HOW TO HIRE AN ARCHITECT

If you’re planning to renovate or build a new home, the first step is to hire an architect.  Well before site work can begin, you first need a design for your home and to apply for city permits.  For both of these, most buildings departments require a licensed architect.  And last but not least, to get a fixed price from a general contractor, you need the drawings and specifications an architect provides. Without an architect, you might get a price from a GC, but who knows what that price includes?  Whose doorknobs will be installed?  How will the foundation walls be waterproofed?  Will the bathroom be en suite or in the hall?   These are the sorts of architectural details provided in a proper set of construction documents.  And these become an integral part of your contract with the GC.  But only if you hire an architect first.  Here’s how to achieve that goal in five steps:

1. WHERE TO START? 

Word of mouth is a good way to start your search for an architect.  Ask friends, neighbors, social media, your broker, your coop manager—someone will have had a good experience.  A simple Google search will turn up plenty of architects in your area.

Look for one with five stars and glowing reviews.  Finally, check online aggregators (e.g., BrownstonerHouzzPinterest, and Remodelista) for firms whose work you admire.  Then visit the firms’ websites for a deeper dive into their portfolios.  The right architect for you will have lots of photos of projects just like yours.  And as a bonus, you can learn a lot about a firm’s approach to design from their website.  Is it handsome?  Busy or serene?  Is it easy to use or labyrinthian? A less fruitful source is the American Institute of Architects.  The AIA is a national organization of architects with local chapters in every state and ready listings of local architects.  But membership in the AIA is something any architect can purchase, so the criteria for their listing isn’t much different from Google’s and no guarantee of quality.  Why bother?

2. FIRST CONTACT—AIM FOR A GOOD FIT

Now that you have a list of architects, how do you judge between them?  The two most important criteria are their experience with your building type and their design aesthetics.  The lingo may be intimidating, but the concepts are simple.  Find someone who’s done your kind of project, done it repeatedly, and done it successfully.  Hiring a shopping-mall architect to design your house is like getting an appendectomy from a dentist. And “aesthetics” is a fancy way of saying, “Do you like the look of their work?  Would you want to live in it?  Do the spaces look imaginative and exciting?”  You might think cost is equally important, but an architect’s fee is already such a small percentage of a construction project that the cost difference between firms is rarely the deal-breaker. Most projects take more than a year, so treat it like a relationship:  pick someone you get along with, someone who communicates well, someone who listens.  And because the path through city approvals and building construction is rarely smooth, pick someone you want in your corner.  A good architect fights for their clients and solves problems.

3. SELF-SERVE OR FULL-SERVICE 

Architects offer a range of services—some more, some less.  At the self-serve end, some architects provide only basic layouts and city applications.  While at the full-service end, an architect will manage every aspect of the project:  beyond basics, to hardware, plumbing, lighting, appliances, and finish materials.  Some even do to interior decorating, furniture design, and landscape design. Architects also run the gamut in their level of involvement during construction.  Some do the bare minimum number of inspections required.  Others are in daily communication with the general contractor:  answering Requests for Information, reviewing shop drawings and submittals, negotiating change orders and payment requests, making weekly site visits, etc.  Before you hire an architect, make sure they provide the level of service you want. And finally, for most projects and for most buildings, you need an architect’s stamp on the drawings and applications filed with the city.  Ask if the architect is licensed in your state.  And if you care about the environment, ask if they have LEED or Passive House credentials.

4. FEE CALCULATION

Every architecture firm calculates its fees differently.  Some charge a percentage of the cost of construction; some charge an hourly rate; and some charge a flat fee.  Many offer combinations of the above:  say, a flat fee for the design process followed by an hourly rate during construction. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.  A percentage fee limits the architect’s total while ensuing it’s proportional to the scope of the construction work.  But it also creates a conflict of interest by incentivizing the architect to increase the cost of construction.  An hourly rate avoids this conflict of interest and instead incentivizes the architect to stay involved through the completion of construction.  But it leaves the client without a cap.  A flat fee fixes the cap problem, but it typically comes at a cost:  either a higher price for the client or reduced services from the architect. Lastly, ask your architect what their markup is on materials and furnishings or if they pass on their trade discount.

5. ARCHITECTS ADD VALUE

Directing a construction project is a full-time job, so hiring an architect will save you a lot of time and effort.  But a better reason to hire an architect is for the value they add to your project.  They will show you a range of options to zero in on a design that’s customized to your needs.  And beyond that, a good architect will envision possibilities for the building you never imagined.  In the strictest terms, this can increase the resale value of your property well beyond the cost of the project.  But it can also dramatically improve the way you live in your home, making daily life more beautiful, more graceful, and more meaningful.