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Architectural House Plans

A Better Breed of Stock Plans

This Old House, Special 25th Anniversary Issue
October, 2004

 

Five years ago architect Russell Versaci began an experiment. A designer of classically inspired houses for wealthy clients, Versaci was convinced there was an untapped market for quality architecture among middle-class homeowners who couldn’t afford his services. To test this notion, he created a Website where he offered plans for a dozen of his elegant farmhouses. For $1,500 customers could buy a complete set of blueprints for a house; $150 purchased a “study set” of simpler drawings. And for just $25 Veraci would provide sketches of floor plans and elevations.

If his goal was to demonstrate the demand for off-the-rack plans from topflight architects, he more than succeeded. Despite doing virtually no marketing, Versaci sold more than 1,000 sketches, 30 study sets, and a dozen full sets of construction drawings- proving, the architect says, that “there was a niche between back-of-the-magazine cookie-cutter plans and custom plans for people who wanted quality but didn’t have huge amounts of money.” Until recently, those people didn’t have a lot of choices. Standard stock plans, widely available on the Internet, in bookstores, and at home centers, offer little in the way of architectural excitement or historical accuracy. Aimed squarely at the broadest possible audience, the same generic designs turn up over and over again. “They’re horrible,” says Gregory La Vardera, an architect in Merchantville, New Jersey, who has made an informal study of the market. He points to ostentatiously lofty foyers, cavernous great rooms, angled walls, and pointlessly complex rooflines, all intended somehow to impress. “How many peaks and valleys your rooflines has, has become a status symbol,” La Vardera says.

So he and a handful of other architects and designers are breaking the mold, offering affordable plans with panache. What distinguishes this new breed of plans is better architecture, greater historical authenticity, and an attention to detail more typical of custom homes. Many, in fact, are the original drawings for custom homes that have had their test run at someone else’s expense, giving buyers the chance to get a design for many thousands of dollars less than it would cost if an architect developed it from scratch. There’s more variety too: La Vardera’s ready-made plans include a “stealth house,” so called because although boldly unconventional in the rear, it looks traditional from the front, the better to fit into existing neighborhoods.

The Best of Both Worlds
The result, for people of middle-class means who want more hands-on involvement than just choosing carpet colors and finishes for a look-alike house in a development, is a chance to combine some of the best aspects of custom design with the convenience and affordability of stock plans. When Kathy and Pete Heirendt, for instance, set out to build a house in Portland, Oregon, they scoured the Internet for plans that would satisfy Kathy’s longing for one of the stately old Craftsman houses she remembered from childhood. But none of the mass-market plans they saw, some costing as little as a few hundred dollars, fit the bill.

That’s when they turned to the Bungalow Company. Its design cost a bit more, and there were only a handful to choose from, but one was exactly what they were looking for: a 2,500 square-foot Arts and Crafts model that combines a period aesthetic with a modern, three-bedroom layout. What impressed the Heirendts was the deep porch, traditional details, and extensive woodwork- hallmarks of Craftsman houses rarely seen in the dozens of plans they had looked at. Better still, the Bungalow Company, like most stock plan producers, would customize it to the couple’s wishes. At their request, designer Christian Gladu altered the floor plan to make space for an additional bedroom and bathroom upstairs, enlarged the kitchen, moved and expanded the pantry, and added a half-bath under the stairs. The changes took about a month to draw up and cost an extra $2,100 on top of the $1,600 for the basic plan, not cheap, but far less than an architect would have charged to design the Heirendts’ dream house from the ground up.

The result is so convincing, Kathy Heirendt says, that the place blends seamlessly into its neighborhood of older homes. “People ask if we remodeled,” she says. “It’s all new, but you wouldn’t know it.”

Help From the Internet
The drive to develop and market a better class of stock plans may be a recent phenomenon, but the idea of ready-made designs has strong historical roots. “Pattern books” were a staple of 19th century building, and in the early 20th century Gustav Stickley sold plans for Craftsman-style homes to generate demand for his furniture. The American Plywood Association had a similar idea in the 1950’s and ‘60’s when it published plan books for vacation homes to be built using its products. More recently Life magazine commissioned “Dream House” designs from architectural heavyweights including Robert A.M. Stern and Michael Graves.

The Internet has made it easier than ever for individual architects and entrepreneurs to carve out a niche in the $72-million-a-year plan marketplace. Architect Ross Chapin, based on Washington state’s Whidbey Island, is best known for his custom residential and clustered-home designs. He never advertises, but visitors to his Website will find several plans for sale. He put them there, he says, so people who weren’t wealthy could have access to better design. “What’s on the market are variations on a few dozen outdated plans. We live smarter now and need plans to fit the way we live.”

The Internet also makes it possible for like-minded designers and consumers to find one another. Architectural House Plans, for example, offers a wide range of plans by such well-known architects as Dale Mulfinger, Michaela Mahady, and Sarah Susanka.

If the Internet makes is so easy for architects and designers to sell stock plans, why aren’t more of them doing it? The answer lies in the amount of time and effort necessary to add a new business to their already hectic schedules, and the difficulty in achieving high rankings in the major search engines. This is why more and more architects who believe in this concept are turning to companies like Architectural House Plans to market and sell their designs.

However, Russell Versaci’s experiences provide a cautionary tale. While he brought happiness to people like Marcus and Susan Jones, who built his 3,250 square-foot Currier farmhouse in rural Maryland, the architect fears inducing apoplexy in some of his well-heeled clients, who could have forked over tens of thousands of dollars in design fees for a multimillion-dollar custom home only to see something that looks similar available online for a fraction of the cost.

Veraci now says his portfolio of stock homes is “in dry stock” until he can set up the whole thing apart from his custom practice, in an enterprise that can support the plans by efficiently customizing them and consulting with buyers. “We need to establish a separate entity,” he says. But he hasn’t lost faith in the idea that stock plans can make good design affordable: “I really believe it’s important for architects like us to create a product that people can build.”