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There is a genuine fear amongst many consumers that house building work, whether for a new house or house extension or renovation, is a minefield of risk.

This is certainly true if you go about it the wrong way, but fortunately, there is a right way.

The right way is not often done, and a big part of the problem likely is the lack of education available to consumers. How can this be when building a house is one of the most complex and expensive undertaking a person or family can do? Governments and industry associations and institutions could do better.

The right way is pretty simple though; employ an architect from the very start before any lines are drawn on paper, to the very end when the architect hands the owner the keys. Deviate from this formula and unless you are lucky, the risks can be great and very costly.

Generally, there are three things the architect does to see the project to completion:

  1. Design then draw up and specify the house ready for construction
  2. Search for and assist in selecting a builder
  3. Administer the construction contract as the owners agent

Most people go to a builder first. This is unwise. Builders are trained to build, not design. The work is best first designed by an architect to the owner's requirements, then drawn up and specified by them to full construction detail before a builder is even contacted, all of which the architect is trained to do. A building designer (not an architect) can also do this work, but may not be qualified for or experienced in the next two basic things; to search for and assist in selecting a builder, and to administer the building contract as the owners agent.

The search for - and tool to help in selecting - a builder is the tender process, and it is critical that this be done with utmost diligence. An effective way to start this process is to advertise for builders' expressions of interest (EOI) then select from the respondents three or four who are suitable to price the project. Only those builders who are looking for work or are interested will express interest.

Also, using EOI means builders come to you, not the other way around, which is an important psychological distinction. Builders with plenty of work on will not submit an EOI; the last thing you want is an over-committed builder. There are many more complexities the tender process deals with, and it is a critical phase. Selecting a builder based on very basic things like reputation or working with them before are very minor considerations and only part of the bank of information needed to successfully select a builder.

The third thing an architect (or building designer if they are qualified appropriately) is to do is to administer the construction contract for the owner. In this scenario, the owner never even needs to see or talk to the builder. The contract between an owner and builder, without having an owners agent, is one of the most lopsided, unbalanced contractual arrangements in existence. This is because, theoretically, the owner knows little about the contract and the builder knows a lot.

It may be argued that a contract between a consumer and a lawyer or accountant or dentist is also very lopsided and unbalanced, and in a way this is correct. The big difference lies in the fact that these everyday consumer/professional contracts do not involve half a million dollars. Also they are not comprised of 20 to 30 different subcontracts, are not done over a period of many months, do not involve ordering, delivery and installation of many different materials, don’t involve state and local authority approvals, do not involve regular inspections by several different consultants and engineers, are not adversely affected by weather conditions, are not executed in an inherently dangerous and unique environment (the building site) which changes on a daily basis, and do not require monthly independent assessments of installed or fixed work only (while identifying and not paying for delivered but unfixed materials) relating to certification of monthly progress payments.

The building owner engaging an architect from the very start (before putting ideas on to paper) to the very finish by delivering the keys and six months later doing a post-completion sign-off inspection, is the best way to get house building work done. No other way comes close to giving the owner such a high level of certainty. An owner left to fend for themselves may be lucky and not experience disaster, but they may not know if the work done is as contracted, and their satisfaction may be based only on the fact that the house was built in an acceptable time frame to an apparently acceptable budget, done by a builder who never argued.

A major complaint is that all this is too expensive for the owner. The truth is, it’s not really, especially when you consider the cost of it is small compared to the value of the house and land. Add to that the value of enhancing the owner's lifestyle by having a well-designed home procured in a way to give the owner complete relaxed certainty. Then compare the value of this to the potentially huge financial and emotional cost if things go wrong, which judging by the number of consumers who suffer from poorly executed building contracts, may be likely if building work is not done under professional control.

The best way to conduct home building described here applies to any building. Large or small, they are all subject to the same laws of good design and planning. How many apartment or townhouse owners have complaints about the quality of new building work? The number seems to be significant. Isn’t one legitimate complaint cause for an urgent correction to be made?

Government cannot do much to help the consumer as past performance seems to prove. It is never really a good policy anyway to rely on any government official or politician, as they don’t have much to lose by avoiding these problems, or much to gain by attending to them. Better to engage a professional who will be invested personally in a good outcome for the owner. One-on-one relationships with the right people also tend to produce good results.

More helpful detail can be found at the House Design Help website. All the best with what should be the most exciting and fulfilling event that a person or family can participate in.

 
  • Good point about lack of consumer house-building literacy. However, consumers don't know how cars are designed and made either. New homes are sold on "visions of splendour" rather than functionality. Agree that if you really want to get your desired outcome, an architect is the way to go. When it comes to universally designing a home or major renovation, there is a lack of designer literacy on this. Time to draw the two "illiterate" groups together and do some education? Then Livable Housing Australia (read housing industry) might have a chance of reaching its aspirational goal of all new homes to be accessible (but it won't be by 2020 as they originally stated).

  • Greg, IF you know several good quality builders who personally supervise their projects, then I agree that this can be a great way go.

    Unfortunately it doesn't always work to the advantage of the owners though, if the builder is keen to take on the job because of hidden financial difficulties. I looked at one of these almost 20 years ago, and the in-built defects were a real eye-opener at well over $250 000 to rectify. Getting the maximum (at the time $100 000) recompense from the insurer (a very rare event nowadays), and getting the money back from the architect before he went bankrupt was also a bonus: but the owners were still over $100 000 out of pocket. I can only see you method working if the builders are very good quality, personally supervise the works, and financially sound (always a bit of an unknown). And of those 3 things are big ticks, then architects are in some respects superfluous, unless they are superb designers.

  • Good article Greg and very relevant to custom home builds but I have heard the same story 40 years ago when I was uni student.
    Even then it was well known that architects were basically a boutique service for a small number of house builds. What has changed?Nothing. Architects, the profession of vision have no vision at all how to make themselves relevant in the house building market dominated by large project builders. The profession has never found a sweet spot between price and value (and ordinary home owners aren't buying their services) and languishes in the housing market as a fringe player. It's business model is obsolete and the architecture as a profession has abdicated its leadership. Will that change? Probably not and it's a real pity because there is so much talent and unused knowledge wasted.

  • Branco
    A bit harsh on architects, I think. It remains a boutique industry for us because most Australians do not care enough about design and are not prepared to pay for it.

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