For years you’ve dreamed of building you own house. The way it would sit on your lot, the view from your home office, the kitchen where everyone would gather. It would all be just the way you want because you’d tell your architect exactly what to do.

Then reality intruded. When you started to research land costs, custom home-building costs, and architect’s design fees in your area, you realized that with your budget, the house that you could afford to build would be too small for your household with two kids, a work-at-home parent who needs a good-sized office, and grandparents who frequently visit. You were willing to settle for a simple, straightforward plan, stock materials and simple detailing, give up an attached two-car garage (which, with your climate, was giving up a lot), and jettison a formal living and dining room, but you just couldn’t make the numbers work.

Fortunately, you don’t have to abandon your dream entirely.

You can still have a house designed by an architect if you look for production builders who hire them. You won’t get a unique-to-you, one-of-a-kind house. But you can get one imbued with an architect’s trained eye and design sensibilities, and you’ll definitely get more bang for your buck.

Gopal Ahluwalia, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders, said that such houses account for about one-quarter of the 1.4 million single-family houses built last year (and outnumbered the architect-designed custom-built ones by about 3 to 1). Yet this remains one of the home-building industry’s biggest secrets, largely because home builders don’t advertise it. When I asked builders around the country, including some from the largest national ones, why not, they all said they “probably should” or “we assumed our buyers know this.” One said his firm didn’t mention the architect’s involvement “because it doesn’t mean anything to consumers,” though one might suggest that buyers would take some pride in knowing that they had purchased an architect-designed house and seek out builders who offer them.

At the same time, all the builders contacted for this column readily acknowledged the value of their input. “It helps close the deal,” said Greenbelt, Md., home builder Tom Bozzuto, who hires an architect for every project. “In a competitive market, design will differentiate you from the other builders who just pull something out of a drawer.”

Indeed, builders hiring architects is more common in the major housing markets, which are very competitive, said Ahluwalia. “You’re more likely to find production builders using architects in the Washington, D.C., area than in Des Moines.”

What differentiates an architect-designed production house from an architect-designed custom-built one? In the latter case, you work one on one with the architect who tailors the design to your needs, aesthetic preferences, site and budget. In consultation with you, the architect specifies the type and quality of materials to be used.

When the builder hires the architect, his or her relation to you, the eventual occupants of the house, is only indirect. The design evolves on the basis of the architect’s intuition and the developer and builder’s reading of what mix of house sizes and prices will draw buyers to a particular location. As a buyer, you will have to judge how closely the architect’s vision matches your own. The house, which is more accurately characterized as a prototype, will not be designed for a specific lot though it may be designed for a specific subdivision. Some builders commission an architect for every project. Others commission an architect to design plans that are more widely used and modified for a specific locale and lot.

With a builder client, the architect also works with many more people than he/she does with an individual client. With the larger production home-building firms, as many as 15 to 20 people from the marketing, sales, purchasing, product development, interiors and construction divisions may weigh in on the design. The architect may also get data from focus groups that the larger firms often hold to tease out buyer preferences. Out of all this the architect has to come up with a design that provides one or two “wow” features to woo the buyer – after all, these house are for sale – as well as what every client wants, long-term “staying power” that will enrich everyday life.

Because speed of construction is one of a builder’s top priorities, the architect must also wring character and delight from stock materials that are easily obtained and produce designs that can be easily and quickly constructed by laborers who are not always fluent in English or highly skilled. By necessity, the detailing is less elaborate and the plans are less tailored than they would be in a custom-designed house.

As land costs have shot up in the last 10 years, lot sizes have shrunk, presenting the builder’s architect with yet another challenge. With regularity, he or she is asked to shoehorn a 2,400-square-foot house with four bedrooms, two-stories, and a two-car garage onto a 1/6- and even 1/8-acre-sized lotand eke out privacy from neighbors who are a mere 10 feet to either side. In many markets now, 16-foot-wide townhouses are no longer a rarity.

And then there are the constraints that come with the territory. Though the architect designs the house, the builder may modify it. The builder determines the type and quality of the materials to be used, though the architect can strongly influence the builder’s choices.

The scope and scale of a builder’s commission and the impact of the work also differ from that of an individual client.

With individual homeowners, the architect’s impact and concern are generally limited to the adjoining properties. In many instances, owners, intent on their aesthetic preferences, “don’t care if their house compliments the design of the house next door or not,” said Jeff Lake of Bassenian Lagoni Architects in Newport Beach, Calif., who works with both individuals and home builders.

But with builders, Lake went on to explain, the architect’s concern extends through the entire neighborhood because he or she is designing all the houses in it – typically four or five plans and three or four elevations for each plan. With a large development of several thousand houses, the architect or a team of architects may work on the master plan, as well as the design of houses and neighborhoods, in effect designing a project the size of a small town.

For the buyer, another significant difference between the two types of architectural services is the cost. The charge for a one-of-a kind house differs from architect to architect, but most charge a percentage of the construction cost, which can be anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent. For a 2,500-square-foot, $400,000 house (this figure includes only the construction cost, not the land cost), the design fees could range from $20,000 to $60,000.

A builder may be paying a comparable fee or even a higher one, but this cost will be averaged over many houses so the cost to the individual buyer is far less and one might add, more affordable. Santa Barbara, Calif., architect Barry Berkus said he started working with production builders nearly 50 years ago for just this reason. “I wanted to design houses for people who could not afford an architect. Houses can have a great influence on your psyche and a well-designed house will enhance your life.”

Questions, queries, or a home-building experience you’d like to share? Katherine Salant can be contacted at


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