Ten tips: How to find an architect (a good architect).

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Choosing an architect doesn’t need to be daunting and can even be fun.  In any event, architects, even less-than-optimal architects, are worth hiring if you want to build something.  Regardless of whether your project is big or small, expensive or thrifty, architects can make it better and your life easier.  Here are ten tips for how to snag “Architect Right.”

Note: naturally, you’ll want to find the “best” architect.  That’s not likely to happen.  But that’s okay, since there will always be plenty of “nearly the best” architects (i.e., “Architect Right”), whom are compatible with your personality and able to competently execute your vision in physical form.

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1.   Look far, look wide. Don’t hesitate to ask your friends and family if they know any “good” architects; they are most likely to give candid feedback on architects they know and may have even hired one for their own project.  But don’t limit yourself to a “word-of-mouth” selection.  For one, there is an ever-present risk that your building project will be stressful and test your relationships - if you don’t want to risk harming a friendship or professional connection, you may want to avoid hiring an architect at your church, in your family, or next door.

Moreover, as effective as “word-of-mouth” networking can be, the Internet is extraordinarily useful for discovering other local architects and researching the work of those you already know about.  As you may know, that’s what StructureHub is all about - it is a directory of local designers (not just architects) that includes each firm’s portfolio of work.  StructureHub allows you to search by style, location, or practice area and then quickly sift through the candidates by viewing images of their work.

Besides StructureHub, there are many local chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which is the primary professional organization for American architects; most local chapters post information about design awards won by member firms and usually have a basic (but less helpful) directory as well.

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2.  Ask questions; more = better. Whether you talk to relatives, friends, or even the architect under consideration, it pays to do some investigating.  Ask the architect’s former clients about their experiences - whether the architect can keep a schedule, handle crises, or communicates effectively.  Ask the architect how they approach their work - whether they are more collaborative (like Benjamin Latrobe writing to Thomas Jefferson, above) or prefer to develop designs more independently.

Equally important, ask for a clear explanation of the architect’s billing expectations and how they prefer to work with public agencies and contractors.  It pays (both financially and emotionally) to avoid surprises - and asking questions early is the best way to avoid them.

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3.  Choose according to your style. Obvious?  Perhaps, but worth reiterating.  Don’t pick an envelope-pushing modern architect if you want a traditional Colonial Revival home; don’t pick a revivalist architect if you dream of having your own Barcelona Pavilion.

Even if you find an architect that is perfect in every other way, you will be unhappy if their style clashes with your own.  The inevitable give and take during the design process risks becoming more adversarial than cooperative.  Of course, good architects are capable of adapting their stylistic approach to your taste; but creative solutions are much more likely to happen if the architect is not expected to depart too drastically from their own stylistic tendencies.

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4.  Choose according to your personality.  Stylistic tendencies are revealed by looking at photos or driving by projects designed by a particular architect.  Finding an architect with a personality that matches your own nearly always requires some face-to-face contact, whether in a formal interview or informal coffee shop chat.  In any event, be sure to interview at least a couple architects to give you a means of assessing your preferred candidate.

If you’re blunt, don’t choose an especially sensitive or thin-skinned architect; if you struggle to communicate your expectations, don’t pick an architect who lacks the patience to listen.  If your preferred candidate is anything like Frank Lloyd Wright, be prepared to stand back and let him work his magic with a fair amount of independence.

Don’t underestimate the importance of personality, either.  Designing a home or an office building - even a shed or cabin - typically involves a number of discussions with the architect.  The architect is also generally the person who ensures the project comports with local zoning rules and who also attempts to put out fires as they happen.  And fires will happen one way or another.  Even after the final design is approved, the architect communicates with you and the contractor throughout construction.

Basically, if you love the architect’s style but hate their guts, look elsewhere unless you are prepared to go through months of headaches, frustrations, arguments, and frayed nerves.  The reward for finding a compatible architect will be more than emotional peace; if you get along, the final design stands to be even better.

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5.  Take your project’s complexity into account. Most architects specialize on a defined set of project types (e.g., exclusively residential; commercial and civic).  Unless you plan to hire a large, full-service architecture firm, expect to narrow candidates accordingly.  If you are building a home or renovating a historic property, you will generally be better off hiring an architect with experience dealing with the challenges posed by each situation.

Similarly, it would be unwise to hire a residential architect to design a large commercial property (or your capitol building’s dome) unless you are certain the architect will have the ability (or access to experienced colleagues) to handle the project’s complexities.  If your project is small and you are adventurous, consider hiring a young architect, who will generally be less expensive, but just as competent.

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6.   Pay attention to the details. This is obviously applicable to many things, including questions you pose to candidates and your research of portfolios.  Don’t just glance at images of buildings; look at the materials used and analyze how past projects have dealt with aging.  Even better, ask the candidate architect to set up an in-person inspection of one of their past projects.

You may love Daniel Libeskind’s jaggedness or Frank Gehry’s whimsy, but you should be wary of their track records involving expensive post-construction problems (e.g., Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum has a bit of a leaking problem and Gehry’s Strata Center at MIT has been hobbled by cracked masonry, mold, and leaking of its own).

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7.  Don’t shy away from talking about money. Money (almost) inevitably affects the outcome of every project.  Consequently, you should be candid about your budget and curious about each candidate’s payment options.  Payments generally take the form of a (1) lump-sum project fee; (2) hourly-rate; (3) percentage of the project’s construction cost; or (4) combination of all of the above.

An important thing to remember:  find out exactly what your money would go towards (rarely should you proceed without a written contract).  Payment/service contracts can be tailored to fit unique circumstances, but almost always (1) include a mandated time-line to ensure the project moves forward; (2) accurately describe the scope of the architect’s duties and client’s obligations; (3) state the amount of fees; and (4) identify the method of payment.  If a candidate is unwilling to include any of these things in a written contract, you should look elsewhere.

Although the end result was spectacular, the above-pictured Farnsworth House’s construction was rife with conflict between the client and architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, primarily about whether costly design changes and the resulting budget increases were approved by the client.  The conflict was not inevitable.

Do you think you can’ t afford an architect?  Just remember: architects do more than draw; they are in the best position to (1) minimize the cost of construction through sound planning and coordination with your contractors (or you, if you’re the builder); (2) reduce the completed project’s energy consumption by designing efficient heating/cooling/plumbing/electrical systems; and (3) physically manifest the vision you have in your mind.

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8.  Take your time choosing. Selecting an architect is a big decision that shouldn’t be rushed.  You should expect to take at least a couple weeks or a month to identify a few candidates - many people take much, much longer.

Knowing that architect selection doesn’t happen in a single day, you shouldn’t delay talking with candidates - especially if you have a preferred construction start-date in the near future.  Architects and contractors are just as (if not more) busy than you; the project is more likely to  proceed smoothly (with fewer delays and mistakes) the more heads-up time they have to plan and clear their schedules.

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9.  Keep location in mind. This tip is somewhat less important and largely a matter of convenience but worth thinking about, nonetheless.  It is convenient if your architect is located near the construction site or able to talk with you in person.  But if your preferred candidate is satisfactory in every other way, don’t get hung up on the fact that a fair bit of driving or even flying is in order.  Most of your communications will be by phone and e-mail, anyway.

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10.  Relax. Finding a good architect may seem like a chore at first.  But hey, you get to look at attractive projects and talk with interesting people whose work you admire.  That sounds alright to me.

Images courtesy of (1) kjell; (2) photophiend; (3) wojtekgurak; (4) wallyg & jim_w; (5) cornelluniversitylibrary; (6) cordwoodruff; (7) pg; (8) lamtoro; (9) smallritual; and (10) dharmesh.

One Comment

  1. [...] So how do you choose an interior designer?  Well, in much the same way you choose an architect.  Here a few  tips for doing so. [...]

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