It’s really hard for people to find an architect; at least that’s what the emails in my inbox are telling me. To further get to the point, it’s not hard to look one up that’s in your hometown – that’s easy. What’s hard is trying to figure out which one you should hire. That’s when people email me with questions, asking for advice and guidance. Rather than try to convert everyone into the Church of “Bob the Architect”, I genuinely try to tell people how to go about finding a local architect and so this Sunday, as I sit in my favorite chair, I am going to turn those emails into today’s post … “How to Find an Architect.”
Hiring an architect can come across as scary business – but it shouldn’t. The process should be easy and straightforward, because, at a very basic level, we are all the same (or at least, we should be). I can almost sense the shift in the planet’s rotational pull as architects around the world are reading that comment and are clutching their chests. Settle down people and give me a chance to explain. To a certain extent, if you are trying to find an architect who can design you a 5 bedroom en suite home, completely outfitted with home theater, workout facilities, formal and informal living spaces, etc. … you should be able to do that pretty easily. Basically, my assumption is that we [architects] are all competent enough that if you want one of us to design your home that won’t leak, where you can check off the boxes next to all the amenities you want, we are all capable of doing just that. Since aesthetics are subjective at best, how does someone actually choose their architect?
I believe that there are two major paths for making this decision. The first, and most obvious, is the cost. All things being equal, I think most people would choose the least costly version. It’s hard to find fault with going with the low-cost provider but the truth of the matter is that all things are never equal. So that just leave the second option – emotional response (i.e., who do you want to work with?)
Architecture is a service industry and as such, personality is going to figure heavily into the process. I tell people all the time that they should expect to enjoy this process, that we are going to have fun … maybe not all of the time, after all, this is serious business – but since I like to have fun, and because I truly believe this is a collaborative process between me and the people who want to hire me, I want to surround myself with clients who want to enjoy the process as well. Seems pretty straightforward – work with good people and the result will be a good product and a good experience.
But how do you determine if you are going to like working with the architect you are interviewing? They don’t all have blogs like mine where you can get a pretty good feeling for who I am and how I work. Even then, there are probably some questions you should consider asking your architect when you interview them. Here are some that I think you should consider:
- How interested is the architect in this project?
I know it seems pretty obvious – of course, the architect is going to say that they really want to do your project … yeah, but what if they don’t want to do your project? I always think of this as the first question because it gives the architect you’re talking to an escape path should they really not be in a position to take on your project.
- How busy is the architect?
If you’re an architect, you have to sow hay while the sun shines. To everyone else, this means that there are few architects out there that find themselves in the position to turn down work. To the interviewer, you should follow up with how many projects are currently in the office and how many staff members does the architect have. For example, as of this writing, I think we have about 15 active projects in the office and we have 8 employees. That 2:1 ratio is extremely easy to manage – it’s when it gets into the 4:1 ratio that we start having internal staffing meetings. If the projects are spread out between schematic design, design development, construction drawings, and construction administration, you can get away with larger ratios because the different level of skill positions required for each task can be sasigned to different individuals in the office. If you want Bob Borson to design your house (and most people do) I can’t design 15 houses at once. That’s why it’s important to follow up with this next question …
- Who will you be meeting with throughout the entire process? Is this the same person who will be designing the project?
There is nothing worse than interviewing with one architect, deciding that you really connected with that individual, only to never see them again (unless there is a problem with the billing). Some architects are extremely protective about letting the clients interface with someone other than themselves (because that’s how new architecture firms are made) but since this is all about getting along with the person who is doing the work, I think it’s kind of important that you know who that person actually is so that you can communicate with them directly. It’s okay if you only interface with one person if there is a team – that makes financial sense. Just try and get an understanding of how the firm handles the division of labor and if possible, get an understanding of who is on the team.
- How will the architect collect the information needed to successfully determine the program for your project?
The “program” is the first part of a design process where you list out the needs and requirements for the project. If you’ve never designed a house before, how are you supposed to know all the considerations? That’s where your architect should help you out. So how do they provide this help? Is it a questionnaire, is it a lengthy face-to-face meeting, maybe a bit of both … or do they expect you to simply tell them what you want and they’ll fill in the gaps?
- How often will you have meetings?
Some architects limit the number of meetings you have for the various phases of the work – most of which is tied to the financial consideration they are receiving from you. Are there meetings through all phases of the project? What about site visits – are those included? We don’t limit meetings in my office but that’s not how everyone else works.
- What are the steps in the design process?
Asking this question is more about understanding the back and forth nature that you will be developing with your architect. If someone tells you that you get three schematic design meetings, and if any more are required, there would be additional design fees, I would start asking some other questions. It may be justified, maybe not, that’s why you want to ask questions at this point and not when you are 2 months into the process and wondering where your architect has gone and why is your bill so high.
- How does the architect establish fees?
There are several methods that are fairly industry standard. I’d say the most common is to charge a percentage of the construction costs but this area has enough moving parts to it I’ve already written two posts specific to the topic. They are:
Architectural Fees [part 1] which covers Hourly and Percentage of Construction Costs
Architectural Fees [part 2] which covers a bit more on Hourly Fees, as well as Per Square Foot, and Combination Fee Structures
- How does the architect handle fees when there are scope changes?
I’m going to go out on a limb and presume that they will charge you more money for scope changes (assuming that they aren’t on an hourly contract with you). It’s an easy question and answer but most people seem to ignore it during these initial get to know you type meetings.
- How long does the architect think it will take for the design and construction process?
This is the question that leads to the real question … depending on how the architect answers. We can move pretty fast in my office but this question is almost impossible to answer because there are so many variables outside of our control. If the architect you are interviewing tells you “I can design and prepare construction drawings for your 5,000 square foot house in a month” they are either lying, the drawings you receive will be woefully inadequate, or they are going to pull some drawings out of a drawer, put your name on the title block, and sell you someone else’s project. If you think about all the decisions that need to be made, you’ll quickly realize that the process of designing and preparing construction drawings for a house takes a fair bit of time. I tell people that I can get a design development set of drawings put together in about 4 months – and that’s when I get to meet with the clients as often as once a week. In our office, it’s not that uncommon that we are waiting on the client to take the appropriate time to think through the information we’ve just given them, and some people need to take more time for review.
- How available is the architect?
Speaking of meeting once a week, how often is your architect available to you? It’s not always practical for you to expect weekly meetings, but it’s good to know whether or not you can see your architect when you want to see your architect. Maybe this isn’t the smartest thing for my personal life, but in my office, everybody has their cell phone numbers on their business cards. If you need me, you can reach me – but that’s not typical either.
There are more than 10 questions that you could consider asking your architect but they start getting project specific. Since this process relies on you making a connection with your future architect, I recommend that you ask questions that will help you get to know the person you are interviewing. It’s so easy to do preliminary research by looking at the architects website, their social media feed, Pinterest boards, Facebook, etc. that these face to face interviews should be more about determining if the person sitting across from you is the person you think they are after doing some research.
There is really only one question that you need to be able to answer after interviewing an architect:
“Do you like this person enough to want to work with them?”
The ten questions I’ve listed above should be more than enough for you to determine the answer to this last question.
Best of luck!