7 Essential Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Architect
By Oliver Marks
The answers to these questions will help you zero in on the architect who's right for your project, your budget, and your personality.
The architect you select for your job will determine the look and functionality of your home improvement project, along with the financial and emotional costs of getting it done. Whom you choose to work with isn't a decision to make lightly. A great way to get a feel for an architect--besides looking at examples of prior work, which is essential--is to start a conversation about the way he or she approaches the craft of architecture, and about the specifics of your project. There's usually no charge for this initial consultation.
Here are seven questions to use as a starting point. The answers will help you analyze each candidate's design sensibilities and personality, so you'll know who's right for your house, for your budget, and for you.
1. What do you see as the biggest challenges and attractions of this job?
Architects can have a beautiful portfolio and loads of great references, but that doesn't tell you what thhe'll do with your project. You want to hear them talk about their vision for your house--not just to learn how they think and work, but also to find out how well they understand what you want.
"You can hire any number of architects who'll come up with creative solutions to your job," says Pittsburgh architect Gerald Morosco, author of the book "How to Work With an Architect." "The differences are in how well the architect matches his design to your taste and your lifestyle." By making him talk about the job in the early stages, you'll get a sense of how good a listener he is: Did he really hear what you told him about your priorities?
2. Are you the person who will design my project?
Unless you're hiring a sole proprietor, there's a good chance that the person you meet with initially isn't the one who's actually going to handle the job. Often a partner signs up the clients and then hands them off to someone else to carry out the work. That's perfectly OK, as long as you understand it up front. But since good communication is crucial to a successful job, you need to meet the lead architect for your job before you hire the firm. You'll be interacting with this person on a daily basis, so it must be someone you get along with and like.
3. What project management services do you provide?
Architects do more than come up with the plans. They may also manage the project, checking the contractor's work as the job proceeds, answering questions, and making design adjustments. The architect may even help you decide which contractor to hire and certify the invoices, to ensure that your payouts never get ahead of the work and that you obtain the necessary lien waivers (http://www.houselogic.com/articles/what-do-contractor-puts-lien-on-house/) from all contractors before they're paid, so nobody can make a claim against your property later.
4. How do you charge?
Architects usually charge a percentage of the total project cost, anywhere from 5% to 20%, depending on the services being provided, the complexity of the job, and the renown of the architect. You'll want to know what percentage the architect will charge for your project, of course, but also when and how payments will be due.
Architects typically bill monthly, starting as soon as they begin work. But most of the upfront design work happens before you bring in a contractor and know the total project cost. In the interim, the architect may bill you by the hour or charge a retainer--a fixed monthly fee--with any necessary adjustments occurring once the real numbers are known. Each of these billing approaches can work well. What's important is utter clarity about the plan so you can manage your budget.
5. Would you say you have a "signature" style?
Most architects pride themselves on their adaptability, which allows them to tailor their style to fit each house and each client. But some have an overriding design sensibility that they bring to every project. It's not that all their jobs look the same, just that certain motifs show up again and again. For example, an architect might specialize in sleek modernism, a beach cottage feel, or reinterpretations of historic houses. Others may focus on environmentally friendly construction or universal design. By talking about the architect's signature style up front, you can decide whether it's the right fit for you.
6. Can you provide three-dimensional drawings?
Reading a standard two-dimensional plan isn't easy. Even if you can tell where the walls, windows, and doors are, you may not get an accurate feel for how things will look in the real world. Luckily, some of the software that architects now use to do their designs (few hand-draw anymore) can render three-dimensional images, says Corvallis, Ore., architect Lori Stephens. Not all architects have this software, however, so it's worth asking about.
7. Will you help us hire a contractor?
A good architect can help you evaluate prospective contractors' portfolios and bids, bringing a professional eye to the selection process and increasing the likelihood that the architect and contractor will have a good rapport. He may even recommend someone he has worked with before. That's a boon to the homeowner, since it means you won't have to do another big search to find the right contractor.
Even if you go with the architect's choice, you can still take advantage of competitive bids. Typically, the contractor will charge his standard markup (say, 10% to 20%), then he'll bid out the work to subcontractors--excavators, electricians, plumbers, etc.--and put together a quality crew with fair prices. That's the best of both worlds, because you get a contractor your architect likes, and you get the benefit of the competitive process to keep your costs under control.
A former carpenter and newspaper reporter, Oliver Marks has been writing about home improvements for 16 years. He's currently restoring his second fixer-upper with a mix of big hired projects and small do-it-himself jobs.
Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.
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