Back in Canada I worked for an Architect who once likened the practice of architecture to Olympic figure skating. In it there is technical skill, finesse, creative interpretation, performance, competition, and success is in part a judgment call. In scoring one looks at all of those elements and judges not only the execution but the degree of difficulty that a skater establishes throughout their routine. Attempting a quad-axel has the potential of a higher score but also increases the risk of failure. These parameters are not unlike those in architecture, though competition and performance are more applicable to high profile public commissions than most residential work. But the notion of degree of difficulty is one that has stuck with me, and it’s one of the ways I describe choices to customers as we negotiate our way through the design phase.
One of the common questions during the design process is, How much will it cost? It’s an elusive quantity in the early stages. Custom home design is by its very nature, specific. We can offer ballpark figures based on previous projects, but costs-per-square-foot are benchmarks derived after the fact from a total cost. Nor is there an industry standard of comparison. Generally site work (driveway, septic, well, landscaping) is not included, but what about basements, attics, garages, porches & decks? In an accurate cost analysis each type of space is broken out separately, with each based on a time & material estimate. Without that analysis, I know that Scheme-A designed with six distinct volumes and roof elements will be more expensive than Scheme-B comprised of a simple rectangular plan and roof, but by how much? It depends on a lot of factors: the site, size, materials, construction methods, level of detail, and even market conditions. When it comes to finishes, there is also a range of possibilities.
Degree of difficulty includes all the above, complexity would be another word for it. Some of this is determined by the site, such as flat with firm soil near the road vs. steep and rocky perched high above or below. The exterior massing plays a big part, ranging from small simple boxes to large colliding forms or complicated shapes. Exterior articulation and detail are factors, such as projecting bays, ornamentation, masonry work. Similar factors apply inside such as the extent of custom cabinetry, millwork details, the extent and complexity of tile work, and the cost of fittings and fixtures. The customer determines much of this through their program and appetite for detail.
Generally through the design process an alignment is found between aspirations, complexity and budget. It is in the nature of the service to be optimistic and seek solutions that work on a number of levels. Occasionally there’s a misalignment that no creative bridge can span. Involving a contractor or two early on can bring an impartial eye to the scope and budget for the work. In balancing the pressures and decisions affecting a project one aims for the sweet spot of the right application of effort, the right degree of difficulty. This creative synthesis is for me the crux of residential design.