In most residential construction, the use of an architect's services is optional. So why use an
architect for your project? A well-trained architect tailors a design to an individual, taking
particular needs and particular locations into account. An architect is concerned with aesthetic
issues, manipulating proportions, alignments, masses, voids, and materials to create pleasing
results. An architect specifies the use of materials, finishes, and fixtures best suited to
achieve the client's goals.
Laura Kraft *
People wonder if an architect's involvement in a project will drive up the cost. Architectural
design fees pay for extensive forethought about a project before the hammers swing or concrete
is poured. By thinking through and drawing the design in detail, an architect can identify
potential trouble spots where special attention may be required, thus minimizing surprises and
controlling costs. A well considered, well executed design adds value to your home.
An architect juggles many factors when solving a design problem. While sharing the contractor's
concerns with getting the project built and meeting the budget and schedule, an architect
integrates a broad range of additional concerns, including the following:
Ideally, an architect designs with all of these things in mind, creating a few alternative schemes
for the client to consider. These may solve the problem in satisfying ways that the client has
not even considered. When a favorite scheme is in hand, the architect develops the design into
a detailed set of working documents that can be used for estimates, bids, permits, and
construction. During this process, there is time for client feedback to help refine and hone the
specifics of the design.
providing spaces for a client's unique needs and requirements
how the project expresses the client's feelings, values, and priorities
how the project relates to its site
how the project fits into its neighborhood
how the project fits into its historical context
how the details enhance the overall effect
how the project is structured
long- and short-term economic benefits of design strategies and material, finish, and fixture
- jurisdictional limitations
energy and environmental responsibility
planning ahead for optional future changes
in remodels or additions, how new work will fit with or contrast with existing construction
In the construction phase, the architect observes and reviews the work in progress for conformance
with the design intent and the contract documents. During this phase, the architect's role is to
protect the interests of the client. An architect's broad range of concerns, knowledge, skills,
and experience can smooth the way through this exciting and complex process.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What can an architect do for me that a contractor can't do?
A: A large part of an architect's role is to help you visualize potential solutions. This may be
achieved through the use of building models, three-dimensional drawings, perspective views, and
computer-generated images in addition to traditional floor plans, sections, and elevations. A
clear and vivid representation helps you understand what a design solution will look like and feel
like, so you can judge it in an informed way.
A contractor may lean toward construction methods and product suppliers with which he or she has
had past success. This may narrow the field of possibilities for your project. Most architects
approach a project with an open mind toward a broad range of methods, materials, and components.
Creative and apt solutions can come out of this freedom.
An architect is knowledgeable about tailoring your design to comply with zoning laws, neighborhood
covenants, building codes, and the like. He or she can help guide your project through the
construction permitting process. An architect can also recommend contractors who might be well
suited for your project.
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Q: Can I get a permit for construction on my home without an architect?
In many jurisdictions, a single-family homeowner may obtain his or her own building permit.
However, many homeowners find that between drafting the required documents and providing the
necessary copious technical information, the task is quite daunting, and they seek professional
assistance. The permit process varies considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is best
to contact your local building department for information.
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Q: Where can I find an architect?
Four methods come to mind. First is word of mouthsomeone you know has experienced a
successful project with an architect. This person may be another homeowner or your builder.
Second, you might seek out an architect who has completed a project you've seen in person or in
the media that you like very much. Third, try asking for referrals from a professional
organization such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which offers listings and
materials to acquaint the public with its members. Fourth, ImproveNet offers a free independent
that can help you find a local architect.
In all cases, it is wise to check references.
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Q: How much do an architect's services cost?
There is no quick answer to this frequently asked question. The fee is usually structured in one
of three ways: as a reflection of the number of hours needed to do the work; as a percentage of
the total construction cost; or as a fixed fee with a stipulated sum. Sometimes, an architect
will propose to bill the open-ended portions of the work on an hourly basis and the more finite
portions as a fixed fee.
The hourly rate and percentage of construction cost will vary according to the architect, the
state of the economy, and the part of the country. For an answer specific to your project, meet
with an architect who will determine the scope of your project and will provide you with a
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Q: What if I don't like the designs my architect comes up with?
Upon occasion, a client may be dissatisfied with the architect's work or approach. Keep in mind
that the creation of a design is a complex process; an architect may not "hit the nail on the
head" immediately. However, if you feel you are not being served adequately or appropriately, it
is best to discuss your concerns directly. Most contracts have a provision for termination of
services. Generally, either party may terminate the relationship at any time with a week's notice.
Of course, the client is required to pay for services rendered up to the notice of termination.
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Q: What does "licensed architect" mean?
It means the practitioner has earned a state-issued license to practice by obtaining a
professional degree, completing an internship in the office of a licensed architect, and passing a
rigorous examination. (It is possible to substitute a substantially extended internship for the
professional degree.) By having earned this license, the architect is expected to uphold the
prevailing professional standard of practice. He or she is expected to support the public health,
safety, and welfare and to practice the profession ethically. It is illegal for anyone without a
valid license to represent himself or herself as an architect.
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Q: What is meant by the letters "AIA" after an architect's name?
The letters refer to membership in the American Institute of Architects, which is a professional
organization. Membership is optional; it is not required for the practice of architecture. The
AIA is open to interns (unlicensed) as well as licensed firms and individual practitioners.
The AIA serves its membership by providing a forum for education, information, recognition,
advocacy, and advice. Many local chapters serve the public with educational programs and
information about the qualifications of their members.
The standard contracts developed by the AIA are widely used and generally accepted by architects
and contractors. They are available for the use of members and nonmembers alike.
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Q: Does it make a difference whether or not an architect uses computer-aided drafting?
The computer and the pencil are simply different means toward the same end: a design and/or a
set of construction documents. The computer is particularly useful for large and complex projects.
For home remodels, which are usually full of unique, nonrepeated conditions, hand drafting
is less cumbersome than computer drafting. The quality of the final product, that is, the built
object, depends on the architect's talent, experience, and care, not on the tool used to produce
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Q: Is any project too small or too insignificant to use an architect?
Even a smaller project such as a deck, an entry, or a bathroom can benefit from the forethought
an architect can provide, especially if the project is encumbered with several conflicting
constraints. There are clear benefits to solving a construction puzzle on paper prior to buying
materials, busting out walls, etc. This type of problem solving is the architect's expertise.