What I Wish I Knew Prior to Hiring an Architect – Ask The Right Questions

by | May 11, 2020

A little more prep work prior to hiring my architect would have saved me countless hours and tons of money. I wrote this in the hopes that I might save someone a little anguish in the future.

Here’s the deal: I bought an older house (a fixer upper) and after moving in, there were certain aspects of the general design of the house that didn’t serve me.

As a result I made notes on the things that I wanted to change when I eventually hired an architect.

The architect would help me create a plan for what was possible and then I could work with a general contractor as needed.

First and foremost, I wanted to build a scope of minor and major renovations of the house according to my personal preferences.

Determine the Scope of the Architecture Project:

Some of the obvious places around the house that I wanted the renovations to touch on include:

  • The kitchen
  • Closets
  • Floors
  • Ceilings
  • Window sizes
  • Basement
  • Doorways
  • Room layouts
  • Common areas
  • Accessibility
  • Lighting
  • Main entrance
  • Back patio

This is no light undertaking but creating a list of “MUST-Haves” and “Nice to Haves” is crucial. Because ultimately you’re the one who’s living here.

Renovations: What I learned

Things never go smoothly. Besides running way past the budget, it took twice as long as expected.  

  • Prepare to go over budget
  • Timelines are impossible to enforce
  • Materials can change depending on availability
  • Architects don’t communicate with contractors
  • Electrical and plumbing considerations is crucial to getting it done right the first time
  • Architects work in stages- be prepared to to approve things multiple times as they roll out new designs
  • Confirm everything twice.

Even though I did a lot of research before the work got started, I wonder why it still took more money than expected and a lot more time than anticipated. The answer is simple, many of the timelines can be arbitrary and based on “perfect world scenarios.”

Beware of the Artist Factor: Architects Want to Tell You What You’ll Like

Popular opinion is that when doing renovations, there is always the risk of running into trouble with the architect hired.

For me, this the case. The Architect’s style needs to match your own style. Be sure to also keep in mind the difference between an architect and an architectural designer…not the same profession, not the same expectations, and not the same results.

If you look at their portfolio and architecture boards, and see the same styles, materials, and design type across multiple projects; after hiring an architect, expect that this will be the case with your project.

I like the look of spiral staircases. I really do. But I think they’re impractical and a fortune to rip out all the old materials and put in something new.

Timing in Architecture is an Abstract Concept

Since the general contractor I had hired ended up playing such a significant role, I had’t expected that I would be the point of contact between them and the architect.

I learned that the architect will make suggestions and on occasion inspect the project. But it was my job to make sure the two were on the same page with updates.

As far as the quality and smooth running of the renovations is concerned, it was crucial for me to make sure the two were communicating regularly.

Project Management Should Be Defined Up Front:

I wish I had clarified the expectations prior to signing the agreement with the architect.  Ask the right questions:

  • How often will you check in with me?
  • What software tools do you use to manage the project?
  • What is your weekly schedule breakdown for my project?
  • How often do you check in with the contractors doing the build wok?
  • Who reports to who when the contractor has questions?

By the time the renovations were complete, I realized that architects won’t necessarily handle most of the responsibilities during general renovations.

Had I not assumed anything during the initial agreement, I would have gotten a build schedule in place to meet expectations.

Architects can create budgets if you ask them to do that on a weekly or at the very least monthly basis for the length of the build. Hold them to that.


Architects are responsible for drafting plans – That’s their role

Architects are designing the house plan.

Architects are able to come up with technical drawing which just so you know are also key in helping flesh out construction or renovation ideas.

As a matter of fact, the drafted plan by architects help set realistic expectations.

Most importantly architects help fast track permits besides guiding contractors while onsite working on construction or renovations.

When choosing and hiring an architect, I certainly should have discussed and gone through all the options, and only then decided on which designs we liked. I think I had my mind made up well before I even met my architect, let alone thought about hiring an architect.

Next we could work together with a contractor to produce a joint shared set of expectations.

Architects Are Creative – Give Them the Freedom

I love anything that is visually appealing. Don’t go overboard, but make sure you explain all the things you want inside and out.

Making Use of NATURAL Light

If I knew in advance that architects are also able to incorporate visually interesting elements such as having more light incorporated into the actual plans, I would’t have decided far too late on a sky light.

Creating Storage Space Out of Thin Air:

Architects totally get this. Including secretive storage areas amongst livable spaces is part of the job.

I definitely wish I thought to ask the architect I hired to feature some of the special elements into the initial plan and feature a few more others during the course of the plan. They’re not mind readers.

Architects should advise on fixtures and finishes

The phrase “fixtures and finishes” is what gives a home character. These are the big and small accents on everything:

  • Paint jobs / Color pairing
  • Tiling / Flooring
  • Kitchen and counter-top works
  • Drawers and cabinets
  • Knobs and metal accents
  • Lighting
  • Outdoor landscaping

Having hired an architect, I realized the options for interior design were endless.

My architect definitely dove deep into the details of the small elements.

Keep in mind, they should serve as the point person and recommend fixtures as well as finishes.

This is especially the case if you haven’t contracted a designer to see through your finishing.

Architects are responsible for selecting the managing the contractor

Blueprints on an architect table. House project and drawing

Most experienced contractors always have a work towards maintaining good working relationships with several reputable contractors.

Thus, when hiring an architect, they should be able to recommend a few potential contractors to bid on your project that you can work with.

My architect had recommendations of people he had worked with for “years” and I went with it. Again, just make sure they’re able to communicate and have a schedule.

Architects should be responsible for the overall management of the project

Renovations are just like any other construction job. There are usually several projects constantly going at once.

Remember that delays hit when a job isn’t done and the next task is contingent on the completion on the previous project.

You also need permits and have to see through finishes and fixtures not to mention orders to track.

Although contractors are more than able to handle some of the above mentioned responsibilities, architects too can serve as point men.

For instance by helping you understand the deadline of specific items you may have ordered.

Identifying specialized sub contractors and even keeping track of processes which fall slightly out of the general scope of the construction or renovation.

Architects should offers suggestion that would help keep the project on time

Design Studio Architect Creative Occupation Meeting Blueprint Concept

This is another level of managing the project. There is no denying that getting some for of assistance in terms of time-frame can also be something that you prioritize.

Besides just staying on top of the contractor and other players involved, the architect should recommend attractive finishes. These are details that make things pop. These should also be delivered promptly so you both have a vision of where things are going.

In fact, a great architect should even help you properly understand which pieces you can reasonably afford and which are going to push the cost through the roof.  

Architects are also responsible for making suggestions that help keep the budget in check

Design Studio Architect Creative Occupation Meeting Blueprint

This an architect can achieve by including appealing suggestions as well as cheaper alternatives for finishes that seem rather pricey.

For example, they can recommend features that you should consider spending on and highlight areas where you can easily save money.

At the same time, they are also best placed to help you anticipate the costs which you might not be preview to having decided to undertake the renovation or construction works.

Ask the architect the right questions to avoid “surprises” on your project:

  • Which responsibilities does he/she handle and which ones can I handle?
  • Which role do I play in choosing and handling fixtures and finishes?
  • What is your strategy to see through a project of this size to its conclusion and on time and according to the budget?
  • Are there any unexpected solutions which you may have suggested on previous projects and worked out fine?
  • How do you deal with or handle conflict?
  • Do you have any notable references I can contact?

As you can guess, getting clear answers to the above will save you tons of money in the long run.

Conclusions

Get a competent architect, one that has your taste and is organized.

Spend the time up front making sure everything has a process.

Press the architect to agree to an initial plan and work timetable (this leaves nothing to chance).

Set up a schedule and a preferred medium for the contractors to interface with the architect.

Ask for a clear way for getting updates on even the minute details of the project.

Before the work gets started make sure you’re clear which areas can go over budget (to avoid surprises) and who is responsible for the overruns.

I wish I had known more prior to hiring an architect.

The architect I hired drew up the required plans. They even went as far as helping me identify the experienced contractors to bid on the project.

They did help manage the contractor I settled for but I wish I had defined more of the roles.

I was still disappointed on several other fronts but this was likely due to my high expectations.

The hardest part was paying more for things I thought we already decided on. The whole project was far more involved and turned out to be way more expensive than I initially accounted for.

Had I only known a few things mentioned, I would definitely have navigated my project more easily and hiring an architect would have turned out completely different.

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