The decision to hire an architect for your home improvement project is a significant first step in ensuring you have a professional with the expertise to manage it successfully.
Your project could be extensive enough that you need an architect or that the nature of the renovation or remodeling requires a building permit, which only a licensed architect has the qualification and know-how to obtain.
Either way, you need to know how to find an architect and choose the right one. Choose the wrong architect, and you will experience a world of pain even before dealing with a difficult contractor.
These steps relate to the crucial aspects of your home improvement project:
1. Make a Laser-targeted Shortlist
Doing research and making a shortlist are the easy part. Creating a focused list is more challenging but will bring you one step closer to finding the right architect for you.
What will you be looking for?
Not all architects are the same; some specialize in the commercial and industrial niches, while most others do take on residential projects.
Among the architects who design residential buildings, only some do home improvement, renovation, and remodeling; this is the group of architects you are after.
Architecture firm websites fill with pictures of large and complex projects – shopping malls, hotels, public buildings – and they most probably will not take on your project. Partly due to the project size and fees they could earn, partly because their teams may not have the necessary skills needed to manage smaller-scale projects – as ironic as it sounds.
Focus on firms showing photographs of house exteriors and interiors such as bathrooms, kitchens, and living rooms. Your best bet would be solo-practitioners or small architecture firms.
You may want to visit the list of questions to ask your architect – it covers questions before hiring an architect.
2. Form Your Brief – Speak to 2 Architects
Price is undoubtedly one of the top considerations for any homeowner when hiring an architect – or a contractor.
A detailed brief gives you the best chance to find a competitively-priced architect and a professional capable of fulfilling your requirements.
The lack of details in a design brief often leads to:
- Unmatched expectations – The gap between the brief and your expected final result can mean months of frustration as you continually discover the architect’s design iterations to your disappointment.
- Misunderstandings – The architect relies on understanding your needs to produce the appropriate design solutions. Lack of details lead to assumptions, and misunderstandings often result in conflicts or arguments; and
- Increases in fees and renovation costs – Added costs for you become inevitable. As the architect and you start to make changes and additions to the design to fill the gaps, be prepared to pay more than you budgeted at the outset.
To avoid those consequences, what is the best way to go about forming your design brief?
Most homeowners are not experts in design and home improvement, so it is challenging to expect yourself to produce a comprehensive brief.
To produce a good base for your design brief:
- Have a brainstorming session with your family members; identify and write down each member’s needs and preferences.
- Shortlist the preferences for each space in your home – see point #6 below.
- Cut out or compile home improvement ideas that you see in the magazines.
- Determine your timeline, especially if you have important deadlines to meet (but be prepared to be flexible on the date)
Now take that brief and consult one or two architects from your shortlist.
Let your discussion with the architect and the ideas and suggestions that follow fill the gaps in the brief. Ask any question that comes to mind – leave no stone unturned.
Note: The architect you spoke with may offer to provide you a fee proposal based on the discussion, but you are not making any commitment to any architect at this stage.
3. Compare Apples to Apples with at Least 3 Competitive Quotes
Bring the improved and more comprehensive brief to your discussion with the other architects on your list. You can now be sure that the fee proposals they eventually submit are prices you can compare effectively.
Like for like comparisons may not be possible, but you have a solid framework within which to assess each pricing component.
Within the architecture industry, project owners – large or small – typically shortlist bids from at least three contractors. Apply the same for your project.
But if you have 5 or 6 fee proposals from the architects you shortlisted, all the better. They allow you a better bargaining position.
4. Lowest Price Should Not Be Your Only Yardstick
Price comparison is not as straightforward as it seems. Going with the lowest fee proposal right off the bat often turns out to be a mistake as more considerations must go into choosing the right architect.
When you have more than three competitive proposals, you have the luxury to immediately strike out the fourth or the fifth, often the most expensive prices.
Otherwise, focus on two of the better-priced services.
Interview the architect(s) again before finalizing your choice, and ask to visit their completed work of similar nature to assess their work.
The architect you eventually decide to work with will combine several factors and (especially) the last tip in this post.
5. Speak with the Architect Who Will Manage Your Project
A significant mistake that homeowners make is discussing a pricing proposal with sales personnel who is not the architect managing your home project.
Fortunately for you, if you shortlist only solo-practitioners or small architecture firms, the likelihood of committing this mistake is essentially eliminated.
But to be sure – and avoid the ensuing problems – ask the question at the first meeting.
The potential issues from not having the same architect between proposal discussion and work execution can include:
- Miscommunication of your needs and requirements.
- Frustrations for you when the personable architect you discuss your project with is not the same as the (impersonal) professional providing the services, leading to an unsatisfactory experience.
- Mistakes and the price increases that followed culminating in a result far removed from the dream picture you had at the outset.
The design and renovation processes will be much smoother if you have the same architect on board from the initial meeting to project completion.
6. Communicate Your Preferences to the Architect
The architect’s role involves understanding your needs and preferences and translating them into a workable design solution.
The better the understanding, the more accurately the architect can calculate the time and resources necessary to perform adequately. The quoted fees will reflect this.
The bigger the unknown, the more inflated the fee usually becomes to cover eventualities.
Communicate as much of the following information as you can to the architect:
- How you intend to utilize the space(s).
- Your preferred design style – use magazine cut-outs or photographs; these are good references for the designer.
- Your preferred materials and finishing – floor, wall, ceiling, cabinets, color scheme, etc.
- Your preferred appliances and fittings – new or existing – so the architect incorporates them in the design.
- When you plan to vacate the premises (so renovation work can begin) and when you intend to move back in (so the architect knows how much time to play with and can advise you accordingly). A more condensed timeframe for design will result in higher architectural fees.
- Your budget – If you have a small budget for the entire project, let the architect know up-front. Otherwise, withhold this information, at least until you receive all fee proposals.
7. Who Constructs – Your Contractor, the Architect’s, or Competitive Bidding?
There are two major components to the success of your home improvement project:
- The quality of the Architect.
- The expertise of the Contractor.
While selecting an architect is the main subject of this post, the party implementing the design ultimately decides if you will be happy with the result.
The choice of contractor determines:
- How much you eventually spend.
- The workmanship you get.
- If your project achieves a timely completion.
As the heading suggests, you can opt for one of the three approaches to hiring a contractor – each presents benefits and drawbacks. This decision also impacts the architect’s fees.
You may have a contractor who came highly recommended by a friend who used their services. Unless you can verify the quality of their work – in which case you can choose to negotiate directly with them – it is wise to invite them as one of the contractors to submit a bid.
Beware that architects who insist on only working with their preferred contractor whose workmanship you cannot verify are a red flag. Such an arrangement will likely inflate the overall costs as it is less transparent.
Unless you have a solid reason to only work with a particular contractor, it is best to hire the architect to design, call for bids, and manage the renovation to completion.
The architect’s fee proposal to you would include these three phases:
8. Check the Architect’s Track Record & Visit Completed Work
Visiting the architects’ work is an excellent strategy to understand if the architect is competent for the design style you like.
Photos can work, but viewing completed work in person is preferable.
Look for architects whose track record shows more than a few projects of a similar nature and design – it proves where their strength lies. The architect’s portfolio should match your preferred design style.
9. Agree on a Fee Payment Schedule
As part of the architect’s fee proposal, you will get a schedule outlining when you need to make payment and how much to pay as each service phase completes.
It is common practice for architects and building professionals to frontload their fees for obvious reasons. Your job is to balance that out without being unreasonably unfair to your architect.
A balanced apportionment of the architect’s fees looks like this:
- Design – 40%
- Bids – 10%
- Renovation/Remodeling – 50%
As long as the fee schedule you negotiated does not stray too far from the above, you do not risk paying much more than the services performed.
10. Agree on a Pricing Mechanism for Design Changes
As thorough as the design brief and architect’s fee proposal are, additions and deviations are inevitable as you progress in the project.
Rather than hoping that the design remains unchanged, discuss and agree on a mechanism to pay any extra architectural fee for changes that you request.
The ideal method would be to pay the architect an hourly rate for services rendered over and above the agreed fees.
Be meticulous, and the architect is less likely to over-bill the actual hours logged.
11. Agree on the Design Steps and Project Schedule
Drilling deeper beyond the three phases – design, bids, renovation/remodeling – work out a more detailed project schedule, so you and your architect are on the same page.
A detailed schedule locks down targets and realistic milestones to aim for and increases the likelihood that the collaboration ends on a happy note.
The time it takes to complete each phase and milestone will vary, depending on the nature of your home remodeling project, the extent of it, and how much work you intend the architect to produce for you.
You can use the following project phases as a guide:
- Schematic Design
- Concept design confirmation with preliminary finishes proposal.
- 3D drawings production (help you understand the concept, but they are optional)
- Architectural study model (if it helps you understand the concept)
- Design Development
- Design confirmation drawings, including layout plans, sections, and elevations.
- Finishes schedules approval, including floor, wall, and ceiling finishings.
- Material specification approval for any carpentry work (kitchen cabinet, shelves, deck, etc.).
- Appliances and fittings specification approval (kitchen tap, bathroom sink, built-in oven, lighting, etc.)
- Production of final 3D drawings (again, these are optional; for a simple project, the extra fee is unnecessary)
- A detailed architectural model (if you wish to have one, but it is typically chargeable)
- Relevant submissions to and approval from your local authorities for the building permit (if applicable – ask your Architect)
- Renovation/Remodeling drawings
- Production of the complete set of construction drawings such as plans, sections, elevations, architectural and interior design details.
- Production of the complete set of finishes schedules and specifications.
- Timeline for calling, receiving, and evaluating bids.
- Confirmation or selection of the contractor.
- The architect can only estimate; the final schedule will come from the contractor.
- Require the architect and the contractor to notify and let you green-light major work components as each completes.
12. Ensure Details of Agreement in Writting
Discussing and agreeing on details are necessary, but capturing them in writing is crucial.
It is a prudent move that will save you lots of headache and heartache along the way and likely make for a more pleasant experience building your dream house.
All professional relationships start on the right foot; having a detailed agreement in writing will help keep them that way until the end.
13. Ensure the Architect Commits Time to You and Your Project
The fee that the architect charges typically equates to the time spent on the project.
Make the arrangement transparent by agreeing on the time and frequency the architect meets you for each phase of your home remodeling project and an estimated timeline for when you can expect the phases to complete.
Say the architect allocates eight weeks to finalize the design. Expect to meet the architect once every week. Aim to see reasonable progress each week in the development of the concept and finalization of finishes.
The schedule the architect commits to you should contain smaller milestones so you know what to accomplish.
For a home renovation or remodeling project, contractors typically need no more than a week to price the work.
Ensure the architect commits a timeline for the calling, submission, and evaluation of the contractors’ bids; request updates from the architect with each step of the process.
Depending on project size, the architect can estimate the time it takes for a contractor to complete their job. However, each contractor will have their proposed program for your acceptance.
You can expect to modify your project completion deadline while negotiating with the contractor (via your architect) to accommodate your timing without inflating their price.
It is best for you and the architect to meet weekly or fortnightly for updates and matters requiring resolution to aid progress.
14. The Architect’s Role in Compliance with Building Regulations
Each state and jurisdiction will have its local building regulations that your project must comply with. Your home improvement project may or may not require a building permit, depending on the project’s nature and extent.
Let your Architect advise you on this matter.
15. Listen to Your Gut Feeling After Consultation
You have a checklist and followed them to a T. But ultimately, you need to ask yourself how you feel after consulting the architect who will manage your project.
The chemistry you have with the architect is one of your top priorities in choosing the right architect. If you do not feel comfortable after the initial meeting, the experience will usually only worsen as the collaboration progresses.
Hopefully, you now have a clearer idea of how to choose the best architect for you and the right set of questions to ask. This post does not cover every possible condition or situation specific to your home improvement project but a general overview of what you can expect.