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The Best Plan: Architect, Contractor or You?

Remodeling 101. Second of 10 parts


There is a long-standing battle between contractors and architects over who ought to design remodels.

Some builders--and now a growing cadre of so-called design-build firms--say that builders draw better, more practical plans. Architects argue that their plans are superior in both design and utility.

Meanwhile, consumers sometimes question whether they need either one. Particularly with minor remodels that don't involve moving or removing any major interior walls, some consumers have found that they can draw their own plans using store-bought computer programs--or the computer at a local home improvement center--to create a design.

The course you choose can have a significant effect on how much you pay for drawings and, sometimes, for the completed project. For example, using the computer at the design center is likely to cost nothing and having plans drawn up by a professional architect or designer can cost anywhere from 5% to 20% of the cost of construction.

It's easy to understand why the plans are free at the home improvement center, which makes its money when you buy cabinets and appliances there. However, the vast cost variations for professional services are sometimes hard to explain. Sometimes they reflect differences in both professional backgrounds and experience, and sometimes they can also be an indication of the scope of services provided.

For instance, some architects consider their job done when they've completed drawings and successfully seen the plans through the applicable city's plan-check process. At that point they might give you some suggestions on contractors to hire and bid you goodbye. Others wouldn't take a job that stopped before the building was complete.

"If an owner wants to hire us but doesn't want us involved during the building of the project, we turn the job down," says Stephen Muse, principal of Muse Architects in Washington, D.C. "An architect should serve as your agent all the way through the process."

Muse sets up weekly meetings with the contractor, helps homeowners select finish products and regularly visits the job site. But his services don't come cheap. He charges an hourly rate that's capped at a percentage of the construction cost. That cap ranges from 12% to 17% of the cost of construction.

Designers can be similarly expensive, depending on the scope of their work. However, though architects are more likely to charge a percentage of the cost of construction or give a cost per-square-foot, designers are somewhat more likely to charge a flat or hourly rate. They sometimes also get a commission on products or services you buy.

Design-build firms appear to charge less for drawings, but that appearance may be deceiving, mainly because the cost of drawings is folded into the cost of the entire project, says Glen Pickren, president of Barron Financial Services, a construction management firm in Irvine.

Generally, these firms charge an upfront design fee, which often is about 5% of the anticipated cost of the completed project. That gets you some preliminary drawings and a cost estimate.

If you decide to go ahead, it's one-stop shopping. Such companies draw up formal plans, get them through plan check, handle the building and help you choose finish products like tile and faucets. Typically, you pay one price for everything, with the exception of fees for city permits, soils and engineering calculations, which are often separate.

Which is better: an architect or a design-build firm? The choice is a matter of preference and chemistry.

Some architects sniff at the drawings proposed by design-build firms, contending they lack creativity and imagination. Meanwhile, design-build firms--which typically employ at least one full-time architect--criticize independent architects for a lack of practicality, contending that the architects rarely know the cost of the clever designs they draw.


Pickren says his company, which previously only financed construction projects, hired an architect several years ago, after Pickren added up the cost of prepared plans that had landed in his wastebasket because the plans couldn't be built on the consumer's budget.

"We're not talking about 10% or 20% over budget," he said. "These were 50% or 100% over what the customers could afford. I had a guy who thought he was going to have a $150,000 remodel, and the lowest bid came in at $350,000."

It's up to the consumer to decide whether he or she believes a particular design-build firm will come up with ideas equal in quality to the work of an independent architect and can provide similar service on both the design and construction side of the project.

Meanwhile, if you buy design and construction services separately, you'll also be on the hook for keeping the budget within means.

When could you get away without hiring a licensed architect? When the scope of your project is modest or doesn't involve many structural alterations.

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