Design-build offers perfect homes for picky buyers with time, money
by Joel Hoglund
To build or not to build, that was the question facing 36-year-old Devin Mathews and his wife Gina as they moved their young family back to Chicago last year.
Temporarily settled in a Gold Coast condo, Devin and Gina cruised the single-family home market with three options in mind. They could buy a new spec house, rehab an existing house, or design and build their own custom home.
The couple had successfully gutted and rehabbed their home in Boston, but the full-time job of managing the rehab process seemed too daunting when their young daughters and Devin’s new job as a partner in a venture capital fund entered the equation. They browsed new houses built by various developers, but none seemed quite right.
“You walk around the house and think, wow, this is really nice, but I would’ve used the money here instead of there,” Devin Mathews says. “Once you start doing that, you figure, we’re kidding ourselves, let’s just go build a house. We had time to build exactly the house we wanted, so we figured, why not do it?”
Time – and patience – are exactly what you need to embark on the custom homebuilding process, says Teak Barton, president of Glenview-based Macnon Builders, which constructs custom homes. Macnon’s houses typically are priced in the $800,000 to $2 million range in “sweet spots” along the North Shore.
“It’s not something you can do in between driving the kids around to soccer games,” Barton says.
The process of designing and building a house can last anywhere from 10 months to two and a half years, according to John Anstadt, managing principal of the Design Group at Orren Pickell Designers & Builders, based in Lincolnshire.
Finding a lot
One of the first steps is finding a lot on which to build, and most design-build firms will help clients with that process, one which Anstadt says can take some time. In addition to the challenge of finding a suitable site in a competitive market, buyers have to work with the limitations of the land and local zoning regulations.
Mathews found his own lot in Winnetka and chose Pickell to design and build his home, then suffered a two-month permit delay while he was in talks with the village about a tree on the site.
“You gotta just roll with it,” he says. If you can’t, design-build isn’t for you.
Design-build also is not a good idea if you need a firm price. Prices on design-build projects are established at the outset – starting around $200 per square foot, according to Anstadt and Barton – but they can rise or fall throughout the process.
“For instance, if you have the Donald Trump style and want everything gold-plated, we’re going to add a dollar amount in there for the level of finish,” Anstadt says.
Builders regularly give clients updated prices, but to pursue a design-build, you need some wiggle room on cost. “You should definitely have financial wherewithal,” Matthews says.
Prices for design-build homes usually are higher than for spec homes of the same size in similar locations, though that difference can begin to shrink if spec builders try to recover carrying and marketing costs.
“I would estimate that the cost of a typical custom home would be at least $10 to $20 a square foot more than a spec home because of all the upgraded features usually not included in a spec home,” Barton says. “Whether a spec seller passes that cost difference on in his selling price probably depends on how long it takes him to sell the home and how motivated he is to sell.”
Buyers’ wish list
The first meetings between a client and a design-build firm are largely conceptual. “How do you live, what is your philosophy on living, what is a house to you…very high level, philosophical stuff,” Mathews says.
This sort of insight is critical, according to Barton. “We really listen carefully about how they’re going to use the house, how long they think they’re going to live there, what their future family expansion plans are,” he says.
Anstadt asks clients to draw up a wish list. “One of the first things we ask is, ‘You walk in your front door, what do you want to see?'” he says. “And the plan starts to develop around that.”
Clients might not know specific architectural styles, but a consistency emerges from the list of their desires and dislikes, according to Anstadt. His architects first create a freehand sketch with the clients and then refine it at subsequent meetings, designing a first-floor layout, then an elevation and finally, a second floor and a lower level. The entire design process typically lasts one to four months, Anstadt says, with the clients and builder meeting every couple of weeks.
The Mathews settled on a classic-looking 4,500-square-foot home with five-bedrooms. “We’re just doing a shingle-style house – very unassuming, unobtrusive. Hopefully people don’t drive by it and say, ‘look at that brand new house,'” says Mathews, who is about nine months into the design-build process with perhaps another year to go.
A good design-build firm keeps clients on track with the myriad decisions they face throughout the process. Pickell offers clients a real-time, Web-based timeline of their houses’ progress and upcoming meetings. At Macnon Builders, clients receive a binder with a flow chart and a 75-page book that illustrates the step-by-step process of choosing every little thing that makes a house a house, from the shingles on the roof to the light switches in the basement.
Clients are given detailed lists of showrooms to visit, people to see, decisions to make and deadlines to meet. “It’s extremely organized so that people can see exactly where they’re at, what happens next and what we need from them,” Barton says.
Help with choices
To simplify the sprawling range of choices, most design-build firms will narrow the endless selections by making recommendations based on the clients’ style and budget.
“We try and give guidelines and templates for what works well, but we don’t want to hamper people’s creativity,” Barton says. His firm has built everything from a 500-square-foot closet to an indoor athletic court in its custom houses, but Barton says that most people express themselves more through layouts than radical elevations or lavish interiors.
With their two children in mind, Devin and Gina Mathews emphasized the informal space in their house, avoiding the superfluous rooms they found in many North Shore homes.
“I don’t need the mahogany library when I have a four-year-old,” Mathews says. “If I’m spending this much money on a house, I’m going to use the whole damn thing.” They designed a large eat-in kitchen for family gatherings, transitional spaces, private guest space for visiting family members and the interior details missing in many spec homes – moldings, built-in cabinets and bench seating.
Once a custom home gets underway, clients are encouraged to visit the site at various stages of construction.
“Most clients can’t visualize things very well, especially on paper,” Anstadt says, “so it’s very beneficial to walk the site with them at certain stages just to ensure that their initial thoughts are still on the same path.” Anstadt typically takes clients on site walks every couple of weeks once the framing is up.
At this point, homebuilders acknowledge, clients sometimes change their minds. Most clients make only “little tweaks” here and there, but Anstadt says he once had to tear out a pool house’s foundation and move it because the client didn’t like the way it sat relative to the sun.
Particularly picky clients who make lots of changes tend to add a month or two to the project – and incur the additional costs of changes made after deadlines.
“People get passionate,”Anstadt says. “They’re building a $5 million house, they’re going to be passionate about certain things. With design-build, we can jump on those things quicker that most.”
Indeed, the coordination afforded by a design-build firm is the biggest advantage of the custom homebuilding process, according to Mathews. The superintendent on the job calls him daily to report on the progress of the house.
“Because it’s all one place, and they all work together, I’m not the go-between between an architect and a contractor and sub-contractors and interior designers and all this stuff,” Mathews says. “I call one person and she handles all the conversations with everybody. Nothing slips through the cracks.”
Design-build is not an option for people who need a new home quickly, or for people who don’t want to do their homework, Barton says. Those who aren’t particular about the smallest details might as well buy a readymade house. “It’s like the difference between buying a Pinto and a Mercedes,” he says. “If you can’t recognize the difference, go ahead and buy the Pinto.”
What if you want a significant say in how your home looks but don’t have the time or wherewithal for the design-build process? Semi-custom homes, which allow buyers to start with a particular model and then select various finishes and materials, bridge the divide between the design-build and spec worlds. Northbrook-based Ferris Homes offers various levels of customization at Liberty Grove, for instance, its single-family home development in Libertyville. Andrew Ferris, president of Ferris Homes, says semi-custom homes are a good fit for buyers with stringent time demands or those who need a starting point and a more manageable process.
Instead of working from scratch with a design team, buyers at Liberty Grove pick established designs that fit the architectural theme of the development. Once they’ve selected a model, they choose from a range of available interior and exterior finishes, including masonry, cabinetry, floor coverings and plumbing fixtures. Standard choices are included in the price, and upgrades are available for an extra fee.
“It still gives them a chance to put their own personality in the home,” Ferris says.
After all the time and hard work spent, Mathews thinks that’s what it’s all about – living in a place that’s not just a house, but an extension of the homeowner’s personality. Around halfway through his own design-build process, Mathews already can see his family reflected in the house that’s taking shape. “I think people will come in and say, ‘clearly you guys built this house.'”