Custom-designed homes well worth the extra cost, advocates say
Ben Yaroch says he got more than an architect when he hired Greensburg's Lee Calisti to design a home in Hempfield.
He also got a planner who could help him and his wife, Jodi, decide what they wanted for themselves and their children. Plus, he got a professional to act as a kind of surveyor with pieces of land, a building expert who could recommend products Yaroch didn't know, and a project manager to watch over the work.
Such functions can be part of custom design on a house, a job professionals say happens less than 5 percent of the time in North American construction. But when it does, they say, it can result in a home that better fits an owner's needs.
"It is unique and fits our lifestyles," Yaroch says of the house he and his family live in. "You hire an architect and you get an advocate to represent you. The money we spent on Lee was well worth it. He was with us from the beginning."
But architects and home builders know the job is daunting in the seemingly endless amount of decisions it presents and the cost that appears to make it a luxury.
They say it's a matter of paying now or paying later.
Some builders will say architects often try to do too much with a home, adding elements that increase costs.
On the other hand, developers such as Tim Shipley, a co-owner of SureGreen Construction in Wexford, says a custom design might have fiscal wisdom.
"It might add 10 percent to the cost of a home, but you can save 10 percent by avoiding the changes you might make later," he says. "So then it doesn't cost anything at all."
Tom Cloherty found that balance of expense when he had Heartland Homes build a residence for him on a site in Mt. Lebanon. He believes any home he found in that area would have been older and required remodeling to bring it to where he and his wife, Joanne, would have wanted it.
"I think we spent less than we would have in that case," he says.
Dealing with the costs
Latrobe architect Scott Moore says architectural help can be quite expensive on projects that call for it. He says he has worked on jobs that amassed $125,000 in fees. But he also says a client could have an architect design a down-to-earth home for $6,000 or $7,000.
Custom-designed homes don't have to be outrageously expensive, he and Matt Atwell of Heartland Homes say. Atwell is manager of the Everywhere division of one of the area's biggest homebuilders. That branch of the firm will construct its models on any location and change plans to fit the owner's needs or desires. It was the program Cloherty used on his home.
Atwell says it is possible to build one of those semi-custom designs for $200,000 -- depending, of course, on all the demands of the site.
The Clohertys took one of Heartland's designs and redid the kitchen area to fit their needs, as well as changing some of the flooring. Cloherty says there also were minor changes made in the exterior to fit the property better.
But Darlene Hunter, vice president and regional manager of the new homes division of Howard Hanna Real Estate, says most of the custom projects they handle are $400,000 and up. The big difference between Hanna and Heartland projects, though, is that Hanna generally acts more or less as a conduit between clients and builders or designers.
"For instance, we have one builder who has his own portfolio of plans, and another who will look for plans from architectural sources," she says.
Even though the market is set to handle custom plans and the price does not have to be daunting, interest in the effort is not always great, says Stephen Melman, director of economic services for the Virginia-based National Association of Home Builders. But he admits it is a numbers game.
In 2005, when the real estate market was booming, only 19 percent of clients showed interest in custom homes, compared to 28 percent in the lean market of 2011.
Melman thinks the difference indicates a market that "is really hard to measure."
The fast food of home-building
John Brown believes home-buying has been made into a process much like buying a fast-food hamburger.
Because of that, the Canadian architect, academician and builder has been pushing the opposite kind of structure. He calls them "slow homes."
He has worked so much in this area of architecture, he has become well known for his advocacy.
Brown, who heads an architecture and design firm called Housebrand in Calgary, Alberta, says his "slow home" process involves taking an existing house, gutting it and re-creating it to suit a client's needs and desires.
He also offers homes he and his staff design themselves, but uses "slow homes" as a way of getting clients into homes that fit their needs. He says that process can create a custom home for about as much as a first-time home buyer would pay in the pricey Calgary market, or about $400,000.
He believes North America got away from designed homes after World War II, when returning soldiers created an urgent need for suburbia.
Homes weren't built for people, he says; they "were designed to be sold."
Heartland's Atwell says many people stay away from building simply because they don't want to deal with all of the decisions involved, which can range from big choices such as placement of the building to smaller items like choice of tile or door knobs. To help in that process, he says, Heartland has a "concierge service" that helps buyers through the myriad of decisions.
Calisti and Shipley see the design process as a way of getting a home that fits needs, is efficient in design and consumption, and won't need to be changed for many years.
Moore says crafting a home is like creating a tool.
"You design it to do what you want it to do," he says.<