Behind every great idea, there is a defining moment, and ours came the day Megan visited our office.
What began as an ordinary weekday changed our business model forever when Megan walked into our office and unrolled an obviously worn set of blueprints. These blueprints had seen better days. And yet, it was with careful hands that she set them before us and told us her story.
Megan was a widow, she said, on a fixed income, but with a nest egg set aside to build her dream, retirement home. For two years, she had worked with a builder and his chosen architect to turn her vision into reality.
The plans were perfect. She had room for the grandkids to sleep and play when they visited her house, a kitchen and dining room designed to entertain her friends and family, and a detached garage with an apartment above for the day when she could no longer live independently and needed a full time nurse. As she talked through the plans, we could see how emotionally invested she was in this home.
She asked us to ball-park the cost, which we normally wouldn’t do, but she was insistent, and so we agreed. After we looked it over and asked a number of questions, we gave her a number. And then came the kicker.
This dream home – the one the builder and his chosen architect collaborated on – came in at $250,000 over her budget (a 50% overage)! Her voice began to tremble as she said, “Well, you’re the 5th builder to give me that same number.” And so we became the 5th builder to tell Megan the truth – it wasn’t possible to build the home of her dreams. We were saddened and terribly disappointed in an industry with a fundamental problem, and so was Megan!
We said, “We have to do something!” This was not a new problem. It was commonplace in our industry, but no one seemed to be able to tackle the solution. It broke our hearts to hear Megan’s story, and so after Megan left our office that day, we decided to go back to the drawing board and start over with a new process – one that gave the person holding the purse strings more control from the very beginning. We had to be able to give people a firm idea of the cost earlier in the process. How else are they ever going to make good, well-informed decisions about the home they want to build?
Revamping the process would mean that we would have to hire and train a team of talented Architects, buy the latest technology, and be totally transparent and up-front on all of our pricing. That was counter to the way our industry operated. Even today, it is estimated that the design-bid-build process, even with detailed specifications, conceals up to 20% of the true cost of the home until after the contract is signed and construction begins. Our new process would mean that we would have to work much harder, ask a lot more questions, and get it right from the very beginning, during the concept phase, in order to get the design right and give accurate pricing up front. We had to completely throw out all of the old questions architects used to ask, and change over to a more comprehensive Lifestyle questionnaire to get our clients to think through what is really important to them and how the home will perform in the very earliest stages of design. That was really the only way to avoid serious cost escalatation during design. None of this had ever been done before. Many people told us we couldn’t do it, but we were determined that Megan, and clients just like her, would have a choice that did not involve the big, ugly surprise after the contract was signed.
So, it was out of all this that our design-build concept was created. By bringing the very people who will be designing the home in house, the designers and builders collaborate to create exactly what the clients want from the very beginning, and they do it within the client’s chosen budget. It took a while to learn how to balance both sides of the coin – the creativity of the design process with the right materials and technology for the build – so that the end result is a home as unique as the people building it.
Megan wasn’t able to build her dream home. She left our office that day frustrated and dismayed. Did you know that there are even awards for architecture that never gets built? They’re called “Progressive Architecture” awards. Frankly, we don’t think of that as an award at all–we view that as a failure. To us, the only successful architecture, is the architecture that is built, inhabited, and loved by those who enjoy it every day! We aren’t satisfied until good people like Megan are actually living in the home of their dreams. Our encounter with Megan, although difficult, changed our process and way of thinking entirely so that the way could be paved for a better system and process.