One of the greatest frustrations a homeowner can face is the realization that your fabulous design will cost more to build than expected. Upscale clients are no different. Much depends on setting and meeting clear and reasonable expectations. It begins with a straightforward and frank discussion of available funds during your initial visit. Describe your budgeting and estimatingprocesses thoroughly and explain that it is a process of mutual discovery. As the details of their wishes become clear, so will the cost. Reassure your client that your firm will review costs at regular stages and flag concerns at the earliest possible time.
To do this effectively, you need budget and estimating tools that are appropriate to each design stage. So let's differentiate between budgets and estimates. A budget is really a forecasting tool--an attempt to extrapolate forward from vague information. It is typically developed on a "component" basis; using "per-square-foot" rules of thumb plus add-ons for project-specific features. This tool is necessarily inaccurate--intended only to establish "rough order-of-magnitude" costs during early stages of design. It is reasonable to express budget costs within a range of 25% or even 50%.
An estimate, however, is a responsive tool. Having developed specific design drawings and generic material selections, you can perform a "sticks and bricks" take-off and reasonably expect to be accurate within 10%. If the client is in agreement, you can confidently move forward with construction drawings, secure in the knowledge that there are no major money surprisesahead.
Budgeting is more fluid and interpretive, while estimating is detail-driven and particular. In our firm, budgeting is the purview of the architectural team, while estimating remains linked to purchasing and production. The estimating team collects and distills cost data for our architects to work from, but the architects are responsible for digesting that data and maintaining our budget database. This gives them a viable stake in meeting the budgets that they've developed. Architects have little chance of working to a budget if they don't have an intimate understanding of costs.
Dean Brenneman is a principal of Brenneman & Pagenstacher--Residential Architects & Builders, anupscale remodeling company based in Kensington, Md.