Springfield, MO

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Field Report

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by Donald Briggs, AIA

What is a custom house? Ask a dozen people that question and you're likely to get a dozen different answers. This is precisely my point: The different answers given illustrate the variety and uniqueness of each individual.

To some, the choices of window coverings, flooring, lighting or paint that go into a model home or tract home would describe the custom home. People often shop Realtor classifieds with descriptions such as "charming 3 BR, 2 1/2 bath, living, dining, 2-car garage," etc. to find a home.

Most people I talk with describe a custom home in physical terms, such as the number of square feet, the type and arrangement of spaces, number of stories, etc. After further discussions, asking questions and developing a relationship, their true core values often emerge. When this level of trust and communication is achieved, I can begin enjoying my true passion, that of designing a custom home.

With the realization that every individual, couple or family is unique, it's my objective to design a home not only to fulfill the practical needs for shelter and space, but also to provide a backdrop for human interaction and drama.

Carefully articulated interior spaces stimulate the senses of those within. People flourish when their need for intimacy, as well as openness, can be crafted into a structure.

The manipulation of the expected with the mysterious in the layering of spaces can play with the imagination, keeping us intrigued by our surroundings.

For example, if you wanted to enjoy a view from within a space, an obvious solution would be to put a window in the direction of the view. An alternative

strategy that could be more interesting would be to set up a progression as you move through and experience the space, providing hints of the view from multiple positions before the whole view is revealed.

This heightens the sense of anticipation and makes the discovery of the view more exciting and memorable. To fulfill the qualitative intangible characteristics of a custom home requires time and effort for both the client and the architect.

Communication is of prime importance. The architect will ask a wide range of questions to establish your goals and outline the scope of your project in detail. Doing so also sets the stage for building cost-efficiency into your project. By setting parameters early in the process, your architect can help you control costs before you ever break ground.

The majority of the market will buy existing houses, and they want them now so, they often have to settle for the generic. This may be OK if it is intended to be temporary housing. If a person is planning on settling down for more than a few years, it might be wise to plan a custom home. Most people have a story and a passion to their lives. A house should reflect the spirit and essence of its inhabitants. It is only then that a person is truly "at home."

For most of us, buying a house is the single largest investment we will ever make. When spending so much, doesn't it make sense to spend a little time and effort to have what we need and want?

The time and effort spent in planning and design is negligible when compared to the time someone will spend living in and enjoying or not enjoying his environment.

The big question is, how much does it cost or how much more does it cost to design a custom home? Whether you use an architect or not, a realistic budget is of utmost importance. The budget must be established initially for it will drive the project and all decisions revolve around the budget. This budget should also be flavored with value. Value is one of those illusive qualities that we must all wrestle with and define for ourselves.

This value can be established by any number of criteria, i.e. durability, functionality, warranty, service, aesthetic beauty, efficiency, cost, prejudice, etc. If you were to spend a sum of money for something you really didn't want, you would soon resent it and perceive it to have little value. On the other hand, if you decided what you wanted, established a budget and bought it, you would be happy with the purchase and perceive that you had something of value.

If you value good architecture and the services necessary to produce it, you must consider the fees charged for such services. There are no set architectural fees for a particular type of project. Fees are established in several ways depending on the type of project, plus the extent and nature of the services required.

Common methods

include hourly rates, a stipulated sum

per unit of what is to be built

(i.e. number

of rooms, square footage, etc.), a percentage of construction cost or some combination of these methods.

The architect's fee is usually a relatively small part of the cost of the entire building project.

According to the 1996 Means Square Footage Cost Data, architectural service fees on a custom house can range from 5 percent to 15 percent of the total cost of construction. Factors that affect the fees include the scope of the project, the level of quality and detail, and economic conditions.

If you consider the cost of a house over a 25-year period, your actual expenditure is probably 2 1/2 times the initial price tag. By this reasoning, the architect's fee, which is a one-time expense, is actually less than 3 percent of the cost of a house over a 25-year period, not counting maintenance costs, which would reduce the architect's percentage even more.

If your needs are specialized enough and you value the services an architect can provide, your next question might

be, how do I find the right architect for me?

First, ask around. Find out who designs homes. Get recommendations from friends, relatives and acquaintances who have worked with architects. Contact the local American Institute of Architects chapter at the Hammons School of Architecture. Ask for a list of firms that would be interested in doing a project like yours.

Also, by contacting custom builders or the Springfield Home Builders Association, you can find names of architects interested in custom housing. Call each firm on your list and describe your project to see if it is a possible fit with the firm's qualifications and experience. If the office is unable to handle your project, ask if they can recommend another firm.

After calling and qualifying your list of candidates, interview each firm so you can meet the people who will design your project and see if personalities and the chemistry between you are right. You may be working with your architect for several months, so look for someone with whom you feel comfortable.

Allow at least an hour for the interview, preferably at the architect's office, so you can see where the work will be performed.

Once in the interview, ask lots of questions: How busy is the firm? Does it have the capacity to take on your work? Who will handle the job? Insist on meeting the person who will actually design your project. What is the firm's design philosophy? Talk about a project budget and the range of fees that the architect would anticipate for your project.

Before you select an architect, ask to be taken to a completed project. Also, ask for references from past clients. Unlike buying a car or an appliance, you can't see the product and test it out. The architect provides a professional service, not a product.

The right architect will be the one who can provide the judgment, technical expertise and creative skills at a reasonable cost to help you realize a project that fits your practical needs as well as your dreams.

(Donald Briggs, AIA, is president of Briggs Architecture + Design in Springfield.)

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