Read This Before You Hire an Architect
Whether you’re redoing a room or planning a whole-house remodel, an architect can be a sound investment. Discover Personal Loans unveils how to find—and work with—a pro who will help you accomplish your home goals
Sponsored by Discover Personal Loans
Does a new addition to your family have you thinking of a new addition for your house? Has your home business outgrown your kitchen table? Or maybe you need to open your home to an elderly relative who can’t navigate the stairs of your center-hall colonial. The fact is, our lives change—but our houses don’t, at least not on their own. If you want to stay in your home as your life progresses, you’ll probably consider remodeling.
Whether you’re adding a bath, enlarging a kitchen or doubling the size of your house with an addition, remodeling usually involves money, lots of planning, and often more than a little stress. It can also raise many questions beyond design and other choices, such as what tile to use on the new bathroom floor. One of these questions usually is: Should I hire an architect?
In this DIY world, an architect is often seen as a luxury—and can be a costly one at that. You can certainly complete a masterful remodel—even a large one—without an architect’s help. You typically can, that is, if you or your builder have a talent for design, if you have a clear idea what you want, and if you (or your builder, or someone you know) can produce plans that satisfy your local building authorities. In all these situations, you could get by without an architect. But then there is another question you might ask, ‘Do I really want to?’
Levels of Architectural Design Service
What sets architects apart from other people who design homes is that they are licensed by the states in which they practice. To obtain a license, an architect generally must earn a degree from an approved architectural program, complete an internship, and pass an exam. All of this ensures architects possess a high level of expertise about design, materials, and building systems.
Like architects, architectural designers (sometimes just called designers) have studied and practiced architectural design—some for many years—but are not licensed. They may work on their own or in association with a licensed architect.
Many builders also offer home design services, and some offer the services of a dedicated, on-staff designer. Design-build firms offer both architectural design and construction services under one roof; some are led by architects, and some have architects on staff.
A draftsperson puts your plans on paper. They can produce the drawings you will need to build, but usually only after the design is established. Like designers, drafters often work alongside licensed architects or builders.
You might consider any one of the above individuals to help you in designing your remodel. What many people—particularly homeowners planning “just a few tweaks”—don’t realize, however, is how difficult it can be to adapt an existing home to meet new expectations. Architects are trained to see the possibilities in every structure and are experts at translating those possibilities into detailed plans that your builder can execute with precision.
When You May Want an Architect
Here’s how to tell if you want an architect—or at least, an experienced architectural designer.
- You have a problem with your house and have no idea how to solve it. Maybe your laundry room in the upstairs hallway creates a traffic jam every time you open the door. Or you need another bathroom, but every square inch of your house is accounted for. In cases like these, a good architect can help you sort through the possibilities and come up with creative improvements that fit you, your budget, and your lifestyle.
- You feel squeezed, but don’t want an addition. Before adding to your house, a good architect will ensure you are making the most of all existing space. Even the smallest houses often have underutilized areas that can be reconfigured and brought back into daily use. Sometimes what seems like a square-footage shortage is really a circulation problem that can be solved with a few alterations.
- You’re uncomfortable making building choices on your own. A major remodel is an intensive, costly process that requires you to make a lot of decisions on things you may have little knowledge about. A good architect serves as an intermediary and adviser who can help guide your project toward the best results.
- Your local building authorities require one. In most communities, for most remodels, an architect isn’t required. But in others—specifically some urban areas—you may need an architect or engineer to sign off on your plans. Check with your local building department to be sure.
- You’re remodeling a unique or historic home, changing styles, or building on a complicated site. Maybe you want to raise the roof on your 18th-century saltbox. Or change your 1970s builder colonial into a shingle style. Or maybe you want to add a second story to a home perched on the edge of a cliff. When and where design is critical, hire an architect.
- You’re on a budget. This may seem counterintuitive, since hiring an architect means one more professional you’ll need to pay. But a good architect can save you money. One way is through value engineering—that is, devising a way to get you a feature you want at lower cost. An architect might suggest substituting a similar but more economical building material to get the same effect. They can also steer you away from making mistakes, whether in material or design, that you may regret later and ends up costing you more money.
How to Find the Right Architect
Once you’ve decided on hiring an architect, you need to find the right one. You want an architect who is not only skilled in designing the type of remodel or addition you want, you also want an architect with whom you communicate well, and whose cost model works for you.
Ensure the cost of the architect is factored into your overall home remodel budget. Many people use and consider fixed-rate personal loans to cover all or a portion of project costs, including the architect. Lenders like Discover, for example, offer personal loans that don’t require collateral, which means you don’t have to put your house on the line to secure the loan. Plus, funds can be sent as soon as the next business day once you are approved and accept the terms of the loan, which is critical when unexpected project costs come up or you go over budget. With Discover Personal Loans, you can apply for just the amount of money you need up to $35,000.
To find the right architect for you, you’ll have to do some homework.
Home design magazines and their websites enable you to view architects’ work and often provide insight into the architects’ general approach to projects as well as their contact information. Sites such as HomeAdvisor.com and houzz.com enable you to search for architects by zip code and can narrow your search with certain qualifiers.
Your local chapter of The American Institute of Architects (AIA) can also help. Many state chapters have membership lists on their websites.
Once you’ve identified a few potential architects, take the time to visit their websites to view their portfolios and learn more about their practice and design philosophy.
A final note: Word of mouth is often said to be the best way to find an excellent professional. But beware: The right architect for your friend’s project may not be the right one for yours. To find out, you’ll need to sit down for an interview.
The Interview: What to Expect
An introductory phone call will enable both you and the architect to determine if the fit is promising and you should proceed to an interview. Architects generally don’t charge for this time, which will be focused on whether the architect wants to take on the project and whether you want to hire them. Plan on interviewing several architects before settling on one.
At your first meeting, you can expect to talk about ideas you have for the project, your budget, and timetable. You’ll want to walk out with a good “feel” for whether you can work with this person, because you’ll be spending a lot of time together as your project progresses. The architect will be looking for the same thing.
What to Bring to the Interview
Bring to the interview any inspirational photographs or plans you have for your project, as well as any plans or photographs you have of your existing home. It’s unlikely you’ll go deeply into design details at this point, but visuals will help the architect determine if they want to take the job and if your budget is realistic to turn your vision into reality.
What to Ask the Architect
Come to the interview prepared with questions to help you understand fully what you can expect from this partnership. These might include:
- What is your design philosophy? You should already have a sense of this from your research, but here’s the chance to talk about the vision this architect will bring to your project. Is their focus on sustainability? Preservation? Low cost? Whatever is important to you should be important to your architect.
- What is your process? Most architects follow an established path for each project, although that process varies a bit from firm to firm and project to project (more on that later). Typical phases include initial consultation, preliminary (or schematic) design, design development, document preparation, bidding and negotiation, and construction administration.
- What projects have you done that are similar to mine? You want to make sure the architect is comfortable with the size and complexity of the project you’re proposing.
- Who will I be working with? If it’s a large firm, you will want to clarify who will be designing your project, and who your contact person will be.
- Do you foresee any problems with this project? If you’re dealing with a difficult site, a limited budget or other complications, be upfront. How the architect reacts to these challenges will tell you whether they’re suited to the project.
- How much time will the design process take, and construction itself? Be sure the architect has the time to devote to the project and can bring it to completion in a timely manner. Remember the architect can account for his or her time, but not delays caused by your indecision or a contractor’s scheduling conflicts.
- Can the architect provide references, particularly for projects similar to yours? It may even be possible to view similar work they’ve done on other houses. If so, take advantage of that opportunity. When you call references, ask specific questions. How did this architect save you money? How did he or she handle conflicts? Was the project completed on time?
- How will plans be presented? Will you be able to view your project on a computer screen in 3D, or do they rely on paper? Neither is an indication of a “better” architect, but if you’re more comfortable with one than the other, bring this up.
- What will you be responsible for, and what will I be responsible for? Designing a major remodel is a partnership. Make sure both of you understand what is expected of the other.
- What is your fee, and how is it structured? Don’t leave the interview without a firm understanding of what the architect’s fees are, what they are based on, and how and when you will be billed. For example, will you pay for all services at the end of the project? Or pay for half at a predetermined midway point?
FINANCING TIP: If you’re borrowing money for part of your remodel, some people choose a personal loan with no application fees and no collateral required.
Architects’ fees vary widely, depending on the project, the local economy, and the architect’s experience and reputation. Fees typically range from $2,014 to $8,375, with an average of $5,126. But fees can be much higher than that, depending on the size and complexity of the job. Your best gauge is to speak to several architects in your area about the cost of designing your specific project. As with any professional service, the cheapest quote is not necessarily the best one.
• Hourly fees
Some architects charge a fixed rate by the hour. The typical range is $60 to $125. Fees in some parts of the country, particularly urban areas, will certainly be higher. If yours is a small project and you already know what you want design-wise and expect little back-and-forth, this may be the way to go. You may want to put a cap on the number of hours, but once you reach that limit, you’ll have to re-negotiate.
If you’re dealing with a firm (as opposed to an individual architect) the hourly rate may differ based on who handles your project. If it’s the firm’s principal, the rate may be more than twice that of young architect or designer with only a few years’ experience.
• Percentage of construction cost
Another method is to charge a percentage of the cost of the project, typically between 5% and 15% for new construction and 15% to 20% for remodels, according to data from HomeAdvisor.com. Because they involve dealing with existing problems, remodels are often more complicated than new builds. One challenge of charging by construction cost is that those costs may not be fully known at the time you’re shopping for an architect.
• Square-foot billing
Some architects charge by the square foot. Again, this rate varies considerably and again, the price will be hard to pin down in the early stages. If your project is small, say, a kitchen reconfiguration, the square-foot cost will need to be high enough to make it worth the architect’s time.
• Combination fees and fixed fees
Some architects combine methods, charging hourly until plans are established, and then charging by the square foot. Others calculate a fixed fee for the project as a whole. A fixed fee gives you the advantage of knowing exactly what you’ll be paying, but make sure you know from the outset exactly what that fee covers. That will be spelled out in the contract.
FINANCING TIP: If you want to know the average cost homeowners pay to hire an architect in your part of the country, see the Pro Cost-Estimator at the top of this page.
Signing the Contract
When you decide to hire an architect, you’ll need to sign a contract. The contract will typically include the scope of the work, what services the architect will provide, the schedule for the project, how much the architect will be paid, and when. AIA has developed standard contracts that many architects use.
Check to see if the fee you’re paying includes the cost of drawing up plans, or whether you’ll have to hire a separate draftsperson. This step can account for up to half your overall design costs ($800 to $2,800). Site surveys, 3-D modeling, and other services might incur additional costs. Make sure also that you understand how design revisions will affect the architect’s fee, or whether a certain number of revisions are included.
The contract also specifies who owns the plans—typically, it’s the architect. That won’t be a concern unless you and the architect part ways before the project is completed. In that case, you’ll want to know if you have the right to modify the existing plans and complete the house on your own, or with another architect.
I’ve Signed with an Architect. What Should I Expect?
Most residential architects follow a similar path when designing or remodeling homes. The following steps are typical.
- Preliminary design phase. This usually begins with an initial consultation to determine the client’s needs along with a site visit. From that the architect can draw up a written program (the goals of the project) and develop rough sketches to confirm the general size and layout.
- Design development. With the client’s approval, the architect will then add details to the design, continuing to consult with the client on materials, trim and other features. Computer modeling may be used to help both architect and client guide the project as it develops. The architect may help in obtaining permits, calling in consultants and structural engineers as needed.
- Documentation. The architect’s office will produce detailed blueprints that can be presented to building officials, and to contractors to obtain estimates for the work.
FINANCING TIP: Once you’ve agreed on a realistic budget, you’ll want to stick to it. This can be difficult when you come up with inspired ideas in the middle of the project. Asking for additional work from an architect or builder, however, can quickly escalate your costs. Should that happen (and it frequently does), a personal loan can be a simple—and fast—option to bridge a budget gap. A personal lender like Discover lets you apply for just the amount you need, up to $35,000, as well as choose your repayment term from three to seven years. You can also preview your interest rate on a personal loan without any impact to your credit score.
- Securing a Contractor. Armed with complete plans, the architect can help you obtain a contractor by meeting with builders interested in the job and answering questions about the project. They may also recommend builders they’ve worked with, but ultimately, the choice is up to you.
- Construction administration. As the project progresses, your architect should be on hand to answer questions, resolve design issues, provide additional drawings as needed, and approve payments to the contractor. The job at this point is to make sure everything goes, literally, according to plan – and to help resolve issues when they don’t.
Help your Architect Help You—and Save Money
Once you’ve signed on with an architect, there are things you can do to make sure your project turns out just as you want it to. Above all, be available. Review drawings and material suggestions promptly. Be decisive. If you’re having trouble with a decision, let your architect know. He or she may have information or strategies that can help break the log jam. Ask questions. The better you understand the design when it’s on paper, the less likely you’ll be unpleasantly surprised at construction time. Speak up if there’s an aspect of the design you don’t like. It’s much easier to enlarge a closet or move a hallway when it’s on paper than after it’s been framed.
Architects will tell you that the more engaged their client is, the better the results. Successful projects don’t just happen. Finding the right person to help you bring your vision to life is an investment in not only your property, but your happiness and satisfaction occupying it.