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when is custom really custom?

Friday, April 30th, 2010 by

So once one decides to create a ‘custom-built’ house, that’s when the fun really starts. It’s not easy to learn how to go about getting a house built. Of course, there isn’t really any shortage of information; in fact, the opposite problem exists. There is an enormous pile of uh, ‘information’ out there. The challenge is weeding through all of it and cutting out all the folks that are just trying to sell something that they already have, like “easily customizable house plans, ready to go!”, and “custom-designed homes built by our preferred builder.”

Custom tailoredLaura came up with a great analogy for describing what type of custom house we wanted. Because she hasn’t posted it yet, and because we—for the moment—live in the community property State of California, making the analogy 50% mine, I am going to go ahead and post it first. Hopefully sharing this analogy will not trigger an analimony case. (Hmm, somehow that didn’t sound quite right. Oh well, I’ll get to the bottom of that later.)

Her analogy was to the world of tailoring. In clothing, there is ‘ready to wear’ aka ‘off the rack’, which is what 99.9% of us utilize for 99.9% of our clothing. In the house building world, that equates to picking out a house with your favorite paint color in the lovely just-opened phase II of the subdivision owned by the publicly-held mega real estate developer / builder company. You know those companies; they’re the ones that are quoted in the news every month when the government decides that there either is or is not a continuing housing crisis or boom.

You really don’t have to know a whole bunch about houses when you buy an off-the-rack house, because the more you know about houses, the more deeply depressed you will become when you realize how badly made and equipped your house really is. Instead of ‘Fred’, these houses should all be named ‘Max’, which is short for “Maximize the megadevelobuilder’s profit margin by using inexpensive core materials masked over with glitzy stainlessgranitestonefaux finishes” (Now you know why I shortened it to Max, yes?)

Moving up a notch in clothing, we have the made-to-measure garment. This is where you choose from a certain style/cut of clothing, but with lots of custom components and ornamentation, such as number of button holes, collar type, etc. Also, you are measured by a pro, and then the pattern for your outfit is very carefully selected and assembled from the preexisting pattern sizes to most precisely match your shape. You have to wait for them to build your made-to-measure outfit, and it usually gets tweaked for a final fitting. They cost a lot more than off-the-rack, and they take longer to get, but they are almost invariably better than their cheaper OtR cousins. They are not the same thing as ‘bespoke’ however! More on that in a minute…

In the house world, this is something I call a ‘house designer’s house.’ This gets a little tricky to define, because many of the folks that call themselves house designers want it to be a little tricky. I will equate house designer houses to made-to-measure clothing, and just like with MtM, the quality can sometimes be just a bit better than OtR, and sometimes a whole lot better!

The tricky part: House designers are not architects. Now, house designers sometimes use architect as a verb—which it isn’t!—and they talk a lot about architecture, but that doesn’t make them either formally-trained or licensed architects. It’s kind of the difference between a seamstress and a tailor, but without the sexist terminology. If you want to know what sort of education and training a licensed architect must have, the AIA has good information on their site. Now, I don’t mean to imply that house designers are deceptive or evil in any way. (If I did mean to imply that, I would have written something like “House designers are deceptive and evil.” I think that would have done the trick.)

The tricky thing is that house designers are not regulated in the same manner as architects, so it becomes important to research their educational and professional backgrounds. Some house designers have earned degrees in architecture and have worked under the supervision of a licensed architect for many years. Other house designers have subscribed to Elle Decor, worked as a helper on a construction site one summer, and learned to use a few of the features of a pirated copy of AutoCAD.

It’s a bit like the difference between having the head tailor at NeimanMarcus measure and fit you for your MtM Ermenegildo Zenga suit vs. having your dry cleaner make you a ‘custom’ suit out of some really nice fabric he found at JoAnn’s.

The bottom line is, you can get a really good house from a house designer, or you can get a pretty cruddy house from a house designer. My suggestion is to look at their work, talk with their clients and look into their training and experience; it’s hard for someone who isn’t trained and experienced as an architect to deliver the quality and completeness of all that architects do.

So, obviously that leaves the ‘real’ architect—licensed or not— as the bespoke tailor in our analogy. The guy who asks you questions about which pocket you put your wallet in, and how thick it is, so that he can customize your pocket to hide it completely. He builds you a suit ‘from scratch’, and true architects do the same thing for home buyers. Yes, there is a premium price to pay for this service, but it’s actually not too bad. (Hmm… I wonder if I can make that last sentence drop off the page so it is invisible to our architects. Anyone know if there is an “invisible to architects” html tag?) After all, how many times in your life do you build a house?

For Laura and me, the over/under on that wager is “1”, so it’s definitely worth doing right. Our house will be unique, and hopefully, all our stuff will fit perfectly in the pockets.

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