Finding the Right Designer

Here are tips on how to find and hire the right architect or designer for you.

Architects and Designers

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No other profession leaves such large tracks. The work that architects and designers do is hard to hide: buildings, or parts of buildings, draw the eye from far away as we drive or walk by Regardless of whether or not we like what we see, houses are too big to ignore.

In the same way, when we enter other peoples’ homes, most of us can’t help but notice our surroundings. We are wowed by what we like, we cringe at what we don’t. Mental notes get made about the dos and don’ts.

Often, such everyday means as looking and asking around help us find good designers, architects, and contractors. You see a design you like, and you inquire of the owner of the place whom he or she hired to create the space you admire. You ask for a fair appraisal of the designer’s skill and professionalism. If you like both what you see and you hear, you can call the architect, make an appointment to meet, and get on with it.

A personal reference isn’t always so easy, but if a friend, relative, or neighbor has recently had his or her home built or remodeled, ask for an assessment of the designer they used. Chances are you will get an unprejudiced evaluation—they like the result or they don’t, the architect/designer was helpful and responsive or he wasn’t, and so on. Occasionally you will get an insecure response from someone who isn’t really satisfied with what he or she bought but is unwilling to acknowledge it because to do so would be to admit having made a mistake. But generally you’ll get a pretty candid earful, and you may also be able to get a look at the architect’s work to make up your own mind.

WHERE DO I FIND A DESIGNER?
Ask friends, neighbors, or colleagues for the names of designers or architects’ names. Ask your real estate broker and attorney.

The Yellow Pages will surely have some candidates, too, as will the Better Busi­ness Bureau in your area, and you can always check with the American Institute of Architects (1735 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006) for the licensed architects in your area. If you admire work in one of the shelter maga­zines, seek the architect cited. Ask around at the local lumberyard. Ask a local contractor for a suggestion, although you may have to discount disparaging com­ments he may make. Architects and contractors are often at odds with one another.

Without too much trouble you can get a list. Once you have a few candidates, however, don’t think for a minute you are home free. Now your homework really begins, as not every designer will suit your needs, tastes, and personality.

Yet the decision to hire or not to hire should be made only after you meet the designer.

MEETING THE DESIGNER
Make an appointment to see the designer, either at his or her offices or at your home. Keep in mind this is a preliminary meeting The pur­pose of this first session is not to settle upon a design scheme, sign a contract, or make any final decisions. Plan on talking about your needs and concerns, and trying to get a sense of the person personally and professionally. The meeting will probably take an hour or more.

You will need to determine whether you can work with him (or her). If you feel uncomfortable for any reason—perhaps you realize that you’re both high-strung cre­ative individuals and you don’t relish the prospect of hard-fought struggles about every detail—maybe you should continue your search for a designer. You must make a judgment about your needs and the designer’s skills and how your personalities mesh.

This hiring decision is, in a sense, the first major decision in what will be a long string of subjective decisions. Yet it may be the most important, because the designer often sets the tone for the work to come. The experience of redesigning and constructing your living space can be immensely satisfying and exciting, and your designer must be a partner in that process. Are you confident that your designer will listen to what you say and try to accommodate your concerns? You will need to trust his judgment, too, so be sure that you feel in your heart as well as in your head that he is well suited to the job at hand.

Other grounds that may be helpful in making the decision are these:

Previous work
The single most reliable criterion for selecting a designer or architect is his or her previous designs. At the very least, you should review a port­folio of each designer’s work. That will give you the opportunity both to evaluate the designer’s skills and get ideas for your own renovation.

Checking references
If you like what you see in a portfolio, arrange to see one or more of the designer’s projects first hand. Most designers will provide such refer­ences on request and often will gladly take you personally to see a completed proj­ect. If you have the opportunity, talk to the clients themselves. Don’t be bashful about asking questions of the clients. Inquire about the process. How good were the designer’s listening skills? Did he bring good ideas and clever solutions to the process? Was she agreeable to changes along the way? Checking references is sim­ply the best single safeguard you have.

Ask the homeowners how smoothly the job went, how flexible the architect was in dealing with the client’s and the contractor’s questions and problems. Did the job come in close to the estimated budget? The architect is unlikely to send you to see work that either he or the customer is unsatisfied with, but you can still learn a great deal in looking and talking.

The work
Make sure the architect does a good deal of residential work. If there is only one house but twenty commercial spaces in his portfolio, that should tell you something. Residential work can be very satisfying for an architect, but it is likely to be more time consuming than profitable.

Keep in mind that experience is not the only indicator of ability. A young, energetic architect may be willing to do more research and may bring fresher ideas than an old pro with an established, staid practice. But here, again, you must rely on your good judgment. Experience is very valuable but not an absolute prerequisite.

Staff
Try to determine whether the architect has adequate staff and a workload that will allow for the right amount of personal attention to the project from start to finish. Who will do the actual design work? Expect that the architect will delegate much of the work on the finished drawings to a draftsman in the office, but who will be doing the actual designing—the designer himself or someone in the office? If it isn’t the person you’re talking to, insist upon meeting him or her. Ask the designer how many meetings will be necessary upfront; how many design hours does he anticipate will be necessary?

Accessibility
Does the location of the architect’s office make it possible for him or her to be available for consultations? If you plan to involve your architect in over­seeing construction, will he have to travel an hour each way to get to the job site? A long trek back and forth may mean fewer inspections, or perhaps larger, portal-to- portal billings.

On the other hand, don’t reject an architect whose work you like simply because of geography. I know of many instances where designers worked from great distances, in some cases never even seeing the work, before, in progress, or after. It’s not ideal, but with a good contractor and a capable designer, it can work.

The cost
Talk about fees, too, as it is never too early to broach this subject. Find out before the first meeting whether it’s free or if the meter will be turned on as you walk through the door. You probably won’t be able to settle upon a final design cost on day one, but don’t allow the subject to be shunted aside with assurances like, That’s no problem, I’m sure we can work that out. Make sure you have a sense of the total cost.

Can I talk to more than one designer?
The short answer is, yes, of course. This isn’t exactly comparison shopping—price alone should not determine whom you hire. But keep talking to designers until you find one that seems to suit your job and expectations.

If you begin by talking to several architects, pick one you like, and then let him or her create a preliminary design for you. On the other hand, if you have a particu­lar design problem, you needn’t feel shy about turning two or three architects loose, so long as there is a cap on what each architect’s initial presentation will cost. I know of one instance where the owner of a small apartment hired one architect and two designers to create a new kitchen independently of one another. The result was that the architect and one designer came up with workable solutions (the third solution was of no value, in the homeowner’s judgment). And the finished productincorporated elements of one of the rejected designs. If you choose this approach, however, make sure you are very clear with the architects or designers about fees and expectations.

TAKING THE NEXT STEP
When your first meeting concludes, agree upon what is to be your next step. Perhaps you will establish a time for a second meeting. If your first session was in the designer’s office, the next one may be at your home. Even if you have prepared careful drawings of the existing rooms, the architect/designer will probably want to see the space in person and may confirm your measurements.

DEFINING THE PROGRAM
During initial discussions, the designer will attempt to elicit from you what your goals are. What do you expect the remodeling to accomplish? He or she will ask about your needs, budget limitations, and your design inclinations. The purpose is to define in abstract terms the design task—a process architects sometimes term programming, as the result is a program for your design.

With the program in mind, the designer can design a structure that satisfies your objectives, working within established limitations, regulations, and other con­straints. Some architects spend relatively little time in establishing the generalities of the problem; others like to invest more hours in generalized discussion. But once the designer has a clear idea of what you want and a basic familiarity with the struc­ture to be remodeled, the visualization can begin: schematic drawings that illustrate the scale and interrelationship of the various components come next.