Frequently Asked Questions

Navigating the journey of a custom home project is an exciting endeavor - and it’s common to have a lot of questions, both before starting out, and along the way. At Letter Four, we understand that having answers to your important, make-or-break questions before diving into a commitment with an architect or contractor can make all of the difference!

Below, we answer some of the questions we most frequently encounter, giving you the information you need to confidently kick off your project:

What is a Design-Build firm, and how does it differ from traditional architectural and construction companies?

A Design-Build firm like Letter Four handles both the design and construction phases of a project under one roof, creating a smooth, unified workflow. Traditional setups where design and construction are handled by separate companies often lead to communication gaps. However, the Design-Build approach fosters seamless collaboration, ensuring that the project stays on schedule and within budget. 

This holistic, 100% in-house approach also allows for your project to be completed more quickly, reducing costs and allowing you the ability to enjoy the simplicity of working with a single team responsible for everything. Learn more by reading our in-depth blog post: Design-Build vs Design-Bid-Build: What’s the Difference?

Is it possible for Letter Four to handle just one aspect of my project?

Yes! While as a Design-Build firm, we believe our clients get the best value and experience when working with us from start to finish, we do make our architectural design and construction contracting services available separately. 

In either scenario, you can expect the same level of dedication, transparency, and professionalism that we deliver in our comprehensive Design-Build service. We’ll work alongside your architect or builder to ensure that your vision is honored right down to the last detail, and that all of your project goals are met. 

Please visit our Services page to view all of the different service options we offer.

How much will my custom home cost to design and build?

The expense of crafting a custom home can vary widely depending on your design aspirations, size preferences, and the characteristics of your site. Construction costs range from around $350 per square foot for basic designs to $700 or above for more lavish creations or complex sites. Soft costs, like architectural work, engineering, and other fees and expenses are typically 10%-30% of the construction cost.

Staying on-budget is a top priority for our team. As a part of our CLEAR 4-Step Process, we incorporate three separate pricing phases to get estimates of your costs early, and keep projections accurate as we finalize your design and construction plans. 

Want to calculate your ballpark budget before getting started? Our Project Planning Pack includes a worksheet to help you determine the total budget range, considering both construction and soft costs like design, engineering, and permitting.

How soon can I start construction?

Project timelines ultimately depend on several factors:

  • Project Scope: Bigger, more complex projects inevitably take longer to prepare for, especially if the scope grows through the planning phase. 
  • Time of year: Seasonality can affect the availability of materials and labor. The busy season for construction is spring through mid-fall, meaning your project may see some slowdown if you’re aiming to build at the same time. 
  • Site/Location Complexity: We can’t build until the site itself is ready for work, and that can take quite a bit of preparation and permitting on its own.
  • Your Decisiveness: Considering all of your options is incredibly important, but it takes time. Being able to make decisions quickly will keep your project moving forward. 
  • Required Approvals and Permitting Backlogs: It always takes some time for permitting authorities to issue approvals. Many of these departments have backlogs of projects to review, especially during the busy season. 
  • Your Readiness to Start Construction: Do you need to pack up and move out? Do you have the funds in place? Your preparedness will determine how quickly we can break ground.

On average, earmark 6 to 10 months from the start of your project to secure permits RTI (Ready To Issue) for projects without special approval requirements. This includes time needed to perform proper Due Diligence, prepare the design and create the technical drawings and engineering, and (if you’re working with Letter Four), perform at least two pricing exercises to confirm that the design works with your budget. These steps are covered in detail by our CLEAR 4-Step Process

It’s important to keep in mind that the planning timeline is influenced by the clarity of your vision and budget. If you need a lot of time to nail down your design, or you request changes later in the process, you can expect that timeline to be extended by weeks or even months. 

Still not sure where all of this puts you? We’re happy to give our insight. Book a call to talk with our Principals.

How do I navigate the red tape of approvals so I can get a permit to start construction?

The spectrum of approvals for a custom home project can be broad depending on the location and nature of your project. Here are some common authorities and requirements you might encounter:

  • Homeowners Associations (HOAs): They may have specific guidelines on home design, landscaping, and other property features.
  • Design Review Boards: Necessary in certain jurisdictions, they could extend the approval timeline by several months.
  • Specific Plans and Historic Preservation: These entail particular design criteria and reviews, potentially adding more time to your project.
  • California Coastal Commission: They have distinct requirements with long turnaround times, sometimes stretching to a year or more.
  • Utility companies, like Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP): Approvals for work in an easement can take 4-months to more.
  • Bureau of Sanitation - Low Impact Development: Particularly in Los Angeles, projects over 500 square feet need to address stormwater on-site, requiring a set of approvals.
  • Grading Permits and Haul Routes: Especially in hillside areas, these approvals are based on the prepared plans for soil export.

For a standard lot without complex requirements, a ballpark of 3-4 months for permitting and approvals is advisable. However, consulting with an experienced Architect or Design-Build firm like Letter Four can provide tailored insight into your project's approval intricacies.

You can learn more about what to expect from the Permitting process in our Project Planning Pack.

What if my vision for my custom home isn't clear?

Before getting started, it’s critical to have a clear plan in place. You wouldn’t go into surgery without knowing exactly what needed operating on, right? A full check-up and diagnosis is needed first. The same is true for building. A project of this magnitude requires everything to be figured out first, preparing your project to unfold smoothly and truly satisfy your goals.  

If you don’t have a clear vision for your new home, it’s important that you work with a qualified professional, like Letter Four, to develop one. We highly recommend using the pre-design services we offer before full project kickoff. Known as “Action Plans”, these early exploration and planning packages will help you determine the answers to your design questions.  You may select one of 4 options, depending on your needs:

  1. Express - Our Initial Assessment Package: A quick, high level review of project goals, including scope, schedule, and budget.
  2. Lite - Our Full Due Diligence Phase: We review past permit records, coordinate surveys, and assess your lot to determine what’s possible for your project and what limitations you may be up against given your project scope.
  3. Essential - Our Full Due Diligence + Conceptual Design Phases: Covers everything in our Lite package plus the presentation of conceptual design options, including 3D views.
  4. Complete - Our Full Due Diligence + Conceptual Design + Preliminary Pricing Phases: The complete package of materials needed to solidify your design, including as-builts, surveys, sketches, and preliminary all-in project costs. This is the most popular package! 

If you’re not quite ready to get started on a Action Plan, no worries! You can do some pre-planning on your own by following the steps in our Project Planning Pack. This preparatory guide walks you through some of the top considerations that need to be made when deciding your design goals, and even provides exercises and questionnaires to figure out your real needs. 

How can I ensure I've chosen the right team?

Selecting the right team for your residential project is pivotal for ensuring a smooth process and a successful outcome. Many homeowners make the mistake of going straight to a contractor or interior designer to start their project, which is a major misstep that results in delays and unanticipated costs. Let’s look at what you should consider before signing on with any firm:

Consider Scope of Services Offered

We know we’re a little biased, but we recommend giving preference to a Design-Build firm like Letter Four, which provides comprehensive architectural design, general contracting, and in-house interior design services. This approach ensures that all of the phases of your project unfold smoothly, with perfect collaboration among a single team. 

Ask Plenty of Questions in Your Consultation Session 

Treat the initial consultation as an interview where you can gauge the firm's methods, approach, and experience in residential projects similar to yours. Ask about their protocols, services, and how they facilitate collaboration with you throughout the project.

Inquire about their design process, involvement in construction, the team working on your project, and their pre-design services. Ask for examples of how they've tackled challenges in past projects and how they plan to manage your project's budget, scope, and timeline.

Need help with the questions you should ask? Check out our Project Planning Pack!

Be Wary of These Warning Signs

Beware of red flags like a lack of clarity in explaining the design process, miscommunication, clashing styles, or a poor approach to collaboration. These could indicate a lack of experience, professionalism, or alignment with your project's needs.

Check References and Reviews

It’s always worthwhile to learn about the experiences of other clients. Check references, reviews, and the firm's portfolio to assess their track record in executing residential projects similar to yours.

Look for Compatible and Collaborative Communication

Ensure the firm values your input, understands your vision, and is open to effective communication and collaboration throughout the project. Does their communication style match yours? If you’re experiencing friction when communicating, they may not be the best fit. You’re going to be collaborating for a long time on what’s likely one of the most important projects of your life - finding a team you “click” with is essential!

If you’re looking for a way to do a “test run” with Letter Four, our Action Plans offer a great opportunity. Try one of these limited-service packages to nail down some of your planning while seeing if we’re a match. 

What's the process and how can I prepare for it?

Not all firms follow the same process, or have a well-developed process for their projects. At Letter Four, we’ve honed our CLEAR 4-Step Process over the last 13+ years to deliver a highly organized, streamlined workflow throughout the entirety of your project. It proceeds as follows:

Step 1: Action Plan: Gathering all information needed to layout your initial plans and budget. This includes Due Diligence, Conceptual Design, and Preliminary Pricing.

Step 2: Technical Documentation: Preparation of all official documents that will need to be submitted for approvals and used during construction. This includes Schematic Design, Design Development, and Construction Documents. 

Step 3: Final Touches: We submit your plans for permit approval, then work on last details like Interior Design and Landscape Design. 

Step 4: Construction: After approvals are received and all paperwork is signed, we prepare a construction schedule and carry out the build according to your plans. You’ll be updated weekly, and have site meetings bi-weekly, until it’s time for the final walkthrough. 

For more about our CLEAR 4-Step Process, check out our flipbook, which walks you through everything in more detail and shows samples of the project deliverables at each phase.

It’s best to prepare for this process by thinking through your design goals and establishing your needs. This can be done by following the guidance in our Project Planning Pack, or making use of one of our Action Plans. With the latter, you’ll have our help working through some of the early phases of planning and design, without requiring any commitment to move on to further work. 

Need more guidance? Book a call to get help from our experts.

How will I be kept informed about the progress of my project?

Keeping you updated is a critical part of our workflow. We update every client every week. You’ll receive a detailed weekly email which notes work completed, upcoming work for the week ahead, schedule updates, decisions we need you to make, and general progress. This way, you will always know the status of your project.

During construction, regular progress meetings are scheduled, both on-site and as Zoom calls. Comprehensive progress reports are shared, which include updates on construction, photos, budget, and schedule status. 

We also require that all stakeholders or decision-makers be present for these meetings so that no one is left out of the loop. Communicating with these standards in place allows us to manage your project with the highest level of success, guaranteeing everyone has a clear understanding of what’s happening at any time. 

Learn what steps to expect throughout planning and construction by viewing our CLEAR 4-Step Process.

Does Letter Four provide any post-completion services, like warranty or maintenance?

Even after your project is finished, Letter Four remains committed to your satisfaction. We provide the required 1 year warranty period during which any defects or issues arising from the construction are addressed promptly. Our team is always available for any follow-up needs, ensuring your investment continues to meet your expectations long after completion.

In addition, we’ll provide you with a list of all subcontractors and their warranties and maintenance plans, as well as material warranty information. 

We don’t disappear on you when the job is done - we want to make sure that you’re completely satisfied and that we’re always available should a question or issue come up! 

Learn what more to expect from your project’s wrap-up in our Project Planning Pack

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