Monday, June 27

Do you need an architect?

I realized after my last blog entry about how to hire an architect that I'd skipped the crucial question.  Do you really need an architect to accomplish your construction project?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no - here's some information to help you decide:

In many, if not most localities in this country, you do not need an architect for a residential construction project.  The result, in my opinion, is that you find the same developer style house everywhere in this country, regardless of site and location.  As a business model for contractors, it worked very well until the mortgage meltdown of the past few years.  I can't deny that most contractors building a home or addition without an architect usually do an adequate job in the planning and can most often provide a generic design aesthetic that satisfies people who are not picky about the design of their home environment.  Their real shortfall is in building something site specific to take advantage of the surrounding environment, both in how the site is used, and how the house responds to the site and/or providing something with a unique aesthetic.  Their bottom line also influences the finishes used for the final product.  So you end up with a cookie cutter house, just like the one next door.  Why is anyone surprised that the value of most houses on the market has dropped so much?  Too much of the same thing is too much.

Here are some situations where you want to hire an architect:
1.  If you're fortunate enough to own a piece of property for that dream house you've been thinking about, hire an architect to turn it into reality.
2.  Building an addition or renovation that requires an imaginative vision, a rich design aesthetic and/or structural changes.
3.  Reconfiguring a space; a design professional can make a huge difference as to how efficiently and creatively your space is used.

You probably don't need an architect if:
1.  If you already know exactly what it is you want and you like being in charge and working directly with the contractor, you don't need a design professional.
2.  Take a critical look at your property.  It may not be worth the investment of your time and a professional's time if what you're thinking about doesn't make sense financially, especially if you're not planning staying at this property for any length of time.

Original Boathouse (left) and completed redesign of Boathouse (right).
Take this Boathouse as an example where I think hiring an architect made a world of difference for the clients.  It was very close to the water, so it wasn't possible to get a building permit to build something new.  The existing structure was not in great condition, so most of it was going to have to be rebuilt.  The clients wanted to be able to house guests (which required adding at least a bathroom) and their boating equipment.  Compounding the challenge, the site flooded periodically during storms.  Working within the town's guidelines, we were able to rebuild within the existing footprint, placing the boat storage below the living quarters.  Above we created a guest house with a bedroom, bath, kitchenette and living room - plus ample decks from which to enjoy the view.  I especially liked the gangplanks we designed to get to the ground level from the porches.

Once you have defined your goal, and you've decided to hire an architect (per my last blog entry),  you're ready to embark on collaborating to fulfill your vision.

Saturday, May 7

How to Select and Successfully Work with an Architect (part 1 of 4)

There are 3 elements for a successful architectural project:  the Client, the Architect and the Contractor.  All three need to be on the same page, working toward the goal defined by the Client.  As the Client, you need to have an idea of what it is you want to build, renovate or restore and you need to have a budget in mind for all of the work.  This will include the cost of construction and all professional fees.  You also need to decide how involved you want to be in the project.

Once you have an idea of what it is you want to build and your budget, the first step is to find your architect.  You go about this much like you'd find other professionals you've hired.  You do research and get recommendations from people, especially if they've had a successful construction project.  Architects tend to specialize within their field.  Most architectural firms have photos of their completed work online, so it's easy for you to get an idea of the range of designs their firms produce.  You wouldn't go to a large architectural firm that does primarily commercial design for your residential project.  Nor would you go to a firm that produces only modern architecture if you want a more traditional design, and vice versa.   Many of our clients have initially found us via online searches because they found photos of a particular project we have done that appealed to them.

When you've found a few firms you may be interested in working with, make appointments with each of them to review the firms' portfolios and discuss your project with them in person.  Usually there is no charge for this initial meeting.  It's primarily to see if, on further inspection, you find their work appeals and engages you and your imagination.  And equally important, this meeting is to see how well you communicate with each other.  You must feel very comfortable with your architect, or you will not get the best job out of this relationship.  It's also important for you to know who you will be working with if you hire their firm.  Larger firms will put an associate in charge your job and they will be handling the day-to-day communication, so it's important for you to meet this person as well.  If you hire a smaller firm, you will usually be dealing directly with the principal.

During this meeting you should discuss your project and gauge the architect's interest in working on it with you.  Don't expect specific suggestions, but they will probably discuss their general approach to your project.  Even though architects are design professionals, remember that what you want built is the most important issue here.  If you feel intimidated or that you aren't being heard, this architect isn't the right one for you. On the other hand, if the architect seems without opinion about your project, it's time to move on too.

When you find an architect that is engaged with you and your project, be sure to discuss availability and fees.  There are a few models for payment for architectural services.  They can charge by the hour, an overall flat fee, or a fee based on the cost of construction.  There is no rule of thumb.  If you decide to hire this architect, the fee structure will be part of their agreement with you, and the terms need to be mutually agreeable.

So, how do you decide which architect to hire?  It's pretty obvious that you have to like them and their design work.  How much do you want them to design, and how much input do you want to have?  Some clients prefer to have a lot of input, some would rather the architect handle all the details.  Remember, the architect will be serving as your proxy during construction.  You need to be able to trust them and their judgement.  Always check their references and, if possible, go look at a finished project or two to get an idea of what you might expect for your own completed job.

After all your due diligence, if you don't have a strong feeling about any of the candidates, keep looking.    I can't stress enough how important it will be for you to have a strong sense of having a good working relationship.  Your architect will become almost a part of your family during the project.  As part of the process of designing the best home for you, they will need to know the most intimate details of your life.  When you have found an architect whose design sensibilities are simpatico with yours, and they're someone with whom you'd enjoy a working relationship, hire them.

Then you're off to the next phase of your project and Part 2 of this article.