Building a custom home? How to put together the right team

Editor’s note: This article is reprinted with permission from the spring 2019 issue of Ottawa Renovates magazine and is part of a series on building a custom home.

A true custom home is unlike any other. It’s a one-off design and construction suited to a specific individual or family.

When I speak of a custom home, I am talking about a distinct one-of-a-kind house that is yours alone, and not a house that has been built to a pattern or template and then customized. A true custom home is not generally replicated or duplicated. It is unique.

Of course, the thing about a truly custom home is that it costs more. It’s folly for anyone to assume they’ll pay less than $275 a square foot. In fact, for a highly energy-efficient build, I would budget about $300.

Some might say more. It depends a lot on how complex the project is, structurally and mechanically, and how unique and intricate are the detailing and the materials selected; but a general budget range should be between $275-325 a square foot.

It can certainly go up from there and custom home builds in the Ottawa area above $400 a square foot are not uncommon, particularly in some of the more upscale neighbourhoods and along the water.

One thing to remember is that it is the clients’ dreams and desires that drive the cost train.

Prep time

Let’s assume you already have a site that is not tied to a particular builder, and you’re ready to begin.

First, however, you will need some serious preparation time. Some people think and plan about what they want for a year or more, and this is what you should do.

In that initial stage, do your research. Talk to people. Figure out what style and size of house appeals to you.

Take pictures of particular things you like, down to the last detail: a roofline, an entrance door, a copper canopy or an exquisite detail that catches your eye.

Ask people whose homes you admire about what they did and who did it. Many people will be happy to share.

Read everything you can about the design and custom-home process. Browse magazines. Put everything into a well-organized and labelled digital or plain old three-ring binder. If it is digital, make sure it is in a format that is easy to open and navigate. Designers and builders are busy people, too, and don’t want to spend time reformatting.

Building your team

Once you think you’re ready, it’s time to build your team. There are two approaches most commonly used when undertaking a true custom build.

building a custom home Ottawa

Tomic Construction & Shean Architects won an award at the 2018 Housing Design Awards for this custom urban home.

The first, and still most typical, approach is to hire an independent designer or architect and then a builder. The timing or who you hire first is not as important as the fact that you are engaging two distinct firms or individuals that work directly for you.

The most common scenario would see the designer brought on board first to drive the design concepts through to preliminary design. At this point, it will be important to have already narrowed down your builder choices, as their input into budgeting is invaluable at the preliminary stages.

If you are not at this point yet, most experienced architects or designers will be able to put forth names of several custom home builders they have worked with on successful projects in the past.

The design-build option

The second, only slightly less common, approach is hiring a design-build firm, which puts the entire process in the hands of one company. Design-build firms may be large or small, and they typically only provide design services for the projects they build.

The larger ones will usually have a separate in-house design department headed by a senior architectural technologist or architect. With the smaller ones, the builder and designer may be one and the same, or a partnership between a talented designer and a skilled builder. Many of the fine custom homes in Ottawa have been built by such individuals.

While many will consider this to be a more streamlined and cost-effective approach, it should be noted that sometimes there can be a lack of creative freedom when the “build” part of the firm, concerned about cost, creates limits on the “design” part.

Regardless of which approach you take, the most important thing to finding the right professionals for your team is to do your homework.

Finding a designer

Look for a designer, whether independent or part of a design-build firm, who:

  • is a good a listener and attentive to your needs and expectations
  • is imaginative and has proven creative skills
  • has good technical knowledge and understands the building code and municipal zoning regulations, urban infill and tree bylaws
  • has significant experience in custom home design and has a portfolio to substantiate it
  • has strong AutoCAD or Revit skills with the ability to do 3D modelling
  • is familiar with the extent of documentation required to submit for a building permit build, including lot grading plans and energy efficiency summary
  • has ongoing relationships with subconsultants who will provide structural drawings, electrical, lighting and mechanical layouts, and possible energy modelling
  • understands the extent of the detailed documentation (drawings and specifications) required to minimize or ideally eliminate “extras” during the building phase
  • is willing to show you a complete set of contract drawings and specifications and explain their contents
  • has a reasonable knowledge of current construction costs and practices
  • has a valid BCIN (Building Code Identification Number) in the case of a designer or is a member of the OAA (Ontario Association of Architects) in the case of an architect.
Finding a builder

Look for a builder who:

  • is proud to show you their work, past and current
  • provides a list of past and current clients you can speak to
  • has a history of setting and meeting budgets and schedules
  • has a clean work site (a clean work site will tell you something about the person in charge of the job)
  • has sub-trades who like working with the builder (interview a couple to find out; if a builder’s sub-trades speak highly of the builder, it means it’s a harmonious work site)
  • is financially stable (find out by checking around either indirectly or formally)
  • is in good standing with the WSIB (Workplace Safety & Insurance Board) and with Tarion (the provincial home warranty program)
  • does not have a history of lawsuits and litigation (this could be a red flag and should be pursued, although bear in mind that anyone in business long enough will likely encounter one or two legal actions)
  • has considerable and varied custom building experience and has been in the business for a reasonable length of time (you are entrusting potentially the biggest and most expensive project of your lifetime to this person, so experience and length of time operating the business is not to be underestimated)
  • is knowledgeable and comfortable with energy-efficient building techniques
  • is hopefully a member of the local home builders’ association.

Always consider at least two or three possibilities. Interview each. You and they will need to be completely in sync. You’re going to be together for a while.

And keep in mind you usually get what you pay for. The good designers and builders are typically not far off in price and if you want the builder, and he or she wants to do the project, there is always a middle ground.

The budget estimate

Get a detailed budget estimate at the preliminary design stage. The more detailed the better, with reasonable allowances for finishes or items that may not have yet been determined.

Unless your designer is very well versed in current construction costs, this is the point in time that the knowledge of your builder team member is invaluable. This is the time for the hard decisions, a reality check before proceeding with final design and full-fledged working drawings and specifications.

The importance of thorough, well-detailed working drawings and specifications should not be underestimated. Good working drawings and specs will minimize the chance of extras for items missed or not accounted for at the time of final budgeting.

Don’t settle for meagre drawings or a stripped-down set of “permit drawings” as your construction blueprint or as a way of saving money. Be wary of a firm that wants less-detailed drawings so they can have more flexibility if costs seem to be tight.

Most custom builders are used to providing cost input during this drawing development phase. Once a final set of construction drawings is ready, the builder member of the team should, within a couple of weeks, be able to come up with a fully detailed construction budget based on actual subcontractor and material supplier quotes.

The construction budget

It is quite common for some builders to show all their costs plus overheads and add a construction management fee (usually in the range of 14 to 18 per cent). In this open arrangement, any saving obtained through competitive sub-trade or supplier pricing is passed on to the client, while any extras or changes are passed on at cost plus the construction management fee.

Alternately, a builder or design-build firm may want to provide a less-detailed breakdown and a lump sum fixed price without revealing their overhead and profit. In both cases, it is quite common to have allowances for finish items such as flooring, lighting and plumbing fixtures as well as tiles, to name a few, that may not have been finalized.

Be prepared for things to change as you go through the process. I’ve never heard of a project that gets cheaper. People always tend to spend more, and it’s not because the builder missed something or made a mistake; it’s most often because the client makes a change.

You might see something you’d prefer — a different material, for example. Or your life might change: a new baby, perhaps, or maybe you’ll get a dog and want a dog-washing station. You might want to expand a room or add a sunroom or see something at a design show that you’d like to incorporate. You might decide you’d like to have solar panels.

This means you’ll probably want to have a bit of wiggle room in your budget — maybe some money in reserve, or the ability to come up with more as needed.

Making changes

Wholesale changes don’t happen that often, but they do once in a while. Most changes can be accommodated, but they can take more time or require a revision of your permit.

The important thing is that your designer and builder are responsive to this and that you will be treated fairly in terms of the additional cost. Don’t be shy about asking for an upper limit on mark ups for extras and changes.

A critical element in the whole process will be communication so everyone on the team is on the same page. This is essential. Things can change quickly. Problems can crop up that aren’t controllable by either party.

Your designer/architect will look after the permits and anything to do with zoning and the building code. Questions back and forth should be direct between city plans examiners and the designer/architect. They should be responsible for ensuring the permit application can be delivered within the typical time frames.

But once the permits are in place and the shovel hits the ground, the primary responsibility for the project flips to the builder, who is now in charge of executing the project to the budget and schedule set prior to the start of construction.

Interior design

At some point you might choose to hire a third member of the team — a professional decorator or interior designer, for instance, for things like finish selections and millwork.

Often the design firm or builder will have someone they work with. Larger design-build firms will have people on staff and may even have their own showrooms. One large firm I know is extraordinarily well organized in this regard.

This process brings you to what you might think is the end, the finale — when you have the joy of moving into your new, unique, custom home. It will be a celebration, for sure. But there’s more.

It has to do with warranties, ongoing maintenance, and things that can happen when the Canadian climate is unkind. More about that in a future issue.

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