Residential Architects

wurdan freo

Homes plans are a commodity. 

I've heard that from multiple real estate investors and with sites like

all over the place. It really is hard to compete. How do architects differentiate themselves from this product? 

I think it comes back to relationships. If you can build trust with a new or existing client they will believe you when you explain the value you add to the process. The hand holding with the client through the entire process is the best service an architect can provide. There will always be a cheaper, easier way to get a floor plan. 

The problem exists in our instant gratification society. When people want to build a home, they want it now. Relationship building takes time. 

Any thoughts?

Jun 19, 12 2:26 pm

Sophisticated residential developers know that they have to tailor their product to the specific market segment they seek to attract. You can't really do that with boilerplate plans. Using commodity design yields a commodity product, which in turn gets stuck with commodity pricing and very thin margins.

As the economy has softened up, the only way to build success for a residential (or really any) project is to differentiate it from the competition by value provided. That requires tailor-fit, not off-the-rack.

The single-family home market is no different, except that the main clients for that sort of work are usually the end-users, not developers. Most home-owners can't really afford full bespoke (ground-up custom), so they have to settle for semi-custom or ready-to-wear. That's not an "instant gratification" problem. It's a scarce-resources problem. To be an architect in the single-family home market means focusing on the upper segments of that market (unless you're going to be a developer/builder yourself, at which point the economics become more manageable again).

Jun 19, 12 2:48 pm
wurdan freo

That's very insightful gwharton.  I personally have never looked at the residential home market strictly from the view point of architecture and what you say makes a lot of sense regarding that aspect. My original comment does come from the view point of designer/construction manager with the goal of developer/builder. 

Jun 19, 12 5:34 pm

Any insight on how to get clients for custom homes?  I know that connections are the  best way, but if you do not have any how do you get that first project ? 


Jun 19, 12 5:58 pm

why fight it? we're listed on


hometta also has architect designed homes for sale. 


yes, there are some crappy, lowest common denominator homes. but what makes us believe we can design literally every new home that goes up, as a unique response? it's a fallacy. period. 

Jun 19, 12 7:53 pm

I spent 7 years of my life doing wish-fulfillment luxury bespoke for staggeringly wealthy people. The best way to get into that business is to go hang out where they do and socialize with them regularly. If you're not already connected, that means getting connected: joining some very expensive clubs, moving to an expensive neighborhood, sending your kids to elite private schools, and generally living like you're rich. That can be difficult to sustain if you don't land many commissions right out of the gate. It's a hard business to break into. You'll start by doing remodels, and the word will start to get out among their friends if you treat them right and do great work.

Jun 19, 12 9:53 pm

Has anyone had any luck on sites like

Jun 19, 12 10:19 pm

metal - selling, you mean? our own is very modest. greg lavardera sells (or at least was) quite a few plans, though i don't personally know if they were coming through houseplans or not. 


my guess? none of the more, um, 'creative' architects are making a living selling plans that way. on either hometta or houseplans. now, put them up through something like southern living - and have a really popular plan - and you can do ok. or if you're cranking out 30 designs a year, you may do ok. at best, though, it's probably supplemental income for all but a handful of people.

Jun 20, 12 11:11 am
wurdan freo

I've posted a link below to a discussion on contractor talk about spec vs custom home.

In addition to that input, it has been told to me through several local custom home builders that the hand holding/customer experience is really the hardest part of the custom home business. That seems to be part of what gwharton is alluding to above.The introvert architect in me just wants to build a spec!

Jun 20, 12 12:25 pm

thanks Greg that was my hunch.

having worked in high end residential for a few years gwharton's description is spot on, it makes specs more tempting.

Jun 20, 12 1:50 pm

Residential architects are aware that the overall spatial design of a property relies on the successful interplay between landscape, architecture and design. A house or building that is not in tune with it’s natural, physical surroundings can fall short of discretion. With this reference residential architects and their strategies are always important to be studied.

Dec 2, 13 6:20 am

I have a little insight.  I became a custom home builder out of college.  

A few things to consider before going residential: The pay is lower, so you'll have to do some volume.  You think the race to bottom dollar was bad in commercial markets?  Built houses are going for as low as $72/sf in my area.  They're not going to want to tie up $5/sf in plans, no matter how well laid they are.  The licensed architects in my area doing residential do it for about $1-1.50/sf and primarily do it on the side.  The guy with the lion's share has his M.Arch, but never got licensed.  He's charging $.60/sf to clients of the builders he works with, or $1/sf to people off the street not tied to a builder.  He uses 3 students from the university here to knock them out quickly in Reddit.  BUT he's probably pulling down 250k/year.  

Changes and redlines.  You haven't seen changes and redlines yet.  You remember that first set of redlines you got back as an intern?  Let's do that 10 times on a 2,500 sf house.  It goes up exponentially with the square footage.  Imagine the worst client you've ever worked for and all the changes they wanted.  Now imagine that person's high maintenance, entitled daughter having a say in the layout.  That girl is your client now.

To be great at it, your programming has to be top notch.  I have a 10 page questionnaire I have my clients fill out before I ever take on a job.  I need to know their favorite thing to cook so that the Kitchen works well with that dish.  I need to know when they have their first cup of coffee to determine whether or not to have a coffee bar in the master bathroom.  I need to know how big that family heirloom buffet is so that I can make it fit into the dining room.  I need to know about their kids.  I need to know about their family holidays.  The list goes on and on and on.  There's a lot more to thinking about a how a person's house works than a lot of people realize.   

I hate to use these words on here, but you need a pinterest account.  Your clients are going to spend hundreds, if not thousands of hours looking a precedents on Pinterest and Houzz before they ever come talk to you.  You had better be on top of your game.  I have a personal pinterest account, and one for my business basically outlining different styles of homes and then I have it broken down into different types of rooms which I have further broken down into traditional, contemporary, and transitional.  If I took the time to flesh out an entire board of tudor kitchens vs. craftsman, vs. postmodern, vs. midcentury...well you get the idea.  But having that reference for them will help alleviate some of your headaches and help educate your clients.  For me personally, if I can stick to one stylistic language on the exterior of the home or one per room that makes my job so much easier.  The questions answer themselves when it comes to stylistic cues, material selections, etc.

As far as building a client base, gwharton's not far off.  I'm not a member of any country clubs, and I don't really enjoy sporting events, so for me cocktail parties and my daughter's gymnastics and dance classes have been great for building my client base.  You have to market yourself, too.  I make it a point to listen to a myriad of podcasts every day so I have interesting things to talk about when I'm there.  You want to come across as brilliant, and as someone who has thought about housing more than anyone else they've ever experienced.  That's who they want to design their house.  And you have to come across as genuine, not pretentious.  Humor never hurts, either.

I would also recommend getting to know some of the gc's in your area.  If they bring their clients to you, that really reduces your leg work.  They may already be tied in with another designer.  That's something you may have to contend with.  But if they get tied in with you, all you have to do is provide them with pretty plans, which turn into pretty houses, which turn into more clients.  Worst case scenario, you may have to start a design/build firm.  If I had it to do all over again, I honestly wouldn't have gotten involved in the construction side of things.  Yeah, the pay is great, but it's like running an adult day care for convicts.  The subs are craftsmen.  Half their employees are up and coming craftsmen, and the other half are guys who couldn't get a desk job with an arson conviction.

All that said, residential is fun.  That's why I do it.  I like building people's sanctuaries. I like to build the homes where their kids grow up, where they wind down after a crappy day at the office. I like building homes where they want to take their Christmas card portrait in the front yard.  I would love to see more architects on the residential side and fewer magazine plans being built.  No offense to architects who do off-the-rack plans.  But there's something special about an entire neighborhood custom designed.  There's not enough of it in my opinion.  

Dec 4, 13 11:12 am

rfuller that post is worth several hundred dollars if you were to offer it in a seminar....

Dec 4, 13 11:46 am

Great post, rfuller.

Dec 4, 13 1:02 pm
chatter of clouds

rfuller, how did you come up with the questions? did you collect them over the years? 

Also, i understand we do deliver a tailor made service - but to what extent is it just "too tailor made"?

Also, where do you draw the limit assuming that you've designed the house on the basis of information you were able to obtain or were given at the onset. Would you note down the new demands for the forthcoming projects (on that list of questions?) and tell the client: "Im sorry, you'll have to pay for the changes"? Or would you automatically incorporate it?

I'm just not certain where you're placing your limits. 

Dec 4, 13 8:16 pm

rfuller - Spot on!  I'm in the exact same form of practice.  Feeling you 100%.

"but to what extent is it just "too tailor made"?"

Depends on the client.  That's the scary part of residential, and especially luxury work;  You never know how demanding the client will be.  You need to be able to size them up in the first few meetings, and structure your fees and agreement for what you expect.  After a few jobs, you'll get pretty good at that.  But you'll probably take some licks until you get the hang of it.  You've got to just power through those, do a good job and work to earn the references and word-of-mouth.  If you're any good, the money will come, in time.  I'm 45, and am just now getting into the stage of my career where I'm attracting good projects for tasteful clients looking for what I do, and expecting to pay higher fees to get it.

"To be great at it, your programming has to be top notch."

Absolutely right.  I do the 'list' technique, too.  I learned it from Neutra via Thomas Hines, in his biography "Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture".  Great book with many lessons contained within.

"Also, where do you draw the limit assuming that you've designed the house on the basis of information you were able to obtain or were given at the onset."

You're a professional Architect.  If you feel the initial information is inadequate, then you need to interview your client further.  Also, as part of your agreement for services, you need to draw a bright line where changes requiring more than a certain amount of time get charged as an extra.  For myself, that's at the conclusion of Design Development, and at that point I've already got about a half-finished set of docs... With interior elevations, sections, tens of renderings under the bridge, etc.  By the end of DD, I've collected half the fees for the job.  Getting to that stage (end of DD) takes about 75% of the pre-construction project duration.  The building has had dozens of changes from major to minor from the original concept at that point.

"I'm just not certain where you're placing your limits."

The client places the limits, other than what I've illustrated above.  Some of them will keep on making changes right until the door knocker is mounted on the front door, and happily (or not) pay you the extra fees for it.  Once you reach a certain level of wealth, you really don't care what things cost... You just want it the way you want it, period.  'Demanding' and 'Spoiled' are close cousins, and sometimes it's hard to tell which one you're talking to.  Whichever it is, you need to smile, suck it up, and figure out how you're going to please your client while maintaining a soul-satisfying piece of work for yourself.  It takes a lot of years to develop that skill.

"You'll start by doing remodels, and the word will start to get out among their friends if you treat them right and do great work."

Yep.  100% correct.  Treat every client as if they were Andrew Carnegie.

"I would also recommend getting to know some of the gc's in your area."

Yes... And high-end REALTORS.  You'd be surprised how often they may need your services for as-builts, zoning code consultations, etc.  Offer some services to them to get your foot in the door.  Salespeople are well versed in mutual back scratching.  Myself and my colleagues at my level get lots of referrals from realtors.

After all the toil, frustration, dead ends, designs that died... all the crap we endure... One day you may wake up and realize, "Wow!  I've landed some great projects for respectable fees!"  It'll sneak up on you. 

I couldn't be happier in my work, right now.  I finally 'made it'.  It feels good.  Be persistent, don't get discouraged, and always be expanding your skills and network.  You can do it, too..

Great discussion folks - Couldn't resist to chime in.

Dec 5, 13 5:18 am
chatter of clouds

thanks for the input DMS-USA, i think if you're not in the thick of it, and as you said take some licks on the way, is difficult to imagine how you negotiate these limits. it also has to do with the kind of contract you draw up with the client and trying to have a watertight one so you don't up doing work you won't be paid for...

Dec 5, 13 5:57 pm

The problem is how to democratize residential design.  Its one thing to design for the rich, but what if the goal is to design high quality affordable homes in the low-mid price range. We live in a consumer culture.  People want a product.  People want to know the exact cost of a house because they are living within a tight fixed budget.  Any uncertainty with regard to price and time does not go over well with the average person (the 99%.)  Also, the (99%) cannot build a custom home because of the difficulty of getting a construction loan.  The system of financing does not support a traditional design service model.  This is a huge market and architects have not found a way to tap into it because they are hell bent on the service model of business.  This model does not work with residential design because the profits are too low and the overall process is out of sync with the culture and economics of the majority of the people in our society.  The only solution that I can imagine will be workable is the design develop model.  It is crazy to think that people live in beige stucco developer houses because they like them.  People in poor areas eat fast food because its the cheapest and most accessible option.  If you live in a food desert then you end up eating whatever crap is available.  The notion of bottom up demand is flawed.  The product must come first.  The option must be there before the people can demand it.  I strongly believe that if good architecture was available to the average person they would likely choose it over this beige stucco crap. 

Dec 6, 13 4:16 pm

I don't think you can "democratize" design. Period. Democratization requires a lowest-common-denominator approach, and that's totally incompatible with quality design work. The same goes for consumerist commodification. The more you go with a mass, one-size-fits-all approach, the less fit you will be able to achieve.

Dec 6, 13 8:19 pm

Not a one size fits all.  That is opposite from what I am talking about.  I am talking about many small homes all different and unique.  Not talking about some kind of module pre fab thing.  I am talking about regionally appropriate site specific works (one at a time) that are built for a reasonable price and than sold.  It's more like making a shoe and then the buyer who it fits buys it.  No different than what spec builders do but instead of big shitty design smaller better design.  It's totally possible to build a well designed house and sell it for a profit.  People do it all the time.   eichler pulled it off.  I know of a few architects that built spec projects and turned a profit.  One dude builds small town homes (nicer than the comps in the area) and rents them out.  

Dec 7, 13 1:35 am

That's a laudable goal, jla-x. But it's not really "democratic" in any meaningful sense, so use of that word is confusing your meaning.

Dec 9, 13 12:43 pm
Whatever Internet wizzard you hired to promote you is stealing your money and damaging your business. Not to put too fine of a point on it-quit spamming fool.
Mar 9, 14 1:30 pm

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