Thinking of remodeling? Finding the right architect can make the difference between your dream home and your worst nightmare.
1. "Having an architecture degree and having a license are two very different things."
When Debbie Ford, a La Jolla, Calif., writer, hired an architect to oversee an addition in 2003, she was surprised when he started ripping out most of her walls, plumbing and electrical wiring. She then learned that he wasn't licensed — and that most of the gutting was unnecessary.
While Americans may not be buying and remodeling homes as quickly as they were during the recent housing boom, we are still a nation obsessed with home improvement: Consumers are expected to spend $224 billion this year on housing facelifts, according to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, up from $164 billion in 2002.
And bringing in the right architect can mean the difference between dream home and disaster area. To ensure the former, first make sure your architect is licensed-and not just someone with an education or background in architecture.
To locate licensed architects, start with the National Council of Architecture Registration Boards (www.ncarb.org). Also look for membership in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which has its own code of ethics (www.aia.org). Finally, ask for referrals to get a sense of how well an architect works with clients.
2. "You may not need me at all."
Hiring an architect can add thousands to the cost of a home improvement project, which is a lot of money when your project is relatively small — converting a garage to a game room, say, or expanding your kitchen.
Architects will argue that they offer expertise that will make any addition, however small, flow better with your house, but experts say hiring one can sometimes be overkill. "If the project is entirely interior to the house," says C.C. Sullivan, editor in chief of Architecture magazine, and "as long as you're not moving windows or adding to the footprint (basic outline) of the house, you may not need an architect at all."
The ultimate authority, however, is your local municipality's housing department; some may require architect-stamped drawings in order to get a building permit, while others might allow you to give your drawings directly to a contractor. For small projects, you may be able to use an interior designer or, if you're doing just one specific room, a kitchen, bath or even basement design specialist. For a qualified designer near you, check out the Web sites of the International Interior Design Association, at www.iida.org; the American Society of Interior Designers, at www.asid.org; or NARI, at www.remodeltoday.com.
3. "If I can't read your mind, I'll just design things my way."
While you can get a good sense of an architect's sensibilities looking at his past projects, it's up to you to make sure which parts of his style do and don't surface in your home. When Janet Kennedy, a health care professional in Brooklyn, N.Y., was having her brownstone remodeled in 2001, she was surprised to see that a prominent set of new windows had a sleek, modern look, while she had assumed they would appear more traditional for her century-old home. The architect "never went through with us what the woodwork would be like. It was shocking."
To help avoid surprises, talk in as much detail as you can, early on, about what you envision. David Ashen, an architect based in Long Island City, N.Y., says he encourages prospective clients to "pull a library together of things that inspire them," such as clippings from newspapers and magazines. That "gives me a little bit of a DNA of what the client responds to." He also asks new clients to think hard about how they live in their home, from where they like to have morning coffee to how they entertain. If you are part of a couple, finally, make sure that you and your spouse or partner agree on aesthetics beforehand so you can present a united front.
4. "I see your budget as an opening bid."
When landscape artist Tom Zavitz bought some property in Montana in 1999, he and his wife decided to build a modest, Arts and Crafts-style, three-bedroom home with a view of the mountains. They signed up an architect they found through a referral from an acquaintance and told him their budget was $200,000. But during weekly meetings over the next six weeks, they became increasingly frustrated to see a consistently bigger scale and elaborate details in the architect's proposed design. "We kept saying, 'This is too much.' But every time he came back (with revisions), his projected budget kept going over, by as much as 50%," Zavitz says. "I think he just had it in his head that we had more money." The Zavitzes ultimately paid him $5,000 to end the relationship and found another architect, who helped them stay within their budget.
Zavitz says he was much firmer with the second architect about his unwillingness to go over budget. To play it safe, Ashen advises, "whatever you think your budget is, say it's 10 to 20% lower. Things happen," such as small building glitches, "or you may change your mind" about details or finishes along the way.
5. "My payment plan may take advantage of you."
Once you decide that you like an architect's basic ideas, you should sign a contract to get the terms in writing. The AIA has a template contract that many architects use, and it covers the size, or "scope," of the project; the homeowner's budget; a time frame for the project; and a payment schedule.
Setting the fee structure, however, is completely up to the architect. The traditional fee is based on a percentage of the cost of the job — typically between 10 and 25% — based on estimated total construction costs, including design and consultation through the construction process.
Some architects, though, may insist on an hourly fee, which can run anywhere from $50 to upwards of $200. Many architects do this, understandably, to protect themselves from impulsive clients who ask for endless revisions throughout a project. But even if you don't plan to be wishy-washy, an hourly rate will almost always cost you more. "I strongly advise people not to go hourly," Sullivan says. "Interview another architect." You can negotiate some specific wiggle room, too. Ashen says his contract with clients usually caps the number of revisions, and anything above that will incur new fees. 6. "My drawings aren't really builder-ready."
Before you can start shopping for a contractor, you'll need your architect's finished drawings so contractors can bid on them. But "finished" can be a subjective term. Tony Crasi, owner of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio-based building firm Crasi and Co., says that one of the biggest problems in working with other people's architects is that he sees "incomplete drawings, inaccurate drawings, drawings that have no chance of being built for the price the owner would like."
Part of the problem can stem from an architect's lack of construction expertise, but it can also be the result of the homeowner's not knowing what kinds of drawings to ask for. Unless you're doing a very small project, be sure to ask for "construction-level" or "builder" drawings. Ideally, these should also include "specifications," which describe finishes and quality of workmanship. Discuss as many details as you can, down to the type of faucets you want in the bathroom. It may add to your architect's fee, but the right drawings make it easier to estimate costs, preserve your wishes — and can even help determine liability if something goes wrong. "I don't think you can put enough information in a set of plans," Crasi says.
7. "I often don't know what things cost."
Once you have some contractors' bids in hand, your architect should help decipher them, spotting possible price inflation or suspicious low-balling. But you shouldn't take an architect's sense of specific prices as gospel. While they can generally make ballpark estimates, "rare is the architect who is on top of what costs are right now," says Bill Kreager, an AIA fellow and a principal with Seattle-based Mithun Architects, "and certainly not what prices are going to be in six months," when construction begins.
Kreager suggests bringing in a contractor, even when you and your architect are just beginning, under what he calls a "negotiated contract." You pay the contractor by the hour as a consultant — to help estimate price, predict availability of necessary materials and qualified subcontractors, and to spot possible building-specific design obstacles — with the option of hiring him for the full job later. To find contractors, ask your architect, or even your real estate agent; otherwise, check out the Web site HandymanOnline.com, which can help hook you up with licensed and insured contractors in your area who carry at least three good references.
8. "Your contractor and I have communication issues."
At the extremes, architects are in this for the aesthetics while contractors and builders are more concerned with logistics, so it's only natural that tension can arise between the two — or, even worse, they may just not be interested in dealing with each other. During Janet Kennedy's remodel, she says, problems kept arising because the contractor couldn't translate the architect's plans, resulting in misplaced closets, moldings that had to be ripped out and rebuilt, and lots of delays.
To get off to a secure start, try what Tracy Walsh did when she was ready to hire a contractor for a remodel. "We had the architect actually meet (the prospective contractor) before we signed on," the Brooklyn, N.Y., graphic designer says. Happily, they clicked. "We figured it was best to let (the contractor) know up front (the architect) was going to be overseeing this. If the contractor was going to have a problem, we'd know right away."
9. "Once the blueprint's done, I'm outta here."
The design phase of a home takes an average of about a month, depending on how often the architect and clients can meet to discuss plans. Once construction begins, a good architect should visit periodically to make sure that the building is adhering to the design and to make sure no corners are being cut. Most good architects do, and consumers should "assume the architect will supervise," says Sullivan of Architecture magazine, but this isn't always the case. In Kennedy's brownstone, she says, "we were the ones noticing that things weren't happening like in the drawing, like when two separate closets were not placed properly."
Make certain that your contract spells out how often your architect will reappear once construction begins. "At some points he might be there every day, certain times once a week," says Ashen, the architect from Long Island City, N.Y., "and often times on the phone or (making) quick trips." An architect should especially stop to inspect hard-to-undo events, like window installation.
Another way to keep the architect coming back is to structure the payment plan using time as an incentive: Pay a third of the fee up front, another third when most of the documents are done and the last third when construction is at least substantially complete. Otherwise, Sullivan says, "it's human nature for architects to wander away when you finish paying them."
10. "A package deal can be a package mess."
More and more companies are offering what is known as "design-build" services, meaning that the architect and builder or contractor work for the same company and you pay one fee for both of them — typically, up to 15% of construction costs. Such an arrangement "can be a great thing," Sullivan says.
But it's not always a guarantee that everyone will work together. When Barbara and Randy Teach were building a home in Bakersfield, Calif., their builder offered an in-house architect, who helped them tweak one of the development's house plans. But building was delayed by a month, because the builders started work using the untweaked blueprint. While Randy, who runs a cancer treatment center, blames the builder more than the architect, he says, "You'd think they'd be on the same page."
For a smooth design-build experience, make sure architects and carpenters are truly on staff, and meet with both the design and construction people before you sign on. According to Bruce Wentworth, an AIA member and vice president of Silver Spring, Md.-based Wentworth-Levine, some firms actually "sub out" the design phase, which defeats the purpose of using a firm that does both. Another good litmus test: Look for firms that call themselves "architecture-build" firms, which by law must employ licensed architects, as opposed to less-qualified designers.