Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series.
In this do-it-yourself era, can you also be your own architect? The answer is yes … and no.
Though it’s not widely known, you don’t need an architect’s license to draw plans for a wood-framed building, as long as it’s no more than two stories high over a crawlspace. Since the lion’s share of residential work falls into this category, this means pretty much anyone can draw their own house plans, or can hire another unlicensed person to do it for them.
Considering that architects customarily charge a commission fee of between 10 and 15 percent of the project budget for residential work, the do-it-yourself route may seem pretty appealing, especially in these challenging times. After all, the cash you’d save would probably buy a whole truckload of goodies from your local building emporium.
Alas, the fact that it’s perfectly legal to act as your own architect doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a wise move. There’s a lot more to deal with than a little drafting. Municipal zoning and design review regulations have become ever more complex, as have national building codes. The learning curve in these areas alone is forbiddingly steep, even for professionals.
But there’s also the larger question of whether your home — which is likely the single biggest investment you’ll ever make — is the best place to cut corners.
Fortunately, there’s a middle-of-the-road solution to the extremes of hiring an architect at full fee or doing the work yourself. Basically, it’s architecture by the hour, and it works by doing away with any work that’s not strictly necessary to your project.
When you hire an architect on a commission fee basis, you’re paying him for a whole passel of services your project may not require — things like choosing finish materials, paint colors, lighting fixtures, hardware and so on. Usually, he’ll also include exhaustive detailing and specifications for such items as windows, appliances and the like, so that if multiple contractors are bidding on the plans, they can compete "apples to apples."
Like many homeowners, however, you may be perfectly willing to choose finishes, colors and fixtures yourself. Moreover, if you already have a contractor firmly in mind, or if you plan to do all or part of the work yourself, it may not be necessary for the architect to nail down brand names and models for each and every item in the project — a time-consuming and therefore expensive task. If your contractor is willing to work with you on these choices instead, you can save some more money and also have a bit more time to choose the things you want.
Suppose you’re hoping to add on a master bedroom and bathroom. You’re working on a shoestring, and there’s no way you can stretch your budget to pay a full-bore architect’s commission fee. Is there a leaner, more targeted way to use the architect’s expertise?
This time, the answer is quite often yes. The first step is to relieve your architect of the chores that you’re willing and able do yourself, and this means scrapping the commission fee and hiring him to consult by the hour. But exactly what should you be consulting about? We’ll find out next time.