What should we ask when hiring an architect?
September 8, 2015 9:26 AM   Subscribe

After talking about it for a few years, my husband and I are ready to start the process of renovating and adding a second floor to our house. The next step, we're reasonably sure, is hiring an architect--but I've been dragging my feet because I want to walk into those first meetings with a good idea of what I'm hoping to learn from the conversation, rather than just being wow-ed by their sales pitch. The hitch is: I have no idea of what smart questions might be, since I have only the vaguest idea of how this process works. I'm hoping AskMe can fill in the details of "what does an architect do?" and "what do you wish you had asked your architect before hiring them?"

We have a general idea of construction costs for this sort of project (very common in my small city) from talking with our real estate agent when we purchased the house, and from talking with neighbors who have done similar projects recently. We have done enough research to be reasonably sure that the city would allow us to add another floor onto our very small (<1,000 square foot) one-story brick ranch--although the permitting process is arduous, according to neighbors. We've identified 3-5 local architecture firms whose work online we like, and who appear to have done at least one project on the scale we're thinking of (ending up with a ~2,000 sq ft house).

Other than that, I'm totally clueless. How much do architects get paid, and on what basis? What sorts of things are typically handled by the architect, and what things are outside their scope? If we call the main architect firm phone number and say we're looking for an architect, are they going to just hand us to their worst / most junior architect? I'm hoping folks who have done extensive home renovations or additions can help me figure out the basics of how the process works, with a particular eye towards recognizing places where any particular architect we're talking to is proposing something non-standard or not advantageous to us. I'd also love to hear things that folks wished they had known (or screened for) before starting the process.
posted by iminurmefi to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not sure where you are, but I used to work for the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and we published information packs with just the information your talking about. Maybe contact the equivalent organisation where you are and ask if they have anything like that?
posted by quinndexter at 9:57 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Do you even need an architect? You can have a certified engineer prepare a set of plans for less than what an architect will charge, usually. Adding a second floor to an existing structure, not designed for a second floor, will require engineering anyway to show that the 1st story walls and foundation will support the addition. Architects are rarely also engineers.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:00 AM on September 8, 2015


I did a whole house rebuild in 2005-2008 and I still get about one email every month asking for a reference for my architect, whom I loved.

How much do architects get paid

It varies. That guy who just started his architecture company and is looking for clients will charge one price while the other one has been working for years and has more business than she can handle will charge a much higher price. You will find a wide range. Look for photos on the website of houses that are of the size/value of the one you have.

and on what basis?

Some do hourly, others will give you a flat fee based on the scope of the project and/or what they're doing for you. We went with a flat fee guy because a) we liked him and b) I didn't want to have to worry about getting a bill every time we needed a meeting on-site. I liked knowing ahead of time what he was going to cost.

They will probably charge for phases of the project. Initial design will have a fee, then they'll produce a set of bid-ready drawings for another fee, and then there will be a fee for the construction oversight, if you have then do that, and you should.

What sorts of things are typically handled by the architect

It depends on what you hire them for. If you just want a set of drawings and be done, they can do that. Most will see the project through from beginning to end and act as a go-between between you and the contractor. This is what we did and OH MY GOD IT IS WORTH EVERY PENNY. He was always there to talk to the contractor, they spoke the same language (meaning contractor-speak) and he was never afraid to ask for something to be changed or re-done to his specifications. He took copious notes at all meetings and made sure everything was communicated. I honestly don't think we could have done our project without our architect doing all that.

and what things are outside their scope?

They'll cover that in the contract. It varies. There will be a whole lot of decisions you'll need to make as far as materials and whatnot. They'll guide you through that but ultimately those decisions will be yours to make.

If we call the main architect firm phone number and say we're looking for an architect, are they going to just hand us to their worst / most junior architect?

For your size project there's a good chance the architecture firm is going to be the actual architect. We really only dealt with individuals whose companies were basically their own names.

I'm hoping folks who have done extensive home renovations or additions can help me figure out the basics of how the process works

It's a very long process. Start by making a wish list of all the things you want. They can be must haves (We need more windows!) or total fantasy dream house things (we want a pizza oven in the upstairs master bedroom). Be specific when you know what you want (we love subway tile and want it in the bathroom) and general in other places (we want a walk-in closet).

A good architect will guide you through everything. It's like hiring someone to plan your wedding. Yes, you work with them but they will hold your hand and tell you what's coming next.

with a particular eye towards recognizing places where any particular architect we're talking to is proposing something non-standard or not advantageous to us.

Get references! Call them. Really this question should be "What should we ask people who have worked with the architect we're going to hire" because that's where it really matters. Talk to these people. Ask what they loved. Ask what they DIDN'T LIKE (very important), ask for advice working with this specific architect. Ask a whole lot of questions. Would they do anything different? How was the communications? How were they working with the contractor? Did they have any major issues with budget or schedule?

I'd also love to hear things that folks wished they had known (or screened for) before starting the process.

I was in the very fortunate situation of basically hiring my dream architect and literally having nothing bad to say about him. If you were in my area I'd be MeMailing you his name.

If you're into anything innovative like green building, talk about that and make sure they can show you specific examples of work they've done. We found a lot of architects and contractors would be like "Oh, yeah, sure, I can do that!" when they'd never actually done it before.

Your initial meeting will probably take place over the phone and it will be a general "getting to know you" type conversation. If you get ANY bad vibes at this point, move on. You will be working VERY closely with this person over the coming months/years and it will be one of your closest relationships. If it starts out bad it's probably not going to get better.

If you call potential architects and they don't answer emails of phone calls promptly, move on. They're busy people, so it might take a day to get back to you initially, but you shouldn't have to track them down. Move on.

Communication is key. Does their website suck? Move on. Are their emails written in text speak? Move on. If they write clear emails and they're easy to talk to on the phone... they have potential.

Architects are rarely also engineers.

Yes, they'll need an engineer to sign off on the plans before they can be approved.
posted by bondcliff at 10:02 AM on September 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


how much do you want to be involved in the process? that, for me, was key in talking to the architect we worked with when renovating out apartment (ie drawing the lines on who has the "vision" or whatever you call it). the other thing that turned out to be important was "what happens if we run out of money?" (that sounds ominous but it worked well for us).
posted by andrewcooke at 10:10 AM on September 8, 2015


Here's a list of suggested client questions from the AIA (American Institute of Architects). I think it's a pretty good start.

Here's their guide to working with an architect and their architect finder.
posted by Kriesa at 10:19 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I am not any sort of architect, so I can't tell if the answers here are right, but it does seem to cover a lot of ground and questions and things to think about.
posted by bentley at 1:23 PM on September 8, 2015


I am an architect, but IANYA, so I'll try to answer as much as I know.

How much do architects get paid, and on what basis?

This depends on the contract that you work out. Most of the time I work under flat fees and not hourly, because it tends to make clients budget appropriately. In order to estimate a very approximate cost, fees can usually range from 2-5% of the construction budget. I tend to estimate how long each phase will take and set a fee based on a standard rate.

What sorts of things are typically handled by the architect, and what things are outside their scope?

Again, this will be defined in the contract, but every job differs. If you don't have alot of experience dealing with contractors it is in your best interest to have your potential architect include fees for site observation. The architect's job during construction is to protect the owner from shoddy work and ensure that what is being installed is what was agreed to during the design phase.

The second thing your architect will do is secure permits with your local jurisdiction. The architect's job is to insure that the structure complies with state, federal and local ordinances. This would include the neighborhood association (if you have one) and would speak to the building department about any special zoning requirements. Code compliance is about 70% of what I do and it will save you a ton of headaches when dealing with city inspectors.

If we call the main architect firm phone number and say we're looking for an architect, are they going to just hand us to their worst / most junior architect?


That depends on the firm, but I would never in a million years do this. It is just way too much liability.
posted by Benway at 3:24 PM on September 8, 2015


You can do a lot of measuring - get the sizes and heights of all rooms, plus location of plumbing, and maybe even electrical. Do you know where any beams are? Heat or A/C ducts? Note that. Take pictures of each side of the house, then of each corner, just to be thorough. Note where North is. This stuff takes a bunch of time, and your time is cheap.

As long as you're renovating, consider adding insulation to the 1st floor. Spend some time thinking about features you must have, features you'd like.
posted by theora55 at 4:00 PM on September 8, 2015


We chose largely on our architects' portfolio, which included photos of home remodels and lists of local places (restaurant, health care center, grocery store) -- the latter were especially handy since we could get a better sense of the lived space (and since our dysfunctional building more closely resembles a sushi bar than, say, a detached house). Ideally, architects cater to their clients' wishes, so you can't necessarily blame them for the horrible stuff -- and by the same token, some architects' stunning work has disregarded the actual client's actual needs. But it's cool to at least establish a firm CAN design buildings YOU love.
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:56 PM on September 9, 2015


If we call the main architect firm phone number and say we're looking for an architect, are they going to just hand us to their worst / most junior architect?

You can ask who you'll be working with, and ask to see their portfolio. But we've found we're really working with a firm, rather than a specific architect.

The firm's owner faded away when his other projects got busy (and when he realized our fancy ideas were not matched by a fancy budget). We were then left under the care of a less-high-up architect (who had also been part of the preliminary meetings) and a junior architect. The junior architect tagged along once (her ideas were great), but a couple weeks later she left the firm. We really like our less-high-up architect, and hope we can finalize the plans with him real soon, because today he mentioned he'll be out of the picture for a bit due to brain surgery.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:12 PM on September 9, 2015


Oh, and finally: if we had checked our current architect's residential portfolio, we would have resisted working with him, because we dislike those houses. Plus his webpage just says I LIKE WORKING WITH CLIENTS AND DESIGNING STUFF THE CLIENTS LIKE, whereas other people have cool statements of their design philosophy.

BUT. This guy's communication style meshes really well with ours. (Probably with anyone's, really.) And that turns out to be key. Another architect we've dealt with (long story) totally has a design philosophy and original ideas and stuff and he DOES. NOT. LISTEN. It becomes insufferable.

mrs_goldfish and I have plenty insufferable design philosophy of our own, so instead we describe stuff to Communication Guy, who listens and then comes up with a design. Sometimes we have to explain things twice, but that's OK because Communication Guy emails us rough plans before investing too many billable hours.

I want to walk into those first meetings with a good idea of what I'm hoping to learn from the conversation, rather than just being wow-ed by their sales pitch. The hitch is: I have no idea of what smart questions might be.

Don't just ask them questions. Tell them stuff, and then see how they respond. Most importantly: what happens when you give them feedback? Are they like NO MY IDEA IS GREAT, or are they actually interested in what your feedback tells them about your project?
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:01 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am 95% an architect (licensing takes for-freaking-ever), this is how it usually works:

Money: Architetcts are paid in a variety of ways that will be covered by your contract. It depends on how the firm likes to do it, and what you want. You can do fixed fee, hourly or percentage of construction cost (less common). Fixed fee + hourly is most common. Fixed fee will be for the design and hourly for construction admin, permitting, additional services, unpredictable stuff like that. Usualy there will be an hourly cap in the contract and you sign an additional contract if you need additional services beyond the cap.

Scope: There are basic services and additional services. Basic services means you come with a fairly clearly defined project in mind, and a site. The architect will design in the following phases: schematic (basic layouts, how it's going to look, prelim materials); design development (develop the concept, maybe permitting); construction documents (ALL the details); permiting; bidding assistance; and construction administration (making sure what we designed actually gets built by the contractor). Addtional services that might apply to you: unexpected changes during construction, changing your mind a ton late (like during construction documents), wanting some furniture designed too, adding in any design work not in the original contract scope.

Calling the firm: they are DEFINITELY NOT going to hand you to the junior guy. Promise. They will hand your call to the guy whose name is on the door, or at least to the business development director. Most residential architecture firms are not large (maybe 5-20 people), and a big part of their thing is that when you hire "John Smith Architects", John is really going to be at the meetings with you. If it's a larger firm, maybe you don't get John himself but you will get someone senior. I have never ever seen it play differntly, so don't worry about that.

In response to your last questions: It sounds like you're thinking about this like you're buying a car and there's a deal to be had and you need to not get sucked in by the sales pitch. To an extent that true. It can be very easy to be seduced by pretty renderings when what you really need is an architect that knows what type of roofing nails to use. But the #1 most important thing is that you click personally with whoever you hire. It's going to be a personal relationship. The architect will want to know all about how you live, and the more comfortable you are being honset with them, the better work they can do to meet your needs. Architects are really problem solvers, at least the good ones. I know I'm not interested in imposing my "vision" onto any of the clients I work with, I want to hear what they're trying to do and help them make it happen in a a way that is, as the tech guys like to say, delightful.

I would reccomend reading some entries in the blog "Life of an Architect" - it's written by a Texas residential architect with a lot of experience and I think he really de-mystifies a lot about how architecture works and what architects are thinking about during the design process
posted by annie o at 8:22 PM on September 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


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