Category Archives: Blog

Vote for Robert Wilkoff – “Best Architect” of Bethesda


Dear Friends,


You do not have to be in the DC or Bethesda area to vote, but you must vote in at least 5 categories! Let me know if you need suggestions for additional categories.



Frank Lloyd Mercedes or Frank O. Yugo? Which Architect Should I Hire?

I think most consumers would agree that a Mercedes and a Yugo are vastly different options when it comes to buying a car (We’ll forget for the moment that Yugos have not been available in the U.S. since 1991). If one were to point this out to a friend, he or she would be praised for his or her grasp of the obvious. So, why are we taking the time to point this out on our blog? Well, although it’s no doubt self-serving, it helps to put the very critical decision of selecting an architect in its proper perspective.

While no one considering the purchase of a Mercedes would think about buying a Yugo for even a nanosecond, it’s astounding how many of these same people would consider hiring a “Yugo” architect over a reputable “Mercedes” architect, just to save a little money. To be fair, most people can’t tell the difference – and this is understandable. After all, it’s not like Consumer Reports puts out an annual issue on which architects produce the greenest, most efficient, beautiful and code-compliant homes. Nor is there a readily available objective survey of customer satisfaction or repeat clients. So, what is someone to do when looking for the right architect?

Well, to take the car analogy a little further, bear in mind the following:

– It’s probably not the best idea to buy the Yugo or the Ferrari. In other words, while the cheapest architect is undoubtedly a bad bet, the most expensive over-rated one isn’t necessarily the safe bet. Like Ferrari, the really expensive over-rated architect might provide their client with a beautiful object, with a prestigious name, that just ends up in the shop every six months. So, your best bet is to look at testimonials from past clients. And if possible, try to talk their oldest clients, as they’ve lived with the architect’s work the longest. And they can tell you how easy or difficult it was working with them, how attentive they were, how helpful they were during construction, etc.

Most importantly, you can ask them how much extra they paid during construction. “What does this mean?” you ask. A quality architect will almost invariably charge more than a crappy architect for the simple reason that it costs more money (i.e., takes more time) to create a detailed and complete set of construction documents. Construction documents are the drawings and specifications on which a contractor will ultimately base his bid, and if they are done well, the bids will be accurate and give you as the client a “real” number to build the project.

On the other hand, if these drawings contain incomplete information or have items omitted, a contractor, once he has the job, isn’t going to just go ahead and perform that work for free. Once the scope of the project is clarified, there will be a change order that increases the cost and completion time of the project. In the end, a client will spend less by paying more upfront to a better architect, rather than paying later to a misinformed contractor, who was left to speculate about the project scope due to an inadequate set of drawings.

In other words, you can pay less and buy a Yugo, but you will pay more eventually to correct the engineer’s mistakes. And at that point, isn’t it just throwing good money after bad?

So, are client testimonials absolutely foolproof? No. After all, the architect is just the designer, and the contractor builds the end product, and any project, however well conceived, can be undermined by poor execution. And this brings us to the design-build option.

– The basic principal of the design-build model is that it’s a one-stop turn-key option. A client hires a contractor and designer in one fell swoop. There’s no bidding process, and there is supposedly a constant collaboration between owner, contractor and designer. This is its main selling point (People also select the design-build option because it’s supposed to be a faster project delivery method). And the design costs look dirt cheap when compared to hiring a traditional architect, because design fees are usually back-ended and hidden in the construction costs. But the primary drawback is that the designer, who may or may not be a licensed architect, is almost entirely subordinate to a contractor who is, above all else, a bean counter hell-bent on maximizing profit. Someone who really cares about the function and aesthetics of their new home should hire an independent professional who prioritizes these issues – a licensed architect.

You know what you call a car built strictly for profit with little or no attention paid to functional or aesthetic concerns? A Yugo.

Classic “Yugo”

Let’s face it, most design-build firms just churn out house after house that simply adapt one or two designs to the size and shape lot on which they’re being built. For the three quarters to a million plus dollars someone will spend on a new house, he or should be able to say something more than, “Mine is the blue one”.

– But back to Mercedes (By the way – I’m not advocating the purchase of a Mercedes. I’m quite happy with my Chevy). Why do people shell out a fortune to buy one of these cars? Sure – there’s the prestige and snazzy hood ornament, but there’s something else – value added. The engineering and aesthetic appeal that people appreciate, and pay through the nose for, is generated by highly trained, skilled professionals, who spend countless hours designing and redesigning – testing and retesting. And this time and effort costs money. In other words, there are no short cuts. You cannot hire an architect who spends less time, expends less effort, and expect to receive anything less than an inferior finished product. Time is money and you’re only going to get the amount of time you pay for. Sure – you can save money by hiring a cheaper architect, but for perhaps the biggest investment of your life, is it worth it?


“Yugo” or photoshop, I hope.

At this point, I have to admit that I’m getting tired of writing this blog entry. Not that I don’t absolutely believe in the content – it’s just that the car analogy is getting old quickly, and unlike Bob Wilkoff, I’m just not a car guy. But, since we’ve started along this path, let’s see it through.

I used the Mercedes and Yugo analogy because the choice is painfully obvious. Most people rejected the Yugo without a second thought, because, in the end, they decided that it was worth it to pay more and have the quality and reliability of a better-made car, with a proven track record, that they actually wanted. After all, it is a major purchase, right?

Also, Yugo quickly became the butt of jokes in the mid-80’s. I heard one time that a Yugo was totaled after getting t-boned by a bike messenger. See, you just can’t help it. But seriously, they brought it on themselves. I mean – who consciously models a new line of automobiles based on Fiat technology? But I digress.

So what’s so different about choosing an architect? Houses and cars have a lot in common. They both protect you from the elements. They both say something about who you are and what you value. Both are places where you will try desperately to keep your children safe and occupied, and clean their crumbs out of the carpet. Both are places where you will sit with your spouse and ponder which way to go (in life). And both will lose power at inopportune times.

Here’s the key difference: You will own your new car for about fourteen years and your new house for about forty.

If you’re lucky, you will only spend about twelve hours a week driving your new car.

Your new house, on the other hand, is the place where you live the longest. It’s the place where you will eat, sleep, seek refuge and recover from illness. It’s the place where your children will grow up. It’s the place where you will celebrate holidays and birthdays. It’s the place where you will argue with you spouse and then make up. And it’s the place you will make most of the important decisions that shape the balance of your life.

No pressure.

P.S. For those of you who are wondering the cost differences between the services of a crappy architect, a mediocre architect, a great architect and an over-rated architect: It’s about the same as the cost differences between a Yugo, a Hyundai, a Mercedes and a Ferrari.

Vote Archaeon. “Best Home Remodeling Firm” of Bethesda

Did you know? Bethesda Magazine’s “Best of Bethesda” voting is now live? Please help Archaeon. take home the “BEST HOME REMODELING FIRM” title for 2011 (question #55)!
Please note, you must answer at least 20 questions, and fill in your name and address for your vote to count.

Please hurry! Voting ends Friday, Sept 17. @ 5:00pm.


Design/Build Firm vs. Architect: God Is In The Details

When it comes right down do it, buildings, like people, are more similar than they are different. Just about every building is made from the same lumber, drywall, insulation, plywood & concrete block. So, considering this commonality, what sets a building or space apart? What makes one space special and another, that is ninety percent the same, ordinary and just plain boring. One word: details.

Let’s face it, without details most spaces are just painted boxes with a doorway for access and windows for light and air. What makes a space memorable may be the subtle shaping of a wall plane or pattern of cut-outs, a unique built-in, a perfectly situated window, or a special lighting or tray ceiling detail.

But, whatever individual features make a space special, the end result is usually the product of design decisions based on formal considerations, the functional demands of the space, a client’s desires and budget, and color, material and textural juxtapositions. Sorry if that sounds like pretentious designer-speak, but I’m not sure how else to say it.

private residence – bethesda, md

So, what is the value of this observation in practical terms? Well, for the home owner considering hiring an architect to design his/her home environment, bear in mind the following:

-Firstly, not all architects are created equal. Some architects have a reputation for doing quality design work, and some don’t. This isn’t to say that they’re bad at what they do – it may just be that design isn’t their strong suit. So, before hiring an architect, be sure to carefully review their design portfolio and make certain you like what you see. And, if possible, contact one of their references to see if you can schedule a time to walk through their home. Pictures are great, but nothing really compares to being inside an actual space.

-Secondly, quality design takes time. What this means is, if you’re looking to hire an architect, and design is a priority, carefully compare the proposals from the various architects you’re considering. Look at their fees, look at their hourly rates, and do the math.

For the sake of illustration, if architect A is asking $2,100 to do schematic designs and architect B is asking for $3,500 to do the same work, and they both charge a hourly rate of $70 per hour, you know right then and there that architect A will not be putting the same amount of time and thought into your project. Architect A simply can’t afford to do the same job as architect B without losing money.

To be clear, I’m not advocating automatically hiring the most expensive architect you can find, but I would certainly recommend resisting the temptation to hire the cheapest. Architectural design is like anything else you buy in that, generally, you get what you pay for.

private residence – mclean, va

-Lastly, a word about the merits of hiring a design/build firm. As it regards design: Just don’t do it. If a home owner’s priority is design, then hiring a design/build firm, whose greatest priority is to maximize construction profits, makes little sense. Design/build firms are more or less run by contractors, and they usually have a staff designer with limited to no freedom of creativity who is largely their subordinate. This typically is not a recipe for good design. A designer should ideally be a separate and independent entity, free to design a project the home owner loves, and also to enforce the details approved by the home owner during construction.

One final word of advice to anyone looking to hire an architect or other design professional. Always remember that it’s your decision. You’re the one who has to live in the house, and it is being built for you. In other words, no matter how much your best friend may recommend this architect or likes that design/build firm, don’t allow yourself to be pressured into choosing a practitioner whose work doesn’t suit your tastes.

Building your own house can be a wonderful experience. But, if you’re like most people, you’re probably planning on doing it only once – so do it right.

Choose a designer that’s right for you, and don’t skimp on the details.

Good luck.

private residence – mclean, va

Don’t Shoot The Messenger, Please: Home Additions and Renovation Construction Costs in Montgomery County, MD

Don’t Shoot The Messenger – Please: The Truth About What Construction Costs.

I still remember as if it were yesterday – an early spring afternoon. The office windows were open, the sun was shining and the Earth was once again stirring with life, verve and promise. It was a time of hope, rebirth and infinite possibilities. A time it was, and what a time it was, it was…

This bucolic bliss was unfortunately disrupted by a ringing office phone. It happened to be a very nice woman in Bethesda, who wanted to expand her kitchen and add a new master bedroom suite at the rear of her 1930’s colonial. We chatted for a while about what she wanted to do. She expressed boundless excitement at the prospect of her new granite kitchen countertops, stainless steel appliances, and the new skylights directly above the oversize whirlpool tub, in her palatial, new master bath. Turns out she and her husband had purchased the house only a few years before, and had been dreaming of this project ever since their closing. To make this story even more heart-breaking, I had never spoken with a client more eager to work with us. She had been to our website and had absolutely fallen in love with our portfolio.

I know what you’re asking – what’s so “heart-breaking” about that?

I asked her next what sort of budget they would have to build it. “About fifty thousand,” she replied.

I knew at that moment that this project was going nowhere. And aside from the disappointment that this nice woman would not be our client, I felt terrible that I would have to be the one to dash her hopes. I knew immediately that $50K just wouldn’t do it. In fact, it wouldn’t even cover the cost of the new square footage necessary. Needless to say, she was disappointed.

I wish that I could say that this was an isolated incident, but, in truth, it probably happens about once a month. And it all points to one obvious conclusion: Most people new to the building process just don’t have a clear concept of what construction costs.

So, for all of you dreamers out there, who are hoping to renovate your home, add on, or start from scratch, this post is intended to give you some ideas about general construction costs. At the very least, this should help you know whether or not your in the ballpark before becoming emotionally invested.

For starters, when our office begins to compile a construction budget, we look at a few things: total new square footage and total renovated square footage, kitchen amenities, number of bathrooms and bathroom amenities. These items typically comprise the lion’s share of just about any construction budget.

Unfortunately, many practitioners will not separate these items, and instead offer a blanket estimate based on total square footage multiplied by an average per square footage cost. This is generally useless, as it offers the client no concept of what individual items cost, or the quality of those items, and therefore gives them no real opportunity to use the estimate as a tool to prioritize. So, let’s break things down.

Note to reader: All construction costs, like politics, are local. The numbers listed are based on what we’ve seen for the DC metropolitan area, and are not necessarily indicative of costs in other parts of the country. My in-laws, for instance, who live in Buffalo, could have done the aforementioned work for the aforementioned $50K, and still had enough left over for a European vacation and a private concert from Chris Brown. Enough said.

Firstly, I’m sure this will come as no shock, but renovated square footage is cheaper than new square footage. We typically estimate renovated square footage at about $90-$120/square foot (figure a little less for basement square footage) and new square footage in the $195-$275/square foot range. To explain the range in square footage costs, it’s very much like shopping at Costco – the more you buy the cheaper it is. The “unit price” of a small project of 300 square feet or less will be significantly more expensive than a larger project of 1,000 square feet or more.

Next, you have to account for the cost of pricey spaces like kitchens and bathrooms. The numbers above are only to estimate the cost of the space itself. And when you think about it, there are a lot of things that go into these spaces. Every kitchen needs cabinetry, countertops and backsplashes, appliances and electrical rough-ins, plumbing fixtures and rough-ins, finishes and lighting. It’s a lot of stuff. So, here are some general rules of thumb for budgeting purposes:

-Cabinetry will most likely account for the majority of the cost for your new kitchen. However, there is a wide range of cost and quality – you can spend $5,000 or $50,000. It just depends on your budget and priorities. Most people will elect to spend a little more on cabinetry because it’s not the sort of thing you want to replace often. For quality upper mid-grade cabinetry you should probably budget anywhere from $15,000 to $24,000 in an average size kitchen.

-The next big-ticket item will most likely be your appliances. Again, there’s a range. It’s dependent on quality and amenities. You can outfit a kitchen for $5,000 or $45,000. Quality upper mid-grade appliances for a basic kitchen containing a refrigerator, double wall oven, cooktop and exhaust system, dishwasher, microwave and garbage disposal will probably cost around $10,000. Adding amenities like instant hots, warming drawers, etc. would obviously cost more.

-On top of these costs, there are lots of little things that, while they are relatively inexpensive individually, could add up to around another $10,000. These include electrical rough-ins, plumbing rough-ins, plumbing fixtures and fittings, countertops and backsplashes, finishes and lighting.

-Add about 5K for granite countertops.

private residence – bethesda, md

Here are some budgeting guidelines for bathrooms:

-No real surprise – your largest expenses will be for plumbing fixtures and rough-ins. Generally, a plumbing rough in will cost about $1,000 per fixture. So, if you’re outfitting a master bath with two sinks, a shower, a tub and a toilet, you should figure about $5,000 for rough-ins. The expense of plumbing fixtures and fittings will of course vary with quality and the amenities demanded by the space and owner’s preferences. Quality mid-grade fixtures and fittings could cost about $1,600 for a powder room (sink, faucet and toilet), and about $5,500 for a master bath containing the items listed above.

-However, this is only about half the cost of outfitting the space. As with kitchen spaces, there are lots of additional items of varying importance and expense that go into a bathroom space. Like kitchens, you have cabinets and countertops, finishes, electric rough-in(s), lighting, but you also have mirrors, medicine cabinets, ceramic tile (expense and coverage area can greatly effect the cost of a bathroom), toilet paper holders, towel bars, perhaps shower doors. As a very general rule of thumb, you can take the estimated cost of your fixtures and fittings (based on the info above) and multiply it by two for a nice bathroom, and by two and a half times for a nicer bathroom. This should give you an idea of the total cost.

-Add about 1K for granite countertops.

private residence – bethesda, md

So, that’s the big stuff that most home additions and renovations will require in some form. Below are some other common amenities and general costs.

-Wood decks: about $35.00/sf

-Hardscape patio: about $45.00/sf

-Screened-in porch: about $135/sf

-Open porch: about $115/sf

-Gas fireplace: about $6,000

-Masonry fireplace: about $13,000

-Skylights: about $1,450/ea.

-Recessed lighting: about $2 -3,000/room.

So, there you have it. While this information is neither fool-proof nor exhaustive – you can spend a lot less or a lot more – it should be enough to give you a good idea whether or not your plans are realistic. If you have specific questions, please feel free to post a comment or you can e-mail questions to

Some other tips:

If you’re considering the purchase of a home, and you know ahead of time that you’ll want to do some significant work, do yourself a favor and discuss your ideas with a licensed architect before putting in an offer. Because of financial reasons, zoning restrictions, or any other number of factors, you may not be able to do what you desire with a specific property. Any architect that’s worth his/her salt will meet with you at the property for free, and offer advice and approximate constructions costs to make your dream a reality. Taking this extra step will help you make an informed decision about a property.

However, be aware that while an architect is all too happy to meet with you and offer free consultation, it’s only because it’s a great opportunity to market the firm and meet a potential client. And unfortunately, some architects, like businesspeople in any other field, may not always be the most upfront or straightforward when trying to win your business.

Beware of architects who offer their services as a straight percentage of construction costs. Some of these architects have a vested interest in providing preliminary construction budgets that are far too low to do the work. Their hope is that the budget estimate will entice a client into signing a contract, and by the time the bids come in, it’s too late. The client is already committed and unhappy because they have to pay more than they expected to build the project. And, to add insult to injury, they have to pay the architect more as well, because his/her fee is based on a percentage of the construction costs. Those who purposefully and unethically mislead potential clients in this manner hurt the image of the profession and its practitioners as a whole.

For this reason, always demand a not-to-exceed fee from any architect with whom you’re considering working. This eliminates any financial incentive to offer less than honest construction estimates. If they refuse, or give some song and dance about why they can’t do this for you, do yourself a favor and move on.