How to Begin a Happy and Successful House Project

A short description of the design process in phases from beginning to contractor selection

About Landmarkk

Immediately after Architecture School, Steve moved to Chicago and worked for some very prominent architectural firms before specializing in smaller commercial and residential projects. Steve is a registered architect in Colorado. Landmarkk carries a full range of professional liability insurance.

Landmarkk works with associate architects on a contract basis. Our summer work load is normally two or three active projects and a similar number under construction. In this way backlog delays are reduced but they can’t be eliminated. Steve does all of the design work, directly attends to client needs, manages production of construction drawings, and works with contractors during construction. Landmarkk works with structural engineering consultants for non-prescriptive situations.

Landmarkk’s reference list takes up an entire page and is available to anyone who is serious about engaging our firm. Our project types are:

  • Pop-up additions
  • Horizontal additions
  • Remodeling / renovation
  • New houses
  • ADU’s


  1. Most of feasibility occurs in the first meeting at no charge and takes only an hour or so.
  2. Zoning is a major determining factor. We should verify it on the city website to be certain your project is allowable and that the setbacks and other restrictions fit your needs.
  3. Feasibility means different things to different people. For this article, feasibility means that we are creating value.
  4. At this writing, a cost of $200-240 / sq ft is typical for new construction. $90-160 / sq ft is typical for remodeling. Finishes and project scale are big factors in this cost range. Most infill projects are combinations of new and remodeling construction, but the same numbers apply in proportion to their area. Kitchens and baths are more. If houses in your neighborhood are selling for $400 / sq ft, your project will create value beyond its cost if the zoning and design ideas work.
  5. Based on cost history of past projects, we can predict an approximate cost for your project if we know your sq ft. We can determine sq ft from a list of rooms you probably have in mind. The predicted cost will be very preliminary but for our purpose, it’s close enough to get us a typical price for a project with typical finishes.
  6. If you want something other than average, we can factor that in. But make sure we know it when we write your proposal.
  7. After our feasibility meeting, we’ll email you a one-page proposal and, if you like what you see, sign the proposal and it becomes our design contract.
  8. A (10%) deposit is due when we begin. Depending on our schedule we can start between two and three weeks. There is usually a small back log in early spring and nothing as the winter holidays approach. In busy times, it can take a few weeks to get a survey completed, so this is another timing factor. It’s best to confirm this before we start so we are all on the same page.


  1. Design time is dependent on responses by the owner, but historically it takes 8-12 weeks from inception to permit submittal. If your project is more than 4000 sq ft it could take longer.
  2. Survey requirements vary with location and type but most projects require a boundary survey. When you decide to proceed and it’s certain you need a survey, it’s imperative to get that started as soon as possible. Surveyors are typically available within three weeks. We can help with selection if you need. Although costs vary, $2200 is about right. If your project is an addition or an internal remodel, we need to measure the interior of the house and create an accurate existing plan. It’s inefficient to begin a project without a survey if it needs one because the relationship of the house to property line and outline of the house must be determined with surveying equipment. If you decide to order a survey yourself, don’t get an ILC (an approximate survey) unless you check with the building department. Many jurisdictions won’t accept it.
  3. Soil report costs are around $2000 but generally are only needed for new or complex structures. They take about 2 months to complete. They determine the bearing capacity and water content of the soil. Also, they determine how much expansive clay (which can cause shifting foundations) is present. Some neighborhoods require them on all projects with new foundations. If you think your soil has any of these conditions it’s very important to let us know.
  4. We will use the design process to tailor the project to fit your needs. Like any other process, our decisions begin with generalities and move toward specifics. Together we can talk about cost, house styles, siting, neighborhood influence, zoning requirements, and the benefits of different plan types. If you have a budget in mind, we can make preliminary adjustments to the house size and design to fit. If you have an unrestrained dream house in mind, we can do that too. Our goal is to create a preliminary design early enough so that we proceed with a clear understanding of your needs. There are three key issues to confirm in the early phases of the project.

    1. An approximate budget
    2. The size of the project you envision
    3. Our design will be based on typical finishes unless you have something specific.
  5. Because it sets a direction for the project, accomplishing this first step is very important. The homework items below won’t all apply, but you’ll be surprised at how helpful they are.

    1. Most importantly, please create a detailed wish list of rooms. Add notes about usage or approximate size if that helps to explain. Email as soon as you can. We need this information to begin.
    2. Drive around the neighborhood and take pictures of some houses you like.
    3. You can also look at Houzz or Pinterest.
    4. We’ll discuss your wish list and Landmarkk will prepare a quick list of areas with the rooms.
  6. From the wish list, we can determine the total area of the project and some layout options.

    1. These drawing options will be a graphic representation of your wish list within the practical limits of good design, building code, zoning code, the existing site, and the budget.
    2. An approach that works well is to create alternative schemes which we can compare. This will spark a discussion about the pros and cons of each option and quickly lead to a preliminary idea of our best design. 3 to 6 options are pretty common, but not always.
    3. Even though these drawings are preliminary, there is lots of information we can infer. For instance, the building structure, mechanical, and electrical are directly related to areas we can take from the preliminary design. In this way, we can assign preliminary sq ft pricing to each scheme.
  7. Next, we’ll create more accurate plans and 3d options taken from the design so far.

    1. We’ll evaluate the plans for functionality and appropriateness to your life style. Refine the interior spaces, finishes, features, cost, and so on.
    2. In addition, we’ll evaluate the look of the house from the exterior.
  8. Sometimes, in the preliminary phases of the design process, we can discover a better scheme which works great but violates a zoning restriction. This is a challenge but not a deal killer. We have helped at least three clients get zoning variances which allowed such ideas to work. This is also an option if you want it. The process takes 2-4 months and is an additional hourly cost to the process, but the result is always a happy outcome if the appeal is successful.
  9. After a few iterations of this process, we will have a preliminary design which shows how the house will look and work.

    1. Our goal is an exterior look which blends with the neighborhood and reflects your personal vision of what the house should look like. This normally involves exterior views of the house, and a few variations to get it right. See some of the attached example 3d and floor plan sketches.
    2. In the same way, we’ll refine the interior layout, and work on some of the details.
    3. Finishes can vary drastically. Let us know if our standard specification is ok. This can affect the price in a big way.
    4. If you have more specific ideas about windows, mechanical, or exterior, this is a great time to let us know.
    5. There are several examples and many types of house designs on the Landmarkk website. Please look it over if you haven’t already.
    6. Eventually we’ll hit a place where, after balancing all the needs, we are happy with the result. At this point in our progress, Landmarkk will ask you to provide an email approval of the design. With the completion of this design phase of the work, the next billing (50%) is due.
    7. Please don’t change your mind after we complete this phase of the work. If you do, it will cause a lot of additional work which is out of sequence and it’s probable that the design cost will increase.
  10. At the completion of design, or a little before, it helps to get contractors involved. That’s because, the construction market is going thru a lot of inflation right now, and prices are very hard to predict.

Construction Drawings

  1. The time it takes to provide the construction drawings is dependent on project size and cost. Large and complex projects have taken up to 12 weeks but 4-6 weeks is common. We’ll have to access the timing for your construction drawings on a case by case basis. Our communication during this phase of the work is weekly email to keep you informed and some detailed questions about finish selections and the like. We have examples of construction drawings on our website.
  2. After the design is resolved, you will need a set of architectural and structural construction drawings. The reasons for these drawings are itemized below:

    1. To exactly communicate all the construction details of your project to builders. This is much more extensive than you might imagine.
    2. If we are offering the project to more than one builder, it’s very important they give us an apples to apples price quote on the same thing.
    3. To obtain a building permit.
  3. Additional Electrical / Mechanical engineering drawings are not required for residential permits (for most locations), but sometimes are needed to supplement the architectural drawings. Structural drawings are required. Most owners prefer to provide their own interior design but Landmarkk typically provides an interior theme which is consistent with the architectural style.

    1. Structural. Landmarkk normally does this design work and includes it with the initial proposal. If the project is structurally complicated or a structural engineer is needed, this cost is included in the proposal. But there is an important distinction here. Some architects who are not registered, are really draftsmen who call themselves architects. These people rely on structural engineers to stamp their drawings.
    2. Electrical. For pricing and design compatibility, we can add lighting selections / locations to the drawings. Switching and outlet locations are another possibility. The need for this additional information varies for each project, so we should discuss it in the beginning. It’s possible for the contractor to base the electrical design on the building code and the owner can buy selected light fixtures separately. This will save coordination time but may not save money. Unless the electrical design is complicated, an electrical engineer is not required.
    3. Mechanical. For design and pricing purposes, the energy manuals provide at least one system which is suggested and works well. As part of the final scheme, we can discuss mechanical options. The most typical option is forced air but other choices are available. The mini-split systems are gaining because they are very efficient. Landmarkk will design the project to allow space for mechanical equipment, ductwork and piping.
    4. An interior theme is part of preliminary design but is typically refined in the construction drawings. Such details as paint color and cabinet components are not included.
    5. With the completion of the construction drawings and submitting the drawings to the building department, the remaining fee (40%) is due.

Builder Selection – Construction Management

  1. There are two types of construction contract.

    1. Cost plus – This type of contract is favored by very good contractors and very experienced owners. It’s becoming more typical for first time owner-builders because of the reasons stated in “design” above. The cost of the project is determined by the total of the contractors’ invoices plus a percentage for management. In general, this contract produces higher quality construction at a slightly higher, but very predictable price. If you are interested in this type of contract, we should discuss further because there are many variations.
    2. Bidding – This type of contract is much more typical. Contractors submit lump sum prices for construction described on the drawings. The total price is adjusted during the course of the project by owner changes and construction discoveries of existing conditions which were not visible at the time of bidding.
    3. Landmarkk includes a small amount of time in the design contract for bidding questions and drawing distribution. Landmarkk can also work as an advocate for the owner on such issues as bid evaluation, cost reduction methods, and site visits during construction for surprises.
  2. More detail on the bidding process – While the drawings are being reviewed at the building department, we distribute them (in pdf format) to builders for bidding by contractors.

    1. Landmarkk currently has a list of general contractors who are interested in our projects. All are believed to be capable and honest, but things change over time and the owner is ultimately responsible for selecting the right fit by interviewing the qualified builders submitted by Landmarkk. If you have some contractors you would like to consider, then I am happy to add them to the list.
    2. During the permit review process, general contractors distribute the drawings to their favorite subcontractors for bidding of each trade. For instance, they will collect bids from subs for tile, drywall, wood framing, concrete forming and so on. It’s not unusual for contractors to have 20 different subcontractors for a house project. Some of the subs will be busy so the contractors often need two subs in each category. So you can imagine that bidding takes a lot of work and a lot of time. In addition, contractors aren’t awarded every project they bid, so they are careful about how they spend their time.
    3. After they have collected all the bids and totaled all the prices, they submit the totals to you with category totals, or breakdowns.
    4. The time for building department review has varied with the expanding economy. Review times are published on their website. Contractor bidding can easily take longer than this, but if you are in a hurry as most home owners are, bidding this way will save you and the contractors a lot of time.
  3. Of course, price is important but it isn’t the only consideration for selecting a builder. Some others are listed below:

    1. Construction efficiency. Efficiency is relative to other work in progress, available staff, and management style compatibility. Efficiency is also the major component of progress. Efficient progress translates to lower interest cost, convenience, predictability, and generally letting the owner(s) go about their lives as soon as possible.
    2. Construction quality. At the end of the project, quality shows. Everyone knows they want it, but it’s different for everyone. The expectation for level of quality must be clearly communicated when the contract is signed because it corresponds to cost. Landmarkks’ drawings and specification offer lots of clarification on this very important issue.
  4. Please save this article and re-read it when we come to each phase of the work. It helps to understand the process and may reduce some of the stress.

Please let me know if you have any questions regarding the above.

Steve Culbertson