During a break from college, an old neighbor asked why someone would use an architect if a contractor could design and build a house just as easily and cheaper. I was at a loss for words at first because I couldn’t imagine why anyone WOULDN’T want the refinement that an architect brings!
A good analogy of the end product is the difference between an off the shelf shirt, and one that was tailor made for you. The tailored shirt is made to fit and flatter you perfectly as opposed to a S/M/L, one-size-fits-some. (Unlike shirts, a well-planned building will provide a way to grow and change with you.)
There’s a cost, typically an additional 4-10%, but there’s also added value. Much like anything, you have to measure the cost to value and decide if it’s worthwhile for you. (I certainly understand this better than when I was in college.)
Stereotypically speaking, contractors are well versed in particular construction methods, and the means to do them cost effectively. That is their job, it’s what you pay them to do. Contractors can design too, but it’s usually within that left-brain mindset. As such they are likely to miss big picture opportunities and artistry. I’ve seen contractor designs that: missed a chance to add visual interest, are proportionally awkward in composition, provide no clear hierarchy for form or function, or missed alignments that would have improved use.
To their credit, many builders team up with architects to improve their catalogues. Some even start out as architects but prefer hands-on work, still retaining the designer’s edge. An even greater product is achieved when architects and contractors form a long term partnership (I like to follow BUILD LLC) to provide combined design-build capabilities and delivery.
In comparison, an architect’s role as a creative professional is to capitalize on the design opportunities of a client’s particular project. This starts with big picture thinking and goes on through details and fixture selection at the end. An architect won’t be interested merely in the number and size of rooms in your building program, but will also listen to how you prefer to move from one space to another, or in what sequence you like to do certain activities. An architect also considers practical conditions and constraints, stylistic preferences, and particular requests, and helps a client prioritize and vet resulting options (by a proven process of exploration and discovery) to achieve the best possible outcome using both right and left brain thinking. That’s a long sentence. Read it again slowly.
I grew up in a house my parents selected from the 4 options a contractor gave them. It served us well, but the number of “I wishes” I hear from my mother proves that it could have fit and served us better. When they executed their decisions, they weren’t made aware of any other options.