Nine Things You Need to Know When Hiring an Architect
Steve Shulfer, partner and CEO of Sketchworks Architecture, sheds some light on the important questions to ask.
Q: How should one go about searching for a reputable architect to hire? Is there a spot a client or customer can look, or is it mostly word of mouth?
A: Architect selection is generally word of mouth. There are resources to find local architects, including the American Institute of Architects website, and local business associations, but that will not necessarily convey the qualifications of the firm.
Q: What types of certifications and education should an architect have that a client should ask for when interviewing an architect?
A: The first and most important certification is that the architect is licensed to practice in the locale that is sought. Licensure is granted by state, though the minimum qualifications, education, and exam requirements are fairly standardized in the U.S.
After local licensure, it is important that the architect understand the regional practices of design and construction, the local building codes, the municipal approval and entitlement process, and of course be experienced in the project type—be it retail, residential, healthcare, industrial, et cetera.
Q: What types of questions should a client ask an architect to help them select the right architect for their project?
Much like selecting a doctor, attorney, or contractor, it is important to understand the experience and qualifications of the professional you are seeking. A starting list of questions can generally be:
- Are you licensed to practice in my area?
- Have you performed work in this municipality?
- What other projects have you worked on of this, or a similar, type?
- How do you envision navigating my project’s design process?
- Can you provide a schedule or milestone events timeline?
- How are your fees established?
- Do you require or recommend any outside consultants or expertise for my project?
Q: How long typically is the process from when an architect is hired to when a project begins?
A: Duration of any project schedule is hugely variable depending on the project size and on the owner’s schedule needs. There are times when we literally start a project the same day, or there are times when we won’t start a project for a year (or more) after negotiating a contract. It is most important that all understand the schedule demands prior to negotiating a contract ad making any commitments.
Q: Should customers expect to get customer testimonials and referrals from previous clients when hiring an architect?
A: Referrals or references are always beneficial in any line of practice. As architects are most commonly hired by word of mouth, it is generally the case that the reference is given before the introduction is ever made!
Q: How do you guide clients in their vision for the projects they want to achieve?
A: It is best for an architect to learn a client’s needs. If it’s a business, the architect should understand what the business’s goals are, and how that translates through the culture of the organization, it’s staff, the operations, efficiency and the aesthetic.
If it’s a residential project, the architect should seek to learn how the family spends time, what their personal interests are, and what is most important to them in their lived-in environment. It truly is the case that architects need to learn everything they can about the client in order to best design a suitable space. Then, after this, the architect needs to recognize what the clients likes, and does not like. It is equally important to receive input from the client on design features to avoid and emphasize.
Q: How do architects in general charge for their services?
A: There are several ways an architect can charge fees. Below are the three basics, though there are variables to each:
- Hourly (time and expense)
- Lump sum (by project)
- Fee based on percentage of cost of construction
The type of fee and quantity is based on each project’s needs. Since designing a project before it is ever conceptualized can be difficult, oftentimes fees will be split into phases of work. A fee may be given to prepare multiple preliminary (schematic) design options. Then, when a specific design is selected, another fee may offered to complete the construction documents from which to build.
Q: How do you handle bumps in the road on projects, or work with clients on refining or changing their vision if need be?
A: Every project has its pitfalls. These can be regulatory, budgetary or unforeseen conditions (existing structures, et cetera). Architects will try to forewarn clients of what could be lurking in the future—but we are not fortune tellers! Therefore, it’s advisable to always have a contingency [plan]. We advise clients to be thinking about a backup schedule (as “bumps” can often mean delays), or have a contingency budget (two percent to 10 percent, depending on the type of project) just in case the unexpected happens. When these do happen, the only way to address the bumps are head on. It’s important to discuss all the scenarios, the available options and the implications of each decision. This can be a daunting task, but in the end, everyone will feel satisfied that the team left no stone unturned and the best solution was created.