I received an e-mail a few days ago from a frustrated custom home "client." He and his wife want to build a Modern house on a 2.5-acre wooded site in the Midwest. He wrote to me looking for design inspiration. He's perused the usual magazines and found only large, "multimillion-dollar" examples of houses he likes. Where, he asked, can he find inexpensive Modern house designs? He doesn't want "oak baseboard and drywall," he says, but "steel, concrete, stone, and glass."

It'll come as no surprise what I said next: I told him he should hire an architect. He said he has "an architect.'' But then corrected himself and revealed that he's hired a commercial design/build firm he believes can deliver a "buildable plan." Apparently, the firm has built a few houses. Apparently, no one but the client is really designing this house. Yikes.

I'm not sure which is worse, a builder-tweaked plan house or a client's kit-of-parts house, cobbled together by a general contractor's in-house draftsperson. At least with the plan house I can imagine an architect started the whole ball rolling at some point in its history. It's obvious my correspondent doesn't want to or can't afford to pay an architect's full design fee, even though the house he wants is ambitious and original. And I suppose no one at that design/build firm has yet counseled him that the materials he favors are actually more costly than oak baseboard and drywall.

What a waste this is--from several standpoints. This fellow wants a beautiful house and he should have one, but his trajectory is almost assured to miss the mark. Meanwhile, some Midwestern architect struggling to stay fresh has lost the opportunity to work with a rare, risk-taking client. No one is going to have any fun here. A couple of years from now we'll probably just gain another homely house in the Heartland.

The sad truth is that even if our client hired an architect, he wouldn't be guaranteed a beautiful house. There are good, bad, and middling quality architects out there. And there are good architects who occasionally design bad or middling houses. At around 2,200 square feet and presuming roughly $200 a square foot, the open-plan house he wants to build would cost more than $60,000 in design fees. That's a big risk even for our risk taker.

Of course, our client leaves nothing to chance by eliminating the architect from this project; he is assured the house will be less than successful. I am convinced of that. It will be less handsome, less livable, less valuable as a resale property than if a talented architect had guided the design. Our homeowner may feel $60,000 richer, but likely he'll find he's lost a $400,000 opportunity to add something estimable to the landscape. Tens of thousands wise, hundreds of thousands foolish.

So, what can we do about this? I'm tasking myself, and I'm asking you to come up with some ideas about how to tackle this problem. I don't want to see any more of these opportunities lost, and I don't want to drive by any more of the results, either. I don't want to live next door to them. Do you? How do we fix the problem and build this fellow a good house? Feel free to address his example or to tackle the larger issues it raises. E-mail or write me with your ideas, and we'll see what we can do.

Comments? E-mail: cconroy@hanleywood.com