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Do You Need an Architect?

Like knowing which stocks to buy and when to buy them, or exactly which week in early spring it's safe to pop those annuals in the ground, deciding whether or not you need an architect for your home remodeling project depends on dozens of variables unique to you and your situation.  There is no hard and fast answer.


What is an Architect?

Remember that a real architect is not just a draftsperson or a designer who prepares house plans. Many such persons call themselves "designers", "architectural designers", "home planners", "residential designers", "building designers" and other such titles. In most states, however, you cannot call yourself an "architect" unless you have been registered or licensed to practice architecture. Generally the qualifications to be an architect require at least a 5-years bachelor degree in architecture and another three years of internship working for architects before one can take the state licensing exam for architects. The exam typically takes 36 hours and tests the candidates knowledge of architectural design, structural design, engineering principles, site design, history and theory, problem solving, and building codes. So you can count on an architect having a wealth of knowledge and expertise that may not be available from an unlicensed designer.

Consider the Size of the Project

For starters, how big and complex is the project? Is it a simple remodel of the guest bathroom? Are you hoping to create a media room in your semi-finished basement? Chances are an experienced contractor can work with you to make relatively simple projects such as those successful.

But if you want to transform your ugly duckling of a kitchen into the kind of place that would thrill Martha Stewart, or if you dream of turning your attic into a lavish master bedroom suite with a spa-style bathroom, consider hiring an architect. Yes, the architect's fees will add to your overall cost. On the other hand, spending $50,000 on a poorly designed new kitchen -- "Hey! Why didn't anyone think to add a pantry?" -- in order to save $5,000 in architecture fees is throwing money down the garbage disposal. Remember too that a good architect is part artist, part engineer. Any reliable contractor can give you beautfiul new cabinets and add a nice picture window to your kitchen. An architect should also add style and smart design.

Choosing an Architect

If you're trying to decide whether to work with an architect, go talk to a three or four. Unlike some professionals who charge for consulting the minute you walk through the door of their office, most architects are happy to meet with you at no charge to get an idea of what you're looking for. If you and an architect decide to keep talking, the architect will draw up rough plans and meet with you again to discuss them. If you decide to go forward with the plans the two of you will agree on a contract that specifically describes the terms of your project, including deadlines and how the architect will be paid. Some charge by the hour. Others give you a price for the entire project or charge a percentage of the total cost of the remodel.

What architects charge depends on their experience and reputation. Also, be aware that there are architects licensed by your state and there are "home designers," who are not licensed. Most states license architects after they fulfill certain academic requirements, such as completing architecture school, and after they pass state licensing exams. Most states also require candidates to work for months if not years under the watchful eye of a licensed architect. Licensed architects have completed all these requirements.

Sometimes people with design skills skip the licensing part and start "designing" homes after they complete school and/or work as assistants to architects. Though they cannot technically call themselves architects, it is perfectly legal for them to design homes and remodels as long as they follow building codes like everyone else. Some of these "home designers" may specialize in certain remodels, such as kitchens, and they can be extremely good. Unlicensed designers may charge somewhat less than licensed architects, though whatever an architect or a designer charges, their fee structure shouldn't be the main factor in deciding who to hire.  Remember, you're going to be living with this project. If you hire a design professional, hire the one most likely to give you what you want with the fewest unpleasant surprises.

Some tips for finding a good architect:

  • Get recommendations from friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
  • Beyond just collecting names, take a look at the projects your friends have undertaken. Your Saturday tennis partner may love her kitchen remodel but you may look at it and think "yech."  Like fashion designers and chefs, individual architects have their own tastes and aesthetics. Some will be too traditional for your taste; some too contemporary.
  • Go to the American Institute of Architects ( chapter in your area. Most local chapters have their own websites and ways to find residential architects in your area. Many architects have their own websites that give a you a good idea of their capabilities and design style.
  • Many AIA chapters give regular seminars on selecting and working with architects. Consider attending one.
  • Be sure to have a personal meeting of at least an hour with any architect you consider hiring. You'll be working closely with this person possibly for months. You should like and respect this person. (This goes for contractors too.)  Remember that you'll need to communicate with your architect frequently, sometimes on a daily basis. 
  • Ask for references, and check them out. Ask former clients if the project came in on time and on budget. Were there problems?
  • If you're the cautious type, it's also fairly easy these days to find out online whether the architect has been involved in lawsuits or had complaints filled against them with the Better Business Bureau or your state Attorney General's office of consumer affairs.  Obviously there are unreasonable, litigiousness people out there who may sue or make formal complaints for ridiculous reasons. On the other hand, a pattern of lawsuits or complaints is a red flag.

Consider a Design/Build Firm

An alternative to hiring an architect is to hire a design/build firm. Design/build firms are companies that offer start to finish building and remodeling services. They employ architects or designers as well as skilled builders and tradesmen. A design/build firm essentially offers the services of architect, designer, general contractor, and sub contractors. A good design/build firm can bring a variety of design-related skill-sets to bear on your project, and will know what projects warrant (or require) an architect. Furthermore, design/build firms normally target the design process to your construction budget. Since they control the costs of your project directly, you are less likely to spend time and money having drawings produced for things you can't afford to build.

By Diane Tuman

Next article: Maintaining Your Home to Retain Value

Previous article: When Remodeling Projects Go Wrong


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