There are many parties involved in the process of building a custom home: homeowners, mortgage lenders, appraisers, real estate agents, insurance agents, and more. After the land is secured and the loan is underwritten, however, there are three main players sitting at the table for the home’s design and building phases: The homeowner(s), the builder, and the architect. If you appreciate metaphors, like I do, you can refer to this as the three-legged stool. Just as in real life, this stool must have all three legs in order to stand. Take one away, and it all falls down.

As a Design/Build custom home builder, my company embraces bringing these three key players into contact and collaboration as early in the process as possible. While I certainly won’t claim to have “the best” approach to building a home, I have found this to work quite well for the past 16 years.

Andy the builder.
Andy the builder.

The older model of “Design-Bid-Build,” where a homeowner hires an architect to design the entire house to completion, and then selects a builder through a competitive bid process, is, at least in my world, a very small minority of the projects we build (<5%, actually). This is a good thing. I think I won’t alienate too many readers by saying that this competitive bid arrangement is flawed in that it leaves the builder out of the conversation until far too late in the game. I can tell you dozens of stories of potential clients walking through my office door with a full set of construction drawings they’ve spent upwards of $20,000 on only to find out that their dream home will never see the light of day because the project is over budget by 20% or more.

The collaborative Design/Build approach aims to prevent this from happening. Having our team in place from the beginning helps us identify the desires of the owner, knowing the constraints of the budget, site conditions, etc. We look to our architect to imagine, dream, draw, revise, and otherwise cast the vision for the home. As the builder, I am responsible for balancing wants and needs with costs, to value engineer, to weigh in on “buildability,” and to keep the entire process moving forward. Finally, we look to the owner to convey what is in their head and heart, to set the budget and to make decisions when they are presented with choices.

That said, there are two variations in “assembling the team” that I’ve seen consistently. In the first scenario, the homeowner hires an architect, and the architect assists the owner in selecting a builder. The architect, builder, and owner then design the house as a team. About 20% of our jobs have this sort of arrangement. In the second scenario, the homeowner hires the builder, and the builder selects and hires the architect. As with the previous arrangement, the builder, architect, and owner design the house as a team. My company uses this arrangement for about 75% of our projects.

The difference between these two is just a matter of sequencing since either scenario has “the team” in place before going into design, which is the critical part. It just so happens, that in my world, folks usually come to me—the builder—first, and start the conversation with, “So how does this whole process work, anyway?” The main point here is that no matter who makes the first contact, it’s critical to get all three players at the table as soon as possible.

In the ideal scenario, builders should get to know their local architects, and many of them. Over the years, I’ve worked consistently with about 10 different architects, and once I get into the initial design conversation with a homeowner, I can often tell them right away, “I know just the architect for you. You will love his style.”

Knowing the best architects in the region has been a tremendous asset to my business, and I similarly encourage architects to get to know their local builders. We should all be swimming in the same pool, mingling at the same networking events and attending the same educational seminars.

Some architects might be wary of working with a Design/Build builder. When an architect sees a new client walk into their office, they might feel they “have a bird in the hand” now, and might not want to risk losing out by contacting a Design/Build contractor who might woo them away. I understand this concern. However, I also know that whenever an architect reaches out to me, I always remember “who brought me to the dance,” and work hard to earn and keep their trust. Builders can be an excellent source of business for architects and vice-versa, we should think of each other as partners or associates, not competitors. Don’t forget: We can’t do our jobs without each other.

I’ve also found that many architects like having the builder act as a “buffer” between themselves and the client, since the builder has the majority of the conversations about unit costs, budgeting, and scope anyway. An architect recently told me, “I‘ve always enjoyed working with you because we speak the same language, and you already prequalify the homeowners and ask most of the hard questions before I’m even brought into the conversation.”

When our three-legged stool stands, it’s a beautiful thing: All three parties are working together, and the perfect home is designed and built, on time, and within budget. At my office, we built a large round table just for these kinds of collaborative design and budgeting meetings. …and if you're like me, you've got a cold drink in hand, which makes the process even better.
Andy Stauffer is president of Stauffer & Sons Construction based in Colorado Springs.