Rand Soellner, ArCH, NCARB, is the Senior Staff Architect at HOME ARCHITECTS, which designs custom homes nationwide, with a specialty in mountain residences. Recently, we spoke with Rand to hear his thoughts on today’s popular home renovation requests, how to choose an architect for your own project, and how to make the entire process as seamless as possible.
Tell us a bit about your background. Why are you so passionate about home design and architecture?
Having a custom home designed and built is often the most significant personal investment of my clients’ lifetimes. While this is a joyful undertaking, it is also a serious one that requires significant focus and effort from me and my firm.
I have spent my lifetime earning the degrees and experience to provide the very best designs, documentation, and administration possible to provide the quality homes our clients dream of having. Our clients see some previous projects of ours, and they contact me and say: “Wow! That made my heart soar. I want a house that makes me feel that way!” They also say that they want a home that will be durable and require minimal maintenance, and will also provide large glass areas with excellent energy efficiency (and many other features). Bottom line: our clients expect a wonderful house, and we do our best to deliver that to them.
What are some of the most popular home renovations or additions that you’re seeing right now?
We see our clients wanting renovations all across the board for a variety of reasons. But the most important upgrades that we make (according to my wife, Merry Soellner, Real Estate Broker) that add to the increased value and personal enjoyment of a home often involve kitchen renovations and master bath upgrades.
However, there are also highly personal and functional needs that can dictate what a client needs and wants. For instance, my company is presently designing major renovations to an older home in Glenville, North Carolina to install a residential elevator and a new two-story tall window wall to provide enlarged views of the surrounding mountains, since the client’s son is in a wheelchair. So it’s hard to put a price on those types of improvements. Our job is to help the client obtain what they need – and also what they dream.
Before a home renovation/remodeling project begins, which details in architectural plans should homeowners especially concentrate on in order to prevent future change orders?
This really isn’t something that the owner-client can handle. They need to allow the architect to manage this for them. It mainly has to do with the architect creating more detailed documents in the form of building sections, wall sections, door schedules, finish schedules, electrical plans, cabinetry elevations, 3D imagery, and specifications. Why? The more detailed the documents are and the more that is specified, the fewer number of questions and gaps there will be in which the contractor can claim weren’t covered in his/her bid – which is where change orders can often come from. In other words, it’s better to have thorough documents so there are fewer unknowns.
Also, detailed specifications clearly identify the quality levels and standards for the materials and systems of the project, making it less likely that the contractor might attempt to suggest less durable substitutions. We love contractors; without them, our designs wouldn’t get built. However, due to the lack of detailed documents out there in the world right now, contractors have become used to solving problems and filling in the blanks in most project documentation. We understand this process, but we would prefer that the builders use our detailed documents. Once they understand that we have created a more detailed set of documents, they are often relieved that we have solved all those problems for them, and we reach an understanding and have the basis for mutual respect.
What avoidable issues do you tend to encounter with customers that often result in lengthy project delays?
It is important for clients to listen to the architect’s advice and counsel, particularly when it comes to general budgetary issues, scheduling, and management. For instance, most clients believe that they can build their dream home for much lower construction costs than reality dictates. If they listen to the architect’s range of construction information and then budget accordingly, that can save much grief later. Construction will always cost more than any owner imagines. That’s reality and human nature.
Also, the architect should be the person managing the project from beginning to end. He or she is the only one that will be familiar with every aspect of the effort from start to finish, and will make sure that what was programmed and designed in the beginning is what gets built at the end – including the things behind the walls and under the floors. What delays things is when the client might instead decide to “switch horses” in the middle of the stream and allow the builder to assume control during the remainder of the project. This is perfectly understandable when there is no architect. But when an architect creates the design, he or she should be the professional who manages the bidding, value engineering, and construction administration.
Most clients simply don’t have the necessary background to understand the complexities involved with building a custom home to properly evaluate what’s happening on a day-to-day basis. Having the professional level of expertise that an architect provides helps owners deal more intelligently with various issues, like when substitutions are proposed and when pay requests are presented. We enjoy working with contractors every day; they are some of our best friends. We often send them projects and they send us clients. We have learned to rely on each other, knowing that we will both always do what is in our mutual clients’ best interests.
In the past, many energy-efficient home renovation options used to be cost-prohibitive. Is that still the case today?
We actually build energy efficiency into all of our projects. We specify and detail use of liquid foam insulation with laser-like precision (because of its higher cost) to reduce infiltration (unwanted airflow from the outside to the inside through cracks). Since this use is minimal, the added cost is greatly reduced. Then low-cost fiberglass insulation can do most of the “heavy lifting” when it comes to a better thermal envelope.
In addition, our firm analyzes sun exposure and roof overhangs to reduce summer sun intrusion and increase winter sun to help heat it in cold weather. Also, my firm specifies insulation on water piping, which aids in reducing hot water heating requirements. And in accordance with the latest energy codes, we detail continuous rigid insulation around the exterior round framing to reduce or eliminate thermal shunts caused by framing members.
For someone who is searching for an architect to handle their home renovation project, what are some red flags that they should watch out for?
Make sure you find a licensed architect who also specializes in residential architecture. Ask the person who you think is an architect to provide you with their license number. A legitimate architect will have that. There are many imposters these days.
Also, look for an architect who is in the global professional architectural organization: ArCH (Architects Creating Homes). ArCH is the only independent professional global architectural society that only has members who are licensed architects whose specialty is designing homes. Look for “ArCH” after their names.
Then look at the architect’s website. Do you see nice looking custom homes there? Does the architect have information that is useful and educational, not just content that says, “Hire me?” Do you learn anything by reviewing their website? Do they have online books and presentations on their website that you can download and learn about the process? The best architects provide these materials. If they don’t, that may mean that this type of project is not their specialty.
Don’t hire someone who is trying to be everything to everyone one. There is not enough time in the universe to accomplish this. Hire a specialist who is a pro that does your type of project every day. They will be better at it than those who do other things for a living. Designing a house is one of the most complex project types on the planet, so you want someone who does that day in and day out.
What do you foresee for the future of the home renovation industry, and how will customer demands evolve over the next several years?
In a nutshell: improved energy performance, more efficient plan organization, more durable materials, lower maintenance, improved aesthetics, larger windows, better views, large kitchens and master bathrooms, open plan arrangements, options for future expansion, and better site planning.
And last but not least: better programming on the part of the architect. This is the up-front information the architect gathers to determine the spaces and features the client needs and wants to provide not only a better home that lasts longer, but also one in which they will be happier.
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