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:
Fort Greene Brownstone Living Room by Delson or Sherman Architects PC


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.


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 a 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.


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.  Not just basics, but 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 RFRIs (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 critically, for most projects and for most buildings, you need an architect’s stamp on the filed drawings to complete the city applications.  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.


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.


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 home 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.