Working with Your Architect

If you're embarking on a major project, choosing the right architect can save you time, money, and trouble.

Architects

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Hiring an architect should save you time and money, minimize bumps, streamline the building process, and provide an accurate picture of how the project will turn out before a single nail has been driven.

Architectural services should be calculated as part of the project cost, typically just under 10 percent of the building budget. What you pay for is the ability to see many different aspects of a project—the homeowner’s needs, the material and spatial constraints, the timetable, the cost, the permits, and the possibility—through one set of professional eyes.

“Architects bring a global vision to the very complicated process of building,” says architect Greg Colling of The Classic Group, a Boston-based architectural firm specializing in classic home design. A good architect can see obstacles in your project you would never anticipate and easy solutions you might never find.

Selecting an Architect
You will be spending a great deal of time with the architect you choose, as well as living and working in the space he or she designs, so take the time to find the right person for the job. Several search engines for architects exist on the Web. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) maintains an up-to-date, searchable database of their architects.

Find an architect with sensibility similar to you own. Ask to see photos of recent jobs or visit some finished projects to get a feel for the architect’s design sense and preferences. Ask how or why the designer decided on certain solutions, finishes, or schemes. If you like the architect’s past work, chances are you will find common ground. You will talk often and need to work your way through many issues, so make sure that you can converse easily and understand one another readily. If you are restoring an older home, the architect should have experience with period buildings. Typically, historic homes necessitate much more stringent building codes and additional permits.

Preliminary Meetings
An architect helps the homeowner pinpoint the goals of the project. Often, the initial answer— more space, an updated kitchen—leads to more questions from the architect. How is the space going to be utilized and by whom? How often? At what time of day? Be prepared with these answers ahead of time to enhance the discussion and the architect’s ability to make the most of your space. Working with Colling, David Masher identified several goals for his historical home’s kitchen remodel. The Mashers wanted to increase flow both within the home and to the outdoors, improve the lighting, and create a family space for cooking, entertaining, and working. A good architect allows for communication both ways, which ultimately benefits the project. “A homeowner’s needs and wishes are transformed through an architect’s sensitivity and creative process,” Colling says. The Mashers would agree. “We came together to find the right answers for our home,” Masher says of the space he now calls a dream home.

Drawing Up a Set of Plans
When working well with an architect, the savings are there from the start in terms of time and money. Colling says when he first sat down with the Mashers, he drew some “kitchen table sketches” based on their conversation. He also asked Jeanne Masher to find some examples in architecture magazines to “help her articulate her likes and dislikes.” During this planning phase, the architect will also survey the property and look into building regulations and requirements, Colling says.

The architect will produce a more definitive direction for your project and a set of design drawings based on these initial discussions and rough plans. A definite budget will also be prepared as the design becomes clearer. “Thorough drawings” make it easier for the contractor to accurately price and build your project,” according to the AIA. Colling drew up four pages of electrical plans for the Mashers. “That way the contractor had no questions, nothing was left to chance,” David Masher says. No unanswered questions means no time or money wasted in the middle of construction searching for answers, a huge savings for any homeowner.

The architect’s drawings also give a first look at how the space will be transformed. Seeing an accurate rendering of the final product lets you know whether your vision and the architect’s truly match.

Architects as Project Managers
An architect will help you choose materials, color and design schemes, and builders and tradespeople that can bring your design to life. An architect can help you choose materials and finishes that are durable as well as beautiful, saving on frequent maintenance and replacement costs, according to the AIA. New building materials come out surprisingly often, and architects have knowledge of their quality and effectiveness. In the Masher home, innovative new materials were used in the kitchen countertop, on the deck, and under the deck.

If there is one element of building that the average do-it-yourselfer will have trouble with, it is the permitting process. “The architect assists the homeowner in filing documents required for review and approval by local building, zoning, landmark and/or historic commissions, and obtaining proposals and awarding the contract for construction,” Colling says. Building codes and zoning laws can get complicated—having an architect at your side will ensure they are filed properly, keeping your project on schedule.

While bringing the drawings to life using the materials specified is the job of the builder, a good architect will act as your agent in working with the contractor. As the contractors set to work assembling the architect’s vision, there are often obstacles. Having good chemistry between the architect and builder can turn a potential problem into a solution. In the Masher home, an unused chimney became a ready-made channel for pipes and wiring.

The architect administers the contract between the owner and contractor, including meeting with the contractor and vendors to answer any questions, review contractor submittals, address any field changes, reject nonconforming work, and review and certify payments. In other words, your architect makes certain the project goes according to plan, on budget, and on time. If a problem with a contractor does occur, most notably in the quality of the work, the architect will be your greatest ally.