Residential architects care deeply about the dwellings they design, striving always to make them highly livable, well-crafted, and beautiful at the same time. But making those qualities available to custom clients with tight budgets or applying them to price- and market-sensitive production houses is a great challenge. We at residential architect are concerned with the problem of how to deliver better-designed houses to a wider audience. To explore the topic from the inside out, we gathered five very experienced residential architects for a roundtable discussion, excerpted here. They included Dan Phipps, AIA, Dan Phipps Architects, San Francisco; Ed Binkley, AIA, Bloodgood Sharp Buster Architects & Planners, Oviedo, Fla.; Dale Mulfinger, FAIA, SALA Architects, Minneapolis; Stephen J. Vanze, AIA, Barnes Vanze & Associates, Washington, D.C.; and Gary Furman, AIA, Gary Furman Architects, Austin. Thanks to our sponsor, Andersen Windows, we gathered at the company's “inHOME” idea house in Park City, Utah, designed by Michael Plautz, AIA, of RSP Architects in Minneapolis.

The question that launched the discussion: What is standing in the way of custom architects delivering high-level design to clients of more modest means?

Stephen Vanze—“In our case, we've tailored our service for so many years to the higher end, it's hard for us to readjust ourselves and our service to the middle-income group that can't afford the amount of detailing we typically put into a set of drawings and the amount of thought, frankly, that goes into the designing of a house. It's very hard to make that work on a modest budget. The fees become such a big part of the project that we just tell people, you'll hate us. You won't hate us now, but you'll hate us in a year.”

Dale Mulfinger—“I think most of what we as architects do is an added-value service. What we found fairly early on is there's a huge differential between the blueprint the production builder might be building from and the blueprint the architect tends to provide. The blueprint the builder typically uses is four pages, and the blueprint we all might turn out is 30. In that vast gap in between, there are lots of alternative services you can provide. You can provide 10 hours of service, a hundred hours of service, or a thousand hours of service to different people who want different levels of added value. And they are all willing to pay at the standard rate you charge. So if you charge $120 an hour for your time or $60 an hour for one of your junior assistants, you can still charge that—even if you're only doing 10 hours of service—because what you can do, at least if you've got some knowledge of the industry, is always added value. That's the way we have offered that much broader range of potential services—by charging an hourly rate and tailoring service.

“You know, it comes with the notion that you as an architect can accept what you're not going to do. You have to say, well, what was the probable outcome had you not been involved? And between that probable outcome and a little bit better outcome lies the possibility of a lot of architects serving the public. And so there's a huge potential out there for more work if more architects want to do ‘not full-service.'”

Dan Phipps—“I see the need, but we've sort of trained ourselves to do a certain thing a certain way. And it's hard for us to break out of that mold. I mean, I've got somebody—if I give him a drawing, he's just going to sit there and detail the hell out of it, and I have to yank him away from the drawing board to have him stop, because he's trained to look at things ad infinitum. And that's what I want him to do, and that's what I want to do.”

Ed Binkley—“I'll give a little plug to Jack Bloodgood. His early philosophy was that all homeowners deserved a home designed by an architect. And that was a big driving force for him. It's difficult to do in this market. And I think one of our biggest challenges is how can we provide that service for everyone? Eyes are opening a bit among builders; they see what architects can bring to the table as a plus. They're tired of going the same old route too.”

Gary Furman—“I was reading through Architectural Record's story on Sam Mockbee, who received the AIA gold medal. He said that everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul. And it's true. How we get there, I don't know that I have the answer. But I think that somewhere we have to find the right match for potential clients. And it's a difficult process. It's hard for us to align ourselves sometimes because of the way we're trained.”

Mulfinger—“Today we're blessed in the United States with an incredibly well-educated populace. And that populace wants more possibilities. And we're uniquely situated to begin to deliver that for a broader population. I just think we need methods. And we probably need new educational models. We're all trained as kind of doctors, with a lot of education. And the only other sourcing person we have is somebody who has very little education, i.e. a draftsperson—and that might be akin to the Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) in medicine. So we have doctors and we have LPNs. It seems to me that we're missing the Registered Nurses (RNs) in our industry. We need to educate other people who can also serve, but maybe at a lesser level, and fill these gaps in between. The market is there, and a tremendous number of people are willing to pay for it.”

Vanze—“The only thing that makes it hard, though, is the liability issues. We are very reluctant to do a project where the owner wants us just to do some drawings and go away, because so many things can go wrong and it's so easy to fix them if you're there while it's being built. And if you're not there, a little mistake can become a big mistake, which is why we find it very scary to give partial services to people.”

Mulfinger—“Another thing missing is the pattern book. You used to be able to build a nice house from plans—the Sears models, for instance. Today, everybody's building from a new pattern and tradespeople never really get used to it, never refine it. It doesn't get aesthetically better, technically better. They just go on to the next one. Something has changed the role of the home plan and its impact to produce good houses. You can drive the countryside and see a beautiful old farmhouse, and the windows are perfectly ordered and logical and it has a charm. And it's vacant. Sitting next to it is the ugliest two-story that's 15 years old and has no aesthetic understanding. Both of those came out of the same kind of cultural base. They're out in rural America. And, you ask, why did the rules change? How did the farmer originally know to get that really beautiful farmhouse? And how does the current farmer not appreciate that or seek or want that same level of knowledge?”