:
    I would invite Jim Wright to read it and comment.

    I think that the biggest hurdle architects have with spec builders and a lot of homeowners is that they can buy online complete sets of house plans for $600 to $1000 and I won't get out of bed for that!

    I do have spec builder clients who understand the value of custom design and having an architect. They are the exception, of course.

    There was a good article in Realty Times on this subject here:

  3. No doubt you hit many of the issues on the head.

    My dream would be to be the builder of all Architect designed residences with clients who I sat through all the Architect/client programing meetings, on a cost plus basis.

    I say that as a 3rd generation builder, mostly homes designed in house, like you describe. I broke away from my family business in the mid-90s and started a build-to-suit relationship with a really talented architect. We did about a dozen in a couple of years - all clients that I brought in.

    Then, a client got ignored and the process stalled, a couple of referrals were treated as their clients to open bid, and I needed to protect my business. This wasn't done by the Architect of record, but by staff. Both our faults.

    Its not necessarily the design cost, as I found in house design has a real cost. The cost of drafting and design is real plus the overhead associated with it. Knowing the status of the client, like you say, is real important, maybe the key factor. The building cost, can usually be kept within 10% of a builder designed box, and with client education, by either the builder or the Architect, that can be mitigated as usually the design complexity cost can be narrowed down to quantity of windows, cabinets, doors, corners, etc. In other words, in the more modest end of custom homes, you can usually show a client you get what you pay for.

    When working with any designer, Architect or not, I suggest parameters to help meet budgets.

    Keep in mind that most of the tract/production homes in the US are designed by Architects, I am most impressed at what real talent can do with a box.

    The relationship with the client is developed during the design process. I don't really like to give that up. I don't really want to be the commodity builder that is the low bidder - as there are many failed low bidders. I don't want to have to take responsibility for design errors if I didn't design the project (per the notes).

    Now that I'm 50, with a lifetime of experience, and I'm still amazed at how much there is to learn about all parts of the process, I realize that I have something to offer that builders with less experience can't. I need to sell that to both clients and Architects.

    Architects need to sell the value of their services and talent to both clients and builders....not force it.

    How about developing "spec" plans to sell to either. A series of plans for plan book stuff. Do all custom homes need to be individually designed? Can our society afford it? Not really. Above a million, sure.

    Returning to the first Architect I worked with, he was pretty savvy about breaking apart the level of service he provided to the client so they would understand the cost. Not everyone needed 30-40 page sets. But some clients would pay for room renderings to fully understand their project. But his "builder sets" were quite reasonable.

    How's that for a start?

    Jeff Grenz
    Bredian Homes, Inc
    Sacramento, CA

  4. The big issue I have seen my 25yrs of building, is that many Architects have lost sight of what a true Architect is. They have become designers. No longer do they coordinate the design of the house with the structural, mechanical, electrical, ect, ect. I have not even seen a set of specifications for 15yrs or more. I am not talking about some $1,000 set of plans either. All of my work has been large custom homes in Vail, Colorado and for the past 4 years McCall, Idaho. I know what Architects charge for these homes and it is a lot, more like 15%to 20%.

    The problem lies in that the Architects have pasted on most of the grunt work, coordination, details, and such on to the builder. Now the builder has to explain to the home owner that there is going to be a big soffit on their living room ceiling for the furnace duct. Sorry! Maybe we can make it look like a fake wood beam? Maybe the Architect should have designed in a place to run that duct? What ever, the home owner still blames the builder. Been there way too many times. The architects never take any responsibility in this kind of situation.

    So builder's start to think that if they have control over the design/plans, then these kind of problems will not happen, that's why they have gone in-house.

    Most architects need to drop the attitude and get to work.

    The real test is if you could take your plans, order all the materials within 10%, have it all shipped to a deserted island somewhere, build exactly the house on the plans, no xtras, no changes, no questions, then you have a set of plans that is worth something!

  5. Nice comments all. I appreciate all of the input.

    Jim, you are right that there are some very good residential designers out there - just as there are some pretty bad architects. I would offer a rephrasing... "the value of a competent design professional".

  6. In our firm we do both design and construction. I think architect/builder friction originates from both of them forgetting what the client wants.

    The client cares about great design and their budget. Most of the plans submitted to us by outside architects for bid are so purposely devoid of details, we don't bother to submit a bid. We just respond with a range.

    Is that because the commission didn't allow for propper specification? Or was the architect being vague to avoid taking responsibility? Or some of both?

    Great design only becomes great when someone can actually afford to build it.

  7. Phil - Unfortunately many designers really don't know how to put a good set of plans together. I think a good set of plans is thorough yet concise. That is what we strive for. It takes a lot of experience to know what is important information to put on the plans.

    Yes it is important for architect and builder to work as a team with a common goal.

  8. It is very important for architect and builder to work as a team with a common goal.

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