“Skipping the Architect: Wise or Otherwise?”

That is the title of a recent article in The New York Times that caught my eye. I interact with architects and engineers on most projects my company is hired for, so I have first-hand experience with the benefits and sometimes disappointments of working with design pros.

I believe it comes down to just a few factors:

  • How substantial is your project?
  • How large is your budget? Can you afford loss?
  • How much time do you have?
  • Hiring pros does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.

Project size

Something relatively simple such as a deck  can be designed and built by do-it-yourselfers. There are many good books on the topic, and I like to think that most municipal building departments are willing to give helpful pointers. On the other hand, a second story addition or structural upgrades are better left to professionals. Not that clients should not take active roles in their projects, but without the necessary experience these jobs can become extremely frustrating, time-consuming, and expensive.


With some exceptions, people with sufficient income are likely to hire an architect and contractor . Generally those who want to save as much as possible — and those who simply enjoy the process — will don protective attire and tackle home improvement themselves. Keep in mind that post people undertake a major remodel just once or twice in their lifetimes. And the way they learn is by making mistakes. Unfortunately, making mistakes in construction — be it design or actual building — can be very costly. Yes, good architects and conscientious builders do not come cheap. However, not only can they can save you major headaches and help protect your largest investment, they are likely to deliver a product you will be happy with.


If you are able and motivated to do thorough research on your project, you can save plenty. Supply your own plumbing fixtures, for example, and you can probably do much better than your plumber. Just a few years ago, I bought a kitchen faucet  that retails for $700, including a contractor’s discount. With some crafty research, I was lucky enough to pick one up from an interior designer’s overstock for just $200. Keep in mind, though, that you must make sure all the parts are in the box. If your plumber, at $100+ per hour, is at your house to install, and finds pieces missing or incorrect, your savings will disappear quickly.


Similar to some contractors who just do not measure up, some architects and engineers are sub-par. I was asked recently to submit a competitive bid for custom work with lots of details. Unfortunately, the drawings did not address important structural connections. Many aesthetic features were made to look pretty on paper, but precisely how they were supposed to be manifested left me scratching my head. Even more curious was the fact that a building permit had already been issued, even with the missing structural information. And then there are designers who do not really know what a project is going to cost. Eager for new business, they tell prospective clients what they hope to hear. Then later, when contractors’ bids reveal that the work is going to cost far beyond the clients’ budgets, plenty of frustration and anger bubbles to the surface.


I am in favor of the middle way. As mentioned, some jobs need to be handled by construction professionals, period. They know building code requirements and have the skills; you do not. While building department officials may be helpful, they will not take the time to go over all your projects’ details. So why not do as much as you can, with or without the aid of design software, and then consult with an architect for a few hours to review your work and make suggestions? Especially in this down economy, I bet many some pros are interested in offering such a service.

I would love to hear from people who have designed and/or made improvements on their own. What was your experience? What would you have done differently? It surprises me that the NYT article did not ask this question and opened up its ‘Comments’ section. There would have been so much material for readers to learn from.


My company, CVAN Builders, offers consulting services to those who wish undertake larger alterations. The earlier we are involved in the project, the better we can help solve problems. We can help plan the entire process, identify and navigate possible roadblocks, and put together an approximate timeline and course of action. Depending on the extent of our involvement, we can make periodic site visits to make sure the work progresses as agreed. In hindsight of projects where problems arose, almost all clients said they would happily have paid for consultations. It was only after they learned first-hand about the many details inherent to remodeling that they came to understand the value of consultations.

Prior to construction, we often hear “I have an architect, contractor, soils + structural engineers; and a city inspector. Why should I spend additional money on a consultant?” The answer is that all these professionals cover narrowly defined tasks, and there usually are countless important details that fall through the cracks. In addition, the folks you hired are not necessarily in your corner all the time. Particularly in fixed-price situations, they want to get in and out as quickly as possible. Building inspectors look strictly for compliance to codes and engineering specs, and not for adherence to aesthetic details or the brand of paint shown in contracts and drawings. Please get in touch via CVAN Builders’ web site if you want to know more.

Many years ago, a local cabinet shop published a joke book for fellow contractors. It featured a cartoon of the leaning Tower of Pisa. An architect with construction drawings under his arm knelt in front of the King. “Sire, this will cost 30,000 lire to build. However, we can save at least 2,000 if we do not hire a soil engineer.” And interesting to know that the name ‘Pisa’ comes from ‘marshy land.’

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