Your Architect, Your Ally

By staff May 1, 2004

Any good carpenter will tell you: Measure twice, cut once. An architect might put it this way: Think twice, build once. Think twice before building a home without consulting an architect, that is. This isn't ego talking; it is sound advice for anyone about to embark on the dream of designing and building a home-or the adventure of renovating an old one.

To construct or remodel a structure without an architect would be comparable to having surgery without an anesthesiologist. Well, not exactly-but it could be painful. That's why it's important to bring in an architect, the earlier, the better.

Because architects are trained problem solvers, they can help smooth the entire process, from site selection and zoning approvals through the design and construction phases. They also know how to get the most for your money. They can suggest ways to reduce building costs and ensure long-term savings through efficient design, not to mention creating a place that will have lasting value and fetch a higher price should you decide to sell.

But perhaps the number one reason for hiring an architect is that he represents you-the owner-and has your best interests at heart. Rick Garfinkel, AIA, explains, "Essentially, the architect becomes a guide through an often complex process. He may serve as the lead in a team of people consisting of the architect, the owner, the contractors, and more and more, the government. He acts as liaison between the owner and the other members of the team." The architect is your ally, and with the architect involved at the earliest planning stage, you can avoid potential pitfalls and get more for your investment.

But where-and how-do you find a qualified architect? 

The Talent Search

A good place to start searching for candidates is through the American Institute of Architecture. The AIA is an organization dedicated to promoting professional excellence. The initials AIA after an architect's name represent a commitment to the highest standards.

"I would tell people who are thinking about hiring an architect to look online, do some research and start weeding out that way," says Todd Yeomans of Smith Architects, president of AIA's Florida Gulf Coast chapter. Word of mouth, of course, is best. However, short of a solid recommendation, the AIA has a comprehensive directory that identifies the segment in which various architects work or specialize. "Then I suggest that people take the time to interview several different candidates to find a good personality fit, not just take the first one who is willing to work with them," he advises.

When hiring an architect, personality counts. Think of your interview as first date of sorts. Does he seem to genuinely care about you and have your best interests at heart? Does she listen to you? Does he understand your wants and needs? Do you like her attitude? Is he willing to work with you? Is there a level of trust? Do you detect honesty and integrity? The owner/architect relationship will be a long-term one-for months, if not years-so choose your partner wisely.

You may want to look at a portfolio of their work; although frankly, this seems to be of less importance than whether you simply like the architect. And it's not essential that you find one who specializes in the building style you want. "Many architects consider themselves generalists, able to handle any type of project because their training is quite broad," Yeomans explains. "However, you do want to find an architect who will be excited about your type of project, residential in particular. Some are more comfortable with traditional design, some with more contemporary work, but I think most consider themselves flexible and open-minded enough to do any type of project that you ask."

During the interview, you'll want to discuss your vision, how you plan to live in the house, what kinds of things you like, and whether or not you have already purchased property. Preferably, you haven't, because it's better to find a site that will accommodate your dream home than to modify your dreams to fit the site. Plus, there are myriad site-specific issues to consider-such as orientation to the sun-so it makes sense to hire first, buy later.

"One misconception among people who haven't worked with architects is that we're a drafting firm," Yeomans says. "We don't just sit down and draw what you have sketched on a napkin." A licensed architect has six years of education plus another three years of internship and generally a master's or professional degree. "At its best, it's a state of collaboration and a creative process and not just a simple formula. At its worst, the client doesn't take full advantage of the services. Drawings leave the office and the contractor is forced to work in a vacuum. It's a missed opportunity at that point, because no one is looking at the big picture." 

Other Considerations

Wherever you build, try to find an architect who's close by. Greg Hall, "Not only will that person be more familiar with environmental issues, he or she will also be familiar with local customs and practices, builders, engineers, code officials and other partners who are part of the process," explains Greg Hall, AIA, CSI, of Jackson=Hall Architects. "Local knowledge will enable the architect to steer you clear of things that might be more costly, and to direct you towards more creative solutions."

Finding creative solutions is what it's all about, agrees Hall's partner, Christopher Jackson, AIA. "Architecture is holistic problem solving," he explains. "We're not just looking at codes or size requirements. We've got information coming at us from all different sides. What we're taught is how to process everything at once and prioritize in order to work through issues. It is not a linear process."

Once you find an architect you like, you can get down to more serious discussions. Fees, for example. What does an architect cost? There are many different fee structures, and rates vary. Some architects charge an hourly rate; some charge a fixed fee for certain portions of the work, with an hourly agreement for the rest (you may want to specify a maximum cap). Or the architect may charge a straight percentage of the construction costs, anywhere from 8 to 15 percent.

Nevertheless, Jackson insists, "We believe there is always a way to structure a relationship so that you can work with anyone within their budget. Many times we will work out an agreement to do a little bit of work for a limited fee, like a feasibility study, to give the clients some information to help them decide what do to before they sign a contract." You don't necessarily have to hire the architect and be locked into a three-year relationship. There are various ways you can work together, and the interview is the time to discuss the fee structure.

Now What?

Be prepared to relinquish a little control to the architect. It's for your own good-really. "There are basically three variables when you design and construct a home," Jackson explains. "Quantity (size), quality (e.g. sheet vinyl or marble) and budget. The architect needs to control one of those. The owner can pick any two, but we get to adjust the third in order to make it work."

And make it work they will. Although the construction process is sophisticated and requires knowledge you don't necessarily possess-the architect's training and experience will see you through. So while your ally is confronting challenges head-on, you can be on the golf course. Sounds like a great plan.

For a complete list of members of both the Florida Gulf Coast chapter members of AIA and the Florida West Coast chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), see the Design Resource Guide in the January 2004 issue of SARASOTA Magazine, or visit

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