If you dream of building your own home one day, the chances are you will end up choosing to work with an architect. Like many things, unless you have a basic understanding of the role of an architect and the process for building a home from start to finish, it is very difficult to know how to choose the right architect for your project. Having been through the design process for building my own house (which I wrote about here) as well as interviewing contractors specializing in high end custom homes and having experience of buying land, I was excited this month to sit down and talk to Michael Cobb of Studio Ecesis, a local Healdsburg architecture firm to get their perspective on how an architect and client can work best together.
Before we get into the detail of what makes a client-architect relationship work, I think it is important for any client to get to understand what drives an architect’s work or rather what beliefs are important to an architect when approaching a complex subject like designing and building your dream home.
First a bit about Michael’s background. He is a fifth generation Californian who studied for a bachelor’s degree in architectural studies at University of Illinois prior to a Masters at the University of Pennsylvania after which he spent time in Paris. His biggest influence in his early years as an architect was Jim Jennings, who also happened to be the father of a high school buddy. Jim Jennings, also a native Californian, believed that design emanates from the site and that there should be a deep connection between a building and the geometries of the landscape and the abstract variables such as qualities of light. “I grew up in California, but I resonate with the idea that we are still figuring out how to live here. I find this idea of figuring out a way to put down roots here and be more “in touch” with the land to be a compelling challenge,” explains Michael.
“I got my start here in Sonoma County working for Obie Bowman who did a lot of work out at Sea Ranch. A lot of the projects out there are comparatively small residences on large pieces of land,” noted Michael. “On the one hand, there are the prosaic permitting challenges of a building program. On the other, is the more deeply personal pursuit of reconciling how you live with your environment. I really enjoy working with anyone who shares this interest. In many ways, each project is a minor attempt to improve how we settle this place.”
It is probably no surprise that one of the sweet spots for Studio Ecesis today is working with clients on more rural properties which are designed to sit lightly on the landscape. “While we have a broad experience of working with commercial clients, multi-family projects as well as residences, the events of the last two years and the number of people from the Bay Area settling in Sonoma County, has meant that we have ended up playing to our strong base of residential clients.”
As well as the artistic design side of being an architect, it is clear that Michael is grounded in the practicalities in the role of an architect. From my own limited experience of different architects, I sense that Michael has a strong balance between the artistic and scientific aspects of the role. Perhaps it’s my own bias as a science major as well as an interest in technology, but if I was a client, I would be reassured by the fact that my architect not only has an engineering background but also has a contractors’ license. I remember the first time I met Michael, we were meeting with a client in downtown Healdsburg, and almost the first thing he did was start flying his drone. He did this so, using software, he could start to see and map the overall context of the property and the views you might get from a second story. At a time when every industry is being impacted by technology and new developments in materials, Michael clearly has a keen interest in being at the forefront. “We take an exceptional interest in the research and development of building technologies. This goes for both the construction and software side of things. Our early work with Agri board, pivot doors, exterior retractable shades and my own ongoing research with CNC milling are examples of this,” explains Michael. While I was reviewing some of his work, he showed me a model of the home he is building in Sebastopol that he has made out of wood in his workshop. Again, highlighting his skills in representing his work to clients, earlier this week, I was with another client who purchased a home in Dry Creek Valley where Michael is working on a major renovation project. One of the first things the client did was bring out their computer and start walking me around their 3D model on an iPad showing me the new floor layout and the views from the newly positioned window. There is no doubt it is impressive.
It’s hard to have a conversation about building homes without talking about fires. As building technologies evolve there will continue to be new materials that are designed to be more fire resistant. According to Michael, “Working with unusual building materials, whether for their aesthetic, sustainable or fire-resistant properties, does require a special permitting process. We are probably better than average at threading complex compliance hurdles.” It’s clear that Michael has not just a passion for new developments but also the practical experience to push them through the permit process and make them work in reality.
Another important aspect of working with an architect is to work with someone who will listen and really get to know you and your goals and ensure that your priorities are the priority for the team. That process of getting to know each other is a really important part of the process. I ask Michael how he likes to work with clients to ensure all interests are aligned. “Residential clients tend to be qualitative in their approach but will often have an idea of how big they want their house to be or have a clear idea of some of the qualitative characteristics of the house. For example, they will often say ‘we like an open plan, we want a master bedroom sound insulated from the rest of the house or we love high ceilings’,” explains Michael. “While I don’t push the subject of cost if a client doesn’t want to talk about it, it is really important to discuss it if budget is a consideration. While clients often don’t want to hear about a starting square foot cost, it is important. If you put a client’s requested square footage up against a client’s budget they often don’t square.”
Largely because I have been down the road of working with an architect where we agreed that building our home for $600 per sq. ft was realistic, only to find out later in the process that contractors were quoting over $1000 per sq. to build the same home, I was keen to understand how Michael thinks about budgeting. “Part of my job is to keep costs under control. If the budget is $500 per sq. ft for a client’s house, I will design a building that can be built for $500 per sq. ft. That being said, because vaulted spaces are that much more expensive, I would typically estimate the cost of those parts of the building at $750 per sq ft. As an architect, I can control size, quality and budget. To keep a project on track as changes are made, one of these variables has to flex. You just can’t have the same square footage, with higher quality finishes for the same budget,” says Michael, making it all sound very obvious.
One of my learnings, having worked with an architect where contractor costs were almost double what was expected, was to get a contractor involved earlier in the process. Michael disagrees. “Getting a contractor to bid on a job is a time-consuming exercise for the contractor. Until we have construction drawings that contain all the details required for a contractor to accurately bid on a job, we just won’t get an accurate number. In this market, we have one chance to get a contractor to give the attention to a job it deserves. We need to use that time to make sure we get the best possible bid rather than bidding on incomplete plans.”
While this advice was different from my own experience, it is very obvious that Michael has a very good handle on how much things cost in today’s market. Drawing on his use of technology, he is able to leverage data from all the projects in his office to establish a cost coefficient for any particular job. Perhaps because he has a very practical background and the fact that he did have a contractors’ license, he just has a good way to predict costs for any particular build.
There will always be variances as the cost of commodities such as timber and concrete vary over time, but if budget is a consideration, I do think working with an architect who is in tune with building costs is extremely important. Similarly there will be times when any architect, Michael included, will have to defer to a contractor on specific cost items.
When it comes to the cost of his services, Michael explains that typically he will charge by the hour but he is flexible. “I would definitely consider a fixed fee for a residence because I have a very good idea of what my costs are going to be. For example, I know that 98% of all the jobs I do are done for less than 10% of construction costs.
As we wrap things up, I enquire how long projects typically take. “We should be able to get permitted plans within a year and then take 9-12 months to build a house. One of things that speeds things up is the use of the electronic plan check service that Studio Ecesis has been using for a while. One of the positive changes that has come about because of Covid, is that PRMD are now only accepting plans electronically.”
I sometimes joke with my wife that I wish I had become an architect. I think it is the coming together of the creative and scientific worlds that really appeals to me. In talking to Michael, I can clearly see the benefits of choosing an architect that has the artistic flair of a fine artist but has the practical skills of a ‘maker.’ If you are ever considering building your dream home, Michael would definitely be a good person to talk to. It’s up to you to choose if you want to work with him, however, I feel you will come away with a lot of food for thought about how you want your home to interact with the landscape as well as some very good practical advice that might save you some heart ache along the way.