THE ART OF WORKING WITH AN ARCHITECT Got a Design in Mind? Pros Can Make It Happen


A few years after we moved back to Baltimore, my husband and I bought a typical 1950s rancher and decided to add a dining room in what seemed like a logical location -- between the kitchen and bedroom wings of the U-shaped house. The project looked routine to us -- simply add a roof between the two wings and proceed from there.

Plunging ahead, we hired a builder -- from the Yellow Pages -- and then watched in dismay as his workmen ripped off the wide roof overhang and squashed a shed roof up against the house. Oh, we got a dining room, but we also got an architectural eyesore that we couldn't afford to "fix" for years and a room that complicated an already difficult interior traffic pattern.

Now more savvy about remodeling, I scold myself for not insisting we hire an architect to help with the original project. We did discuss the possibility, but we had quickly nixed it. We didn't know an architect, and we were sure we couldn't afford one -- at that point we had no idea that we would spend about $5,000 additional to correct the original mess!

The concerns my husband and I had about architects are ones that many people confront when they are about to remodel, add on a room or build a new house. Typical questions include: What can an architect do for me? How can I find an architect? How much are the fees? What can I expect to get for my money? What will I be expected to contribute to the process?

To find answers to these and other questions, we contacted architects David Gleason, Laura Thomas, Ron Brasher and Jeff Penza. Well-established in the profession and known for their residential work, they offer some useful information on the architectural process and share some tips on working with an architect.

What can an architect do for me? Don't expect an architect to be a builder. That is not his or her job. "Architects don't provide a product. They provide a professional service and technical expertise," says Laura Thomas. They listen to your needs, assess your problems, explore solutions, examine alternatives, create a detailed plan and ultimately design a project totally unique to you and your lifestyle.

How do you find the right architect for the job? Without a doubt, most architects are hired through referrals -- a friend builds a new family room, a relative remodels a bathroom; you like what you see and you give the architect a call. But suppose you don't know anyone who has used the services of an architect.

"My suggestion would be to call the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects," says David Gleason. "The AIA will send you a packet of information." In Maryland, there are three local chapters -- Baltimore, Potomac Valley (the suburbs surrounding Washington and Western Maryland), and Chesapeake (the Eastern Shore and Annapolis area).

If you call the Baltimore office, ask for a brochure on the Residential Design Group, about a dozen architects interested in designing or remodeling homes. But keep in mind that there are plenty of architects who do residential design who do not belong to the group. Also, ask the AIA for "A Beginner's Guide to Architectural Services" and "Building Relationships," two brochures loaded with information explaining the architectural process and the architect/client relationship.

Will the AIA recommend an architect? The AIA is a professional organization that serves various educational and informational functions. The staff does not recommend individual architects. However, the initials AIA after the name of an architect signifies, among other things, that he or she has been licensed by the state to practice architecture.

What is the next step? Call several firms; ask if the architects do residential work; request literature. Watch for articles in local papers and magazines about architects. Be aware that many of the large firms with well-known names specialize in commercial architecture and avoid residential work except for special clients; and firms that do residential work exclusively are in the minority.

Should you interview more than one architect? Yes. "I think people should pick about three architects to actually interview," adds Mr. Gleason. The meeting might be held in the architect's office or the client's home. Architects usually prefer the client's home, especially if the project is an add-on or a remodel.

"Plan for the meeting to last anywhere from one hour to three hours," says Jeff Penza. "Ask for resumes and references of previous projects. Architects expect it. Also, ask to see a portfolio of their work."

The portfolio should show if the architect leans toward any special style, which could be important in the selection process. While most architects claim they will design what the client wants, some will admit to a particular interest. Get a list of projects and go see them. "I often drive my clients around to see what I have designed," says Ron Brasher.

What happens at the initial meeting? "People usually have a wish list or what I call a hope list," says Laura Thomas. "Some people are very vague; some people very specific. Sometimes they have clipped pictures of rooms or houses they like from magazines. I personally like that because I get to see what they like, what kind of taste they have." Often the discussion is problem-oriented. "Their house isn't working the way they want it to," Ms. Thomas adds.

Money considerations should be discussed. Even if people are uncertain about what they want, they should have in mind what Ms. Thomas calls "the ouch point," an amount of money they can't exceed.

"I think it is very important to talk budget," says Mr. Brasher. "How much do you expect to spend on construction?"

Prospective clients are often shocked at costs. "They usually have goals that exceed their budgets," says Mr. Penza, who estimates that in today's market, new building costs can run from $125 to $150 a square foot, with "renovation costs slightly less."

What does it cost to use the services of an architect? Architects usually charge a fixed fee, an hourly fee or a percentage of the cost of the project. Generally, percentages hover around 8 percent to 10 percent. But they can move up dramatically, "to 15 percent and more if the project is labor-intensive with a lot of detail work," says Mr. Penza.

Hourly fees range from about $80 to $120. Everyone agrees that fees should be discussed at the initial meeting which is usually, but not always, free. Check with the architect beforehand.

What do you get for your money? All architects have their own work style. But most follow a similar procedure that usually includes three or more phases: programming -- deciding what to build; schematic design -- drawing rough sketches and floor plans; and design development and construction documents -- preparing detailed drawings and specifications to be used by the building contractor.

Architects also often help clients find a contractor and then oversee the building of the project, a phase called construction administration. "Architects have no contractual relationship with the builder," cautions Mr. Brasher. "They have a written contract with the owner" -- a contract that needs to spell out carefully what is expected of the architect.

Whether an architect stays on depends on the project and the contract, but "architects like to continue working until the project is complete," says Mr. Gleason. "It is important to know that the intent of the drawings has been followed; that the plans have been interpreted as the architect drew them."

What can clients do to facilitate the architectural process? "The more homework clients do, the better off they are going to be," says Mr. Penza. "The more articulate clients are about what they want and don't want, the easier the design process." Having the deed, location survey and original house plans in hand is also a plus.

One of the most helpful items the client can bring to the design process is an open mind. A major reason for hiring an architect is to get the best advice possible for a particular building or remodeling project. Be receptive to new ideas. "If you are really locked into a certain way of doing something or building something, I don't see the advantage of hiring an architect," says Mr. Gleason. "The relationship just won't work very well. You might be better just going to a draftsman."

On the other hand, "Don't be afraid to speak up if the plans are not what you had in mind," says Mr. Brasher. "Things are much less expensive to change on paper than at the building site."

What are the most important aspects of a good architect/client relationship? Everyone agrees the key element is good communication. "The client has to be able to tell the architect exactly what his or her expectations are and the architect has to be able to explain exactly what he is going to do," says Mr. Gleason. "This type of communication is primary."

"And you have to feel comfortable with your architect because the process is probably going to be very long and involved -- a house project might take a year or more," says Mr. Penza. Projects sometimes never make it off the drawing board because the architect and the client simply can't relate to each other.

"I think it all comes down to trust," says Ms. Thomas. "Unlike buying a car or some tangible product, you really can't see what you are getting. You have to trust that your architect is giving you the best service and the best value available for your money."

If you don't have this feeling of trust or if you feel uncomfortable talking with your architect, you might need to reconsider. "You don't want to move ahead if you aren't sure," Ms. Thomas adds. "Too much time and energy, including emotional energy, are involved."

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