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Architect costs vary depending on the work
By Henri DeMarne | Columnist
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Published: 7/3/2010 11:00 PM

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Q. My husband and I are planning to build a new home. We have looked through many house-plan books but are unable to find one that is exactly what we want. We are thinking that perhaps we should just hire an architect to prepare the plans for us based on our input. Is it less costly to purchase already prepared plans and then have them altered or to have the plans designed from the start by an architect? If an architect is the way to go, how do we select one?

A. Whether it will be less costly to buy plans and have an architect alter them or have an architect design the house for you depends entirely on how close the plans you purchase are to what you want. The cost to have an architect design the house from scratch varies depending on how much you want the architect to be involved. If he or she is giving you a basic set of plans (schematic) from which an experienced builder can build without a complete set of working drawings, the cost will be considerably less.

Working drawings are complete, detailing the size and location of all materials involved. They include a set of specifications for all aspects of the work and provide drawings for the builders and subcontractors to bid on the job. If you want the architect to supervise the construction, which is only necessary if you have some concern about the builder, it will be at an additional cost. An architect is really worthwhile if you have the money to spend on his or her skills and want the best design to reflect your desires and needs for your dream house. An architect may not be cost-effective if you plan on spending less than $400,000 on your house, as the design fees alone may cost several thousand dollars.

If you know anyone who has worked with an architect, ask about their experience, as it will be a very close relationship and will require a good "chemistry" between the architect and you. You can also look in your Yellow Pages.

There are several alternatives:

• You can interview architectural designers, who are not architects, but can draw plans and specifications that are quite good - check the Yellow Pages.

• Some building firms also offer design services at a considerably lower cost than licensed architects.

• You can contact a local college with an architecture program to see if the dean can recommend a young architecture student to work with you. This will definitely be less expensive than an established architect or designer, but there will be a lack of experience.

Q. I hate any water in my basement after a few days of heavy, heavy rain. I guess I'll talk to some folks about installing French drains in the basement since the water comes in from the rising water table under the house. I don't want to fix the water issue and create a new problem - a weak basement wall or something. We'd like to finish (install rugs, etc.) an area in the basement for the kids to play in.

A. You do not need to have the concrete floor ripped around the perimeter to install a drain to the sump pump. You can have a waterproofing specialist install a fiberglass gutter at the joint of the concrete floor and the foundation walls. This gutter looks like a giant baseboard, is glued to the floor, collects water through hidden holes and leads water to the sump pump.

Q. I have been reading your column through the last two decades, repeatedly reading your message against the "finishing" of basements. So it was with a sense of irony that I read a recent column in which you detail instructions for insulating a basement. I guess you've finally resigned yourself to the fact that people will continually finish their basements, even if it is the wrong thing to do. It seems that everyone I have spoken with, professional builders and engineers alike, talk about making the basement space livable and comfortable but never talk about the nature of the cement and how their construction affects it. It is a curious thing.

A. Sorry, but I haven't been writing about not finishing basements. When I was active in construction, we finished a lot of basements into family rooms, etc. My emphasis has been on not insulating basement walls from top to bottom, unless you are sure that doing so - in regions with deep frost - will not risk cracking the walls.

There are three essential elements that are required to be certain that the foundation walls will be safe:

• A working drainage system at the base of the footings.

• Backfilling with protected coarse material.

• Completing the backfill with six to eight inches of native soil, sloping away from the foundation at a rate of 2 inches per horizontal foot for as far as is practicable. You are right: Many publications go into details on how to insulate basements to save energy, but without mentioning the inherent dangers that deep frost presents. I have seen and repaired too many cracked block and concrete walls in my practice.

Q. I have a shingled roof about 24 years old. I am interested in replacing the shingles either with conventional shingles or with metal roofing material. Do I need to remove the old shingles? They lie flat with none of them raised up or loose.

A. The old shingles should be removed. Even if you decide on new shingles, better roofers do not install a second layer over existing shingles in heavy-snow country. This practice is more common in milder climates, but the size, span and spacing of the rafters must be taken into consideration to make sure that the additional weight of the new shingles will not overly stress them. For a metal roof, I assume that you are considering a standing-seam roof and not screw-on ribbed roof panels. A standing-seam roof will telegraph the layers of the shingles underneath it, whereas ribbed roof panels are less likely to do so. The weight issue must also be considered, as metal roofs do not always shed snow.

Q. I have an enclosed patio in the back of my house. It was built on an existing concrete slab. There are steel beams under the walls. Water is leaking around the bottom of the walls. Is there any way to stop the leakage?

A. The photo you sent appears to show that the concrete slab extends slightly beyond the walls on the side of the porch, but this is not very clear. If this is the case, you may have to have the bottom vinyl-siding board removed so polyurethane caulking can be applied at the joint of the slab and the steel beams (I don't quite understand why steel beams were used there). The surfaces will have to be thoroughly cleaned and dried before applying the caulking and replacing the piece of siding. The photo is somewhat confusing; it shows a step-up at the door with the vinyl siding dropping below it, which does not make sense with what I see on the side view. Sorry, but that's all I can suggest with what I see.

Q. In September of last year, we had our concrete driveway and a short walk replaced. Yellow stains appeared on the walk in such a manner as to indicate that treated lumber had been placed on the wet concrete. Is there a solution to this problem that would not affect the walk any more than it already has?

A. It would surprise me if concrete workers put any lumber on wet concrete or allowed anyone to do so. It could irreparably damage the finish. You haven't described the shape of the stains. If wet, treated lumber was set on the concrete, the stains would follow the shape of the pieces laid on it. Without knowing exactly what caused the stains, it is difficult to advise you on the proper treatment. If you've allowed snow (a great bleaching agent) to accumulate on the walk over winter, and it did not remove the stains, I suggest you try mixing equal parts fresh Clorox bleach and water and scrubbing the walk. Increase the bleach's proportion to water, if the results are not satisfactory. You should do the entire walk to avoid having different shades of concrete. Be careful as the solution can damage vegetation. Rinse thoroughly when done.

If that does not work, try an oxygen bleach, which should not damage the surface or vegetation next to it. Following directions, scrub the concrete with a solution of Oxy-Boost; you can buy the powder from ecogeeks.com. Click on "Exterior Products" and scroll down. When you are satisfied with the results, consider sealing the concrete with a sealer available in masonry supply stores. More drastic measures are available but should be left to experienced concrete contractors, as the chemicals to be used are very potent.

Q. I planted shrubs 4 feet from my house and would like to put down mulch against the house. Will the mulch attract termites?

A. Termites feed on dead plant material and wood. Some species, such as subterranean termites found in New Jersey, are destructive to buildings, as they seek the cellulose in their wooden components. Mulch attracts many other insects, such as millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs, etc. To avoid providing food and nesting material for these insects, you can use rubber mulch instead of organic mulch. You'll find rubber mulch, made from recycled tires, in most garden-supply stores, as well as Home Depot. Its advantages are many. Not only does it recycle tires, but it does not decompose, discolor or provide habitat for insects that we do not want to encourage. It does not need to be topped regularly, and it will not sustain artillery fungus, which expels spores that can deface buildings and are impossible to remove without causing damage to the surface to which they have attached themselves. Rubber mulch is stained brown, so it does not look like shredded tire pieces. It serves the same purpose as organic mulch, preventing evaporation while not causing the smaller particles of organic mulch to splash onto foundations and siding. It's a real winner.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via e-mail at henridemarne@gmavt.net.