Architect to small-scale design build


Long time lurker here, looking for someone to slap me with a reality check.

I'm an architect in Canada, currently project managing technically complex projects in the 5-15 million dollar range, none of which are residential. I've never worked on residential projects before, though my introduction to architecture was through working for homebuilders and residential developers in my younger years.  Most of my days now are spent coordinating consultants and I am longing for the hands-on aspect of building that I thought I would be getting more of when I signed up for this profession.

I'm daydreaming about leaving the corporate gig and setting up shop in my basement, becoming the architect and general contractor for spec-build projects. I have enough saved up that I could, in theory, purchase the land required and secure a construction loan. The value add is that I take charge or the whole process, design, CD production, approvals, project manage, and self-perform some work where possible. Keep the overhead low and cut the fat until the model is scaleable.  If it all fails I lose a bit of money and go back to work for the man. I love architecture, but I crave having greater control of a project - something I don't have with the projects I currently work on.

I'm surprised there weren't many forum posts on others doing the same thing. Has anyone made the leap in this direction that could share their experience? Does the institutional work experience translate to the world of single family home building, or am I in for a total surprise? Any sage advice (based on the limited information provided). 

Mar 7, 20 2:53 pm

Totally reasonable idea and a good one if you execute it well. Find partners who understand the local market so that you don't end up building the perfect house no one wants. Make sure you work with someone can advise you from early on before even getting the land, since your background doesn't likely give you much insight into the local residential market.

A common mistake for architects is thinking if they get the design and construction right the project will be a success. There needs to be a good understanding what people will actually buy and where they will buy it if you want to make money at it - otherwise you're just speculating on being able to sell for more than cost based on a design the architect likes.

i haven't done this myself, but working a few years for a developer really opened my eyes to what we as architects just aren't in the habit of looking at.

Mar 7, 20 8:46 pm  · 
1  · 
Wood Guy

I've worn all of the hats--designer, builder and designer/builder--on moderately high-end residential projects for 25 years, including a lot of hands-on building. About six months ago I hung up my builder hat to focus on design and consulting for the foreseeable future. A few thoughts:

Residential construction is different from commercial construction. It's definitely something you can learn, but I'd be nervous about jumping in without understanding the finer points. Could you find a partner experienced in residential to show you the ropes on one or two projects? Or find a short-term position as a project manager for a successful company? That's probably the fastest, safest way to learn. 

Wearing all of the hats is exponentially more challenging than focusing on just design or just construction. You may enjoy the challenge, and could be rewarded if you're good at it. Or you may get overwhelmed at the number of times a day you have to change hats. When I was younger I enjoyed the challenge, but I'm finding the simplicity of design-only to be a lot easier to manage, and for me, more profitable. 

If you want to be successful in residential design/build, especially if building spec, you will need to be where the work is. That may sound obvious, but I didn't fully appreciate how important it was when I moved a few years ago. 

Being responsible for both the design and construction of a project can be immensely rewarding. In some cases it can even be financially rewarding. 

Mar 8, 20 11:25 am  · 

where in Canada are you? If you are in Ontario you need to carry Tarion... without it you are not able to sell the house as a new home with a warranty. 

I’m currently doing what you are doing. However I am doing it with my day job. If you have any questions let me know.

Mar 8, 20 3:59 pm  · 

I’m currently doing what you are wanting to do*. Sorry can’t edit on mobile phone


If you ever need any custom printed forms like invoices, work orders, graph paper pads etc., please let me know. I can help out in that regard.

Mar 17, 20 8:54 am  · 

I have my own firm and started out doing work for local builders and home owners to pay the bills but translated to much larger work over a near 30 year career but always did my own design build work for myself.  That way I  never pissed off the local builders who gave me a great deal of work in the years.  could have continued to only do that but the larger projects just kept getting better and I enjoyed the clients.  But I always designed and built my own houses ( swinging the hammer on the weekends and when I wasn't a liablity) it kept me in the game and was very profitable.  It was a good transition and I will likely do another in the future.  My wife is not as complicit in the design process so she finds it stressful but she gets bored easily so every 4-5 years she gets the twitch to do it again.... which should be in a bout 10-12 months haha.  Bottom line jumping straight into the smaller scale residential work is different and the scale and people you deal with are different and maybe not as professional as you maybe used to so finding the right crew and trades can take some time to build that network and those important relationships to achieve the quality you are after, depends where you are in the country too. 

I love it when I am in the midst of it and really think it's the most satisfying work I have ever done but it can be stressful too especially when it's November, snow is in the forecast with rain to follow and you have to protect the perfectly stained glulams beams worth several $100k and you find yourself on the roof shoveling off the last snowfall at 8 pm in the dark on a slippery ass tarp so the roofer will finish the roof prior to getting hammered by the rain  ....  oh and putting 2" diameter holes into the floor of your master bedroom ply shealthing to drain off the melted snow isn't as fun either. All part of the game though! haha

Mar 17, 20 7:12 pm  · 
1  · 

Most domestic builders do a little design here and there, normally in conjunction with the homeowner, who may produce sketches, photos, and breaks-outs from magazines or design books. This is very true in remodeling, where design selections are largely restrained by pre-existing conditions. Technically, these builders are giving a design-build service.  

Jul 21, 20 8:07 am  · 

First of all, there is so little info on the subject because most of the architecture that is actually doing it is rather successful enough and do not share their stories on forums, you can read all about them in articles on WSJ or Yahoo. Another thing - personal blogs, I've collected some of them

Jan 13, 21 6:14 am  · 

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