Architects add cost to the home-construction process, but do they add value? As the state’s architects head to Naples later this week for the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects’ Florida/Caribbean chapter, that question is one that Joyce Owens, the chapter’s 2017 president, is spending the year trying to answer in the affirmative. Her theme for the year is “Communicating Value.”
The highlight of the convention is the annual design awards presentation, and, as usual, Sarasota’s architecture community will be well represented, with awards won by Guy Peterson OFA, Seibert Architects, Carl Abbott Architect & Planner and Sweet Sparkman Architects. Individual honor awards will go to John Pichette of Halflants + Pichette Studio for Modern Architecture in Sarasota (Builder of the Year) and Sarasota Architectural Foundation board chair Janet Minker (Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award).
An architect’s fee often, but not always, is 10 percent of the construction budget, but Owens said the real cost of an architect-designed house over the life of a 30- year mortgage is only 1 to 2 percent more than a house of similar size that was not designed by an architect. The reason, she said: Better planning, materials and functionality. “The cost of hiring an architect is so much less than people appreciate,” said Owens, who is based in Fort Myers. “They can save you money in design costs, if that is your goal,” Owens said. “Good architects will keep you within your budget. The architect has already drawn this thing and has understood it.” By using better and more appropriate materials, she added, “maintenance will be less.” Through the process of construction administration, the architect will check that the builder is using the correct materials. This is not to say that architects do not exceed budgets. Some of the most famous architects of the 20th century were infamous for busting budgets, and the problem is not confined to them.
In fact, a “blown budget” just as often results from clients either not setting budgets or failing to reveal real numbers to their architects, said Charleston, S.C., architect Steve Ramos in his blog, BuildingsAreCool.com. Construction costs are commonly underestimated, especially when clients add expensive features during construction, he writes. The solution usually is “value engineering,” which is the “painful” process of reducing costs by removing features, using cheaper materials and/or making the building smaller. But, said Owens, the average architect does not have the stature of a Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright. “Those guys got a bad rap; they were artists who were pushing the limits and doing their best at the moment,” she said.
“Everyday architects — as much as we would like to think we are — are not Le Corbusier,” she added. “We are in there doing our best for our clients and trying to be considerate of them and look after their money. Sometimes when we do push the limits, we fail, too. As architects, we have to be very careful when we push the limits. You have to be able to understand the science of building” first.
That does not mean, said Owens, that architects only design high-end homes. But she acknowledges that it is more work for architects to design to a budget that is exceptionally lean. “Anyone with the wherewithal to hire an architect wants it to look like the cool houses in the magazines,” Owens said. “Those houses generally cost more, whether modern or traditional; they have better finishes and better materials. “When I design house for a moderate budget, the owners will constantly push for the best. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. If you want a moderately priced house designed by an architect, you have to listen and keep the budget at the forefront.”