What to Expect when Building a Custom Home: Hiring an Architect

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What to Expect when Building a Custom Home: Hiring an Architect

When you make the decision to build a custom home you are almost definitely going to hire an architect to take on your project.   Today we are going to review the role of the architect in the custom home design and construction process.

Like the custom builder you choose for your home, the architect plays a vital role in many aspects of home design and development.  So you want to take your time to research and interview a variety of candidates to find the right one.  So we are also going to outline a list of questions to ask the architects you are considering, and why this information is important to understand about each candidate.

The Role of the Architect

The firm at WDN Architecture probably said it best – Architects are born problem solvers.  

They take all hopes and dreams for your new custom home and turn it into home and site designs and detailed construction documents that can be executed by the builder and general contractor. But the work doesn't stop there.  Architects also have the vast technical knowledge needed to understand things like electrical and HVAC design, overall construction and site management or green construction practices, requirements and products – if that is of interest to you.  

Another important role that the architect can play, which you may not consider in the inital construction process, is checking the project throughout each construction phase to ensure the plans they created are implemented by the builder and sub-contractors.  Architect Lee Calisti  says this is actually the phase where you need your architect most.  There are a variety of reasons for this including:

  • Ensuring the aesthetic concept of your initial design is met
  • Confirming the structure is built properly
  • Guaranteeing your property will comply with local building codes/ordinances for your type of home and location 
  • Availability to builder and subcontractors to answer and address critical technical details or problems that arise

Read Calisti's article “10 Myths why you don't Need an Architect during Construction” to learn more. 

Finding an Architects

Now that you understand the importance of an architect you might be ready to start calling around to find some potential candidates. 

The American Institute of Architects (“AIA”) has a service available to search for registered architects in your area.  Friends and Family may also be able to provide referrals for reputable firms.

Find an Architect with the American Institute of Architects

Interview Questions

We gathered information from Architect Mark Demerly and the AIA's “20 Questions to Ask Your Architects”, and carpenter, Oliver Marks of houselogic.com to come up with the best questions.  These questions are designed around five ideal outcomes which we will review.

Ensure the Architect can Achieve your Design Vision

If you have been following our Building a Custom Home blog series you know that the first step to getting started is making a list.  A list of everything you want, love, dream about or have to have in your new custom home.

Have this list available, whether it's a well-organized excel sheet or a manila folder with magazine photos you've been collecting for 10 years.   That is the basis for the entire home and site design to make it look and function according to your desires.  Then you can begin to ask questions to make sure this architect can help you achieve that vision:

  • Do you have experience designing the style home I envision? Do you prefer one style home over another, or have a particular specialty in one style home?

Some architects pride themselves on their ability to adapt their architectural designs to the clients' needs, others are focused (intentionally so) on a very specific design that they love creating and they know inside and out. 

  • Can I see past projects and contact past customers for references?

Reputable architects should be enthusiastic about referring to you to past projects.  It shows both a high level of pride in their work, and a strong ability to develop good relationships with their clients over the long process of building a custom home.









Understand the Type of Firm you are considering, their work, communication, presentation and planning styles

Every architecture firm has a different modus operandi so before you decide who you want to work with for the next 12-18 months you want to understand what that looks like.

  • What is going to be my role in the process and what expectations will you have from me?
  • How will you gather the info you need to prepare my home design?
  • How do you handle day to day communication and how often do we need to meet?
  • Who and how many people will be involved in the project?
  • How will you present my design plans, and what visual and 3-D renderings options are available during the design and construction process?

Architecture firms could be 1-2 senior partners working in a small team, or it can consist of dozens of principals, partners, assistants, interior designers and CAD professionals all working synonymously to create your home plans.  Depending on your personality a smaller, more intimate firm may be more important to you, or a large team of professionals may better meet your needs in the grand scheme of the type of home you are building.  Your desired participation level may also play a role here.  If you want to be on site everyday having a small, personal firm may better meet your needs.  If you are hands-off or building far away from your primary residence you may want a larger firm that can provide with more support during the various stages.

Understand Fees and Participation Options in your Project

There is no question Architects add another layer of costs to the custom home process.  So it is important to understand their fee structure and potential unexpected fees that might come up.

  • What is your fee structure? Do you charge per-square-foot, via a monthly fee or a flat percentage.

Former carpenter Oliver Marks of houselogic.com writes that architects usually charge a percentage of 5-20% depending on the style home and the level of participation. 

  • Is there a product mark up for the items I choose on my home?  If so what is the percentage?

Some architects will charge a flat percentage for the products you have selected, especially if they have researched and specified them for you. Others have already included those fees in the agreed upon compensation plan.  KC Roads of mymove.com recommends that you “Ask to see a specific fee breakdown that includes the architect’s initial consultation fee, design fee and hourly, monthly or project rate.”

  • What is your billing cycle and what are your payment terms?
  • Will you provide an Owner/Architect agreement?

Architect, Mark Demerly refers to the AIA Owner Architect Agreement which outlines, in detail, overall project requirements, project tasks and responsibilities, schedule requirements, identify compensation for the architect and understand if the project scope is realistic. 

  • What participation options do you offer in my project? 

Buildingadvisor.com points out several ways that an architect can be involved in your project – schematic design, design development, construction documents, bidding and negotiation, and construction administration.

  • Do you foresee any potential issues with my home design or site design?
  • How do we plan for overruns?
  • Can you help me select a builder and how will you work with them?

Architect Katherine Salant suggests that hiring a builder and architect in tandem can be a smart and money saving decision not because you are using low quality products.  She points out that “getting a lot of luxury features at a low cost per square foot is not the hallmark of a good deal”…especially when you consider the lifetime ownership costs of the products you are considering.  Investing in high quality doors, wood floors, heating, cooling and roofing systems, windows and other important architectural details may present a higher upfront cost but you will keep those products far longer.  Architects and builders can work together on the owners behalf to make sure you get the right form and function for the interior and exterior based on the architect's design and builder's relationships with quality sub contractors and suppliers.

  • Can you save me money? Can you provide me with examples of cost elimination from previous projects?

Although architects do add extra cost to the project, there are plenty of examples that prove that hiring one can also save you money See some example presented by Rand Soeliner of Home Architects of the ways he can save his clients thousands of dollars by careful home design and construction planning, something architects are uniquely trained to do.

Architects can play an important role in the building process and ensure your dreams are effectively communicated and executed to all parties involved.  Take the time to educate yourself and understand every aspect of the professional architects you are considering.

Have you hired an architect lately?  What process did you go through to find one?  What has the process been like for you since?  Do you feel that architects are “worth” the additional investment?

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