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  • Writer's pictureTravis E. Hills

Stages of a residential building project & the Architect's role

People choose to build a custom home and to hire an architect to design it for a number of reasons. Most clients desire a distinctive, unique design expressing their tastes and their dreams. Many choose to build a custom home to celebrate their success in life.

Not all homes are designed by an architect. Semi-custom homes can be built using stock plans or from a design sketched out by a contractor, but the truly custom home demands the skill and expertise of an experienced architect. If you have a beautiful piece of land with dramatic views, rock outcroppings, trees and other natural features, only a home designed just for that site can take proper advantage of the property. If you have always had a dream, an image in your mind of the perfect home, an architect will listen to your dreams and incorporate them into your design.

Choose your architect carefully. Are you compatible? Can you work together easily (and for a long time)? Look at the architect's previous work. You may not see exactly what you want, but the style and character should appeal to you. Do not hesitate to ask for and check references.

As a part of his services, an architect will discuss your goals, requirements, budget, and special needs. He may visit and study your site. The architect will then work to translate your dreams into reality in the form of design concept drawings. Next, he will prepare a detailed set of construction drawings and specifications. These construction documents will be used to obtain accurate and comparable bids.

If a Project Management Agreement is established in addition to plan development, the architect will be available to assist you throughout the construction phase of the project after the planning stage. He will help you select appropriate contractors to bid your project, review those bids and assist in selecting your builder. He also will observe the construction process, help with changes, look out for quality control, assist in making design decisions and professionally represent the owner's interests.


Selecting and Purchasing Land

The first step toward building a custom home is the selection and purchase of the land. Most clients own their property before finding an architect, but for those who do not, an architect's advice prior to purchase is strongly recommended. He can visit available properties, check for which best suit the client's needs and goals, study the property and look for any potential problems that might make construction more difficult or expensive.

Once the land is purchased, the owners obtain a site survey showing contours, boundaries, setbacks, trees and rocks. The owners also order a soil test outlining foundation and septic requirements. The architect can provide names of qualified surveyors and soil engineers. Also important are copies of design covenants and any other restrictions applying to the land. These are available through the realtor or subdivision.

The House Program

Next the owners and the architect will develop a written description, called a program, that lists the requirements for the project. This is a detailed list of rooms and room sizes, how the spaces will relate to one another, which have the best views, which have the morning sun. If the clients want a solar heated home or a low maintenance house or a home designed in a certain style, this is the time to discuss it. Many people bring a file containing notes, photos and magazine clippings to give the architect a better idea of their intentions and desires.

From this program, the architect will estimate the size of the proposed home. Based on square foot unit costs, taken from similar, recent jobs, he will prepare an estimated cost for the project. If this proposed cost is not within the budget, the program is then revised, with reductions in size or quality or an increase in budget before the project proceeds into the design phase.

Preliminary Design

The architect begins the design process by visiting the site. He prepares a site analysis, studying the character of the site, driveway access, solar orientation, views, locations of neighboring homes and any special site features.

Based on the site analysis and house program, the architect begins work on a house design. He will prepare sketch site plans showing house location and driveway access, house plans showing room layouts and sizes, and elevations showing a rough concept for the exterior of the house. During this phase the architect takes factual, objective information, solves the practical problems and arrives at a subjective solution in the form of an attractive design.

Design Covenants and Architectural Review Committees

Many subdivisions have design standards and covenants. Some are strict, others lax, but most require that final drawings be submitted and approved before construction commences. If there are such restrictions applicable at your home site, the design requirements must be conveyed to the architect so that the design being developed is in compliance with the required standards. Many developments have very involved design review procedures and require submittals of preliminary sketches, study models, final drawings and color samples. Architectural reviews can be time-consuming and should be planned for when scheduling.

Design Development

During this phase the owners review design concept sketches, concentrating on the overall concept. Small details come under consideration later. Design concepts are revised and refined based on the owner's' feedback. The architect continues to provide design sketches until the concept is accepted by the owner.

Final design drawings are now begun, formatted at an appropriate scale and incorporating structural and mechanical considerations. These are the owner's final review of the design prior to starting the construction drawings. At this time a Design Layout and Elevations of the home will be developed, allowing the clients to view the design from all sides.

Construction Drawings & Specifications

After the owner has approved the final design drawings, the architect begins the construction documents. A typical set of construction drawings includes a site plan, foundation plan, floor plans, exterior elevations, building sections, details, framing and roof plans, and interior elevations. A mechanical/electrical layout sheet is drawn, but the actual mechanical and electrical engineering is typically done by the sub-contractor in residential construction. Heat loss and energy calculations as required by the building department are provided, and a written specification is developed covering quality of materials and workmanship.

In many areas an engineered foundation plan is required, because of the possibility of expansive soils. The engineer will also size beams and detail the structural requirements of the home. This work is coordinated by the architect but billed to the owner as a separate expense.

There are three main uses for the construction documents. Detailed drawings and specifications allow for accurate, comparable bids from contractors. The documents will be reviewed by the building department before issuing a permit. And, of course, the drawings and specifications will be used by the contractor and sub-contractors while building the house.


Bidding the Project

Some owners will have already selected their contractor prior to designing the house. In this case, the contractor often will participate in the design process, providing preliminary cost estimates and conferring with the architect on details and specifications. At this stage the contractor would do a detailed cost breakdown and prepare a contract, and the owner would then proceed with financing.

In other cases, a client will have several contractors bid the project. The winning contractor will be selected because of price, reputation, and compatibility with the owner. The architect will recommend contractors, review bids and assist in the selection of the contractor.


Certain features in a custom home, such as carpeting, tile and wood flooring are difficult to specify or bid at this early stage in the project. These items are handled as allowance items. A realistic estimate for each allowance item is placed into the bids, with all contractors using the same sums to ensure comparable bids. During construction, as the owners select these items, their goal is to stay within this allowance. If the owners choose a more expensive item and exceed the allowance, they must pay the additional cost. If they come in under the allowance, they realize the savings. Allowances are used for floor coverings, cabinets, appliances, light fixtures, hardware, spas and other owner-selected finishes.


The owner is responsible for all financial arrangements, typically both a construction loan and permanent financing. The bank will need a contract and bid from the contractor, several sets of plans to review and appraise, and the owner's financial statement before approving a construction loan. During construction the bank will administer the loan, issuing checks to suppliers and sub-contractors as the work progresses. Upon completion of the home, the construction loan is switched over into permanent financing, usually in some form of a mortgage. Owners working without a loan should administer their home finances in a similar manner to ensure financial security.

Construction of the Home

When construction begins, the contractor takes the most active role, at times contacting you daily. The builder obtains the permit, a hole is dug, the foundation is poured and soon the house is being framed. At times the work will seem to go quickly with visible progress made each week. At other times, due to shifting trades, hidden and time-consuming work, it will seem as if nothing is happening. A common comment during construction is that the house seems smaller than expected. Unpainted rooms with no furniture lack scale and appear smaller than expected.

During construction, the architect makes periodic visits to the job site if there is a Project Management Agreement established during the planning stages. His role is to observe the work, to see that the project is being built as designed and to help resolve any problems or make changes requested by the owner. However, the architect does not inspect the work. That is the role of the contractor and building inspectors. At the completion of the project, the owner, architect and contractor take a final walk through the home and compile a punch list of any work needing completion or repair. During the construction process the architect acts as the owner's professional representative.

The owner's role during construction is to shop, choose and decide. Hundreds of decisions need to be made, from the exact color and door style of the kitchen cabinets to what light fixture is best in the front entry. The contractor and the architect will be able to assist you in making selections, but many clients hire an interior designer.

Interior Design

Interior design services are not provided by the architect. He can direct you to cabinet and tile suppliers and will always voice an opinion, but if the owner requires assistance in selecting colors, tile, carpet, interior finishes and furniture, an interior designer should be retained. The architect can recommend designers. They can become involved during the design process, but often begin their work at the start of construction.


Again, the architect does not provide landscape design. Landscaping beyond final grading, decks, concrete walks and garden walls are not typically provided for in the contractor's bid or the architects drawings. The owner can hire a landscape architect or directly contact a landscaping contractor for designs and prices. This process occurs during the construction of the house or at any time after.


The design and construction of a custom home is a long and demanding process, at times stressful, but also very rewarding. It typically takes at least a year from the hiring of the architect until the owner moves in. Design and drawings can take from four to six months, bidding and financing from one to two months and construction about seven months. These times increase as the size and cost of the home increase.

Clients are often eager to build, whether because of pressure from school schedules and other constraints or simply because of excitement. However, time taken with the design process is time well spent. Careful study of the design sketches lets the client make changes on paper instead of in the field. Adding a month to a year-long process can give you a better design, reduce change orders and result in fewer added costs.

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