Residential architects spend many months designing a house for a one-of-kind client. A stack of sketches later, the building's forms are perfected, the floor plan flows, the design intent is clearly expressed. Then the house is built, and the plans are put away in the drawer. One more project for the portfolio, one more eager client checked off the waiting list. In this fast-paced economy, wouldn't it be nice if you could clone yourself?
The next best thing to cloning yourself, of course, is to clone your plans, tweaking the design to make it appealing to a variety of clients and sites. Architects are doing it a number of ways: by designing an "idea house" for a consumer magazine that offers the blueprints for purchase, by selling their plans through a self-published book or on the company Web site, or through the stock-plans market.
Admittedly, the notion of selling a house plan makes many architects queasy. It goes against the grain of how they view themselves—as professionals devoted to a select audience of design-savvy elite. Purists argue that selling plans cheapens what they do because their services are inextricably linked to a specific client and site. "It's a risky business with architects to even broach the subject," says architect Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House books. "We do have to relinquish a fair amount of control, and that is hard for architects." Others, though, embrace the concept as an opportunity to diversify their business and to take good design mainstream. Susanka's advice? Those who feel squeamish about the idea should simply stay away from it.
Yet one has to ask: Who is this consumer market, spurning production builders and custom architects in search of its own version of Shangri-La? A decade ago, when Cincinnati architect John Senhauser, FAIA, dabbled in the stock-plans market, he encountered a professional's worst fear--the do-it-yourselfer. "I would get calls from people saying, 'Well, I finished the foundation and was thinking of making this breakfast room smaller. What could I do?' They thought they could just buy the plans and build it themselves."
Owners may still represent a portion of consumers who purchase plans. But Dorothy Jordan of HomeStyles.com, a large stock-plan broker in St. Paul, Minn., says her company also serves the in-between market--people who can't afford to hire an architect at 12 percent of the construction cost, but still want a custom home.
"I think the home-plans market is expanding because consumers in general are becoming more savvy and bolder about asking for what they want," she says. "Rather than going to an established development and choosing an existing home, they want to participate in the design development and construction of their home."
Robert Knight, AIA, of Blue Hill, Maine, has come to the same conclusion. Four years ago, a house he designed was published in a national magazine. As requests for the plans poured in, he told people the blueprints weren't for sale, that they should hire a local architect to design a house that's right for them. "After 200 calls, I finally realized people who buy plans are a subset of the population of people who hire architects," Knight says. "A lot of people want a better house, but think you have to be wealthy to hire an architect."
With some hesitancy, Susanka has stepped into that great, untapped gap. "There's something terribly amiss in the suburbs," she says. "And we're the people who can come up with better solutions. But we have to make sure the quality of the information we include with the plans is very high. I'm convinced that if we offer a refined product, it will absolutely increase the amount of people who realize they want a custom design."
That belief is what prompted her to make available plans for the houses featured in her newest book, Creating the Not So Big House. They include more information than what the supermarket plan-books offer, she says, such as photos or 3-D images that show what the interiors look and feel like. And just as all good design tells a story, each package conveys the house's ideas--say, a passive-solar house designed to face south on a sloping lot. The literature also stresses the importance of hiring a local architect to make the necessary modifications for regional codes, the site, and the clients' needs.
As an outgrowth of Creating the Not So Big House, Susanka is also developing a Web site (www.notsobighouse.com) with links to others who want to get their plans into the marketplace. "I'm trying to develop a market for plans such as the Life magazine Dream Houses," Susanka says, "in which each design is highly detailed." She views herself as a middleman of sorts, able to deliver inquiring consumers to the appropriate architects.
After Knight's epiphany, he put together a book of 13 houses he'd built for clients. The architect, who specializes in small homes for rural New England, chose designs that could work on a variety of sites. By advertising the $15 book in Fine Homebuilding, in Down East magazine, and on his Web site, each year he sells about 1,200 copies of the book, and 30 sets of drawings at $400 apiece. And, as a goodwill gesture, 10 percent of the sale price goes back the original client.
Getting the clients' blessing, of course, is both a legal and ethical obligation. Before pursuing the book venture, Knight called his former clients to see how they felt about offering the plans to the public. "Most were quite enthusiastic," he says, "a surprise to me." Susanka also stresses that even though most architects retain the rights to their work, the clients' wishes must be honored. "I talk about the issue fairly early on in the design process," she says. "It's amazing to me how many people are just fine with it."
Knight discourages the kind of calls Senhauser encountered by charging $125 an hour to give design advice over the phone--with a two-hour minimum. "We encourage people to hire a local architect who knows codes," he says. "Their money is better spent locally." And, like other architects, at first Knight wrestled with the issue of selling a product rather than a service. "My initial concern was that I was shooting myself in the foot by offering something somebody else might make $30,000 on," he says. "But it's led to a lot of custom design work. People read the book and like my philosophy. Then they come back and say, 'I really like the book but I want my own house.'"
When New York architect Dennis Wedlick, AIA, designed the 1995 Life magazine Dream House, he, too, saw it as a chance to broaden his name recognition and introduce innovative design ideas to the marketplace. Nevertheless, parting with the blueprints made him nervous. "Selling plans confuses what we deliver and reduces architecture to a few good ideas about how to arrange rooms," Wedlick says. "But plans can be good for a reference tool. Many great designs can be presented to the public, like the historic houses of Frank Lloyd Wright."
Two years later, in fact, Life asked Taliesin Architects, Scottsdale, Ariz., to design a house that followed Wright's principles of organic architecture. For a firm focusing solely on custom design, "this was an opportunity to stretch out beyond that," says Taliesin architect John Rattenbury. Like Wedlick, Rattenbury accepted the project not for the royalties but as a way to stimulate the public's thinking about architecture.
Yet he worked hard to adapt the plans to a range of real-life clients and sites. Establishing a minimum lot size of 65 by 120 feet, Rattenbury designed for privacy from the street and from neighbors on both sides, opening the house to a rear yard. Creating plans for both a side- and front-opening garage ensured the house could be turned sideways on the lot. It could also be cut apart in the middle and 5 to 15 feet added without having to be redesigned. The architect went so far as todesign five roof systems appropriate to different climates. Thanks to the rigorous planning, "well over 600 sets of plans sold," Rattenbury says. "People have built it all over the country."
From a cost/profit perspective, it's hard to track how designing and selling plans for an idea house pays off, notes David Giulietti, AIA, Portland, Ore., whose "21st-century lodge" was published by Sunset last fall. "We look at it as a marketing tool," he says. "But so many house plans are not designed by architects, and so many builders are using plans that are years old. I don't mind getting something fresh into the marketplace."
the stock market
The idea houses commissioned by consumer magazines, which pay architects' design fees up front, result in more or less instant gratification. Conversely, playing the stock market takes working capital and a long-term commitment. "It looks so easy, and yet it's not," says Mark Englund, who heads up designer relations for HomeStyles.com. He notes that architects are fronting real dollars for design, renderings, and working drawings that may not be recouped for a year or more—if at all. "It can take three to 12 months for the plan to appear to the public, and sometimes another year before it has sold enough times to pay back the expense, let alone start a profit," Englund says.
Most stock houses like to see a portfolio of 50 plans at the outset, and look for at least 10 new plans a year. Of HomeStyles.com's 125 contributing designers and architects, its top 10 firms deal exclusively in plan sales. Donald A. Gardner Architects, Greenville, S.C., comes close to being a dedicated plan-book company. Eighty-five percent of its annual revenues come from the sale of house plans, marketed to consumers, builders, and developers through all the major fulfillment houses and its own publishing arm.
Don Gardner, AIA, says the company's custom architecture cross-pollinates the stock-plans side. The firm also keeps an eye on market trends around the country by regularly calling both consumers and builders who've ordered plans to find out what changes they've made. In some cases, with the client's permission, Gardner Architects will modify a custom plan for the stock market. "We adjust the plan so it will sell better—such as changing the walk-out basement to a bonus room," Gardner says. "We also scale it back in detail but try to stay true to the original program of the plan. The masses would be consumed with that level of detail and probably would not be able to build it."
Site-specific structural information must also be removed—for example, substituting a stick-framed roof with a truss system "engineered to local conditions." "We try to design for middle America in terms of live and dead loads," Englund says. "A house built to California's seismic codes would be overdesigned for the rest of the country." According to John Shaheen, AIA, director of the architecture department at Home Planners in Tucson, Ariz., (owned by residential architect's publisher, Hanley-Wood) a house's square footage determines the cost of the blueprints.
Packages start at $400 for a 1,500-square-foot home and peak at around $1,000 for a house over 9,000 square feet. The architects' cut varies from 20 to 40 percent. "We look for a variety of architects to fill certain niches, such as vacation or seaside homes," Shaheen says. "The drawings have to include a foundation plan, floor plans, four elevations--one fully detailed—two or three cross sections through the house, connection details, and a nicely rendered elevation or perspective for publishing."
Like Home Planners, HomeStyles.com looks for design diversity and high-quality drawings. Although there is money to be made on all kinds of houses, "there's a definite normal curve to the sales success of plans," Englund says. "The mean size is a 2,400-square-foot home—too much bigger or smaller goes away from the bulk of the plan marketplace." And a traditionally styled house would be "dead center" among the bestsellers. Within traditional design, Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, Memphis, Tenn., zeroes in on a market segment not widely served by the stock industry—single-family homes with alley access in high-density neighborhoods. "We have a little over 100 plans in the market, and less than a dozen are designed specifically for home-plan sales," says LRK's Dawn Henley.
Most of the plans come from the firm's work with production builders and developers of TND communities such as Celebration. "The niche for plans in traditional neighborhood design prompted us to get into it more than anything else," she says. Although the greatest portion of its sales and fulfillment are handled through stock houses, the firm does offer a small selection of house plans on its Web site. "We're developing a database to put all our plans on the Web and will do our own fulfillment, unless the volume gets out of hand," Henley says. Most firms, including Danze and Davis Architects, Austin, Tex., use their own Web sites to supplement the stock houses. "The Web is a fairly small segment of our market now, but it's expanding rapidly," says partner Gary Wagner, AIA. HomeStyles.com's Kirk Bruce notes that whereas more than 10,000 plans are available on its Web site, paper still does a better job. "Even though consumers can narrow their choices with a site search, people still seem to prefer paging through theme books," he says.
Good architecture may be not only about designing a perfect house, but about helping a lot of different people to have great houses. "Plan sales is just an additional service we can offer to introduce a better house into the market," Henley says. "Good design shouldn't be unaffordable."
Looking for a venue for putting your best-laid plans on the market? Here are some options to explore.
Better Home and Gardens Special Interest Publications 1716 Locust Street, Des Moines, Iowa 50309 515.284.2584; www.bhg.com
Home Planners, LLC (a division of Hanley-Wood) 3275 W. Ina Road, Suite 110, Tucson, Ariz. 85741 520.297.6219; www.homeplanners.com
HomeStyles.com 213 East Fourth St., St. Paul, Minn. 55101 651.602.5000; www.homestyles.com
Garlinghouse 282 Main Street Extension, Middletown, Conn. 06457 860.343.5970; www.garlinghouse.com
www.notsobighouse.com Architect Sarah Susanka's Web site—a companion to her second book—includes links to architects who offer detailed blueprints for modest-size houses.
the not-so-fine print:protecting your plans against lawsuits and theft
If you do sell your plans, be sure to word the agreements clearly, advises architect Gary Wagner, Danze and Davis Architects. We make statements both on our Web site and in a letter that goes out with the plans that buyers must have them reviewed by someone in their local area familiar with building codes, he says. Simple language stating that no warranties convey, and that structural information is for reference only, will suffice. In addition to noting it on the blueprints and order forms, Donald Gardner Architects also makes that point verbally with the client-whether it's a builder, developer, or consumer.
By copyrighting all your work, you also insure your blueprints cannot legally be modified and resold, or built more than once by a contractor. Language to that effect should accompany the plans. And for a little extra insurance, Wagner says it doesn't hurt to have a network of other architects familiar with your work who can spot copyright violations.