Make residential architects the first stop

Recently, I’ve talked a lot about the Custom Residential Architects Network, one of the American Institute of Architects’ most dynamic subcommittees and a progressive platform for residential architects. Having been chair at both the local and national levels, I have seen the best of these worlds and been privy to much dialogue among members.

A recurring topic is how to make our profession relevant and our expertise indispensable to the custom home process. How can we, the residential design experts, become the primary resource and first point of inquiry for prospective clients?

As residential architects, we believe anyone considering building a custom home would inherently benefit from our expertise. So if we are the obvious choice, why are we not their first point of contact?

Let’s analyze the steps an owner goes through when considering building, and why he consults with everyone else before an architect.

At most every price point, consumers almost always prefer to find something already built rather than go through the hassles of custom building. Usually, the typical process: exhaust the market for existing homes; decide to build; look for a lot; design a home; and build a home.

Connecting with a Realtor is a logical first step in searching the market for existing homes. Invariably, however, the buyer’s list of wants far exceeds what is available and they must make some big compromises. Even if the location and/or price is acceptable, it is unusual to find an existing home that possesses key architectural intangibles of design, flow and character.

Those buyers unwilling to compromise will probably look to custom building. Most likely they will start searching for lots using the same Realtor. In my experience, most Realtors do not have the necessary expertise to properly evaluate site conditions and it’s best if they bring in a professional consultant. This is where things get to a pivotal point.

Realtors either don’t know architects are a logical next step, or their referrals are sometimes prompted by financial incentives. This makes it an uneven playing field, with builders ending up with the clients. Instead of playing games, the industry should discourage this practice and insist on clear fiduciary responsibility from all parties. The residential architect is the logical next step as an agent of the owner because we bring the expertise to evaluate the site conceptually. Also, you can’t custom build without a design.

Even if a builder is introduced first, they will evaluate the builder’s work based on architectural value as well as construction quality and ask to meet the architect. Many clients follow architects’ work and will choose to work with an architect based on their portfolio.

Residential architects have a long way to go to be considered the first stop in custom building, but they’re narrowing the distance. It is paramount architects educate Realtors, builders and interior designers to this concept to best serve the client. Across the country, our peers are meeting, organizing and becoming more professional as a group. We are advertising and getting in front of the public.

I was recently at a custom builders meeting where everyone was discussing how Austin, Texas is becoming more of an architect’s market. At an architect’s gathering, my peers were commenting that builders were beginning to seek them out, wanting to connect.

Some of our builder readers will disagree with me that architects should take the lead. All things being equal, a team of experts that includes an architect, ideally leading the team, can provide the best product and service. So to the builders I say: Team up with an architect and allow great design to lead to a much better project.