Raleigh, N.C.-based design/build firm Tonic Design | Tonic Construction has developed a flat-fee service for its clients to help them understand the process and realities of building a home before they commit to moving forward with construction. The service, dubbed Tonic Express, helps clients determine the scope and financial feasibility of their home building project, for a fee of $3,000.

"Our goal is to get more people to use architects and not spend their cash out-of-pocket until they [secure] a loan with a bank," says Vincent Petrarca, partner and general contractor at Tonic. "Ninety-eight percent of the public doesn't use architects—I think it's just because it's so costly. What we did was streamline the process, so that people can have more options for using architects."

Tonic Express clients meet with the firm's design team to establish their project's program and budget and to explore potential variables. They walk away with a summary of their home building project, potential floor plans, and an estimate based on Tonic's experience with materials and labor costs. "The client can then either wait to move forward [with the project], go ahead immediately, or decide not to move forward at all," Petrarca explains.

According to Petrarca, the feasibility service benefits both the client and the design/build firm. Clients find out at the beginning stages of their projects what they can expect to invest to build their dream homes, and once the project moves forward, the knowledge and ideas generated in the Tonic Express phase help expedite the design process. What's more, the Tonic Express fee can be charged on a credit card and later applied to the design fee, which then can be rolled into the construction loan, saving the client money. With the right credit card, he notes, clients could even choose to charge the design and construction, earning points or rewards, rather than taking out a construction loan. Such an approach also benefits Tonic, because it results in more frequent payments from clients, which can be used to pay subcontractors on or ahead of schedule.

Clients may opt for the more traditional design process, but for those looking to determine the overall feasibility of their projects, the Tonic Express service could be a viable, possibly more affordable, option. "I think it's possible to turn a set of drawings and a budget around in two or three months," Petrarca contends, "and spread that architecture fee over 30 years."