To Hire or Not to Hire an Architect or Designer

Strange as it may seem, having an architect or designer is usu­ally more important on a renovation job than for new construction.

Architects and Designers

Photo: homesteadhouse.ca

If know what I want, why do I need a designer at all?
Perhaps you don’t. But S understand that, strange as it may seem, having an architect or designer is usu­ally more important on a renovation job than for new construction. Countless plans exist for new houses—but no two renovations are alike. Your needs and require­ments are site-specific and you can’t just go out and buy a set of ready-made plans. And you will need plans.

Unless your remodeling is confined to cosmetics, you will need a building per­mit. Before issuing one, most municipalities require that you submit plans to the code officer. National, state, and local codes require close adherence to regulations regarding wiring, plumbing, structure, and even rubbish disposal. If you are planning on seeking a loan to underwrite a major renovation, your bank may also want to see professionally prepared blueprints. The detailed listing of materials that designers prepare are also necessary for getting accurate cost estimates.

In short, whether you draft them or someone else does, you’ll probably need plans.

Do I need an architect or a designer?
Most architects happily identify themselves as designers; on the other hand, a self-described designer usually is not an architect. Because they perform basically the same role in a typical remodeling job, I use the terms “architect” and “designer” more or less interchangeably in this book. However, most architects are licensed and have more academic training and professional experience (See The Architect versus the Designer).

Can’t I just hire a contractor and work out the design with him?
Well, you certainly could. People do it all the time. Many experienced contractors are as well equipped to deal with a simple remodeling as an architect. Some have established relation­ships with local code officers so the red tape is minimal. However, if you have some special needs or your house has some peculiarities, you may want to draw upon the design skill and training of a professional designer.

Some builders are quite good designers, but most are not. Though designers and builders often work closely together, the nature of what they do is fundamen­tally different. Architects and designers specialize in the abstract, in conceiving suitable configurations, shapes, and spaces. Builders are concerned with the con­crete details of materials and fasteners and with the physical work of construction. The architect is a big-picture person, responsible for envisioning the whole. It is the carpenter’s and the other tradesmen’s jobs to be concerned with the individual parts.

In a sense, asking a builder to be your architect is like expecting an actor to write the play in which he is to perform. Certainly some actors are playwrights, and some builders are fine designers. More often, however, the disparate talents of the designer and builder are found in different people.

Can’t I do the design myself?
If you have design skills, that’s another option. But are you sure that you know enough to do the job? The simplest definition of “design skills” is that you have had the training to execute drawings that are clear and com­plete enough for the inspector, carpenter, and other contractors to follow. But that’s a bare minimum.

A good designer also has a working knowledge of ergonomics (human engineering), local building codes, materials, and costs, plus at least a modicum of design sense. That’s an intangible. It’s the ability to take a practical design problem and devise a solution that is both functional and aesthetically satisfying. If your design skills are such that you can draw the plans but aren’t so sure you can bring a mix of vision and critical distance to the assignment, getting a pro is probably a good idea.

I’m planning to do the work myself, so why can’t I design it myself?
Again, you prob­ably can. However, in most communities there are design requirements for significant renovation jobs. This won’t apply to work that involves no more than repainting, new countertops, or other minor work, but for remodeling jobs that cost more than a certain sum, or that involve rewiring or new foundation work, the requirements are more rigorous. Which brings us full circle: You’ll probably be required to submit plans that bear the stamp of a licensed architect or engineer. Such regulations were estab­lished for your protection, as well as that of your neighbors. The experts can help ensure that the work done at your house is consistent with fire and electrical codes and is structurally sound.

What are the other benefits of having a designer or architect on my team?
Architects and designers cost money … but they can also save you money. In the short term, the savings may be reflected in more informed purchasing of materials and labor, as designers or architects may be familiar with economical solutions.

In the course of the job, there are fewer change orders when a design has been thought through thoroughly, and that is the essence of the designer’s job. An architect will begin by asking many questions to elicit as much information from you as possible. This time spent in working through the design to anticipate problems can help avoid the need to make changes during construction that are invariably more expensive. A designer or architect may also help avoid code violations.

In the long term, good design work is as important to the resale value of your house as structural matters. If fact, you will cost yourself money in the future if you remodel your house (or “remuddle” it) by violating the integrity of the house’s origi­nal design or even if you simply make the sort of small mistakes that often occur in the absence of a good designer. Examples of such mistakes are doors that open into other doors; mixed up window shapes that seem fine from inside but look all out of proportion from outside; ideas adapted from magazines that looked just right in their original settings but seem grossly out of place in your house

Perhaps the most important advantage of a skilled designer or architect? While the mere presence of one on your team won’t guarantee a better finished product, the odds are greater that it will be well thought out. Often remodelings that were done without design help telegraph to the visitor, No designer or architect worked here.

Successful spaces are the result of good planning. Effective use of light, whether it’s through intelligent fenestration or artificial illumination, helps, too. So does the right mix of materials, textures, and colors. The good architect/designer comes to every assignment with a body of experience, design training, and, perhaps most important, an open mind and a fresh eye. With luck, he or she will leave you with a satisfying living space that meets your needs and expectations.

While the mere presence of one on your team won’t guarantee a better finished product, the odds are greater that it will be well thought out. Often remodelings that were done without design help telegraph to the visitor, No designer or architect worked here.

Successful spaces are the result of good planning. Effective use of light, whether it’s through intelligent fenestration or artificial illumination, helps, too. So does the right mix of materials, textures, and colors. The good architect/designer comes to every assignment with a body of experience, design training, and, perhaps most important, an open mind and a fresh eye. With luck, he or she will leave you with a satisfying living space that meets your needs and expectations.