Richard Rivin is a forensic architect. For more than 20 years he has analyzed building failures to determine what went wrong. In a recent interview from his Norfolk, Va., home, I asked him to shift his thinking 180 degrees and talk about what makes a project go right.

What can homeowners do to help ensure a happy ending, with all parties congratulating themselves for a job well done? With residential work, Rivin said, two factors that contribute to success are often overlooked.

The first is that the homeowners handled stress well. The second is that the architect structured the decision-making process so that the homeowners felt confident with their choices.

Coping with stress is not usually addressed in discussions about home building, but Rivin said it’s really critical because the way that you handle stress will color your interactions with everyone involved in the project. Before you start looking for land and hire an architect, spend some time reflecting on how well you tolerate uncertainty.

With an architect-designed, custom-built, one-of-a-kind house, you’ll be shelling out very big bucks before you see what you are buying. Can you do this without becoming an anxious wreck?

If the answer is no, Rivin suggested that you consider buying a new house from a production builder who has furnished models that you can see. A partially completed subdivision will have residents already living there. Asking them about their home-building experiences is often highly informative and usually quells the misgivings of many jittery buyers, Rivin said.

But, Rivin pointed out, even a brand-new production house is not 100 percent foolproof. Although the house may have been built 50 times and every kink in the design worked out, the same crews and subcontractors will not have built each and every one. Some of the people building your house may be doing it for the first time. And every building site is always unique in some way, even if the lots look identical to you.

With every home-building project there will also be uncertainty about the completion date, noted Rivin. No one will give you a hard and fast date for move-in because they all know there will be delays due to weather and screw-ups on the job — for example, three of 24 windows ordered were the wrong size. You may have to reschedule your move-in date three or four times and spend several months in temporary quarters if your new house is not ready when the purchasers of your current house go to closing and take possession.

On top of everything else, you might not like the results when the house is done!

With this degree of uncertainty, many people come unglued, Rivin said. If you see yourself in this group, his advice is to buy an existing house. But, he cautioned, if you want to add onto it at some point in the future, check the feasibility of this with a design professional before you buy the house. It may be harder than you think — even for an expert. Rivin said when he decided to build onto his current house he discovered that its complex roof line made it nearly impossible.

On the other hand, you might conclude that you’re a trooper who perseveres, no matter what. You’re ready to purchase the land, hire an architect, and start the process. Many people want to jump into the details immediately, but you need to set the stage first, Rivin said. While the goal is a finished design, an important part of the architect’s job, which comes as a surprise to many homeowners, is helping you make decisions so that you get the house you want. Much of this involves making tradeoffs within the limitations of your budget.

The first and most basic tradeoff is size or features. For the dollars that you have to spend, do you want a bigger house with fewer features or smaller house with more features? If you are considering several properties at this point, the architect would add this to the initial trade-off equation — for example, a small lot with great view but logistical issues that raise construction cost versus a bigger lot with no view and simple logistics. Even if you have a very big budget, you will still have to make tradeoffs because no one — not even Bill Gates — can afford everything, Rivin said.

As you make the tradeoffs, how will you know which one to choose and which one to reject? Your architect will certainly be offering advice, but you will find this task easier when the two of you create a list of priorities to serve as guidelines. This will give you a frame of reference and a rationale for making decisions. It can also help you feel more confident in your choices.

A priorities list is not a specific list of must-haves, which you most certainly will have, Rivin said. It is more like a checklist of broad categories to consider as you and your architect work through the design process. At certain critical times it can help you be sensible when you want to be extravagant.

A good example of this is maintenance, Rivin said. It’s not at the top of anybody’s list, but you need to keep it on your radar to avoid making choices that you’ll later regret. It’s easy to become so wedded to particular materials or design details that you’re loath to eliminate them in favor of the practical and prosaic like wood windows with vinyl or aluminum exterior cladding that will never need to be painted.

Having a priority list at the outset also ensures that your major concerns will be addressed at the appropriate time in the design sequence. A good example of this is energy efficiency, Rivin said. If you want to go the passive solar route and tap the free heat of the sun to heat your house in winter, the living spaces must be oriented towards the south. This will affect both the shape of your house and where it’s placed on your site, two decisions you’ll be making early on.

Your commitment to energy efficiency and sustainability will also be sorely tested, Rivin added. As you flesh out your design, at least once, and likely many times, you’ll have to decide if you’re willing to give up luxuries that you always wanted — say professional appliances for your kitchen — for ones you’ll never see and touch: better insulation for your walls.

Your lifestyle and household activities will naturally come up in your initial discussions. But there’s also ambience to be considered. How do you want your space to “feel” when you’re in it? Most people want a feeling of spaciousness and lots of big windows that will flood their rooms with lots of natural light but forget that those same spacious spaces need lighting at night, which can be expensive and tricky.

There’s also the feel of fresh air — not the air-changes per hour delivered by your mechanical system, but the soothing, natural breezes you can enjoy during the seasons when you can open your windows. This is another priority that your architect should know at the outset, before he starts working out room, window and door locations.

A priority list might have eight to 10 categories, Rivin said. Once you jump into the design process, you will be referring to it many times. But, he concluded, you will not have to decide each and every thing because your architect will have standard specifications for many items.

Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at

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