Evaluating Builders and Architects

Following up on my “Where to start” post, you’ve decided to build. You have some idea of your design goals. And you’re meeting with a prospective architect or builder. How can you evaluate them? Here are some thoughts, though take them with a grain of salt, since our relationship with our architect/builder started unusually.


Things to Ask

  • Do you have references? Both for past completed builds, as well as references for homeowners currently building with you?
  • If you have plans in-hand, has the builder ever worked with your architect? What are builder’s thoughts on the plans? Has the builder built similar homes before?
  • If you have a bank/loan lined up, has the builder ever worked with the bank before? How was the experience? Ask the bank the same question.
  • What form does their contract take? Fixed-price? Cost-plus? Something else?
  • How much customization is possible? Will the builder allow you to choose your fixtures/finishes/cabinets/etc.? Will your choices be limited to a set of suppliers? Will you need to make those choices at the outset of the planning process or as you go along?
  • In discussing past projects, how close have they come to initial cost estimates or contract prices? What have been the reasons for overruns? Keep in mind when you’re considering bids/estimates, if the house you want to build is going to cost $500k, it’s better to have a contract for $500k than it is to take a $400k cost-plus bid when the project ends up costing $500k anyway and you’re scrambling to find another $100k.
  • If your house plans are for a certain style of house, talk to them about the style, what they know about it, how often they’ve built it. If a builder has a portfolio chock full of craftsman bungalows they’re probably really good at building craftsman bungalows, but may not be the right choice if your dream home is an ultra-modern glass box.
  • How do they approach communication with the homeowner? This becomes particularly important if you live hours away from the build site, rather than down the street.
  • How much involvement does the builder want to take in things like suggesting finish materials, and what sort of homeowner involvement do they like? This isn’t a right-or-wrong question, as much as it’s a question of how compatible is their process with your expectations.

Setting all of this aside for a moment, your builder and architect are going to be in charge of a ton of decisions in what is likely one of the most expensive things (if not the most expensive thing) you’ve ever bought. What matters more than any of the above is evaluating whether you trust them or not. You don’t want to find yourself up in the middle of the night pricing 4×8 sheets of OSB because you think your builder is gouging you.

Most trust in people is founded in good communication. Can the builder explain why they would do XYZ instead of ABC? Can the architect explain why they would put your bedroom here rather than there? Do you believe them, or do you think they’re making stuff up to make you happy? Don’t enter into a build contract for hundreds of thousands of dollars with someone you don’t trust.

Book Reviews

I’m continuing to review some building and design books I’ve encountered. These two weren’t big favorites; those I’ve loved end up on my Resources page.

Monochrome Home: Harmony, Balance, and the Elements of Modern Style: Not super helpful. Lots of close-up photos, of, say, a bunch of seashells in a black bowl. Also pretty dated at this point.

Contemporary Details (Whitney Library of Design): Even more dated than the 1999 publication date would suggest. Most of the photos reminded me of the neighbors’ house in Christmas Vacation

Todd : Well, something had to come through the window! Something had to break the stereo!

Margo : And why is the carpet all wet, *Todd*?

Todd : I don’t *know*, Margo!