When David Fan Wen Chen went looking for his dream house, he couldn't find any that had the necessary amenities--namely, a small theater, a huge recreation area for his children and an indoor glass elevator.
"I wanted it to be a fun house," he says. So, although he had no training in architecture, Chen pulled out a sketchbook and drew up the plans himself.
Under the tutelage of Newport Beach architect Brion Jeannette, Chen has seen his dream house go from a scrap of paper to a nearly completed mansion in Pelican Hills. While Jeannette steered him away from some unworkable ideas, Chen got the main features he wanted, glass elevator and all.
When people think of hiring an architect and creating their own custom castle, they sometimes picture themselves as Cary Grant careening from one building snafu and cost overrun to another in the classic movie, "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House."
For Chen and others like him, however, designing their dream house caused no such nightmares. Creating a custom home is possible, they say, with the help of a competent architect who can tell the client why plopping a Medieval-style fortress in the middle of Spanish-style homes might be a bad idea.
"It doesn't have to be a stressful process," Jeannette says. "Anyone can do it, and it can be a lot of fun."
Most clients come to Jeannette after they've scoured in vain for a home that fits their needs, or rather, fantasies.
"Maybe they've always wanted their own bowling alley or pistol range or home theater. One client wanted a huge subterranean grotto," Jeannette says. "They want something that's not commonplace, and those desires will send them to an architect."
Clients bring Jeannette sketches of floor plans and exteriors that range from crude, childlike drawings to neatly drawn-up plans that look like the work of a professional.
"I had one client who wanted a rotunda in his entry. The sketches were unbelievable, they were so well done. And a doctor did them," Jeannette says. "Most have an affinity toward architecture. I can't tell you how many times a client has said, 'I've always wanted to be an architect' or they studied architecture in college."
Others have no knowledge of architecture at all, only a vague idea of their fantasy home. Jeannette encourages them to show him photos or sketches of buildings they like.
"They may use certain architectural terms, but what they're really describing is very different," he says. "It's up to me to make sure we don't end up with a three-hump camel."
Some might say they want a Mediterranean home when what they really like is the mission style. Others envision a hodgepodge of clashing styles.
"We had one client bring in a sketch of a home that combined all of these different eras. They wanted classical floors, Greek columns, medieval windows. It was a mixture of things that did not go together," says Irini Vallera-Rickerson, who co-owns Vallera-Rickerson & Associates in Laguna Niguel with her husband, architect Robert Rickerson.
"They'll travel around and see different things they like and they want it all," she says.
Some may want a style of architecture that conflicts with the homeowners association rules or doesn't blend into the surroundings. The Vallera-Rickersons have turned away a few clients because they didn't want to be associated with a neighborhood eyesore.
"Many people love castles, with skinny windows and towers, but in California you have sun, and you want these big, beautiful windows," Vallera-Rickerson says. "But some people are determined to have that castle, and in that case we steer them to another architect."
Clients sometimes fail to consider factors such as sunlight, traffic flow and ventilation in their designs. Informing them an idea won't work can require an ambassador's tact.
"The whole process is communication," Jeannette says. "That's something you don't learn in architecture school. You're a marriage counselor, a shrink. You sometimes have to settle conflicts between the owner and the contractor and between the Mr. and the Mrs. It's important to be a good listener."
To make sure there are no misunderstandings, architects conduct a series of meetings with clients during which they move from the early sketches to detailed construction documents that cover everything from the flooring to the type of appliances.
"If the drawings aren't in clear detail, they won't have a clear idea of how much it will cost," Vallera-Rickerson says. "A client can go over budget. They want granite in the kitchen and marble in the bath. The materials push the cost up. People get carried away."
To keep costs from spiraling, architects should inform clients about how much finishes will cost. They usually help the client secure a contractor by soliciting bids and arranging interviews with several prospects.
"If you don't have the right contractor, it can be a big nightmare," Vallera-Rickerson says. "We recommend three and sit in on the interview to be sure that the client asks the right questions."