$3,200 surprise: Couple get fired by architect

If Ron and Sharon Soltau could summarize their complaint on a t-shirt, it would be this: "We spent $3,200 on an architect, and all we got were some plans for a house we couldn't imagine building."

Snappy it's not, but as the basis for debate, it's loaded: Namely, can your architect fire you for asking him to design what you hired him to design?

The Soltaus moved here from Houston last year and bought a lot at Wintergreen. They had a clear idea of the house they wanted to build: It would be one floor with a finished basement and an unfinished attic. In the basement– which, because of the property's slope, would be at ground level on one side of the house– they wanted two guest bedrooms and a garage. They interviewed 12 architects and settled on Robert Boucheron.

Both sides agree that the Soltaus were explicit about what they wanted; Ron had even drawn a proposed layout. They also specified a cap of $6,000 for Boucheron's services. On February 10 they signed a contract, in which Boucheron promised to deliver programming and site analysis, schematic design and development, construction drawings, and specifications.

Boucheron showed the Soltaus his initial plans on February 17– plans that were very different from what they'd asked him to design. He had moved the garage to the main level, which they agreed would be acceptable. But he had also moved the bedrooms to the attic, and that was problematic.

The Soltaus agreed that it might work, but objected to the roofline. To avoid sloping walls, the roof would have to be steeper than seemed appealing to them, and they asked Boucheron to revise it. He agreed, and they met again on February 24– with the same result: Putting the bedrooms in the attic still meant a roofline they didn't like, and again Boucheron agreed to adjust it.

On March 2, they considered the latest roofline, and again objected. On March 10 they met with Boucheron's assistant, Richard Ronan, rejected the latest revision, and asked that the bedrooms simply be put where they'd originally intended– in the walkout basement.

Boucheron's response was to write the Soltaus on March 16, "As we discussed by telephone last week, the 'not to exceed' fee means that we cannot continue revising the schematic design, beyond the several versions we have shown you. We have stopped work on this project, and will be glad to send the electronic file to the architect of your choice. You are welcome to keep the paper copies we gave you."

Well, at least they got that much. Considering they'd already paid $3,200, however, they weren't very happy. They complained to the Better Business Bureau, but when Boucheron declined to respond, there was nothing further the BBB could do. The Soltaus found another architect, who designed the house they'd wanted from the beginning.

Getting Boucheron to respond to my repeated requests for comment was like pulling teeth– teeth that have been embedded in concrete, buried beneath the ocean floor, and covered with the wreck of the Titanic.

At first, all he would say was that his refusal to put the guest rooms in the basement was "based on professional judgment." I pushed for details, but he refused. Finally he said his "professional judgment" was "based on degrees from Harvard and Yale, and years of working in New York."

I kept pushing, and he finally divulged three reasons. First, he didn't think the architectural review board in Wintergreen would welcome a house with bedrooms in the basement (yet the Soltaus claim the design, basement bedrooms and all, passed the board "with flying colors").

Second, he thought groundwater might be a problem (apparently the board isn't worried). And third, he didn't think the bedrooms would get enough natural light. Soltau counters that because Boucheron's design called for recessed dormer windows, the rooms will get more natural light in the walkout basement than they would have in the attic.

In the end, Boucheron said, "If you were their guest, would you want to stay in the basement? I wouldn't." But if that's his opinion of bedrooms in basements, why did he take the job? I asked that question– via telephone, email, and fax– but never got an answer.

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