By: Timothy J. Gallagher, RA

Most of us know of or have seen the buildings designed by famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry, but aside from those who have experienced working with an architect; few people have a clear understanding about what services an architect actually performs. When, why and how to select a professional to plan & design their project is often a mystery to those who think about building. Architects are typically known for their work on larger scale commercial or institutional structures, but many also play an important role in developing residential projects. The intention of this article is to provide you with some insight into how to find and select an architect. As a prospective client, you should have a basic knowledge of what to expect in terms of available services, fees and the typical planning & design process.

When do you need an Architect?

If you are contemplating building a custom home or planning an addition/alteration project to your existing residence, seriously consider hiring an architect. You really need to start the planning process early; a minimum of one year before construction of a new home and about 6 to 8 months in advance for an addition or major remodeling of your existing house.

Local Building Departments require “stamped” drawings for any construction project that deals with life, safety, public health & welfare, or structural issues. Keep in mind; it is illegal in New York State for any professional Architect or engineer to “rubber stamp” drawings without overseeing and reviewing the production and development of those drawings. In other words, if the drawings are not prepared in the architect’s office, do not expect them to be stamped and approved. Purchased “stock” plans or contractor prepared drawings may have to be re-drawn or may require modifications to comply with local building codes and structural requirements.

Why hire and Architect / What is the value?

Quality design. A good design will significantly improve the appearance, flow and function of your home. The cost of construction for a good design is no more than that of a poor design. However, a quality design will be worth more when it comes to real estate value.

Architects are state licensed professionals, educated to serve and represent the best interests of their clients. They have the ability to take on challenging projects with a wide range of experience in site and master planning, building & interior design, history & style, structural engineering, construction materials and building products.

Contrary to the myth, well qualified architects will plan & design around your needs & desires not their own ego-driven ideas. The best architects will use their talent and creativity to develop a tailored solution that accommodates their clients’ current and future needs, site or construction issues and budget limitations.

Complete, accurate, easy-to-read documents and drawings are the most important product of any good architect. Design ideas and concepts are best communicated with clear language, specifications and detailed drawings that everyone can understand. Ask any competent builder just how important good drawings are for both the estimating and construction phases of a project.

HOW do you find the right Architect for your project?

Referrals. Ask friends, neighbors, co-workers or anyone who has recently been involved in a building project. Ask the builders or contractors you may be interested in hiring as many of them will have worked with a preferred architect on multiple projects. Established “design-build” teams can really be a benefit to the quality of your project and make your building experience smooth and hassle-free.

Look for a smaller size firm (staff of 1-8) that specializes in residential design (meaning 50% of their projects are housing, additions, etc.). This size firm is more likely to have interest in your type of project and will be capable of providing the necessary personal service and attention. Lower overhead and reasonable fees are also a benefit.

Call or meet with an architect and ask plenty of questions regarding your project. Most importantly, select an architect you are comfortable and compatible with. You will spend a great deal of time together during the design process and you want to ensure a productive and enjoyable relationship.

What to expect from an Architect?

The Typical Planning & Design Process

  • Establish & prioritize client requirements, goals, desires and budgets
  • Develop ideas, concepts and sketch drawings
  • Prepare preliminary design drawings used for client review & approval, cost estimates and zoning or planning board approvals when required
  • Prepare construction documents (drawings & specifications) used for submission to local building department for permit and used on-site as the “set of instructions” for the builder/contractor(s)

Types of Services Offered

  • Feasibility studies/options
  • Site & building documentation (measure, photograph, etc.)
  • Prepare existing condition drawings
  • Planning & design (site, building, interiors, materials, etc.)
  • Construction documents & engineering
  • Review & analysis of contractor estimates
  • Construction administration/progress observation & field reports

Keep in mind, each client and every project is unique and as such, will require a specific and select combination and scope of services. Ask your architect which services are necessary and appropriate to plan, design and construct your building.

What is the fee for hiring an Architect?

There is a well-known saying that applies to working with an architect; “If you think a professional is expensive, wait and see how much an amateur will cost you!” It is important to keep all costs related to the construction of your project in perspective. Realize that an architect’s fee is only a small percentage of the overall construction budget. Recognize, before you start building, that thoughtful planning & quality design are well worth the investment.

As the project extent, complexity and scope of work varies, so does the fee for architectural services. Following is a simplified breakdown of how most architects in smaller firms establish fees for residential projects:

Fixed Fee(s) – based on the scope of work and time & tasks involved OR based on a percentage of the construction cost; fees for custom or semi-custom homes can range from 5% to 12%, while fees for an addition/alteration or remodeling project can range, on average, from 4% to 8% of the construction cost.

Hourly Fee(s) – typically reserved for very small projects with limited extent of work, quick design studies or sketches, or planning phases with an unidentified scope of work; rates can range from about $50 to $95 per hour depending on the size and location of the firm.

The mystery is unraveled once you have a better understanding about when, why and how to hire an architect. You know what to expect from a professional from the initial meeting through the actual construction. Working with the right architect should be an enormously rewarding and creative experience. It is a journey that concludes a well-conceived design and an inspiring house that enriches the quality of your life.

Tim Gallagher is a registered architect and principle / owner of ARCHITEX, a small architectural planning & design firm in Latham, NY.