Residential Single Family Custom Home

So you want to hire an architect, who doesn’t right? But how should a residential client go about finding and hiring an architect? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Part one of a three part series discusses how a residential client can find and hire an architect. While the process for most commercial projects is similar, this series is aimed at the residential client who is most likely hiring an architect for the first time. Once you’ve selected your architect, you can have in-depth discussions pertaining to your project specifics and their process.

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I’m assuming that as a client you’ve already determined the value that an architect can bring to your project- if not, be sure to read Architect’s Value? 60 to Contemplate. The good news is that you understand the importance of an architect and now you’re ready to find one suitable for your project. Where to start? There are many resources to assist you in finding an architect. The most readily available is to talk with friends and neighbors who have completed projects similar to yours. Online research is another great tool, your local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is a good resource for locating architects. You can go to the national AIA website and search for your local chapter. The local chapter web site should contain a list of local architects along with bios and their areas of expertise. It is worth noting that membership in the AIA is voluntary. Just being an AIA member does not guarantee that they are the best, or better than another, architect for your project. It’s also worth noting that one does not need to be an AIA member to be an architect. Additionally, numerous sites exist, such as Houzz, that allow you to view local architect’s work and obtain contact information. In addition, Houzz is a great site for you to start- if you haven’t already- collecting images that appeal to you and what you wish for in your own project. You can also search for ‘architects <insert your city here>’ on a search engine of your choice. Visit the architect’s web sites and view their portfolio of work. Using these three methods should yield enough information to compile a list of potential architects.

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Now what- you’ve talked to friends and neighbors, viewed numerous websites, looked at online portfolios, and found architects whose work you like- is it over? Nope, you’ve got some more research to do. Selecting the right architect is very important. You’ll be dealing with the architect for several months if not longer. Trust is paramount between you and your architect. You need to have confidence, and yes a bit of faith, in your architect. Your research should have resulted in a list of architects you feel are appropriate for your project. I recommend interviewing the top three from your list. Ask lots of questions. Not sure what to ask? No worries, in Parts 2 and 3 I’ll give you some suggested questions to get the discussions started. Obtain a list of references from the potential architects and call them. I know, I know, nobody lists a bad reference. However, you should still call them… by call, I mean no email or letter, actually speak with the person. Ask them anything you feel necessary. For the final question, ask the following “If you were to do it over again, what would you change about the process?” The response should reveal whether or not the architect in question will be a good fit for you.

Having a discussion about architectural fees with the potential architects will serve as another gauge as to how well you can communicate with, and what the working relationship will be like. There are four basic ways architectural fees can be calculated- percentage of construction cost, hourly fee, fixed fee, or a hybrid of hourly and fixed fee. I won’t go into the specifics of each, perhaps a future post on the pros/cons of each. Your architect will describe their method(s) for determining fees and how/when you will be billed. As the client, you need to be honest with the architect about your budget for the project. In addition, you need to be aware of the difference between a Project Budget and a Construction Budget and be sure you’re both talking about the same budget. These discussions will be useful in determining if you and the architect will have a good working relationship and can have open honest communication.


Trust. I can’t state this enough, you need to trust your architect. You need to be comfortable in talking with them. You should be able to envision having meals with this person and inviting them to a party- architects love parties! You don’t have to be bff best friends with your architect; you do need to like them though. You need to have confidence in their integrity and skill set as an architect.

Armed with all your research, you can now select an architect for your project. If you read between the lines, it should be obvious that architectural fees shouldn’t be the deciding factor in your selection. You want an architect who has completed projects similar to yours, one who shares similar beliefs as you with regards to the project, and above all, one whom you trust. Have your architect forward a contract for your review. Ask the architect to clarify anything you don’t understand. Make sure all the fees, and what those fees cover, are clear. Be sure to understand what is not covered in the proposed fees and what may be constituted as an additional fee. While architectural services contracts for residential projects are typically straightforward, you always have the option of having a lawyer review your contract. When you’re satisfied with the contract, have come to an agreement on fees and schedule, sign the contract and return it to your architect… the fun’s about to begin!


Now that you’ve hired an architect for your project- what’s next in the process? Keep in mind, each architect will approach your project differently. This is how I work, and in general, most architects will adhere to a similar process. The typical design/construction process:

1. Programmingdeciding what to build

2. Schematic Designinitial sketches and ideas

2a. Construction Budget vs. Project Budget

2b. Preliminary Construction Cost Estimate (PCCE)

3. Design Development refining the design

4. Construction Documents- finalizing the working documents – (future post)

5. Construction Administrationconstruction phase of your project

Parts 2 and 3 of the ‘Hiring an Architect’ series will be posted soon. These posts will provide you with suggested questions to get discussions started between you and the architect.


Wow! This is starting to sound like a long process… it can be, however, it is also extremely rewarding. Your architect is there to represent you, your project, and your best interests, all while making the process fun! Along the way your architect will have educated you and made it an enjoyable experience. In addition, they may not admit it, but your architect will have learned from you and your project as well. In the end you’ll have the home you wanted because your architect was able to assist you in bridging the gap between your vision and reality. You’ll end up with a home that fits you and your lifestyle.

So go find yourself an architect, it will be worth it!


Design On,

** You can always just contact me if you don’t want to search for an architect.


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I deal with homeowners in various stages of projects for their homes. I’m either dealing with a client that is constructing a new home and trying to sell their current home or one who is renovating/adding on to their existing home but thinking towards the future and re-sale value. Inevitably they always ask for advice as to projects they can do to their existing home to increase its chance of selling quickly now or in the future. Keep in mind, home buyers want to see how great a home looks; they don’t want to hear what it could look like with work. Meaning, these projects actually need to be done for them to add any value to your home. Here are my top 5 projects that pay off when selling your home- as well as refreshing the current home you live in:

1. Paint- For the cost, nothing comes close to the dramatic effect a new coat of paint or color change can have on a home’s interior or exterior. My advice, always paint the ceiling a bright white- I’m not a fan of colored ceilings as they tend to ‘compress’ the space. I’m a big fan of having an accent wall in a few spaces- one wall painted a differing color than the rest of the space. For the exterior, I recommend 3-4 colors. A color for the main body of the house, trim color, accent color for the front door (and possibly some other key pieces of the home), and possibly another color for a secondary material that is prominent on the house. Keep in mind, most of this is mute when dealing with modern homes and exterior materials that are left in their natural state. A well designed modern home can have various natural materials that can create a great composition of texture and color.

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2. Flooring, Fixtures, Faucets, + Accessories- A rule of thumb, anything you actually touch should be of good quality and in working order- i.e. door knobs, cabinet pulls, toilet handles, etc. This doesn’t mean you can ignore unseen items, it just means a ‘touched’ item adds more to the perceived value of your home. Worn-out flooring surfaces are a turn off. Replace/clean/repair/refinish flooring throughout the home. Replacing old faucets, sinks, and toilets, can significantly increase the perceived overall value of the home. Cabinet pulls can have a dramatic effect on the perception of the quality of cabinetry. Consider replacing, or adding, cabinet pulls. Cheap and dated lighting fixtures should also be replaced.

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3. Additions + Renovations- If you’re planning on selling in the future, but need additional space currently, be sure to plan wisely. An addition that appears ‘tacked on’ with no thought, hurts a home’s value and cheapens the overall impression of the home. Working with an architect is of great value when anticipating a major project on your home. An architect will be sure the overall ‘scale’ of the project is in harmony with the existing and not over, or underwhelming. The current ‘style’ of the home will be examined and addressed as appropriate in the new work. The ‘flow’ of spaces will be planned and laid out efficiently- may not seem like a big deal until you walk through a bedroom to get to a bedroom (yup, I’ve seen that). An architect will address these and many other issues that can increase the value of your home.

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4. Kitchens + Bathrooms- These rooms historically have had the best return on investment and continue so. The kitchen has long outgrown its place as merely for cooking, it’s now typically the gathering spot for families. Kitchens have become the focal point of many homes and quality materials/appliances have become the norm. However, keep your homes price range in mind and don’t overdo it with high end items that future buyers aren’t willing to pay for. When it comes to adding a bath or remodeling, be sure to include ample storage and quality (doesn’t have to equate to expensive) fixtures. Ceramic tile is still a good choice for flooring and wall surrounds in bathrooms. The addition of a bath or powder room can greatly increase the value of your home.

Bath Sketch

5. Landscaping- The exterior of your home plays an important role in the overall first impression of your home. Landscaping can have a dramatic impact on the overall look of your home. Consult with a qualified individual who can provide you with an overall plan for your yard.

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A note about Personal Style- keep it to a minimum. Infuse your personal style with furniture, accessories, artwork, window treatments, etc. Things that can easily be reworked by another such that they can make the house their own. When selling your home this may entail removing personal items such that potential buyers can envision themselves living in the home and not feeling that the home is ‘owned’ by you.

So that’s my broad sweeping list of what’s worked for my clients over the years. What has worked for you? What other projects/advice do you have to share?


Design On,

** See what I did there…5… Value… V… Roman Numeral 5.

Much to my disdain, HGTV seems to be always on in our home. A few shows are tolerable. However, the majority spew so much misinformation it’s like watching Fox ‘news’ or the weather. The misinformation may make for exciting TV, but it is a disservice to those of us in the design field. What’s the response to a client who says “Design? But on HGTV they just drew something on a white board?” or “How much? What do you mean that was only material costs?” or “Design fees, huh? Designers are everywhere, they even hang out a big box building supply stores and give their services away!”

So what’s a legitimate architect and/or designer to do? The last post for 2012 will be a gift, the gift of reprogramming. I’ve come up with some working titles and show concepts based on ten randomly (not really) picked HGTV shows. These new shows are architect geared and based on the reality of design and construction, well almost. My 2012 Holiday gift to HGTV- Reprogramming:


1. Holmes on Holmes Architects on Architects- Architects compete in bare knuckle boxing matches for the affections of well-paying clients (I know, it sounds a tad pervy).

2. Property Virgins Client Virgins- Saving yourself for the right time isn’t worth it. No questions, no judging, no embarrassment- want to live in a house that fits you like a glove- you’ll need an architect!

3. Dear Genevieve Dear Mies- Architects gather and conduct séances to summon Mies for guidance on home renovations, deck additions, and whether or not they should use vinyl siding.

4. Love It or List It Love It or Love It- Focused solely on architect designed homes in the US that are affordable and sustainable.

5. My First Place My First Architect- Client’s explain why their first architect experience was so pleasurable and in reality protection was not needed. In fact, architecture is a disease that should be caught and spread. **hint, put this in prime time followed by Love It or Love It**

6. Designers Challenge Louies’ Challenge- The comedic mishaps of an architect trying to hide his wife from his mistress from his other mistress from his wife. Along the way he’ll come to terms with his bastard son and possibility of a daughter- all while designing awesomeness!

7. Property Brothers- You know, besides the creepiness of these two guys (are there really two?), I’ll let this one slide… they have a bit of common sense and slight design acumen.

8. House Crashers Ego Crashers- Clients tempt architects with the promise of a grand project… only to beat them down with the request for a patio extension design for their tract house.

9. Candice Tells All Corbu Tells All- Corbu breaks it down and explains the truth behind his architecture. For example; Pilotis was a complete farce- truth is he had no foundation detailing classes in his formal education.

10. The Vanilla Ice Project The Crazy Ass Ice Project- Bjork swills some Reyka, knocks someone down and then explores great Icelandic architecture.

11. Color Splash White Splash- Color? We don’t need no stinking color- exploring the hues, shades, subtle variances of white or pure white or extra white or bright white or snow white or jaleel white or linen white or bone white or …


In addition to the reprogramming, a fresh new logo was also in order- so I giveth again:

This is a work in progress. Details have not been flushed out- confirmed time slots, show length, cast members (call me, I have suggestions), etc. still need some work. However, I request that you don’t reschedule in the time slots of Monsterquest, Storage Wars, Finding Bigfoot, or Ancient Aliens- those are quality shows that I can’t miss!

Thanks 2012 and here’s to a great 2013 and hoping you enjoy the gifts!

Design On,

** Love you Bjork, don’t hurt me!

A succinct post with a hefty question to address- Is there a difference between a house designed by a builder and one by an architect? Rather than a long winded typed diatribe, I submit two images… after all, I’m an architect and a picture is worth, well they used to be worth something, right?




Still not sure of which is best? Tally the votes, counting visible ‘digits’ I see a 5:2 lead, hmm…


Design On,

** And for the builders, please don’t email me with accusations of how the images can’t be built.

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of phone inquires that usually go something like this:

Me “Hello, cogitate design, how can I help you” (keep in mind I do my best Isaac Hayes impression on the phone)

Potential Client “I got your name somewhere, I have a lot and I want to build a (insert building type here)”

Me “Wow, that sounds like an interesting project, would you like to meet and discuss further?”

Potential Client “No, I just need plans”

Me “Yeah, that, um, that’s not something we just ‘have’”

Potential Client “I don’t need much, can you just sell me some plans you’ve already done?”

Me “No, not really, we craft buildings per the client’s needs and specific site…”

Potential Client “Can’t you just sell me some plans from your cad machines?”

Me “No, it doesn’t really work like that…”

Potential Client “Jackassarchitect…”

Me “I’m sorry, what was that?”

Potential Client “Oh, I said Jackson Browne’s car is next…”

Me “That doesn’t even make sense…”

Potential Client “Does to…”

Me “Does not…”

Potential Client “Jackson Browne’s car is next…”


Me “Bueller… Bueller… Bueller… Bueller…”

So then it hit me, we architects exist to get scraps for compensation and make it as easy as possible for others to profit. I can do that. Then an apparition of Ray Kroc appeared. I can make it even easier; I’ll offer a drive-thru service and a value menu! Introducing the cogitateDESIGN VALUE MENU:

(click menu to enlarge)

Jody Brown of Infill recently asked me if I would be interested in writing a guest post for his site Coffee with an Architect. Jody is a talented architect running a scrappier than mine little firm in Durham NC. You can learn more about Jody here – INFILL…..but don’t give him any work unless you run it by me first 😉

I accepted his offer, wrote a post and he put it up on his site- I figured it couldn’t hurt to post on my site as well and further the gospel spread of common sense design…’s the post:

You heard what?
No, don’t be silly, I was just coughing.

Top Ten Interior Recommendations when Designing a Home:

Over the past 16 years all the single family homes I have designed, no matter the scale or scope, permeate with omnipresent issues. I have learned many valuable lessons- the hard way of course. I have attempted to create a succinct list of my top ten interior recommendations when designing a home. The list is a reflection of my observations and what my clients have valued, asked for, or regretted not doing in the design of the houses for them…..

(lights dim, soft drum roll):

10. Outdoor eating areas: Outdoor? But you said interior recommendations, read on… outdoor spaces are great, but only if integrated with the house. Ideally an outdoor eating area should be located a maximum of 20 feet from the kitchen. While the impact and drama of an outdoor eating area can be stunning, practicality is better. No one wants to carry food, drinks, tableware and such for 50’ only to realize they have the good wine and forgot the cork screw. NOTE: If you are Mrs. Client from item 8 below you can ignore this recommendation and proceed with tossing your food scraps to the peasants below.

9. Unfinished basement: Okay, so you watch HGTV, you may subscribe to This Old House Magazine, and perhaps you have even done a craft at Home Depot on a Saturday morning. Go ahead, look out the window, see how sad that red bellied sapsucker looks, it’s because the bird house you built has no floor, no roof, and no walls; only a perch offset from the tree. I give you credit though, you tried to adhere to Adolf Loos and his manifesto “Ornament and Crime” however, once and a while you need to slap some lipstick on a pig to make it dance. You, yes I’m looking at you Mr. and Mrs. Client, will NEVER finish the basement yourself. The greatest regret I have heard from clients is that they did not finish the basement during the construction of their home. Trust me, it is cheaper to do it now rather than later- oh who am I kidding, you won’t listen to me. (18 months later) Wait for it, wait for it….”I told you so.”

8. Laundry Rooms: Unless you have house staff, place the laundry room on the same floor as the bedrooms. A quick re-enactment (names were changed to protect the classless):

Me: Sure Mrs. Client, we can locate the laundry in the lower level where you would like… will be a bit out of the way though and not that convenient… will have to walk down two flights of stairs and across the entire basement to do the laundry.

(Mrs. Client reacts with the indifference of Judge Judy’s Bailiff Byrd…. room becomes silent and a cold chill fills the air… Mrs. Client rolls eyes)

Mrs. Client: I am not carrying or doing any laundry, my help does that and I do not care how far they have to walk

Me: but, but….what about……

(Mrs. Client sighs, rolls eyes once again and gets up from chair to leave)

Mrs. Client: Put the laundry room where I want it, I say good day to you!

Do not be Mrs. Client, she is evil and she’s a cold hearted snake, do not look into her eyes (obscure Paula Abdul reference for no reason at all).

7. Mudroom: I mandate that all homes shall have a mudroom! The minimum should include a washable floor, floor drain, and utility sink with a hose attachment. In addition to the minimum, all the homes I have designed with a mudroom also included built-in cubbies/lockers. Each occupant of the home should have their own cubby/locker for storage of their jackets, footwear, sports gear, etc. We are a dirty active species and need a dedicated space for our stuff and a quick hose down so we don’t track dirt and swine flu into the home. The mudroom should be located wherever the family foot traffic passes on a daily basis (pssst… pssst… here’s a clue, it’s usually not the front door).

6. Powder room: Locate in an area that is easily accessible but in an out of the way location- ideally the mudroom can be used as a buffer to the powder room. Let’s face it, we have all been at a party where we consumed one too many mini taquitos accompanied by alcoholic beverages, or you’re the designated driver and all jacked up on pixie sticks and mountain dew. Next thing you know, nature comes a knocking. You’re in the powder room, which is located in the entry foyer where the host is welcoming new guests, and even better item number 3 below was ignored. You try and mask the ‘event’- you turn on the under sized exhaust fan, next you turn the water on, and as a last resort you pretend to have a coughing fit- it doesn’t work. As you exit the powder room you’re greeted with an uncomfortable stare from the guests, word spreads and you’re “that guy/gal” for the rest of the evening. This did not need to happen- friends do not let friends use poorly designed powder rooms.

5. Built-ins: It is the details that make a home stand out and unique. Having a few built-ins selectively located, will add to the character of your home and typically increase the overall value of the home. These do not need to be elaborate- i.e. with a few minor modifications/additions, a window seat can be fabricated from kitchen wall cabinets and achieve a handcrafted custom look. To be clear, stacked cmu’s or milk crates with horizontal 1×12’s do not constitute a built-in.

4. Upset beams and MEP Conflicts: No, this does not relate to the emotional state of beams- although it is a plausible debate that beams have feelings along the same lines as shellfish. It is worth noting that this only applies to wood beams, everyone knows steel beams have no feelings whatsoever and are only concerned with themselves. This is an issue for the architect, if you do not layout the structure and MEP for your projects be sure you review and understand the consultant’s drawings. Know when a beam needs to be down set- floor joists rest on top of the beam. Know when a beam needs to be upset (sometimes called flush)- beam is in floor cavity and floor joists are hung off the beam. Early on in my career I was burned by many an unplanned soffit or chase as a result of non-coordinated beams and ductwork. A coffered ceiling is great a coffered ceiling with a beam soffit down one side not so great.

3. Create sound barriers: Sound insulate walls and floor/ceilings between public and private rooms. In addition, insulate private and private rooms as per the project specifics. No witty comments here, however, if you do not follow this advice be forewarned you will hear things that will forever haunt you to the depths of your soul!

2. Create separate wings: Ideally the home should be divided into three zones- main living spaces, owner’s wing, and a wing containing children’s and/or guest bedrooms. Even the closest of close families all relish their private time and want to get away from each other now and then. 10 PM and your trying to get your sanity sleep or find Stella’s groove, the last thing you need is Justin Bieber permeating your room, or worse yet Nickleback!

1. Floor Plan: The floor plan should meet your needs and how you live. Do not design for what you are told is needed to re-sell the home or include whatever the latest trend is, i.e. “man cave.” You do not want to end up with rooms that you never use- not only will you have to furnish them but you will also have to heat and cool them- these monies could be better spent elsewhere, ideally the architect’s final bill would be paid in full… come on, who are we kidding, that’s not going to happen. Perhaps a gift card for the architect or a simple thank you card. Afford me a $25 Target gift card so I can get a Michael Graves Stainless Steel Martini Shaker and we will call it even.

I was unsure of what I was going to write about and who would care what I write about, but then it came to me, “you know, I think I really do know some stuff” …….”people like stuff”…….write about “stuff”…..”and if nobody cares, so what, it’s just stuff.” So that’s what I did and hopefully you have found some humor and some advice within my ramblings- it’s been a fun write and somewhat cathartic.

Depending on how this post is received, the next installment shall either be my top ten regarding the exterior of the house, kitchen design, or why basswood is superior to balsa wood but not as versatile as chipboard nor as tasty as homemade fudge- or none at all. It’s some crazy times out here in architecture land, but keep on designing and something will happen. In closing I would like to state that I will be re-reading the definition of succinct.