Selecting an Architect

Each architect has his or her own style, approach to design, and methods of work. So it is important to find an architect who understands your style and needs. If you have already worked with a particular architect and feel comfortable, it makes sense to call him or her again. If not, you’ll have to do a little research.

A little homework goes a long way.

First, think carefully about your building needs and goals. Do you need more space? What activities will be housed in the space? How much can you spend on the project? How will you finance it? Where will it be located? Do you plan to do some of the work yourself? Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers. The architect can help you clarify your goals, if necessary.

Start building a list of potential architects.

Find out who designed the projects in your community that you like. Get recommendations from friends, relatives, or acquaintances who have worked with architects. Check to see if the architect is a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Membership in the AIA means that the architect subscribes to a professional code of ethics and has access to a variety of professional and technical resources. Need a place to start? Click here.

Call each firm on your list.

Describe your project and ask if they are available to take on your project. If they are, request literature outlining the firm’s qualifications and experience. If the office is unable to handle your project, ask if they can suggest another firm. The materials you receive from interested firms might include a letter of interest, brochures, fact sheets, photos of past work, and biographical material about key personnel. Look beyond the style of the brochure to determine which firms have the right experience and capabilities for your project. At this point, you should be able to narrow your list to two or three architects you will interview.

Talking chemistry.

The interview is crucial because it gives you a chance to meet the people who will design your project and to see if the chemistry is right. Remember, you will be working with the architect for a long time. You want someone with whom you feel comfortable.

Allow at least an hour for the interview. The meeting might take place at the architect’s office – helpful because you can see where the work will be done. Or the interview can be held at your home or office – helpful because the architect can learn more about your project and needs – whichever feels right. The architect may show you slides or photographs of past work and describe how the firm’s experience and expertise will help you. While many architects do not charge for this interview, some do. Before the interview, ask if there is a fee.

During the interview, ask questions. How busy is the firm? Does it have the capacity to take on your work? Who will handle the job? Insist on meeting the person who will actually handle your project. What is the firm’s design philosophy? How does the architect intend to approach your project? How interested is the firm in your job? Talk about your budget and find out the range of fees that the architect would anticipate for your project. Before making a final selection, have the architect take you to one completed project. It is proper to ask your architect for references from past clients. These references are invaluable.

Making the final cut.

Ultimately, you will choose the architect whom you trust and feel is right for the project. Unlike buying a car or a new appliance, you can’t see the final product and test it out. The architect provides professional services, not a product. The right architect will be the one who can provide the judgment, technical expertise, and creative skills to help you realize a project that fits your practical needs as well as your dreams.

Identifying the services you need

You may already know the scope of professional services required for your project, but most owners want to work with their architect to identify what is needed. Different projects require different combinations of architectural services. An early task is to identify those services essential to the success of the project.

The important choices

Most projects require a set of basic services typically provided by architects: preliminary (usually called schematic) design, design development, preparation of construction documents (drawings and specifications), assistance in the bidding or negotiation process, and administration of the agreements between you and your builder or contractor.

Some projects will require other services. For example, predesign work may be essential: facilities programming, surveys of existing facilities, marketing and economic feasibility studies, budgeting and financing packages, site-use and utilities studies, environmental analysis, planning and zoning applications, and preparation of materials for public referenda. Projects may also require special cost or energy analysis; tenant-related design; or special drawings, models, and presentations.

Not all services must be provided by the architect. Some owners have considerable project planning, design, and construction expertise and may be fully capable of undertaking some project tasks themselves. Others find it desirable or necessary to add other consultants to the project team to undertake specific tasks. Here discussion will be necessary to establish who will coordinate owner-supplied work or other services provided beyond the scope of the architect’s agreement.

There are two effective approaches to establishing services:

  • Establish a set of basic services – a standard grouping of services common to many projects. When you use this approach, a second category of additional services is used to cover pre-design services as well as a wide variety of special studies or services that some projects require (like those mentioned above).
  • Use the designated services approach, which asks owners and architects to select an appropriate complement of services from an array developed by the AIA.The AIA publishes standard-form owner-architect agreements for both of the above approaches. AIA Document B141, Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect, and its condensed version AIA Document B151, Abbreviated Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect for Construction Projects of Limited Scope, both embody the basic services approach. AIA Document B163, Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect for Designated Services, is used to employ the designated services approach. In fact, B163 provides a range of 83 separate architectural, interiors, and construction management services from which to choose. The owner pays only for the services necessary for the project’s success, and the architect can effectively measure the firm’s time and resources.

Compensating your architect

Appropriate professional compensation is important to meeting your goals; cost and value go hand in hand.
Experienced clients recognize that adequate compensation for the architect is in their best interest as it assures the type and level of services needed to fulfill their expectations. You may have questions about how to arrive at the appropriate compensation for your project. Some of the more frequent questions are answered here.

How much should I expect to pay an architect?

That will depend on the types and levels of professional services provided. More extensive services or a more complex or experimental project will require more effort by the architect and add more value to the project. You should budget accordingly for architectural services. And what methods of compensation are available?

These are the most common:

  1. A stipulated sum based on the architect’s compensation proposal
  2. A stipulated sum per unit, based on what is to be built (for example, the number of square feet, apartments, or rooms)
  3. A percentage of the construction cost
  4. Hourly rates
  5. A combination of the above

It is worthwhile to note that AIA Document B163 provides six separate methods of compensation that can be tailored to the types of services being provided.

Team work

The best building projects are created when the client and architect work together as a team. Take an active role. Don’t delegate decision-making to a spouse or business partner unless you are prepared to live with his or her decisions.

Designing a building is an exciting, creative challenge. The process can be fun, satisfying, and positive. It also can be hard work. If at any time in the design process you are uncomfortable, discuss your concerns with your architect. You don’t want the architect to control the project to the point that the building is no longer yours. But you also want to be careful not to restrict the architect so much that you are not getting your money’s worth in terms of design creativity.

Get it in writing

Once you have found the architect, you are ready to put in writing the terms of your agreement on the scope of work, services, schedule, construction budget, and architect’s compensation. This written agreement can take many forms. The American Institute of Architects has developed a variety of standard contract forms which are used industry-wide. For more on how architects can help your building projects, please download the national AIA booklet, You and Your Architect


blue merit logo
blue merit logo