In This Article
What Do Architects Do?
Fees and Options
A La Carte Services
Builders & Architects
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. Some firms charge different rates for different packages of services, ranging from basic design to full service, including bidding and construction administration.
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.
Price differences will 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, plus bidding and construction administration? 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.
LEGAL ISSUES WITH ARCHITECTS
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?