A Listening Game
Some funny things can happen on the way to that dream custom home, and most of them deal with decisions about materials.
“Over 70 percent of your cost is in the finish material — that’s enough to swing a project from viable to unobtainable,” said Mark Queripel, principal architect at MQ Architecture & Design LLC. “You can’t control every single item that goes in from the beginning, but you can certainly specify the majority of them.”
And while there’s a number of ways to approach building a custom or semi-custom home, what Boulder Valley architects and builders alike will tell you is that’s it’s important to have a process that enables the obtainable, and much of that revolves around materials.
Few decisions in life are more heartfelt and yet deserve to be most reasoned. So when the time comes to build the custom home that many hardworking people have envisioned for much of their lifetimes, guidance becomes a difficult task.
“I think one of the biggest challenges is trying to rectify their vision and their budget,” said the namesake and owner of Stephen Sparn Architects PC. “It’s very easy to design to someone’s dream; it’s more difficult to align the budget to match that vision. So I take that step very seriously.”
And building custom homes is much more complex than consumers might first imagine, with important decision points coming fast and furious. So when it comes to actually bringing a dream to fruition, builders and architects almost become counselors, with an emphasis on listening and collaboration.
“There is quite a bit of that (listening),” quipped Larry Parrish, chairman of Parrish Construction Co. of Boulder.
“The first thing I would recommend is that clients hire their builders and architects at the same time or hire a design-build company like ours — it gives you the best chance of designing to a budget. I see so many projects — where they hired their architect first before getting pricing — that got so seriously over budget that the project might not get built.”
If homebuyers are intent on getting competitive bids from their builders, it becomes imperative to obtain a full-set of architectural drawings, Queripel said. That’s because, again, it will all come down to materials.
“You can’t really have a competitive-bid situation until you get all the specifications set — you will be comparing oranges to apples to peaches,” he said.
Because of the complexity of the projects, many of the Boulder Valley’s homebuilders are design-build firms.
Michael Markel, president of Markel Homes of Boulder, has one of the more extensive companies, with 15 full-time managers and project areas in a number of cities, towns and unincorporated areas where his customers can choose to build on a developed lot. Still, there’s a long process before he ever has a contract in his hands.
“What we’ll do is sit down with myself and a project manager and one of our architects and do an interview — see what their needs are, what kind of a house they were thinking about, and what kind of location,” Markel said. “We talk to them about construction specifications of that home, budget specifics, what sort of floor plans and special needs and set up a list.
“Once we get that down, we get back with them on a return visit and come up with some preliminary plans. When we’ve got their ideas together with a planned budget and specifications, we would enter into a contract … and start coming up with some preliminary designs to meet their approval.”
Sparn said that most people approach him a little further down the road, once they have a property and an idea, but the process is much the same. Sparn said he designs homes in a variety of styles, from ultramodern to classic, according to his clients’ tastes, but there are several points he hopes his clients take from him, as well.
“In the grand scheme of things, good design doesn’t cost very much, and I think we’ve all seen homes built in a spectacular setting that you can’t see from the house. There are thousands of homes built here like that,” he said. “People also try to build to as much square footage as possible, but bigger isn’t always better. They need to be aware of leaving money for the finishes that will make them comfortable — you can’t believe how many forget to leave money for quality landscaping.
“Our clients will come to us with their goals and are looking for an architect to lead this team through this process — working with the budget, their site, their dreams,” he said. “It’s the largest investment people will make. It’s a very important and personal thing, so it’s important to be able to manage that process that hopefully will be fun, because it can also be stressful.”
And it will definitely be time consuming, as well. But it’s time well spent.
“They are going to have to spend some time making choices,” said Tim Murphy, owner of Murphy Homes LLC in Boulder. “Even if they’ve hired a designer and spent some upfront time, some people just don’t have enough time to do this.”
Things get more complicated in Boulder County and the city of Boulder, he noted, because of extensive regulations, setbacks, building envelopes and required energy efficiencies. Most of those requirements are addressed before the building plans are drafted, but Murphy noted that there is always tweaking along the way, regardless.
“Some (people) have fun with this, but others are a little unrealistic,” said Murphy, who has been building custom homes for 35 years in Boulder. “I think anybody who has been in the business for some time knows this.”
Murphy and Parrish suggested that there are natural times to work things out between plans and budgets — for instance, addressing materials and pricing during the initial design, but also when construction documents are drawn — a time when bids are falling into place and large items such as window packages can be addressed.
“Significant costs are driven by client choice,” Parrish said. “Everything you choose pretty much has a 5-to-1 price range — a refrigerator can be $900 or $5,000.”
Another important time is the walk-through before the drywall is installed, Markel said. Not only does that give homebuyers a chance to inspect plumbing, wiring and framing, but it’s also a lot easier to make small changes, including a change in finishes, at this point than it is after drywall installation.
And every good builder is expecting some of that, Markel said, and builds it into a process.
“I think if things are done properly, and you are asking a lot of questions, a lot of it can be taken care of in the beginning,” he said. “I’m not a one-man band. I’ve got in-house designers, estimators, project managers, and when you bring all that expertise together you can cover a lot of territory.”
But “there are definitely a lot of points of contact, and we’re always open for somebody to give us a call.”