HIRING AN ARCHITECT

In This Article
What Do Architects Do?
Fees and Options
A La Carte Services
Builders & Architects
Legal Issues
Finding the Right Architect
Questions to Ask
Pros & Cons
Hiring Recommendations     View all articles on YOUR BUILDING TEAM

Should you hire an architect for your upcoming project? And what exactly should you hire them to do? To answer these questions, you need to understand the range of services architects provide and which might make financial sense for you.

Before I got involved in the building trades, I assumed that most houses were designed by architects. I quickly realized that this was not the case. In fact, a very small percentage of houses, just 1 or 2 percent,  are designed by architects – and a relatively small number of architects are “residential architects,” who specialize in designing homes (vs. commercial and institutional buildings).

Another misconception is that when you hire an architect to design a house, he or she turns over the design to you and your builder, and their work is done. This is one option, but an architect can also see a project through from concept to move-in, if hired by the client to do so. Residential architects offer a variety of services and you can save a lot of money by hiring them only for the services you need.

In some municipalities, an architect or engineer is required to at least review and “stamp” the drawings. This is common in large urban areas and those with special building requirements for steep sites, seismic conditions, high winds, or coastal conditions.

WHAT DO ARCHITECTS DO?

In fact, architects offer a comprehensive service that is broken into several phases. Different companies use a different number of steps with slightly different names, but on residential projects they generally fall into five or six main categories of work. They may also hire specialists such as structural engineers or energy consultants, if needed for specific projects:

Schematic design (also called Preliminary Design, Initial Consultation and Design, or Building Program & Site Analysis, among other things): Here the architect visits and analyzes the building site and gathers information from the clients about their design ideas, budget, and housing needs to develop a detailed “program,” a written  statement of  your needs and design goals. Putting it all together, the architect comes up with key concepts and rough sketches showing the size, general layout, and appearance of the building and how it fits into the building site. A couple of options may be presented. It is critical that you communicate clearly to the architect what is important to you in the design or you can waste a lot of time and money going back and forth on design ideas that do not meet your needs.

Design development:  Once the client accepts a  preliminary design, this is the nitty-gritty work of turning a rough concept of spatial relationships into a real building design with floor plans, a roof design, and  some of the interior and exterior trims and details  that give a building style and character. This will usually include some scale drawings, a basic structural plan, and basic specifications for the main components of the building. With modern design software, you can often see your whole house at this point in 3-D and walk around and through the 3D building on the computer screen.

Construction documents: These are the detailed drawings (blueprints) and written specifications or “specs” that should be detailed enough  that you can get apples-to-apples bids from three contractors, who will produce essentially the same building. Detailed drawings are also required to obtain a building permit. More on construction documents under Project Management.

Some plans and specs are very precise and highly detailed, where the architect has thought through nearly every little issue the contractor will face; others are strong on the design and bit fuzzy on how things go together, with the assumption that the contractor will figure that out on the job site. For example, I once asked an architect how he wanted us to support a heavy cantilevered shelf with no visible support bracket. After thinking a minute, he answered “Hmmm – maybe insert steel dowels and weld them to a steel plate bolted behind the studs…”

On another architectural job, I asked how we were going to support the large, complex Victorian roof after removing most of the supporting walls and collar ties. That triggered an engineering inspection and a detailed structural plan. The upshot is that it’s generally easier to draw something than to build it, so an architect who is well versed in wood frame construction and basic structural engineering  will make life easier for the builder and less expensive for you.

Bidding or Negotiation. Here the architect helps you solicit bids from a list of contractors who the architect feels are qualified for the project, although you can certainly bring your own contractor to bid. The architect will answer contractor questions to clarify items in the plans or specs, possibly make revisions to the plans or specs, and may negotiate with one or more of the contractors. They will then make recommendations about who can best meet the needs of the clients in terms of quality, cost, and schedule. The owner, however, makes the choice.

Construction Administration. Here, the architect functions as the owner’s agent, making sure the builder and subcontractors are following the plans and specifications (there’s always room for interpretation), and not cutting corners. It’s important to note, however, that the architect is not contractually “supervising” the contractor and is not liable for faulty work as long as he made the required inspections in good faith. In the construction phase, the contractor will visits the site, often weekly, to inspect the work and answer any questions that arise. Construction administration may also include

  • preparing additional detailed drawings if needed
  • approving the contractor’s requests for progress payments
  • approving any changes to the plans and preparing any required change orders
  • negotiating who should pay for disputed change orders
  • resolving any issues stemming from conflicts or ambiguity in the plans or specs.

Change orders can result from poorly drawn plans, owner’s requests, “hidden conditions,” material substitutions, or other deviations from the original plans as bid. Who is responsible for the change and who should pay for it is often disputed (more on this under Project Management.) For example, the builder may need to use a larger beam than drawn in the plans, or the owner may visit the building site and decide to have a window enlarged or moved. Hidden conditions can occur when excavations uncover buried ledge interfering with the foundation plans, or carpenters discover hidden termite damage during a remodel.

ARCHITECTURAL FEES AND OPTIONS

Hiring an architect for the full suite of services – from preliminary design to move-in – sounds pretty appealing if you don’t have the time or skills to design and manage the project yourself.  And if you find the right architect, it is. You will be relieved of a lot of responsibilities and headaches. But this comes at a pretty steep price.

Most architects will work for either an hourly rate or for a fixed fee based on a percentage of the construction costs – or some combination of the two. For example, some architects charge a fixed fee for portions of the work that are predictable and an hourly rate for less predictable tasks, like client meetings and plan revisions. Some charge an hourly rate with a guaranteed maximum or a fixed-fee with a cap on the architect’s hours. For example, after a certain number of hours in client meetings or site visits, an hourly rate kicks in.

It seems like there are as many variations as architecture firms,  which can make it difficult for a client gauge the actual cost and compare costs between firms.

Typical fixed fees for a full-service contract range from  5% to 15% of construction costs for new construction, and from 10% to 20% for remodeling. Rates for remodeling projects are typically higher as they tend to be more time-consuming due to the messy and unpredictable nature of remodeling.  Rates will vary with the reputation and size of the firm, complexity of the project, part of country, the current economy, and your success at negotiating.

The price difference may also reflect the level of service provided. Are you getting the minimum set of plans required to get a building permit? Or will you be getting a high level of detail with many additional drawings and detailed specifications. Make sure you get a clear description of the services offered so you can make more of an apples-to-apples comparison.

So on $300,000 new construction project, you may need to spend $30,000 for the full-tilt architectural services package. You can also hire architects by the hour, often with a not-to-exceed limit, which may save you money if you are careful in how you use the architect’s time. If you can’t afford the full architectural service, but would like the input of an architect, you can hire them for just the services you need or that you will find most valuable.

A LA CARTE SERVICES

As stated earlier, the vast majority of residential building and remodeling projects are done without an architect’s involvement. So you may wonder, who does all the design work? If so many jobs are done without architects, are they an unnecessary extravagance?

A good architect can bring a lot to the table, but you may not need everything they are offering. For example, you may be perfectly happy with a plan that you discovered in a plan book or in an online collection. You may want to hire an architect to just modify or tweak the plan to better fit your personal needs or tastes.

In my opinion, the most valuable asset that an architect can bring to a residential construction job is his or her creativity. Even if you have a good design sense, an experienced architect or other design professional can bring you fresh design ideas that you never thought of. They can bring an interesting,  new perspective to your new home design or an innovative design solution to a remolding problem. Creative input at this stage can elevate your design from the merely functional to something really special. Incorporated early in the design phase, the cost implications may not be great. In fact, some design changes add zero cost, they just look and function better.

This work is done at the Preliminary Design stage of an architect’s scope of work. It may be all you need if you or your contractor can take it from there and turn the conceptual design into a practical built structure. If you plan to work this way, make it clear to the architect that you are hiring him for just this service and make sure that you will have the right to use the preliminary plans as you like once they are completed. Since the architect has no control over what actually gets built, he would have no liability for problems with the design.

How far you want the architect to take the design is up to you. Design Development will turn the concept into a full 3-D vision of the project with some basic drawings and preliminary specifications, and the third stage of Construction Documents will provide you with a set of detailed plans and specifications you can put out to bid.

Some contractors would be happy to bid on a preliminary design, in which case, they will provide their own specifications, and may also produce their own set or working drawings (blueprints). However, if you get multiple bids, you’ll need to carefully compare the bids and specifications as each contractor may be doing things a little (or a lot) differently so you’re not really getting apples-to-apples bids.

You also won’t have the architect to keep an eye on the work in progress to make sure that the contractor is following the plans and maintaining quality standards. How important is this? If you hire a reputable contractor that you trust, then it’s probably a waste of money. In most cases, the contractor will know a lot more about the nitty-gritty details of residential construction than the architect. If, however, you are building an architectural masterpiece or an innovative structure unfamiliar to most contractors, you may be better off hiring the architectural firm to take the project from concept to completion.   

BUILDERS AND ARCHITECTS – CATS AND DOGS

As a contractor, I was a little bit leery about working with architects. The stereotype, among my builder friends, anyway – was that architects were pie-in-the-sky idealists who drew pretty pictures, but didn’t know the first thing about how to build them – or how much it would cost. Some architects held builders in equally low esteem as yahoos who could build a roof that didn’t leak, but who built houses and additions that were badly proportioned and with the all the character of a storage bin.  Or in the case of a developer’s “ McMansion” – their houses displayed a cacophony of  inappropriate and superficial style elements (columns, dormers, arched windows, brick facades) pasted on like cake frosting to impress the neighbors.

Dreamers vs. butchers. There is some truth to the stereotypes:  There are dreamer architects more interested in getting published and winning awards than in making practical, affordable homes. And there are a lot of pretty ugly homes out there with bad floor plans, awkward proportions, and little natural light designed by “wood butcher” builders. However, these are the extremes. I’ve also met and worked with a lot of talented, practical, and personable architects who work well and collaboratively with builders and owner. I also know quite a few builders (some who identify themselves as design-builders) who build some pretty attractive homes. I also know builders who want nothing to do with design and prefer to work with an architect taking responsibility for design decisions.

Build a cooperative team. If you work with an architect, he or she will most likely recommend builders to bid on the project who they feel would be good for this type of project, and who they have worked with successfully in the past. You may know someone you’d also like to have bid the job, which is fine, but make sure it’s someone who is comfortable working with an architect. For things to go smoothly, the architect, builder, and owner must respect each other and work collaboratively as no set of plans and specs is perfect, and some building issues always need to be worked out between the architect, builder, and owner.

In the worst case, the builder resents the architect checking up on his work, since he thinks he knows ten times as much as the architect about building. And why does the owner need someone checking up on him anyway?  The architect may reject good suggestions from the builder, for pretty much the same reason. All in all, not a great way to get a project done.

Who’s supervising the supervisors? While your goal is to get a good house built, not to make everyone happy, a cooperative team will work better and more efficiently, and probably produce a better final product.  The real question you need to answer before hiring an architect for Construction Administration is this:

  • Do you trust that the contractor is honest, has high standards, and will do quality work without supervision?
  • If not, do you trust that the architect has the construction knowledge and ability to monitor the work, and how much is that worth to you.

Having the checks and balances of third-party supervision can be useful, but it can be overkill (and a waste of money) on routine projects. At the end of the day, you have to find people you can trust to be competent and to act with integrity. You should still check up on their work from time to time, but if you’ve hired the right people, you can expect the work to be done correctly.

If you’re an owner-builder. Things are a bit different if you are acting as your own contractor and hiring your own subcontractors. Good subs certainly know their trades well, but the quality of their work may vary and subs are not always aware of how their work affects other trades or the “big picture.” Therefore I would strongly advise having someone knowledgeable to meet with the subs to explain any special requirements or peculiarities of the job, to lightly monitor their work, and to be available to troubleshoot job-site problems. These may include conflicts between subs – like they both want to run their pipes, wires, ducts, etc., in the same space – or the tunnel vision of a plumber who wants to cut dangerously big notches in the floor joists to get enough slope in his drain pipes.  An experienced architect or contractor acting as construction manager would be a good choice if you don’t feel equipped to handle this responsibility yourself.

It’s a triangle. If architects and builders can be cats and dogs, let’s not forget you that the relationship is really a triangle with you, the owner, as the third point. You, in fact, have the most authority here and have the ultimate say in what gets built. So listen carefully to the experts, ask a lot of questions, look and pros, cons, and costs of each alternative and communicate clearly your answer. Be reasonable and respectful and you can expect the same.

At my first meeting with clients one time on an approximately $300,000 addition, a husband and wife brought me various plans and models and started talking about the first, second, and third architects, all of whom they had since fired. They then started arguing with each other about which plan was the correct plan. As contractor, this did not bode well for me either, so I politely declined to bid the job.

Most people have a pretty murky understanding of an architect’s legal status in the three-way relationship between owner, contractor, and architect. A few common misunderstandings are explained below:

Who owns the plans? This issue is rarely understood by homeowners and leads to many misunderstandings (see the comments at the end of this article). Most owners think that when they pay an architect thousands of dollars for their custom home design that they own the plans. However, the standard AIA contract specifies that the architect owns the copyright to the plans and the owner merely has a one-time right to use the plans. In fact, the architect could sell the same plans to your new next-door neighbor.

It is like buying an original work of art. You can hang it on your wall, but you cannot copy it and sell posters. Only the copyright holder — usually the original artist — can legally do that. For the same reason, you will not have access to the CAD files unless you specify that in your design agreement.

This is mainly an issue when, for whatever reason, you part ways with your architect before their work is completed. Do you, as the owner, have the right to use the plans to the extent they have been completed and are you free to modify them as you wish? These are good questions and should be discussed beforehand with the architect. If you are only hiring the architect for preliminary design work, you want the right to use and modify the plans as you see fit. Make sure the designer has the same understanding and that this is put into writing. Read more on Who Owns the Plans?

Who’s liable for design errors? Like most legal questions, this one does not have a clear answer. In court cases, architects are generally expected to exercise “reasonable and ordinary care” in the practice of their profession, not perfection. Often errors and omissions in the plans are discovered during the construction process and result in change orders. Who should pay for changes that result from an error or omission in the plans? All plans carry language such as “contractor shall check and verify all dimensions before execution of the work.” Does this mean that the contractor is responsible if he builds to faulty dimensions?

In most cases, the issues are minor and are worked out through negotiation between the designer, contractor, and owner. Your best defense as an owner is to hire competent people who work well together, make sure they are properly insured, and consider having the contracts reviewed by a lawyer.

On one renovation, a measurement mistake by the architect meant that a very complex stairway we were retrofitting into a large Victorian home would have to break through a wall in the main foyer. The client was not happy, but there was no alternative. The architect took responsibility for the error, we wrote a few-hundred dollar change order,  and the architect, customer, and contractor (me) worked out an acceptable solution. Reasonable people will find reasonable solutions to most problems. Read more on Who Pays for an Architect’s Mistakes?

Who’s liable for construction defects? Even if you paid the architect to inspect the work of the contractor, the architect is not generally liable for construction defects. While the architect will certainly inform the owner if work appears to be substandard, he is not expected to “supervise” the contractor or to know the contractor’s trade inside out. If there are problems later due to poor workmanship or construction errors, the contractor is liable, not the architect, even if he was hired to inspect the work in progress.

The moral of this story: There’s no contract or work arrangement that can guarantee good workmanship. A good contract can help if things go wrong, but the only way to make things go right is to hire capable, reputable, and trustworthy people.

FINDING THE RIGHT ARCHITECT

An old saw I heard from an architect was: What would an architect do if he won a million dollars. Answer: Practice architecture until he ran out of money. The implication is that architecture is a labor of love more than a path to riches –  and it is for many, especially sole practitioners and employees at larger firms.

Most people who go into architecture are artistic by nature and are drawn to the field by the love of design. Some are energy and green-building enthusiasts who keep up on the latest innovations in energy-efficient and green construction.  Some architects focus on the structural and technical side of construction. Some are planning and organizational whizzes.  And still others work best in the business and political arena, winning high-profile contracts with corporations and government agencies.

Of course, finding all those strengths in a single individual is rare. As has often been pointed out, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, Falling Water, is a thing of beauty, but has been slowly falling down and plagued by roof leaks since it was built. Artist, yes – construction wizard, no.

If you do hire an architect, you should look for one that fits your needs. In most cases, you will be better off with a small firm or sole practitioner specializing in residential design.  In any event, you don’t want to walk into a large firm and not even know who will be doing the design work.

Find a good fit. The important thing is to find someone who fits your individual needs. If you have the whole design concept wrapped up and just need someone to draw it and spec it out, then you want a hands-on, practical architect with ample construction experience, not a dreamy artist. If you want them to handle the contract documents and administration, you want a highly organized individual with proven management skills.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for an inspired design, you will want to look for a creative artist. Like any artist or designer, individual architects have a personal sense of aesthetics and style that may or may not match your own. So the first thing you should do is look at their portfolio or, if feasible, visit projects they have designed. Conversely, if you’ve been admiring a new home or addition in your community – find out who designed it.

The eye of the beholder. Despite a designer’s reputation, you may find their portfolio beautiful or hideous or somewhere in between. If you want your house to be a unique architectural statement that really stands out and garners architectural awards, there are plenty of artists out there ready to oblige. If your tastes run more to traditional forms popular in your region – e.g., Capes and Colonials here in New England – then you can find plenty of talented designers who can create beautiful living spaces within those “vernacular” styles. This will be your home, not an art project, so make sure it’s a design that feels like home to you.

Beyond aesthetics, many residential architects have special interests and strengths. If energy-efficiency and green building are your goals, find an architect (or other professional designer) with a experience and a proven track record in that specialty.  A lot of specialized expertise is required to make this type of home work well.

Discuss cost concerns. Communicate your concerns about cost upfront – not always an architect’s first priority. If you have a limited budget for your project, find an architect who will design with cost in mind and commit to working within a budget.

Ask what will happen if bids come in too high on the completed design, and whether you will need to pay extra for revisions to the plans at that point.

Also remember that you play an important role in sticking to a budget. If you have a Kia budget and keep asking for Lexus quality, you put your designer in a difficult position. Similarly, if the project grows in size during the design process, it will grow in budget too. It takes a joint effort to stick to a budget.

I have worked on a number of architectural jobs where we have substituted or modified stock items instead of using custom fabrication  (a large island range hood, in one case) and saved thousands of dollars. On another job, an architect was happy to modify a kitchen partition from curved to straight to save the owner a few thousand dollars – in this case, it was the architect’s own home! Make sure you see eye to eye on affordability issues.

A big part of sticking to a budget is selecting readily available stock materials and equipment as much as possible – as opposed to custom-fabricated, special-order, and imported hardware and equipment. A custom fabricated range hood will cost several times more than what you can buy locally.  You can almost always find or modify a stock kitchen or bathroom cabinet to achieve the same look and function as a custom one.  A really cool European faucet or heating system may have metric fittings hard to connect to U.S. plumbing parts. Always ask if the designer has specified these materials before and, if so, what the costs were and if there were any problems with ordering lead times or installation.

A good rapport. At your first meeting, bring some photos, magazine clippings, hand-drawn sketches of work that you like. Express your desires and interests and observe their reaction. Do you have a good rapport?  Do they listen well? Do they seem receptive to your input and participation in the design process. Ask how they like to collaborate with clients? Most will welcome your input, but some may prefer to work alone and present you with their solution. Find someone whose work you like and whom you feel comfortable working with and they are a good bet.

Finally, ask for references and talk to them. Ask former clients how the project went. Are they happy with the building. Was the cost estimate provided by the by the architect close to the actual cost? If possible, interview former clients who were not given as references.

QUESTIONS TO ASK AN ARCHITECT

    • Who in your office will  I be working with? How much experience do they have in single-family residential projects/renovations (or whatever type of project you are considering)?
    • How much experience do you have in energy-efficient design, green building, affordable design, passive-solar design (or whatever your special interests are).
    • What is your average square-foot construction price for this type of project?
    • Can you design to a budget? Is my budget realistic for the project I have in mind?
    • If bids come in too high, will you revise the plan at no extra cost?
    • What services do you offer? Are you open to providing just the services that I need?
    • How do they prefer to collaborate with clients?
    • What preliminary thoughts do they have about my project?

PROS & CONS OF USING AN ARCHITECT

Hiring an architect for their full suite of services is expensive and may be justified on a large complex project. On a simpler project, it is more cost-effective to hire an architect for just the service you need. In general the pros and cons are

Pros of hiring an architect

  • You, as the owner, have an agent to keep an eye on the contractor and workmanship   throughout the project. The architect has a fiduciary responsibility to the owner (under a full service contract).
  • Better design. An architect often produces more interesting and creative design work, a highly functional floor plan, good natural lighting and ventilation, and good integration with the building site.
  • Avoids design errors common in plan books or with inexperienced designers.
  • Detailed plans and specs provide a clear guide to contractors and clients. Contractors know what they are bidding on and you know what you are getting.
  • Well-written specifications require that materials and workmanship meet or exceed industry standards.
  • The architect can recommend qualified contractors to bid on job.
  • The AIA construction contract favors owners (and the architect) over the contractor.
  • The architect can handle the tough aspects of contract negotiations on your behalf, allowing you to maintain a friendly, cooperative relationship with your contractor.

Cons of hiring and architect

  • Expensive way to build. In addition to the architect’s fees, some architects will drive up costs with custom products and materials, and expensive and finicky construction details which will drive up bids.
  • Some architects are more pie-in-the-sky than practical in their designs, and not realistic about costs, leading to budget-busting designs that will need to be heavily reworked or abandoned.
  • Depending on your contract with the architect, you may end up with sketchy plans without clear construction details and specifications. This can lead to bidding confusion, change orders, and upcharges (e.g., for items left out of the plans).
  • In general, the architect is not liable for errors and omissions in the plans.
  • In general, the architect is not liable for construction defects, even if you pay the architect to inspect the work in progress.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR HIRING AN ARCHITECT

Find an architect experienced in the kind of work you are planning (wood-frame homes, not skyscrapers and schools), and whose portfolio you like.

Communication. Communication is the key to success in working with any architect or designer. If you do not clearly communicate your tastes and needs, it is unlikely you will get a design that meets your needs. Communicating about visual issues often involves pictures.  This might include photos of houses you like, pages ripped out of magazines, and your own sketches. Also make a written list of your top priorities and must-have’s in the design. If you do not clearly describe what you want, there is little chance you will get back a design that you like. You can end up wasting a lot of time and money going back and forth with plans do not work for you.

A la carte services. For a new home or large, complex remodel, consider hiring the architect for at least their creative design input, either from scratch or in adapting a plan you bring to them. Having them create detailed plans and specifications will simplify bidding and construction. Hiring the architect for bidding negotiations and contract administration is probably overkill except for a high-end,  complex project with challenging custom details or innovative building techniques (think $$$). On a typical project, a reputable contractor will follow the plans closely without the need for oversight by an architect, and will often suggest ways to cut costs that you as the owner can approve of or not.

You can also save money by bringing your rough architectural plans to a draftsperson to create more detailed “working drawings” and specifications. If you bring the same rough plans to two builders,  without sufficient detail, you will need to carefully compare their bids (and the specs they will provide) to make sure that they are bidding the same work and including the same items – this is risky.

Make sure you see several samples of the architect’s work and like the results. Most building designers have a style, which you may or may not like. Also, talk to former clients before committing. In addition to how they like the completed project, ask about the process: How did the construction phase go? Were there many problems? A lot of change orders? Did the project cost more than initially planned? Was it completed on time? If they worked with a large firm, which specific architect (or “designer” who may not be a licensed architect) did they work with?

Architect FAQs

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Comments

  1. Challenges in Hiring an Architect

    We are planning a pretty straightforward remodeling of an early 20th century home in South Florida: taking down two interior walls and reconfiguring the space to move a kitchen to the back of the house and redesign a guest bathroom. Because there are plenty of variables re: how best to do this logistically and aesthetically, we have been wanting to have an architect’s point of view, though we probably don’t need an architect on the job – just to stamp the plans. However, when contacting architects we can never get past the proposal stage – they come by to see the job, to discus the scope, they promise rough schematic drawings, but all we get are proposals asking us to sign into an agreement, including paying a large sum of money, before we even know if their ideas match our own. Is this standard? How can we be expected to sign with an architect if we don’t even know if their plans for our project would please us? Granted we are newbies, but are finding this process frustrating and full of traps. Thanks.

    • buildingadvisor says:

      There are certainly inherent risks in hiring an architect or other creative professional to create a unique design for you. Whether it’s a dress, a painting, or a house design, there is a chance that you will pay for a design that you won’t like and won’t use. In many cases, you can work with the same designer to adjust or fine-tune the design to your liking (perhaps spending even more money). In other cases, the design is completely rejected and you have to start from scratch with someone new.

      However, there are many stratagies to improve the chance of success and keep costs under control.

      When it works well, you will be working in close collaboration with the architect. So it is important to find someone you like and feel comfortable with. Also you should look for someone who’s work you like. Look at their portfolio to see if their sense of style is compatible with your own. If he likes ultramodern minimalist design and you like Victorian, it’s not going to work.

      Also find someone who is willing to work in a flexible manner. While some may pressure you to sign a comprehensive, high-cost contract, there are certainly architects who will be more flexible and provide only the individual services you are requesting. For example, if at this point all you are looking for is conceptual or schematic design, find someone who will work for you on an hourly basis to provide just that service.

      Tell them that, at this point, you are just looking for design ideas and are not yet ready to commit to a full architectural contract. If you are happy with their conceptual work, you can always go back for additional work. It may be that the contractor or a draftsman can provide you with the detailed drawings required for a building permit.

      However, if you need a stamped set of detailed drawings, then you will eventually need to pay someone to prepare those. In most areas, architectural drawings stamped by a licensed architect or engineer are not required for typical remodeling projects, but some high-cost, highly regulated areas (like South Florida) may require this. Check with you local department of building inspection.

      Whomever you work with, bring them as much information as you can about what you are trying to achieve. If you have blueprints for your current home, bring them (or a good sketch of the existing floorplan), along with a list of objectives that you want to meet – sometimes called the architectural “program”.

      Equally important, bring visual ideas of what you have in mind. In the old days, this involved tearing pages out of home design magazines. Google Images and a color printer have made this step a lot easier. The more information you provide, the more likely you are to get back a plan from the designer that you can work with.

      Best of luck with your remodeling project!

  2. Ugly House Hard to Sell

    I came across your site out of frustration with my own home. It was built in 1920 and is a series of boxes, stacked on top of each other, with a hip roof. Then, and addition was added in the 1940’s…and it was tied into the existing roof at the wrong angle…resulting in an odd ‘hump’ at the roofline.

    Honestly, I don’t have a question. I’m just frustrated that someone so incompetent ‘designed’ our home. I ‘inherited it’ via my relationship (significant other). I would never have bought it.

    And guess what? We’ve been trying to sell it off and on for THREE years. I am convinced that a big part of the issue is the bizarre form…poor external proportions, and lack of character. While technically a four square hip roof, this home is nothing of the sort.

    Didn’t ANYONE from a municipality OK stuff back in the 1920’s? I still see ugly raised ranches and shoe boxes being built today. People may call it snob zoning, but man, it would prevent the ugly factor that we’re dealing with today. Great site, thanks for the info.

    • buildingadvisor says:

      There are definitely a lot of badly designed houses out there. They may be designed by builders, developers, homeowners, and sometimes even architects.

      I share your dislike of raised ranches and other regrettable house styles. However, in general, there are no laws against ugliness, unpleasant proportions, or bad floor plans – and no shortage of these.

      Building codes, where they exist, are mainly concerned with life-safety issues – think fire and building collapse – and other functional issues like the plumbing drains.

      Private developments often have design review, along with a few tourist towns like Nantucket and Santa Fe. And historic districts often have design guidelines and restrictions. Otherwise, people are pretty much free to build whatever they like.

      Best of luck selling your ugly duckling. If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, eventually someone will probably find your house appealing.

  3. How Long to Design A House?

    Hello. I am in the midway process of designing our home. The design aspect is 80% complete and ready for bidding.

    Our architect has given us a timeline from now to when they can send the work to contractors for bids. The timeline has 19 weeks for construction documents. I know nothing of the process but is this accurate? We are building a contemporary one-story home with cellar. Nineteen weeks seems very lengthy for this process. Can you give me some idea if this is the average time needed for this process? Thank you

    • buildingadvisor says:

      Obviously, every project and every architectural firm is different. So please take this with a big grain of sale. However, in my experience, a moderately complicated custom home usually takes somewhere in the range of 300 to 400 hours of work over 3 to 4 months from the first working meeting to a set of detailed plans and specifications ready to bid. If it’s a very simple design and everyone is on the same page, the process could be as short as a few weeks.

      Key factors are the size and complexity of the house, the need to bring in engineers and other consultants, and the complexity of the regulatory environment. Another big factor is how clear the owners are about what they want and how quickly they can make decisions. Running through multiple iterations of designs can take a lot of time.

      If your design is really 80% done, then 19 weeks sounds like a long time for construction documents. Maybe your architect is juggling multiple projects and having difficulty scheduling the work. I’d suggest sitting down with him and discussing the timeline: what exactly needs to be done, what can you do as client to help move things along, and what can be done to speed things up. If you have a specific deadline in mind, ask if he can shuffle work around to meet that deadline.

      Best of luck with your new home!

  4. Silas Knight says:

    Builder & Architect Stereotypes

    I have a brother who is majoring in architecture, and he has run into some of the same stereotypes that you mentioned in this article. Most people seem to think that he is just an idealist, making good drawings and then doing nothing. But he proves them wrong more often than not. So I agree that the stereotypes are an extreme. The world needs good architects and builders.

  5. Designer Completely Disregarded the Budget

    Hello. We have hired two designers (along with the structural engineers they needed) during the process of trying to get a design for an addition/renovation for our house. The budget that we gave to our builder and the designer he recommended was $250K-$280K. We spent $9,055 for a set of plans (within the scope of what was originally discussed) that resulted in a building estimate of $500k. We then moved on to a different designer, as the builder had complained that the first designer wasn’t good at communicating with him and that is why the estimate came in so high. The second design ended up costing $16,000, and the builder (same builder) came back with a building estimate of close to $600k. In this design, we decided to stay on one level to cut costs down — something the builder said would save substantially — but somehow the estimate was still grossly over budget. This designer then sent the plans to other builders, and found that they all came in close to the $600k.
    How is it legal that a designer (two designers!) can completely disregard your budget and still charge you $10-16k? What can protect a consumer from this? I’m in the process of seeking legal advice, but would love your thoughts. Thank you!

    • buildingadvisor says:

      It is often a challenge to get architects or other professional designers to design to a budget. Some designers are very aware of construction costs, but many are not. For that reason, a lot of “dream homes” never get built or get built significantly downsized before construction. Given the high cost of building today, every effort should be made early in the process to address costs. Sticker shock derails too many building and remodeling projects where costs have been ignored at the design phase.

      I think the central question in your case is whether or not the designer should have had the knowledge and experience to deliver a design closer to the proposed budget based on the information you provided. The legal question is whether or not he was negligent and committed professional malpractice. As with most legal questions, there is rarely a black-white answer and I am not a lawyer, but here are my thoughts as both a consumer and building professional.

      If I were the client and provided a designer with a clear budget and scope of work (including square footage and finishes), and the designer agreed that he could design a project that fit these requirements, then I would consider the architect’s work substandard if multiple bids came in at twice the proposed budget. I would want my money back or a new design that worked, if that’s possible. If you had put the project budget in writing as one of the requirements of the design, or have some written correspondence documenting the budget amount, you would have a stronger case. Another issue is whether there were special conditions that drove up the cost that the designer was not aware of.

      It may be that the project you had in mind could never be built for $280,000, but you would like to be told that at the outset. Although most contractors don’t like to do this, an experienced professional contractor can eyeball a set of plans and, with a little time and a calculator, throw out a ballpark estimate, or at least a price range, that is realistic. They are reluctant to do this because they don’t want the customer to try to hold them to this number if the actual cost comes in higher. But they have estimated and built a lot of projects and know what things cost.

      While designers are not contractors, and construction costs are not their primary concern, they certainly should be aware of project budgets and, in my opinion, should not agree to design to a budget if they do not have the knowledge and skills to do so.

      One of the advantages of working with the design-build company, is their ability to design to a budget. They will “value engineer” a project to meet your objectives as much as possible and tell you what is not possible. “No, the custom walnut cabinets with granite counters won’t fit in this budget.” You don’t get the benefits of competitive bidding, but you are less likely to experience the kind of sticker shock you faced.

      Most architects carry “errors and omissions” insurance to cover them in the event of professional mistakes that cause harm. Architectural malpractice, like medical malpractice, is a complex issue that intelligent people often disagree on – one reason we keep so many lawyers well employed.

      Professional negligence, or malpractice, is defined by http://www.nolo.com (an excellent legal self-help publisher) as: “when a professional fails to provide the quality of care that should reasonably be expected in the circumstances, with the result that a patient or client is harmed. Such an error or omission may be through negligence, ignorance (when the professional should have known), or intentional wrongdoing.

      Another definition is : A breach of the duty of care between professionals and their clients where the client expects a level of professionalism and standards commonly held by those in the profession.

      Some suggestions for future projects:
      • Make preliminary budgeting part of the planning process.
      • Make your budget a clear project requirement in writing at the outset.
      • Ask the designer if he/she is able and willing to design to your budget.
      • If necessary, bring a professional estimator or contractor into the process early to provide realistic cost estimates.

      Best of luck in finding an acceptable resolution. Do any readers have similar experiences or suggestions for how to avoid this type of problem?

      • Thank you so much for your help. With our first designer, we had not learned yet, and unfortunately did not have the budget stated in the contract. However, I do have email correspondence from this designer stating that we were within our $250K to $280K range in response to my question “Are we still looking like we are within budget” before agreeing to pay an additional $2,000 of structural engineering fees.

        With our 2nd designer, we specifically stated what our issue had been with designer #1. My husband and I came up with a rough plan and provided her the layout and asked if the new layout looked like it was something she could design for our budget. She said yes, and included our budget in the contract. 16,000 later, we had a building estimate of $596k.

        Thank you again for your thoughtful response and advice. It is much appreciated!

  6. Paul Smith says:

    Who Owns the House Plans?

    I am not a professional builder or architect, but I have CAD designed a new house I am planning to build in about a year, with extensive design/construction detail throughout. These plans are a compilation of my ideas, but an architect is required to approve these plans before they can be submitted for a permit. In the above article it stated that ” In the standard AIA Contract, the architect retains ownership and copyright of the plans, and the owners gets a one-time right to use the plans in their project. In my case, if I do all the real design, then who “owns” the house plans?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      Some municipalities require a licensed architect’s stamp (or, alternately, an engineer’s) to issue a building permit for large projects such as a new home. If that’s the case for you, then I’m sure you can find an architect willing to review your plans and sign off on them for a reasonable fee. Since the architect would be assuming some liability for the design he did not create, his/her fee may be higher than a straight hourly fee. Or the architect may want you to sign a “hold harmless” clause stating that you accept responsibility for any errors and omissions in the plans.

      I can’t imagine an architect would try to claim ownership of your plans, but you should certainly tell the architect that you have created the plans and wish to retain ownership of them. It’s best to clarify these issues at the outset.

      As a precaution, simply insert “ © Your Name 2015” at the bottom of each page in the design. Under US copyright law, the creator of any creative work, such as a novel, poem, or house design, automatically owns the copyright in that work unless they transfer it contractually to another. You don’t need to insert the copyright symbol or publish the work – copyright ownership is automatic – but it doesn’t hurt to add a copyright mark. As long as you don’t sign a contract transferring ownership to the architect, then you will own the plans.

      If the architect you hire makes extensive revisions to the plans, then the issue gets a little more murky. Unless who owns the work is contractually specified, it becomes a “joint work” under copyright law with multiple owners. Again, it would be best to clear this up before hiring the architect.

      AIA owner/architect agreements make the assumption that you have hired the architect to create a design. Like any standardized contract, this one can and should be modified for the specific project at hand. And you should never sign an important contract like this without first reading and understanding it. If the architect wants to use this type of contract, simply add a clause stating the you will retain copyright in the plans.

      See also Who Owns the Plans?

      • Mr. Guppy says:

        I think an Architect is not supposed to stamp anyone’s drawings if they did not ‘supervise with reasonable care’ their creation. This is called ‘plan stamping’ and can get them in trouble with the state licensing board. It’s called out in one of NCARB’s professional monographs.

  7. Can We Get Architects’s CAD File?

    I was wondering when we hire an architect for the services from preliminary to construction documents, can we ask him for the CAD file of the design? Because I was thinking about the two following scenarios: 1) if we part ways before we pay him the full amount, we know we will pay him based on the phase that has been finished. So we want to have the CAD file to be able to keep working on the design.
    2) if we finish the design project with him and pay in full, can we have the CAD file just in case during the construction phase, we may want to tweak the plan ourselves?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      These are excellent questions and you are asking them at the right time — before you enter into an agreement with an architect or designer.

      In the standard AIA Contract, the architect retains ownership and copyright of the plans, and the owners gets a one-time right to use the plans in their project. The architect will provide as may sets of plans (for a fee) as needed, but will typically not provide the CAD files to the client.

      That said, you should explain your concerns and ask whether you can have access to the CAD drawings (and printed drawings) at each stage of the design. While some architects may be reluctant to share the files, others may be happy to work on this basis. Make sure that the contract reflects your needs and desires with respect to your use of the plans.

      In the modern world, more people are hiring architects for a more limited role, such as conceptual design and a few elevations, and the owner and contractor will take it from there. So many architects have adopted a more flexible attitude toward design as a collaborative process that may involve greater input from the owner, contractor, or even another designer.

      Even if you cannot get your hands on the CAD files, you can take your printed plans to a contractor or another designer and mark them up by hand with revisions. If the revisions are extensive enough that you need a new set of plans, it should not be too expensive to re-input the revised plan to generate new CAD drawings. Best of luck with your project.

  8. Plans Seem Cookie-Cutter, Not Custom

    I hired a pool designer to design my pool, paid in full for the design, and got my permit. Since then I have spoken to several subs who keep saying, “Who did these plans – they seem generic or cookie/cutter” I was under the impression that I was paying for custom pool plans(I certainly paid for that). So I sent the designer a message and simply said, I think I did not get what I paid for and that I would be spreading the word. He called me and threatened that he would call the county and tell them that I was not allowed to use his plans. I have paid him and paid the county. Can he do that?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      In general, when you hire an architect or designer to produce a plan, you certainly have the right to use the plans – but you do not technically own the plans since the designer generally holds the copyright. For example, you do not have the right to use them a second time or sell the plans to others.

      So if you’ve paid in full for the plans, you should have the right to use the plans, unless there is a stipulation in the design contract that states otherwise. For example, in some design-build contracts, you may be restricted to using the same contractor for construction.

      As to whether the plans were custom or cookie-cutter, it may be a little of each. Most designers use standard “details” for things like structural elements and basic construction. The “custom” part is how it all goes together and the aesthetic elements.

  9. House Design Twice The Size We Specified

    Beware of architects. I told my architect I want a small house exterior dimensions no larger than 6000 square feet for a specified amount. He designed a 11,000 square foot building to give me 6600 square feet of living space. The house is huge, and just about twice what we wanted to pay. We are now in litigation. I had no idea a house could or would be measured any way other than outside corner to outside corner. That is how houses are measured for legal purposes. Shouldn’t he have disclosed this somewhat radical interpretation.

    • Generalizing much? Beware of architects? It sounds to me like you hired a bad architect. Period. That doesn’t make all architects bad. In fact 90% of the time I find that the problem architects are the guys that don’t respect their own profession and under sell their services. Good architects, that do quality work, should charge you around 6% to 8% for a house that size, even more if you want interior elevations and special details. I’ve seen up to 15% of the construction cost. What did you spend for architecture? I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t $100k. That said, you get what you pay for. This is an industry problem! Too many architects undercharge for their services, then cut corners to make the project profitable, all to the detriment of the client. Unfortunately for you, you found out too late. It’s so important to do research up front, and maybe you did, but so many people just see a low number and say ‘yes’ without ever considering the consequences. It’s become such common practice with bottom feeder residential architects that now there is this general sense that you shouldn’t pay much for architecture. What a joke.

      Let me give you an general example and see what you think of this. Please comment because I’d love to get your take. You hire an architect for your dream home. You want to build a 5,000 s.f. house. Let’s assume that your local construction costs are $200 p.s.f. so you should figure on $1M to construct. What are you expecting to pay for architecture? $5k? $10k? I’m telling you that quality architects start at $60k. Too many potential clients balk at that and think the architect is crazy BUT let’s review. The architect is responsible for making sure that your house looks good, doesn’t fall down, is healthy to live in, can get constructed in a timely manner, etc. It is also something you will be living in and you want to enjoy it. Poor design that negatively affects your life will bug you daily for the length of time you live in that house. Isn’t this important? It’s very important! Spending money on a good architect it CRITICAL!

      What I find outrageously stupid is what the general public will pay a real estate agent. Look how important it is to get a good architect. It can affect you for years, negatively or positively! Let’s say that after 10 years you decide to move. A well designed home should sell fairly quickly. So say you paid $200k initially for the property. And let’s say that there hasn’t been any change in market price and the house is still worth $1.2M. Why on earth does everyone hand over 6% in real estate fees like it’s no big deal? What on earth do they do that is worth that kind of money? NOTHING! If you have a great house and it sells quickly, you just paid $72k. Think about that for a while. Where should your financial priorities be?

  10. Addition Design Violates Zoning

    We hired an architect and a contractor for our home on Long Beach Island. We gave him all the surveys and dimensions of the property including flood plain levels. An inspector just came out to tell us that the plans for the addition are 82 square feet larger than what is allowed. We were told we can apply for a variance to the tune of $3,000.00. Shouldn’t the architect and the contractor have checked this before submitting the plans? Thank you. G Jordan burned in LB I

    • buildingadvisor says:

      Sounds like you are in violation of a lot coverage regulation. Assuming that this is a zoning rule established by the town (rather than, say, a homeowner’s association) it is typically the responsibility of the contractor to build in compliance with zoning regulations such as setbacks, lot coverage, height restrictions, etc. The architect may also bear some responsibility if you hired him to design a complete project. If you hired the architect for a more limited role such as preliminary design, then he may not be considered liable for the violation.
      Unfortunately, these problems can only be fully untangled with the help of a lawyer, which would probably cost you a lot more than the variance. Laws vary from state to state, and the these types of disputes often get murky if, for example, the surveys and dimensions you provided were inaccurate.
      I’d recommend meeting with your local zoning administrator and discussing the situation. Explain that you acted in good faith and relied on the architect and contractor to design and build a project that conformed with zoning. The zoning department should be able to point you in the right direction and offer advice on the best and cheapest way to proceed.
      If you do not get a satisfactory result, a brief conversation with a local real estate lawyer familiar with zoning and development issues could save you a lot of time and money in the long run.

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