The Architecture of Life: A Few Hard Facts - Verse One

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Few Hard Facts - Verse One

Before we begin dreaming about creating your “dream home,” I need to make you aware of a few hard facts.

First, in almost every project, there comes a time when compromise is required to meet the budget. If the client has not settled for themselves what aspects of the project are most important to them, they risk spending money in all the wrong places.

Sadly, this happens all the time. Most architecture schools do not teach their students how to effectively manage a residential client’s budget. That task is managed - when it is managed at all - by going through an often cumbersome competitive bid process after the design is complete…and most of the architecture fees are spent.

This process works more effectively on large commercial projects because the scope of the construction - and higher design fees - makes it practical and necessary to manage the cost during the design. Contractors and costing experts are brought into the process early for budget analysis and value engineering.

But even in that better funded process, budgets still often go awry.

In custom residential work, effective cost management is rarely a significant part of the process of the design, despite its importance to almost every client.

So if the low bidder’s price happens to be fifty per cent over the customer’s budget - something that happens more than most of us would like to believe - then either the architect or the client must face the expense and delay of a redesign.

Even worse, it is not uncommon for clients to pay considerable architecture fees for construction drawings that in the end, they cannot afford to build. This does not always happen because of a failure of the designer. Many clients have a hard time facing the difficult budget decisions that confront them.

A custom home or major remodeling project is often a lifelong dream. Clients come to the process with “great expectations.” It is human nature that there is often a significant gap between what we want in life…and what we are willing to pay for the fulfillment of those desires. Clients find it hard to give up on their dreams until they are forced to do so by hard financial realities.

If changes need to be made to manage the budget - the client has seldom learned enough in the process to enable them to make good decisions about what to keep - and what to give up - in the revised design.
The result can be heartbreaking.

Despite the fact that some residential architects and builders have learned to manage these issues to some degree, in real life most custom designed residential projects suffer significant cost overruns either during the design or during construction.

The dreaded “change order” has become such a common feature of quality custom home and remodeling construction that experienced designers and contractors often tell their clients up front that they should allow for significant overruns when they plan their finances for the project. Overruns of thirty per cent or more are common.

Ineffective budgetary control is endemic to residential construction, and it is caused by a failure of what architects call the “program” for the design.

The programming stage, in which the criteria for the project are determined, is typically the first phase of the design process.

A few years ago I broke with the mainstream in this arena because I simply decided standard practices did not work. I was a builder first, then became a designer. I could see no utility in designing buildings that did not get built.

That is what led to the programming process we use in our architecture firm that we are now working to make available on the Internet at

The methods we developed are a broad-based method for establishing residential design criteria - based not only on practical aspects of the design - but also on the less obvious, but extraordinarily important criteria called for by the emotional and developmental needs of the client and their family.