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The "Wow" Factor: Pros and Cons of Developer-Driven Design

 

There are very few people in this country who don't know what it is to "flip" a house. TV shows, Do-It-Yourself internet sites and design magazines have all helped to awaken that creative drive that lives inside all of us.

 

Here in Southern California, residential construction is booming. According to the First Tuesday Journal, single family housing starts in 2015 were up 21% from 2014, and that trend is expected to continue. When construction activity increases, more folks want to get into the game. Some contractors and architects want to own, design and build their own projects to resell for profit. Realtors, who are on the front lines of these trends, are often tempted to enter the game as well. They are the first to find run-down fixer-uppers; with their connections they are able to buy and "flip" them quickly: remodel-for-profit.

 

While there are obvious advantages to buying a new or remodeled home, as an architect I see on a regular basis the pitfalls that come to a buyer's attention unfortunately only after the deal has closed. I'd like to discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages, and suggest some things to think about when you're out there shopping for a new home.

 

First, a little background on the development process: In the design and construction industry, we call what we do for a client "delivery". We deliver a project, or a building, and the journey there is called the delivery method or process. The basic roles in the delivery process are architect, contractor, owner and/or user. The user is the eventual occupant of the building. They are often the owner, but can include employees and tenants (or, in the case of a flipped or spec home, the future owner). If the owner is not the eventual user, it is rare that the user is involved in the design process.

 

Traditionally, the delivery process involves the client hiring an architect and a contractor. Both are responsible to the client, and the architect administers the contract between the client and contractor. The drawings that the architect produces are the contract; this is why construction drawings are sometimes called "contract documents".

 

Over the years, those traditional roles have morphed into a variety of delivery methods, the most popular being design-build. Design-build is when the roles of architect and contractor are condensed into one; there is no longer a tri-partite relationship, where the architect is acting as the agent of the owner. There is only client and contractor.

 

Flippers and developers of spec homes favor this method, and there certainly are distinct advantages. In design-build, the builder basically assumes the role of client to the architect. Therefore, the architect's job is to design to the builder's needs and requirements, and not to the eventual owner (user) of the building. By doing this, the builder is able to dictate building methods, materials and details that reduce their development costs. The most common way to reduce costs is by standardizing various plan elements, finishes and construction details; this is why you will often see familiar plan configurations, exterior details, countertops or tile in the design-build version of a custom home.

 

The drawbacks, however, can be great. By eliminating the owner/client relationship with the architect, the builder is also taking away the client's agent. It is the responsiblity of the architect to ensure that the contractor is delivering the building per plan, using all the specified systems and materials that the client is paying for. While the contractor obviously has an interest to satisfy the client, some contractors will nonetheless play hard and fast with markups and change orders. If the client loses their representative, they are at the mercy of their contractor - the only "expert" on the job.

 

In the case of buying a flipped or "spec" home, these disadvantages become even more apparent. The eventual owner/user does not even have a role in the delivery process. Therefore, the only client is the developer, or flipper, and their design goals are vastly different from yours.

 

Developers are after the "wow" factor - when you walk in the front door, you may see high ceilings; an open kitchen with stone countertops; big, bi-fold doors; dual sinks in the bathroom; large tub in the master suite; etc. However, take a closer look: are those dual lavatories in the bath actually large enough to accomodate two people washing up? Are the cabinets solid wood, or some kind of strange composite? I have seen odd plan configurations that simply don't make sense, such as doors that render a laundry room useless, or a powder room three feet away from a full bath.

 

Exposure and ventilation are always difficult to see when visiting a home. Do the bedrooms get unbearably warm by 3:00 pm in September? Do they get enough fresh air? Are the windows operable? Functionality in a plan is sometimes difficult to see before you are actually living in the home.

 

Design goals determine the shape and function of any building. A flipper or developer's goals are to sell the home as quickly as possible, and for as much of a profit as possible. They may cut corners on design and construction, focusing on those elements that are immediately apparent to the eye - the "wow" factor - intended to distract your attention away from the nuts and bolts functionality of the plan, or the quality of the construction. They also max out the value; I get inquiries on a regular basis from new home owners who have a list of complaints six months after living in their home, yet have no equity in order to pay for changes.

 

In conclusion, if you are in the market for a new home and are looking at spec or flipped homes, please keep these factors in mind. Know that for the money that you are spending on one of these homes, you may be able to hire an architect to help you design and build something that actually fits your needs. Developers need to turn a profit; if you decide to design and build or renovate your own home, that money can go into your home instead of the developer's pocket.

 

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