An old saying I heard from an architect was: What would an architect do if he won a million dollars. Answer: Practice architecture until he ran out of money. The implication is that architecture is a labor of love more than a path to riches – and it is for many, especially sole practitioners and employees at larger firms.
Most people who go into architecture are artistic by nature and are drawn to the field by the love of design. Some are energy and green-building enthusiasts who keep up on the latest innovations in energy-efficient and green construction. Some architects focus on the structural and technical side of construction. Some are planning and organizational whizzes. And still others work best in the business and political arena, winning high-profile contracts with corporations and government agencies.
Of course, finding all those strengths in a single individual is rare. As has often been pointed out, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, Falling Water, is a thing of beauty, but has been slowly falling down and plagued by roof leaks since it was built. Artist, yes – construction wizard, no.
If you do hire an architect, you should look for one that fits your needs. In most cases, you will be better off with a small firm or sole practitioner specializing in residential design. In any event, you don’t want to walk into a large firm and not even know who will be doing the design work.
Find a good fit
The important thing is to find someone who fits your individual needs. If you have the whole design concept wrapped up and just need someone to draw it and spec it out, then you want a hands-on, practical architect with ample construction experience, not a dreamy artist. If you want them to handle the contract documents and administration, you want a highly organized individual with proven management skills.
If, on the other hand, you are looking for an inspired design, you will want to look for a creative artist. Like any artist or designer, individual architects have a personal sense of aesthetics and style that may or may not match your own. So the first thing you should do is look at their portfolio or, if feasible, visit projects they have designed. Conversely, if you’ve been admiring a new home or addition in your community – find out who designed it.
The eye of the beholder
Despite a designer’s reputation, you may find their portfolio beautiful or hideous or somewhere in between. If you want your house to be a unique architectural statement that really stands out and garners architectural awards, there are plenty of artists out there ready to oblige.
If your tastes run more to traditional forms popular in your region – e.g., Capes and Colonials in New England – then you can find plenty of talented designers who can create beautiful living spaces within those “vernacular” styles. This will be your home, not an art project, so make sure it’s a design that feels like home to you.
Beyond aesthetics, many residential architects have special interests and strengths. If energy-efficiency and green building are your goals, find an architect (or other professional designer) with a experience and a proven track record in that specialty. A lot of specialized expertise is required to make this type of home work well.
Discuss cost concerns
Communicate your concerns about cost upfront – not always an architect’s first priority. If you have a limited budget for your project, find an architect who will design with cost in mind and commit to working within a budget.
Ask what will happen if bids come in too high on the completed design, and whether you will need to pay extra for revisions to the plans at that point.
Also remember that you play an important role in sticking to a budget. If you have a Kia budget and keep asking for Lexus quality, you put your designer in a difficult position. Similarly, if the project grows in size during the design process, it will grow in budget too. It takes a joint effort to stick to a budget.
I have worked on a number of architectural jobs where we have substituted or modified stock items instead of using custom fabrication (a large island range hood, in one case) and saved thousands. On another job, an architect was happy to modify a kitchen partition from curved to straight to save the owner a few thousands – in this case, it was the architect’s own home! Make sure you see eye to eye on affordability issues.
A big part of sticking to a budget is selecting readily available stock materials and equipment as much as possible – as opposed to custom-fabricated, special-order, and imported hardware and equipment. A custom fabricated range hood will cost several times more than what you can buy locally. You can almost always find or modify a stock kitchen or bathroom cabinet to achieve the same look and function as a custom one.
A really cool European faucet or heating system may have metric fittings hard to connect to U.S. plumbing parts. Always ask if the designer has specified these materials before and, if so, what the costs were and if there were any problems with ordering lead times or installation.
A good rapport
At your first meeting, bring some photos, magazine clippings, hand-drawn sketches of work that you like. Express your desires and interests and observe their reaction. Do you have a good rapport? Do they listen well? Do they seem receptive to your input and participation in the design process.
Ask how they like to collaborate with clients? Most will welcome your input, but some may prefer to work alone and present you with their solution. Find someone whose work you like and whom you feel comfortable working with and they are a good bet.
Finally, ask for references and talk to them. Ask former clients how the project went. Are they happy with the building. Was the cost estimate provided by the by the architect close to the actual cost? If possible, interview former clients who were not given as references.