Builder or Architect? Pick Your “Go To” Professional

An agent talking with two women while he is explaining something. They are all looking at a paper.

Building a custom home is a complex task and one that involves the expertise of both an architect and builder.

Looking to build a new custom-type home and can’t decide who you should work with to get it designed and built? Want to know the best route for having your new home completed on time, on budget, and as desired? Should you work primarily with an architect or with a new home builder? 

Building a custom home is a complex production. It requires the expertise of both builder and architect, but the design and build operations are distinctly different. Someone needs to administer and direct the overall project. 

“The architect is almost never the director of the play anymore,” says Stephen Moore, Senior Partner/Director of Marketing for BSB Design, Inc. headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa. “If they are… invariably what they’ve done is aligned themselves with a builder and the builder goes to them with a client and asks them to work with that client. 

“Builders have taken over the relationship,” Moore says “because in the majority of residential projects, including custom homes, dollars have become so much more of an issue. In many cases, pure architectural firms have not kept up with what it takes [and costs] to build. Since they run the dollar side of the program, builders get the attention of the customers. The bottom line is that in many home building projects the role of the architect has diminished.”

There are design-build builders that can provide you a custom home design without the need of a separate architect.

However, there are now also a growing number of residential architects that can also build your home.
In addition, Moore said there is still “that one percent of high-end, custom home buyers that do work with an architect and have the architect run the program from start to finish.”

At the core, the jobs of these two professions, builder and architect, differ greatly. Architects deal in abstract aspects and the overall design vision for your home. Builders work with the details, the nuts and bolts of construction. On new homes, especially custom or semi-custom homes, there is a need for both architectural and builder expertise. In fact, your city or community may require drawings stamped by a licensed architect.

So, what does each of these entities do and what benefits do they provide?

Job descriptions

Architect: On custom homes, the architect’s job is to consult with you to determine your lifestyle, family needs, desires and goals. They analyze site conditions, anticipate future views and floorplan orientation, develop conceptual drawings, obtain feedback from you (and from the builder), and specify materials. Next they need to draft the finished plans to provide a home design that is aesthetically-pleasing, functional, structurally-sound and meets zoning requirements, can be built within budget, and meets your lifestyle requirements and expectations.

With some contracts, the architect’s job is expanded to include obtaining permits and supervising, inspecting and troubleshooting construction to make sure it meets specifications and that the design is carried out as planned.

Builder: The role of the custom builder or contractor is to construct your home as designed, on time and within the established budget, using acceptable and code-approved construction methods and techniques. The builder orders building materials and supplies, prepares the site, brings in sewer, water and electric lines, sets the foundation, and, of course, builds the home.

It’s their responsibility to obtain, schedule and manage subcontractors and to track costs, prepare estimates on change orders, obtain lien wavers, resolve construction problems, and handle subcontractor and supplier pay requests. In addition, the builder usually addresses deed restrictions, serves as liaison to building inspectors, handles inspections, gains approvals, and resolves the owners “punch list.” Finally, the builder will educate you on the operation and maintenance of your new home.

What each contributes

Architect: Architects are well equipped to showcase options for you and to transform your family needs and desires into a design that meets your future lifestyle needs. They can create mood, match styles, colors and finishes, make effective use of views, daylight and lighting, plan for traffic flow, and maximize interior spaces. 

With his/her knowledge of product innovations, building codes, material availability and costs, an architect can save you money in the purchase of building products and supplies, and can help reduce energy use and future maintenance costs of your new home. By crafting detailed, three-dimensional designs that anticipate possible building issues, architects can reduce your involvement in contractor and sub-contractor negotiations, interpret complex design aspects for the builder and/or sub-contractors, and cut mistakes and expensive change orders during construction.

Builder:
A custom home builder – less confined by cost or timeline restrains than a production builder and tuned to the latest building ideas, the best products and systems – is equipped and motivated to provide top quality materials and workmanship for your new home. He will keep you updated on progress, notify you on decisions that must be made, and make sure you are very much a part of the building of your new home.

An experienced, reliable custom builder has the technical expertise to offer suggestions or alternatives for improvements in design or in techniques that provide time or cost savings. He will work with subcontractors to resolve issues and smooth the construction operation. They will insist on extensive upfront planning to reduce costly changes during construction; will have a systematic procedure that you can follow; and will provide documents showing what you can expect during each phase.
Making the choice

Check the architect and builder roles and contributions shown above. One of these will likely resonate more with you. Is an architect’s creative design that fits your lifestyle your key or is a builder’s quality craftsmanship that fits your budget more important? In the past, you might have chosen that person – builder or architect – to administer your project.

Today, roles are a bit blurred.

In the traditional owner-architect-builder triangle, the architect takes the lead, designs the house, hires the contractor, and monitors construction. In the growing shift to the design-build model, the custom home builder takes the lead, provides the design via a captive architect, and runs the project. 

In response to the latter trend, Moore says, “a growing number of architects have now also become builders. They control both elements of the conversation, keep both functions in house and administer the project from start to finish.” 

One stop shop


Phil Kean Design Group, Winter Park, FL, provides custom home architectural, interior design, and construction service. Kean, AIA, AIBD, ASID, is a licensed architect, licensed interior designer, certified residential contractor, certified green professional, and past-president of Central Florida’s Master Custom Builder Council.

“I grew up on job sites learning to read construction documents and helping my father who was a builder,” says Kean. “I earned my architectural and contractors licenses and started a design/build firm, and then earned my interior design license as well.  

“I find it rewarding to start with a blank piece of paper and an idea, create a unique design, oversee the construction with care, and ensure that the final product turns out better than the client imagined,” said Kean.

This one-stop approach to home construction makes the process of designing and building a custom home seamless and holistic for the home buyer. 

“With the architect, contractor and interior designer all under one roof,” Moore said, “any design developments that arise during the building process can be quickly and efficiently executed while ensuring the cohesiveness of the project’s design from start to finish.”

To provide the necessary checks and balances, each project has a team of designers and builders who work together on a daily basis. The project begins with the architect.  After the schematic design and floor plans are approved, the interior designers work hand-in-hand with the architect on design development. At the time of final design, the construction division gets involved and the team works together to see the project through to the final detail.   

Today, Moore says, home buyers might approach either the builder company or the architect firm as their “go to” partner. However, increasingly those two may be one and the same.

Roy Diez is a freelance writer and marketing professional specializing in the architectural, building and construction industry. He is a former editor-in-chief of Professional Builder magazine.

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