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Hiring an architect may be a process that is unfamiliar to you. You may know an architect but be unclear about what one can do for you, or you may not know where to find design professionals and how to select the one that best fits your needs.

Few people realize how complicated a project is–that is until they find themselves lost in the maze of design options, building codes, zoning laws, contractors, and so on. No two building projects are exactly alike, so there is no single, clear-cut path to follow.

The architect is the one professional who has the education, training, experience, and vision to guide you through the entire design and construction process, from helping you define what you want to build to helping you get the most for your construction dollar.

Whether you are remodeling, adding on, or building from scratch, the architect can guide the way. Working with contractors and other construction professionals, architects can help you end up with a well-designed project that meets your needs and works with your budget and time frame.

Are you planning a building project? The best time to bring in an architect is as early as possible in the project. Long before plans and specifications are developed, there are many crucial decisions to be made. What impact will site selection and zoning constraints have on your project?

Architects can help you evaluate your options. Predesign services provided by an architect can save you time and money. Architects play key roles in economic feasibility studies, obtaining project financing, and developing project budgets and schedules.

What an Architect can do for You

The architect is the skilled professional who listens to you, interprets your wishes, and helps realize your building dreams. The architect is a counselor, planner, designer, mediator, work coordinator, and business administrator. Architects add value at every stage of the project, from initial conceptual design through construction completion. Your architect:

Translates Your Wishes into Plans for Construction
Your hopes and dreams for your project may be vague and abstract, and are usually expressed in words. The architect’s job is to work with you to translate them into a visual and technical prescription for construction that is very detailed. The goal is for you, your architect, and your builder to share the same, very specific expectations about materials, quality, workmanship and other outcomes. This is usually an educational process for everyone, during which all decisions should be recorded on paper and all construction details and instructions carefully documented.

Designs Custom Work and Installations
Each building has a special history, every site has unusual conditions, and every client has unique goals, desires and requirements. The architect seeks a design solution that unites all of these and reflects your unique personality and style of living or working.

Prepares Drawings and Specifications
Drawings and specifications are the graphic and verbal descriptions of the project. They describe your preferences and wishes for the project you are building and are used to document decisions about the project’s size, function, organization and aesthetics. They prescribe the engineers’ requirements for structural stability, climate control, drainage, and electrical service. These documents are submitted to your town in order to obtain a building permit so construction can begin; they are used by the town building inspector to determine that the project will meet local requirements.

Drawings and specifications prepared by the architect also are the basis for the relationship between you as the owner/client and your contractor (builder). They can be used for competitive bidding among contractors, so you can compare several builders’ estimated project costs, construction schedules, and logistics plans. Once you choose a builder, plans and specifications are used as “contract documents” (instructions to your contractor) and the basis of your agreement with him about exactly what work is to be done and at what cost.

Helps Make Sure the Project is “Code Compliant”
Both the town and state in which the project is located have regulations that govern your project. An architect should be aware of them and help make sure that your project satisfies them. Zoning regulations, which are published by each town and vary from one town to another, concern the building’s use, size, relationship to the site and parking. Building codes are published by the state and address how buildings are to be constructed, dictating, for example, door sizes and materials, window sizes and locations, structural lumber sizes, and stair and hallway dimensions. A special section of the code ensures access to public buildings for people with disabilities; it dictates requirements for bathrooms, kitchens, ramps and other building elements.

Coordinates the Work of Consultants
The architect coordinates the work of specialty consultants your project may require, including structural, electrical and mechanical (heating, plumbing, air conditioning), and civil (drainage and site utilities) engineers.

Helps You Secure a Builder
The architect can help you through the process of selecting a contractor through competitive bidding. About half the cost of any construction is labor and the other half materials. Since labor costs vary according to skill, experience and the contractor’s overhead, competitive bidding allows you to select a contractor on the basis of cost and schedule as well as reputation and approach.

Administers the Construction Contract
The architect brings an experienced and balanced perspective to the project during construction. The architect serves as your advocate, working to be sure the project is built as it was designed and specified. The architect analyzes and helps you make decisions about “change orders”, which could affect your project’s costs. Change orders are any changes proposed by the client or the contractor or changes required to address conditions that could not have been foreseen. Some clients prefer not to involve the architect during the construction phase (perhaps to save money); however, by keeping the architect involved through construction, you will have an important advocate and an important perspective on the progress of the job.

Manages your Money
Working with an architect on your project can save you money in a number of ways. Having a single, complete set of architectural drawings to present to a number of prospective contractors allows you to choose among comparable bids – bids that are based on the same expectations. When the contractor knows at the start what will be built and when the client has taken time to plan carefully, costly delays and change orders during construction are minimized. During construction, the architect sees to it that any proposed changes are responsibly priced and in keeping with local costs and methods of construction. Finally, the architect authorizes payment to your builder, giving you added assurance that both you and your architect are satisfied with the builder’s performance and product.

Value of Working with an Architect

Architects provide a broad range of services and can provide value at every stage of the design and construction process. By working directly with you and assessing your requirements in great depth, the architect tailors the design to suit your personality, needs, budget and lifestyle. The architect’s extensive study of design alternatives (some of which you may not have considered), allows you to choose the design most appropriate to your needs. An architect’s knowledge of site-planning and natural energy processes (the influence of wind and sun on the building, groundwater flow, etc.) helps accommodate your project to the site characteristics and neighborhood context. By overseeing construction, your architect helps to make sure that your project is built according to design.

The architect also saves you money and time. By keeping abreast of the latest construction materials and technologies, architects can recommend materials and systems that fit your budget. Your architect provides documents for the contractor bidding process, which should result in a fair contractor price. Construction is expedited through an architect’s careful planning and complete drawings and specifications. The architect serves as your agent with the contractor, resolving disputes that may arise and analyzing additional costs the contractor proposes.

The design aesthetic of the project is perhaps the most obvious area in which an architect makes a unique and valuable contribution, creating a visually appealing place with pleasing character and style. Ultimately, your property’s value is increased through appropriate design, improved functionality and high-quality detailing.

Selecting an Architect

You will benefit by involving an architect in your project as early in the process as possible and by making an intelligent selection among the multitude of licensed professionals available to you. The most popular (and usually the best) way to select an architect is by interviewing several candidates. You can assemble a list by asking friends for recommendations. You can also learn about reputation and ability of architects in your community by visiting completed projects, talking with clients and users, and checking design awards programs and professional design publications.

A brief call to an architect can help determine if his or her expertise is appropriate to your project. When you find a few with related experience (we recommend you consider at least four), set up interviews with them to discuss your project and review photographs and other samples of their work. You will then be able to narrow the list and, after more meetings, it will become obvious to you which architect is best for you.

Check the architect’s education, training, experience, and references. Most importantly, however, is good “chemistry” between you and your architect – you will need to feel comfortable with each other and will get to know each other well. Your architect should be a good listener, responsive to your phone calls, clearly interested in your needs and able to communicate without using jargon. Be patient: This process will take some time and it is one of the most important decisions you will make for the success of your project.

Selection Criteria

Use the following criteria to choose among the architects you consider:

The architect should be licensed in the state you project is located in. By contacting your local state AIA Chapter, you can verify that an architect is licensed.

The architect should have a track record of work similar to yours in size, complexity, type, and/or cost.

You should be convinced that the architect will listen to you and you should be comfortable sharing details of your lifestyle, needs, and budget as well as your hopes for and concerns about the project.

Other people for whom the architect has worked should be satisfied customers and should attest to the architect’s ability to respect agreements about services, fees and schedule.

Firm structure
Be sure that your project will be a priority for the architect and will not get lost in the shuffle of a busy office. Insist that the person with whom you have developed a rapport continues to work on your project. The architecture firm should be committed to projects such as yours. If you choose an architect who is “moonlighting”, he or she may be less available for day-to-day construction-phase work.

Firm size
At one end of the spectrum are large firms that employ hundreds of people and have branch offices nationally or even worldwide. Most firms, however, consist of fewer than 10 people and many architects practice in one- or two-person offices. These smaller firms are more likely to design houses and small commercial projects and are usually better positioned to handle your needs. With a smaller firm, a senior-level professional is likely to work with you.

Design Philosophy
You and your architect should be philosophically, aesthetically and ethically compatible. Whatever the architect’s goals and stylistic preferences, you should have confidence that your project will be specially designed for you.

Level of Service
Architects’ services vary. Some will carry your project through construction while others may leave the responsibility for overseeing construction to you or the contractor. Match your preferences with the architect’s.

Design Fees
Fees should not be the determining factor in selecting your architect. Variations in cost generally reflect variances in service – define the scope of service carefully, including possible cost-savings and extras, the use of consulting engineers, and work by others such as landscape, security, sound system and interior design consultants.

20 Questions to Ask Your Architect

  1. What does the architect see as important issues or considerations in your project? What are the challenges of the project?
  2. How will the architect gather information about your needs, goals, etc.?
  3. How will the architect establish priorities and make decisions?
  4. Who from the architecture firm will you be dealing with directly? Is it the same person who will be designing the project? If not, who will be designing it?
  5. How interested is the architect in this project?
  6. How busy is the architect?
  7. What sets this architect apart from the rest?
  8. How will you be able to relate fee payments to milestones in the architect’s scope of work?
  9. How does the architect establish fees? When will fee payments be expected?
  10. What would the architect expect the fee to be for this project?
  11. What are the steps in the design process?
  12. How does the architect organize the process?
  13. What does the architect expect you to provide?
  14. Does the architect have a specific design style? Can he/she show examples of past design work?
  15. What is the architect’s experience/track record with cost-estimating?
  16. What will the architect show you along the way to explain the project? Will you see models, drawings, or sketches?
  17. If the scope of the project changes later in the project, will there be additional fees? How will these fees be justified?
  18. What services does the architect provide during construction?
  19. How disruptive will construction be? How long does the architect expect it to take to complete your project?
  20. Can the architect provide a list of past clients with whom he or she has worked?

20 Questions to Answer Before Meeting With Your Architect

The following questions can be used to help define your desires, your expectations, and other details of your project and will help you communicate them to your architect. The more detailed information you provide to your architect, the easier it will be for the architect to get started and the better the architect will be able to address your needs. (Although geared to homeowners, these questions can be adapted easily for small commercial projects.)

  1. Describe your current home.
    • What do you like about it?
    • What’s missing?
    • What don’t you like?
  2. Do you want to change the space you have?
  3. Do you want to build a new home?
  4. Why do you want to build a house or add to or renovate your current home?
    • Do you need more room?
    • Are children grown and moving on?
    • Is your lifestyle changing?
  5. What is your lifestyle?
    • Are you at home a great deal?
    • Do you work at home?
    • Do you entertain often?
    • How much time do you spend in the living areas, bedrooms, kitchen, den or office, utility space, etc.?
  6. How much time and energy are you willing to invest to maintain your home?
  7. If you are thinking of adding on, what functions/activities will be housed in a new space?
  8. What kind of spaces do you need (bedrooms, expanded kitchen, bathrooms, etc.)?
  9. How many of those spaces do you think you need?
  10. What do you think the addition/renovation/new home should look like?
  11. If planning a new home, what do you envision in this home that you don’t have now?
  12. How much can you realistically afford to spend?
  13. How soon would you like to be settled into your new home or addition? Are there rigid time constraints?
  14. If you are contemplating building a home, do you have a site selected?
  15. Do you have strong ideas about design styles? What are your design preferences?
  16. Which family member will be the primary contact with the architect, contractor, and others involved in designing and building your project? (It is good to have one point of contact to prevent confusion and mixed messages.)
  17. What qualities are you looking for in an architect?
  18. How much time do you have to be involved in the design and construction process?
  19. Do you plan to do any of the construction work yourself?
  20. How much disruption in your life can you tolerate to add on to or renovate your home?