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Hiring an Architect for the First Time? Here are some things you may want to consider.

What do Architects do? 

It is commonly known among Architectural Professionals that there are general misunderstandings about what Architects actually do.  (The reasons for this are part of a broader topic that must be broached within a different context.)  As a member of the architectural professional community, in a social setting I am sometimes asked “What exactly is it that you do?” I appreciate this question as a way of trying to understand and relate.  I have yet to arrive at a concise response to that question.  Most simply, “It’s complicated.”  Perhaps if the complexities of what we do were more widely understood, an Architectural Professional’s inherent value in what they bring to the table might be more fruitfully realized.  

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By the end of this piece, hopefully you will have a more clear perspective on many aspects of the Architectural process, what Architects do, and how to hire one.  It is commonly said that “Architects wear many hats (professionally).”  So I will pointedly be remiss, so as to give you a concise overview and thus a broad understanding.  

How might you select an Architectural professional?  

There are many ways in which one may find Architects, and then select one that is a good fit.  Most frequently new customers find us through word of mouth referrals.  Satisfied customers refer us to their friends.  That is something we can’t put a price on.  Seeking a trusted referral may be a sound starting point for many.  

Architects tend to be both visually and concept driven.  They enjoy expressing concepts in graphic format while conveying with narrative.  So in my experience, the single best way to vet an Architectural Professional is through an in person meeting (or video conference).  This way, they can share visual aids, perhaps show off their impromptu “cocktail napkin” sketches, listen to your ideas, and perhaps share a few of their own.  You may wish to enumerate your project’s intricacies.  This is an opportunity to inquire as to the Architect’s past experience and expertise, and how that may relate to your specific needs.  

Some aspects you may want to be keenly aware of during this exchange are:

  • How busy is he/she with their current work load? 
  • How soon is he/she (honestly) able to work your project in? 
  • How comfortable is he/she to communicate with? 
  • Do you feel he/she is a good listener?
  • How accessible and responsive is he/she? 

You should be aware that (even in a median to small sized firm) you may first interview with either a project manager or partner of the firm.  Following, your project may be placed with an Architectural staff who is best able to fit your project into the work schedule, and is the best fit for your project.  When this occurs, you may ask for another face to face (or video conference) meeting in order to get acquainted. 

What should you know about the overall Architectural fee structure?

Typically, the Architect serves as the project manager, coordinating and managing the other design disciplines required to complete a project.  The number of design disciplines involved in a project varies widely.  Among the list of variables: the budget, project scope, project type, the project complexity, location, site conditions, jurisdiction, local adopted international and municipal codes.  An example of design professionals whom the Architect may typically manage include: structural engineer, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineer, civil engineer, lighting consultant, hardware consultant, and sometimes the interior designer, preservation consultants, and acoustical engineers.  

That the Architect hires the project consultants and engineers naturally creates a chain of communication that streamlines the process.  Knowing the project management structure may help the client to understand why the consultants and engineers are hired by the Architect, and why those professional fees are typically included in the architectural service agreement.  You should expect to see those professional expenses broken out separately.  If they are not, you may directly seek clarification of the disciplines required for your project, in written format, prior to signing your contractual agreement.  Note that on occasion it happens that consultants need to be added that were not anticipated initially.  If this happens, your contract should be amended at that time. 

What is the Architectural design process, and how does it relate to the project timeline?

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The Architectural design process can be structured in a multitude of differing ways, depending upon the complexity of the project.  I will share the standard process (which can be either simplified or become more complex, accordingly).  Keep in mind that this process is most often cyclical rather than linear.  

Following the initial interview, a contractual agreement is written and signed.  At that point the Architectural Professional (staff) assigned to your project will typically undertake a process we refer to as “Project Programming.”  During Programming, data and information are gathered, compiled, and analyzed.  This is when the client’s project goals are formalized.  Frequently we will make a program of spaces in which we assign a volume of space needed for each type of space.  We may then diagram the relationship between particular types of spaces illustrating the way they relate to each other, spatially.  We take care to understand how the spaces are to be used, and account for any specialized items, equipment, or furnishings to be included within each space.

Upon request, we may undertake a preliminary Feasibility Study.  The purpose of the Feasibility Study is to assist the client in assessing whether a site is appropriate for the anticipated project.  Within the Feasibility Study, we may analyze site conditions, investigate zoning and zoning requirements, and even evaluate where and how a building should be oriented onto a site.

After the preliminary information gathering has been completed, we will then embark upon the following stages of the design process: Preliminary Design (also referred to as Schematic Design and/or Conceptual Design), followed by Design Development, Construction Documents, Permitting, Bidding, and finally your project will move into Construction, and project completion.  

During Preliminary Design, an initial design concept (or a few initial concepts) will be conceptualized and conveyed to the client.  Once a design concept has been agreed upon, the project progresses to Design Development.  In DD, the specific concept will begin to be developed.  The program of spaces will be incorporated, and informs the process design process.   

When the developed design has been approved, the project transitions to the Construction Documents phase.  The Construction Documents stage is a process through which we create a single set of documents that may serve multiple purposes: to attain a building permit, to seek a competitive bid, and to inform the construction process.  The stamped set of construction documents also becomes part of the legally binding contractual agreement between Owner and General Contractor.  

It should be noted that this is a standard process for new construction, and that varying types of projects dealing with existing buildings will undoubtedly further add to the necessary steps to be undertaken.  The time needed to complete the design process from initial interview to building permit could take as little as a handful of months, to several years, depending upon the project. 

It helps to know your project expectations.  

It may expedite the process if you know your project goals and objectives in advance.  However, be mindful that project objectives may be at odds with each other.  For example, we can refer back to the old adage that we may only choose two of these three goals, that a project is performed: (either) quickly, done well, or inexpensively.  Frequently our desires exceed our budget goals.  Your Architectural Professional can help you prioritize your objectives.  

It helps to know your budget and understand how it relates to your expectations.  

It is also helpful if you are transparent and frank about your financial circumstances.  Your Architect can help you reconcile any discrepancies between budget and project expectations.  As design professionals, we should remain mindful of the budget, and it should inform our decisions through the design process.  

It is important to know that while your Architectural Professional is typically not in the business of making construction estimates (unless they work for a design-build firm), they may be able to provide you with a ballpark estimate for purposes of staying on track.  We do converse regularly with general contractors, getting occasional feedback on construction labor and material costs. We then should be able to advise you as to creative ways to reduce project expenses as needed.

Your Architect will provide creative solutions. 

Having a clear vision of what you wish to accomplish may help forecast budget reality, and progress the project timeline expeditiously.  However, if not, don’t fret.  Maintaining open-mindedness through the design process can also be advantageous.  Your Architectural Professional will provide the design inspiration, and innovate.  These are the intangibles and qualitative expertise that we bring to the table. Rely on us, and trust in our creativity.  We tend to excel when given the opportunity to rise to meet a design challenge.

Why might remodeling cost more than new construction? 

You may be surprised to hear that a remodeling construction costs are higher, comparatively, than new construction of the same type.  When considering remodeling project expenses, there are some particular aspects to remodeling, rehab, and renovation of existing buildings to keep in mind. 

As part of the design process, we must first asses all existing conditions.  If a site is a virtual “blank slate”, certainly that differs from a scenario involving a building that exists.  Typically, an existing building will require field verification.  We may first measure all of the conditions that exist, then produce a set of base drawings from which to work from.  In this way, we add an additional step to undertake.

The construction work on an existing building will be more complicated and expensive than new construction due to any demolition work needed.  You should also expect to see a contractor’s bid for this type of work to include a “contingency fee.”  This is intended to cover unforeseeable issues that may arise.  This is a taken as a precautionary measure to provide the project Owner with a realistic construction cost. Experience proves we cannot anticipate everything that could be hidden within walls.  Construction projects on existing buildings rarely (if ever) go according to plan.  

With historic building projects, we may anticipate additional related expenses.  There may be a need for thoughtfully executed exploratory demolition.  We may begin by researching historical documents and building history.  There may be requirements to meet approvals of applicable state and local historical review boards.  Construction mock up approvals may be required prior to work commencing.  Environmental contaminants may need to be investigated and abated or encapsulated.  At times when historic methods and materials are to be replicated, it comes at a greater expense.      

Know that your Architect cares for the long term success of your project.  

Your Architectural professional has a vested interest in the success of your project.  An architect, as an artist, gives a part of their heart to their projects in a similar way that an artist might give a piece of themselves in their artwork.  

Our projects feel very personal, and we want them to be successful.  We want our customers to be pleased with the results.  We want our projects to meet or exceed functional and aesthetic expectations.  Satisfied clients give word of mouth referrals and become return customers.  

Additionally, we wish to visit our projects, take photos, and document our work.  You may plan for this as your project arrives at completion.  

Some Architecture firms may also follow up with a post-occupancy interview to ascertain what can be learned from completed projects.  This helps firms to augment and improve.  For the Architect, the expectations are high, and stakes are high.  They must invent a thing from scratch and without the luxury of failed prototypes.  The professional standard is excellence.  So we appreciate post occupancy feedback as a component of that success.

Melissa Wright Powers has a NCARB accredited 5 year Bachelor of Architecture from Kansas State University. She has held positions on the City of Topeka’s Mayor’s ADA Advisory Council, Kansas Historic Free State Capitol Board of Directors, Jayhawk Theatre Board of Directors, served on the Heartland Visioning Task Force, served as an associate member of the American Institute of Architects- Topeka Board, KSU Architecture Department Student Advisory Council representative, among her professional merits.

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