Americans love choice. We can't resist having everything our way, from burgers to BMWs. Click on a few options, and voilà, we've “custom-designed” our new Trek bike—in “starry-night black” with a lovely contrasting logo in silver. Click on too many upgrades, though, and our new bicycle can cost as much as a Harley-Davidson. But hey, it's custom.

Well, not really. That bike is still a mass-produced item, assembled from an inventory of stock parts. Computers have radically changed the way almost everyone does business. And what they've changed most is our ability to make changes to almost anything, quickly and at far less cost than ever before. This has revolutionized the manufacturing industry, and it's severely—perhaps critically—conflated the concept of choice with the idea of custom. The two are not synonymous, and their confusion in the minds of the purchasing public is harming architects. Why? Because now any builder with a keyboard and a CAD program can “customize” a kit of parts for a home buyer and call the result a “custom home.”

What truly qualifies as a custom home? Houses that are designed from scratch for a particular site and a specific client's program. A real human being's program —not a hypothetical demographic profile, even if it's very narrowly defined. What doesn't qualify? An existing house plan that's been altered according to the client's wishes, a production home that's had upgrades installed, or a speculative home designed for a target buyer—no matter how “upscale.” Choice does not equal custom, but thanks to the marketing efforts of savvy builders, few home buyers understand the distinction anymore—if they ever did in the first place.

Given complete freedom, most custom residential architects would abandon all preconceived notions of what a house should look like each time a new commission came along. And you would never open a single specification guide for any of your projects. Instead, you'd reinvent every element yourselves, down to the hinges on a cabinet or the levers on a door. Alas, drilling the design down to the smallest detail is a privilege only a handful of the top architects have. And it's a wondrous thing to behold. Those houses are the very definition of custom.

Most of us must live in the off-the-rack world. We can't afford to have a taste-maker evaluate, guide, or even create every design we bring into our lives. But we do have the wherewithal to make choices, to personalize and particularize what we buy and where we live. We can choose to avail ourselves of the considerable economies and value production builders have brought to residential construction. But we shouldn't kid ourselves, if we make that choice, that we've nabbed ourselves a custom home at a great price. Even if we've had a little tailoring done to suit.

So how do architects fight the incursions of customizers into your rightful territory? I think, ironically, you do so by becoming experts in choice. Most of you won't have the opportunity to reinvent every component in your houses, but you can wield a catalog of options so vast, so discerning, and so imaginative that no builder of multiples could ever compete. No menu of good, better, and best for your clients. Only the best of everything, by design.

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Credit: Mark Robert Halper

Comments? Call: 202.736.3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: cconroy@hanleywood.com.