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.