Hiring an Architect: When do I need one?

For most people, hiring an architect is probably more daunting than finding a new doctor.  By the time we are in the position of searching for a doctor, we have already had a lifetime of experience working with one.  Though there are on-line services that purport to provide useful reviews for the purpose of finding the best company for “the job”, there are a whole range of designers, architects, builders and everyone in between that seem to provide very similar, if not virtually identical services, where do you begin?  There are some situations that might call for a designer, a contractor, or an architect, while there might be others that might call for all three plus engineering services!  All these providers have a specific role to play in the completion of project; the keys to identifying which is most appropriate for yours is first to define some basic parameters of the proposed project, nature of the project, scope of work, the scale of work and the degree to which you, as the owner are willing to be involved in the design process and completion of the work.  So, how do you determine to whom you should turn?  It depends on a number of variables; here are a few to consider.


The Nature of the Project:

Deferred Maintenance

Home-ownership is, at times, a frustrating responsibility.  There are constant issues to deal with, many of which are time-consuming, labor intensive and none too glamorous.  Yes, I am referring to basic maintenance; these are issues that aren’t necessarily much “fun” but are necessary for the long-term value of the home and for the prevention of secondary, and potentially more costly issues in the future.  Often it feels like one’s home is absorbing a lot of money without a lot of return on that investment, so there is a tendency to defer this maintenance, especially if the budget for other needs is tight.  Depending upon the period of time over which basic maintenance is deferred and the nature of the work that’s required, most homeowners need only to consult with a contractor to address these kinds of problems.  An example of the kind of maintenance I am referring to might be simply replacing shingles on a roof, replacing old windows with new ones, repairing stucco on the exterior of you house; the list is endless! 

In some instances however, in the process of renewing your home, you may find that the maintenance requires aesthetic changes, for example if you were considering a new color for your house.  In this case, it might be worthwhile to consult a designer.  Designers, like architects, can be quite knowledgeable about architectural styles and eras.  Though not registered as an architect would be, designers should be able to make recommendations based on your parameters; historic considerations, fitting into the neighborhood, or finding a match to your favorite pair of shoes!  Of course, an architect can assist you with a project of this type, but a designer might prove to me a more cost effective approach.  A good rule of thumb would be that as proposed work grows in complexity, the more likely you are to benefit from the participation of an architect.



When it comes to the remodeling of your home; again, questions regarding the scope and nature of the work can help you to determine which service suits your needs best.  A typical situation might be one in which you simply swap out old for new; for example, the replacement of bathroom fixtures.   In the event that you are not moving fixtures, changing walls, moving doors or windows, it may be that a contractor can serve your needs; especially a “design build” company that has designers or architects on staff.  However, if there are aesthetic considerations, for example you are trying to create a space that is consistent with a certain architectural “period”, or era; it may be worthwhile to hire a designer separate from the contractor, or an architect to prepare the plans in advance.  As before, if a remodeling project becomes increasingly complex, working with an architect can be to the homeowner’s advantage.  An architect can consider all the variables of a project; code requirements (these can become an issue with bathrooms and bedrooms in particular), structure and aesthetics.  While a good designer should be able to serve in this capacity, it is not a given that a designer will have the background for more complex work as there is no licensing requirement that can assure a baseline knowledge in the way that an architectural license can.



In the case of an addition, it is less likely that the situation is appropriate for a designer rather than an architect, or design-build company.  Again, it depends upon the specifics of the situation.  If the addition considered is well within the site of the existing house, it may be quite straight forward and pose little conflict with setbacks or with issues related to the percentage of the site that’s covered with buildings and sidewalks.  An experienced designer may be equipped to deal with these issues, but again, it will depend on the experience of the designer; without a licensing requirement, there’s no way to compare the credentials of one designer with another without simply looking to their past work as a means of comparison.  As design-build company on the other hand, may have architects on staff to perform their design work.  In that case, hiring a design-build company is similar to hiring an architect with an important exception.  The architect, as part of their professional ethics, represents the interests of the home owner when dealing with the contractors.  As a result, they are the owner’s best advocate when it comes to oversight of the construction process, maintaining quality and assuring that the design intent behind the drawings is maintained during construction through completion.


New Construction:

No doubt, in the case of new construction, assuming that you are looking for a home customized to your specific needs and style, your best option would be to work with an architect from the beginning.  Though design-build companies, as stated above, do have staff architects who can work with clients to create a custom home, often, their goal is to customize existing plans to suit specific client wishes.  On the surface, this might seem to be a nuance, however, there is potential for the builder to “sell” their client on ideas that may better serve the builder’s bottom line; exchanging one material for another of “equivalent” quality, or sticking with standards that simply lower hidden costs for the builder without producing equivalent savings for the client.  Without a fully independent architect working for the client, it’s difficult for the inexperienced homeowner to discern whether their best interests are being protected.  Of course, many builders are quite skilled at their craft and are trustworthy; however, when taking on a large, complex challenge such as building a house, having an architect on your side can be a valuable asset.



Beyond the obvious design considerations, one of the most powerful advantages of hiring an architect is the ability to “bid out” the project with the construction documents and specifications produced as a result of the design process.  Because all the contractors are using the same documents, assuming the documents adhere to a basic standard of clarity and completeness, the resulting bids provided by competing contractors should be comparable.  This gives the homeowner an opportunity to solicit bids from a variety of contractors and the ability to compare the results on whatever criterion is deemed most important; cost, quality, schedule, etc.  Additionally, the architect is qualified to assist in the process; administering the documents, setting deadlines for submission of bids and can work with the homeowner to select the appropriate builder based on their qualifications, costs and homeowner preferences.

So, when considering an architect it is important to keep in mind these basic questions related to the scope of proposed work, the complexity of the work, your willingness to be involved in the process (or your desire to be hands-off for that matter!) as well as your budget and your understanding of construction.  In the event of increasing complexity, increasing scope of work, or simply a wish to have a "turn-key" approach to the work, it may be desirable to hire an architect.  It is recommended that homeowners research architects, develop a list of potential providers and interview the architects to determine who best suits the needs for the proposed work.  Though it requires a little more work at the outset.  Long term it will be to the benefit of both parties that the homeowner find an architect they can be comfortable with.