Architect-designed homes aren't just for the rich

Ever since the 1930s, when Frank Lloyd Wright began to develop his practical Usonian homes for the average American family, architects have been exploring ways to provide well-designed, affordable housing for clients with moderate incomes.

Today, many architects welcome modest residential commissions, and their services can be an affordable alternative to working with a builder.

''Architects do not just serve the super-rich. People have the attitude they shouldn't approach a professional with something small,'' says Charles Rolando of Charles R. Rolando Associates in Concord, Mass. ''We take a range of projects. It's more fun that way.''

In some parts of the country, such as the Midwest, people who want a home tailored specifically to their needs can commission an architect-designed home for as little as $50,000 (not including the site). The minimum budget for a renovation project using architect services is usually about $10,000.

''What I would like to see is people of moderate means perceiving the profession of architects as more accessible, says Cynthia Howard, an architect in Cambridge, Mass. ''I'd like to see people pick up the phone and call an architect with the same degree of freedom they would call a plumber.

''The most important time (to engage an architect) is right at the beginning, when the client is thinking through what he wants and what is possible,'' she continues. ''An architect can help the client explore the alternatives and will prepare the schematic design to explain to the contractor what the owner wants done. I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing small commissions and getting involved at a time when I can have the most impact.''

Typically, after consulting with the clients, an architect will draw up a set of highly detailed plans and submit the document to three or four contractors who bid for the project. Some firms offer both design and building services rather than using outside contractors, which helps guarantee that costs will stay within the estimates.

Another way to keep building costs down is to start with a small home that has provisions for future expansion worked into the design. A young couple, for example, may want to start with a living room, dining room, kitchen, and one or two bedrooms. Later they might want to add a family room and more bedrooms.

One way to cut back on the architectural service cost, according to Ms. Howard, is for the owners to commission only the design work and supervise the actual construction work themselves. This approach takes considerably more time and effort on the clients' part, and a successful result hinges on finding a contractor they can trust to do fine work and use high-quality materials.

Tim and Bonnie Pierie of Grafton, Mass., commissioned Ms. Howard to design an in-law apartment addition to their historic farmhouse and attached barn. Once the architect's plans were drawn, the couple oversaw the rest of the project, working with a contractor who had helped them renovate their kitchen.

''I knew a lot about what I wanted to do with the inside once the structure was up,'' says Mrs. Pierie, who made final choices on materials, finishes, and colors. She also tended to exterior details, such as matching window moldings to the original house. ''It was hard work. I did a lot of legwork going to see the samples and deciding what to use.''

The entire project took about nine months. ''I was able to do (the work) myself, because I had the time,'' she says. ''If I had a full-time job, there would be no way I could have done it.''

''It looked terrific and everyone was pleased,'' Ms. Howard comments. ''Costs were considerably under what it would have been for the full scope of services, and the customer was satisfied.''

Some architects, however, are wary of releasing design plans with no control of the actual construction.

''Part of the architect's role is to monitor what is being built,'' says Jonathan Lefell, a Boston architect. ''The design is the fun part. If it's not built according to technical standards, (the owner) will never be happy with it.''

An architect's supervision and inspection during construction helps ensure that owners will not encounter electrical, plumbing, or structural problems with their home a few years later.

To help people find architects, local chapters of the American Institute of Architects often have listings of local architects who do residential commissions. Many people start with referrals from friends. The first step is to call an architect to discuss the scope of the work. If the architect is interested in the project, he or she will go out to the house to meet with the owner and discuss the work in more detail. Sometimes this initial consultation is free. Some architects will charge an hourly fee for consultation. If both the client and the architect decide to go forward with the commission, fees are usually negotiated at this first meeting.

Architects' fees for full services, including design and supervision of the construction, usually run from 10 to 20 percent of the building cost.

In choosing an architect, says Mr. Rolando, it's a good idea to check references and see past projects. He recommends interviewing different architects and choosing one whose design style is compatible with what the clients want - and who is willing to listen to their ideas. Although Mr. Rolando's firm is known for upscale homes, he says, ''I wouldn't turn anything down.''

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