Sunday, October 17, 2010

Decisions, decisions.

One of the first decisions we've had to make is a fairly basic one: who should design our new house?
The options are many, and each has its champion. We could hire a builder and work with them on a design. We could pick something out of a plan book and make any changes we wish, or work from a building supply yard's plans, hire an architectural technologist, design something ourselves and take it to an engineer to get approved plans, or hire an architect.
Each has its merits, and it seems that we've met someone who is willing to champion each approach. Hiring a builder is simple, but it has a big disadvantage: you have no chance to comparison shop, getting bids from different builders. When money's a factor, this is a pretty big disadvantage, so we ruled that out fairly quickly.
Plan books are pretty and fun to look at, but almost all are based on the premise that you're building on a flat suburban lot, which we're not. There are also some incredibly stupid designs -- plans with foundations or roof lines that are absurdly complex, and therefore expensive; or plans that have silly layouts. Plan books are fun, but in terms of finding the design we want to build, they're out.
Hiring an architect seems like a pretty easy one to dismiss. After all, architects are expensive (ten per cent of the total building cost isn't unusual). It's with good reason that only a small percentage of new homes are designed by an architect -- I think it's around 8 per cent, if I recall correctly.
But, I've had several conversations over the years with people who make an interesting point: a good architect can come up with creative solutions that work in your budget. As one draftsman said, "anyone can make granite countertops and clear wood look good. It takes more skill to make plywood and particle board look good." So, I thought, what do we have to lose? I looked at a few architects' websites and asked around, then contacted a few prospects to see what they thought. I wrote a long letter, outlining who we were and what we were hoping to achieve -- including our budget -- and sent it to three architects. One didn't reply at all. Another replied and said it sounded interesting but he had doubts about our budget, but would be willing to meet with us to discuss it. And a third called me and said there's no way we can build for $150 a square foot in Muskoka -- $250 is a basic starting point, he said, but $300 is more realistic.
"But what about sweat equity?" I asked. "What about our plans to just have a shell built which I will finish?" Doesn't matter, he said: builders get things cheaper than homeowners can, and that balances out the cost of the labour. Revisit your budget, and call me.
It was a very discouraging conversation.
Fortunately, since then we've had a few much more encouraging conversations. Friends who are builders have said $150 is achievable if you plan carefully. (Others have said you can go even cheaper if you're willing to buy some goods to the south. Even Orillia, a mere 35 minutes away, is cheaper than Muskoka. Call it the Muskoka Tax -- the premium we all pay because there are too many rich citiots willing to drive up prices.)
I've also talked to a few people who have said architectural design is a luxury, not a necessity. Another friend in the building trades has said many architects he works with are great visionaries and come up with fantastic looks, but it's the architectural technologist on their staff who actually understands building function and structure. If you want to have a building that works well -- in terms of traffic flow, lighting, energy efficiency, etc. -- he said an architectural technologist is the person to talk to.
Building a house, I've come to realize, isn't just about choosing what to do; it's partly about choosing what not to do. There are so many decisions to make, so many options, that you need to start by shedding a few just to get down to a manageable number of possibilities.
So, for good or bad, we'll move "architect" over to the same side of the sheet as "builder-designer" and "plan book."
That leaves us with a few choices: hire an architecture technologist and work with her on the design, or work with the architectural technologists at a building supply yard. That would mean committing to buy all our materials from one supply yard (Home Building Centre, most likely), but that's not unreasonable. We'll have to do some pricing, but in the meantime we're going to meet with a technologist next week.
Of course, all of this is subject to the next convincing conversation we have! Good thing we've got plenty of time before we build.

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