Designing to cost. Staying within budget. Simple concepts, right? Not really. It takes a lot of work to bring a project in under budget. It takes even more work to do it while delivering maximum value.
Mastering the concept of designing to cost can set the stage for success. It has taken leaders of successful architecture and design/build firms many years to acquire the experience and knowledge necessary to design to cost. Here, owners of three such businesses share a few best practices with Residential Design & Build magazine.
Budget comes into play at the very beginning of every project, says Kevin Harris, chair of the AIA’s Small Project Practitioners Knowledge Community advisory group, and president, Kevin Harris Architect in Baton Rouge, La. “We respect the budget. We stay within the constraints.”
Harris knows as projects progress, homeowners become exposed to products, materials and opportunities previously unknown to them, so their world of possibilities grows. It’s important to approach the process with the mind-set of negotiating scope of work rather than price. “Being able to tell a client or owner how much a project will cost, or how much to expect to pay, is critical,” Harris adds.
Harris’ rule of thumb is to involve someone who prices supplies day in and day out. “My personal opinion is I can’t do this without involving the builder. It’s all about the costs. Not getting price feedback is where people fail because prices vary daily. Custom houses haven’t been built before, so there’s no formula to follow,” he says. “All our work is custom. As such, they’re all a prototype, so there are no estimate books or rules of thumb that apply.
So, we developed a procedure where we meet with clients, produce schematics and stop. At this point, we introduce the builder to the client, and if the project is a go, then we say to the builder, ‘Here are the plans; give us a preliminary price. Be thorough and you should be within 10 percent of the final price. Tell us all your assumptions,’” Harris says.
When costs need to be reined in, it’s time to turn to the client for honest input. The areas requiring adjustment change with every client, Harris says. For example, to some clients the red knobs on the cooktop are important, and for others, he adds, it’s the countertops, the plumbing fixtures, or the lighting that are important.
“Where architects go wrong is not listening to what the client wants. The architect is in the best position to see what the owner needs. We are trained to listen and sketch out different alternatives. We can see easily how their lifestyles would be improved with one feature or another, how it would affect them, the traffic flow, the connection with the site. You become sensitive to what might wow a client. That’s your job. In school, if you figure that out with your professor, you get an A,” Harris explains.
No Detail Too Small
Designing to cost is what it’s all about for Tony Crasi, president, Akron Home Builders Association, and owner, Crasi Co. in Cuyhoga Falls, Ohio. Setting up a budget meeting involving everyone from day one is critical to getting a realistic budget established. “Leave your egos at the door and work together,” he says.
The most important part of such a meeting is a realistic budget from the homeowner. “Tell them if they’re not being real, it will cost them money down the road. The budget for the whole project needs to be on the table. We ask clients if they’ve thought of everything because sometimes people are shortsighted. We take into account the land; we ask what site improvements need to be made, must we cut trees, things like the septic system, boring samples, soil quality, wetland mitigation issues. We cover all that,” Crasi explains.
Crasi also addresses design fees, and costs for engineering and landscaping. “People forget they must furnish the place, too, so we create allowances for that and other unforeseen issues. What if we’re drilling down and we find an old coal mine? You must think of things like this that need to be done long before you start designing anything,” he adds.