conroy_edit(220)I had a business dinner recently that you might find unsettling. It was with the “team” building a million-dollar sustainable house. The team included a custom builder with LEED AP credentials and the clients’ project manager. The custom builder was effusive in his praise for how talented the project manager was and how the design of the house was just terrific. Curious, I asked the project manager what firm she worked for and if she was the lead designer of the house. She replied that, yes, she was the designer and she had her own company. After more conversation, I was still confused about whether she was an architect, an interior designer, or an unlicensed building designer. So I finally just asked directly, “Are you an architect?” And, in a tone that implied she was something far more substantial and useful, she replied that she was “an engineer.”

An engineer. Now I was really lost—until the custom builder pointed out that the project, which began with another builder, had signif­icant structural problems with the foundation. OK, I thought, perhaps the clients, burned by the previous builder, hired a structural engineer to squire the project through. Then I learned through the course of the dinner that the consultant was an electrical engineer.

Yes, an electrical engineer. When I recovered from this information, I asked whether she had had any design training. She waved her hand dismissively and said I shouldn’t worry about that; she knows design.

After some more digging on my part, it emerged there had been a set of plans drawn up by an architectural firm, but they were apparently useless, and the builder and consultant were called upon to save the clients from disastrous incompetence and financial ruin.

Right about now, you may be railing silently about yet another interloper making incursions into your domain. But I think we can learn something from our friend, the electrical engineer, who is also an expert in sustainable design, architecture, interior design, construction, feng shui, and psychology. This jack-of-all-trades has won over the loyalty of her clients and the custom builder not by offering less for less, but rather by offering more for more. On behalf of her clients, she controls every decision in the custom home building process, removing all their fearsome unknowns. She wouldn’t tell me how much she charges her clients, but she assured me she makes a great living.

Meanwhile, architects have pared their offerings of almost everything but design, which people don’t fully understand or value all that highly, with construction observation as a separate add-on. Note the passive word observation instead of management. Great for lawyers; lousy for clients.

Shy about promoting themselves as a one-stop shopping answer and leery of exposure to litigation, architects have ceded much of their livelihood to a host of consultants with chutzpah. Instead, they rely on clients to do all the heavy lifting on their own projects, steering the program, building the team, and serving as the final arbiter of important decisions. Certainly, there are sophisticated patron clients for whom that’s the appropriate approach. But I’ll bet there’s a far greater pool of buyers who simply want a lovely house delivered on time and at a reliable price. And they’re happy to have you make all the decisions, including picking the best electrical engineer for the project.

Comments? E-mail cconroy@hanleywood.com