Process: Where Do I Start?

When people think about building a custom home, their first question is usually, "Where do I start?"

Last week I was checking in to the web site It is a great resource of gorgeous projects both interior and exterior. They also have a section to post questions where professionals can reply. The question of Process is recurring.

I saw this question posted: Do you consult a builder or architect first?

My reply: Always, always, always start with an architect. You as the homeowner want to own the plans. You want control through the entire process and that control starts with the ability to bid out the job. If your contractor produces the drawings or pays to have the drawings done he owns the plans. You will not have the right to bid or build with another contractor.

Inserting a personal note here because I work with some amazing contractors that bring me clients. I still stand by my opinion, but if you find yourself in this position, I hope you have one of my contractors. ;)

Yes, I know it sounds greatly self serving,also a little arrogant to believe that every project should start, progress and end with me but let me share a scenario with you.

Homeowner Mrs. Smith goes to open houses to see what she likes from local builders. She finds a builder who she likes and sets a meeting. With a deposit from Mrs. Smith, this builder hires an architect to sit down with the client and produce some design drawings. Preliminary bids look good. The builder hires the architect to produce Construction Documents. The builder works up final costs and a contract.

After reviewing all of this Mrs. Smith listens to the little voice in the back of her head…

  • How do I know this is a good price?
  • Wonder what someone else would charge me?
  • Does he use the best/cheapest/fastest sub contractors?
  • Are all of the finishes and appliances what I am expecting?

Mrs. Smith calls the architect: “Can I run this by another builder? I’m just not sure.”
Architect: ”No.”
Mrs. Smith: “Why not? They are plans for my house.”
Architect: ”Unfortunately the contract is between me and the builder. He owns the rights to the plans.”
Mrs. Smith: “But I paid him to pay you.”
Architect: ”That sucks.”

I’ve had this conversation too many times. And while I would love to have the fortitude the end the conversation this way, in reality we continue discussing the options. They are few:

• Ask the builder permission to bid out the project with the drawings. (Even if he allows this, your relationship will never be the same)
• Start over with a new contract between owner & architect. (copyright issues get sticky here)
• Move forward with this builder and try to watch everything throughout the project because you have already given up the best piece of control you had.

This is what the process should look like:

  • Interview Architects
  • Hire Architect
  • Architect to design home (2 phases)
  • Consult with recommended builder to get a ball park estimate
  • Architect to revise if necessary
  • Architect to prepare Construction Documents
  • Send out to bid to 3 recommended builders
  • Analyze, dissect and interpret bids to compare apples to apples
  • Negotiate bids
  • Hire builder

This path will benefit you in many ways. You will get a better price when builders are bidding against each other. This is not adversarial, it is just keeping everyone’s pencil sharp.

You will establish a simple one to one relationship with your architect. This will serve you will throughout the project to have a professional on your side with no financial pulls to give you anything but the best answer.

Possibly the most important benefit of starting with an architect is maintaining your control of the project. When you own your plans and have a simple one to one relationship with your architect you control your project right from the beginning. This is the key to having a great experience building a home.

- Sheri


As Founder and Principal Architect of Springhouse Architects, Sheri’s mission is to lead Clients through the building process with the Clients in control and Springhouse as their guide, advocate and ally.  With over twenty years experience in Residential Architecture, Sheri brings knowledge and confidence to your custom home project.

Lisa Saldivar