Monday, February 28, 2011

Your Options for choosing a Design Professional

When the time comes to chose a Design Professional, there are many options available to most people.  I will try to outline the three major choices, giving the advantages and disadvantages of each choice.

Draftsman:  True draftsman are becoming a dying breed with the huge advances made in the computer world.  No longer are draftsmen sitting at a drafting board with their straight edges, mechanical arms or T squares.  For the most part, they have traded in their number H2 and HB pencils for a computer monitor and design software. 

I once was a draftsman; went to drafting school to perfect my line weights, lettering style, construction details and  cross-hatching abilities.  Draftsmen were trained to put construction ideas down on paper (actually vellum or mylar) in such a fashion that it was readable and understandable by all the sub-contracting trades that would be working on that specific project.  We were proud of our work and thought of it as a work of art.  With the advent of  CAD (computer aided design), some of the creativity and uniqueness of hand drawn plans was lost to perfect lines, perfect lettering and boring looking blueprints.  Gained was the time saved in making changes, the uniformity of line weights, lettering and overall presentation.  Multiple people could be working on the same plan and no one would see the differences in style or lettering.  Lost was the little things draftsmen would put on their plans for fun or whimsy.  I often made smiley faces in the hatching of attic insulation, spiders in the sinks and mouse traps in wall cavities.  It's just not that fun to do on the computer, so the "added features" are no longer there.  It is rare to find someone who still draws by hand, unless it is a very small project and done just to maintain drafting skills.

Drafting was a skill and talent all it's own, design was the responsibility of your supervisor that was telling you what to draw.  Draftsmen most often work for architects, engineers, builders or lumber yards.  They are taught to draw clean, neat, accurate plans; they are not necessarily taught how to design.  With the advent of the computer, draftsmen became computer operators and what little design concepts we were taught in drafting school was lost in the transition to computer training. 

I have been very frustrated with the quality of the graduates from vocational CAD training programs as potential employees because I'm expecting that they would have some interest in actual design and have a curiosity for learning more about scale and proportion, but all they want to do is sit at a keyboard and enter information into a computer program and not have to think about the swing of a door, the scale of a room or the line of sight views from the front door.  They have no aptitude for design or design concepts, so as a design option, they are only as good as the person supervising them. 

Now I have seen a few draftsmen who are natural designers, who just have an innate ability to make a floor plan work best.  They have a passion and curiosity for learning more about design than about computer programs.  Most of these individuals move on to being the supervisor or owning their own design firm, they are not content to just draw what they are told to draw.  If you can find someone like this, you will get some design help that may not be available from a draftsman/computer operator alone.

When interviewing people for design help, make sure they are interested and willing to give some input to the design and design process.  If they tell you they will draw anything you want, you had better be the design expert, because they are not.  If you feel as though you are totally capable of designing your own home without any outside suggestions or advice, then this is the way to go.  I would say, less than 5% of non-construction related people are really capable of doing this well.  There are many different things to consider in designing a home, and without the experience of knowing how it will go together or how the sub-contractor trades work, you could be digging yourself a big hole.

Often times builders will use a draftsman or drafting service, especially one that works for a lumber yard.  There again I have seen some pretty talented lumberyard draftsmen and I have seen some pretty poor ones.  In this case, the draftsman is drawing what the builder interprets what he thinks you would like.  It is usually pretty straight forward, simple construction with little thought to scale and proportion, lacking some simple design elements that could make it really nice, and he will tell you the best thing of all, is that the plan is free.  Hint, hint.  Nothing is really free.  You are tied to that builder and he is tied to that lumber yard.  If you fall out of graces with that builder, you are pretty much SOL on getting that plan done, especially for free.  If you don't like the service or products of that lumberyard, you can not go someplace else, because the plan is only "free" if you buy all your materials there.  The cost of that plan has to be somewhere in the cost of your materials, again, nothing is really free. 

Homes that are built for speculation are usually designed and built this way and may be at the end, the builder will pay an interior designer to chose paint colors or carpeting, too late for some real design help.  These homes are not custom homes and do not usually reflect anyone's lifstyle except the builders'.  There again, some builders are very good at coming up with unique ideas and design concepts and some are really good at "borrowing" other peoples' ideas.  These homes are still less than custom, because you were not involved in the process.

Plans from a draftsman or drafting service are usually pretty basic.  they will include just what is needed for getting a permit or meeting a building code.  They leave a lot of room for interpretation both from the builders point of view and yours.  Many times, homeowners are left feeling like they have to tell everyone what to do, because it is not defined any where on the plans and if left up to some contractors, would be overlooked completely.  There are many more miscommunication with incomplete plans than there are with well thought out designs that show exactly how to build a home.

The costs for going with a draftsman can vary widely; anything from "free" to thousands of dollars.  Most draftsmen or drafting services will charge a square foot price, something that is easy for builders to estimate for their final bids and for homeowners to consider in their budgets.  Watch for the extras; more than one plan change, unusual or advanced construction techniques, more than standard details, sections or elevations, additional copies of the plan, etc.  These extras can add up fast and usually are not covered by the "free" part the lumberyard is covering or what the builder will pay for.  Also keep in mind that you may very well see "your house" two blocks over, because the plan was used for other clients.  This option for design help may be the cheapest, but remember what Mom used to say; "you get what you pay for".

Next post will cover Residential Designers

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