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Under an Architect's Care



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By Lee Rennick

You are ready to build your dream home. Or you want to turn the home you have into the oasis you have long envisioned. When do you hire an architect? How do you work with an architect? And just what does an architect do?

“An architect can serve in many roles,” says Kem Hinton, owner of Kem Hinton Design, “from simple design assistance to the complete design and management of the process. A good architect can help guide the owner through the process and hopefully ensure that the owner’s needs and dreams are fulfilled and that their money is spent in an effective and accountable manner.”

Hinton, a retired partner in the award-winning Nashville firm, Tuck-Hinton, continues to pursue his passion in design work because he enjoys making his client’s dreams come true. In his years in the industry, he has seen a lot, both with new construction and remodeling projects, residential and commercial. COVID-19 has made a lot of people interested in everything from giving their home a facelift, to an extensive addition. Others are choosing to build, taking advantage of low interest rates.

“Remodeling projects can be wonderful,” noted Hinton, “or a disaster. An architect can review existing conditions and help the owner discover remodeling options and challenges. This is especially true for older homes, when hidden conditions may cause serious heartburn.”

“When remodeling a home, you need someone that understands the structural nature of how a home is built, as well as, great design taste,” says residential designer Jamie Taylor, owner of J Taylor Designs. “Understanding the current architectural style of a home and the new design goals of a client can sometimes be tricky to merge, so having an architect helps to keep the design aesthetics cohesive as the old and new combine.”

“In expansions, such as adding a master bedroom suite or family room, the architect can ensure that the new design is compatible with the existing structure, be it to follow exactly the aesthetics of the original or as a counterpoint with contrast,” said Hinton. “I have seen both approaches executed to the benefit of the owner. I have also seen disasters, where an addition appears as a bad wart.”

Hinton further notes that building a new house should be a wonderful opportunity and an exciting adventure. Engaging an architect can make the difference between a new place that is merely acceptable and one that could be extraordinary.

“Size does not matter,” added Hinton, “as I have designed new homes that have ranged from less than 1,000 square feet to more ambitious ones in the range of 8,000 square feet. 

When to Work with an Architect 

Since an architect can provide diverse services, what a client needs to do first is decide the type of services he or she wants. Services can be provided by a one-person shop, or a large firm with teams that will be involved with the creation of the final structure.

Be sure you are communicating well with the architect or designer who will be spearheading your build so you both understand the boundaries of the services. It can get confusing. The website curbed.com provides a good breakdown of services; the review below touches on some of their advice.

DRAFTING PLANS. Developing the plans and drawing up the final blueprints is what most people think of when they think of what an architect does. But even though this sounds simple, it can be quite complex. Concept plans, space plans and final blueprints are all different parts of the design process. Some architects will even provide 3D digital plans or a miniature rendering. All of this has a cost. Know what you are paying for, but remember that complete drawings will act as the basis for permits, and they will be a guide for contractors and an interior designer if you use one. Also, find out who owns the final plans, you or them. If they own them, alterations by a different architect or a designer in the future can get interesting.

CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING. As the curbed.com says, “An architect can bake some special elements into the drawings and more might emerge during the course of the renovation…” For example, once the walls are torn away, found space might mean an opportunity to have more storage, to hide an unsightly HVAC unit, or to create a tech free reading nook.

ADVISING ON FINISHES AND FIXTURES. Decisions on door knobs, countertops, paint, lighting, appliances, flooring and tile can be overwhelming. Today choices are almost boundless. A good architect will learn their client’s wants and needs and keeping that in mind, while balancing them with price and esthetics. Or, an interior designer can be called in to help with these decisions.

CHOOSING AND MANAGING A CONTRACTOR. Building is a “team sport.” An architect should know what a contractor does and know how to work with him or her. This means managing to everyone on the team’s strengths. It also means that if a building ‘oops’ happens, the architect should be able to fix the problem without starting all over. Changes and re-dos mean increased costs.

PROJECT MANAGEMENT. Whether you are building new or renovating, the project will have many moving parts -- like permits, people to coordinate and fixtures and finishes to order and track. While the contractor handles some of this, it is good to have a point person who understands your plans and can keep an eye on the project besides the contractor, especially in the current building boom. Shortcuts do get taken if no one is paying attention. And mistakes can be made. “The architect can be your point person,” says curbed.com, “helping you understand deadlines for items you’re ordering, finding specialized sub-contractors beyond the general contractor’s network and keeping things moving with permitting and processes that fall outside the general scope of work (like lead abatement).”

KEEPING THE PROJECT ON TIME. Anyone who has had a house built or remodeled knows that sometimes you just need to stay on top of the contractor. While there are many contractors who are excellent and keep projects moving along, there are some who just need timing reminders, to be told about onsite issues that have come up and can use suggestions on elegant but affordable finish substitutions.

Architects also know what has to be done before you move in and what finishing touches can be done after. There are many stories of home remodeling or construction that lasts twice as long as a client was told and said client has to move into an uncompleted home with only a working toilet and sink. The movie The Money Pit makes us laugh for a reason, we’ve been there, or a friend has.

KEEPING PROJECTS ON BUDGET. In the curbed.com article, the author mentions that his remodel went 30% over budget. A good architect can assist in keeping financial things on track. He or she can recommend cuts that can be made using less expensive alternatives to pricey finishes and where it is important to make the more expensive investment to get the desired result -- as far as needs and esthetics.

WORKING WITH AN HISTORIC HOME OR PLANNED COMMUNITY. Hinton notes that it is important to hire an architect who is familiar with unique situations, including comprehensive developments, historic districts, planned communities and other places where there are stringent design guidelines that need to be studied and followed. “But such guidelines should not compromise the homeowner’s aspirations,” added Hinton. “A competent architect can review such guidelines, design accordingly and represent the owner. Projects should be a win/win/win.” 

How to Find an Architect 

When looking for an architect, there are websites, publications and other media that make it easy. Word of mouth is also good. “One great source is the website of the American Institute of Architects,” said Hinton. “If you locate an architect, it is important for you to learn what services he or she provides, including consultation, design, preparation of construction documents (a.k.a. blueprints) and construction administration to ensure that the builde provides clear and comprehensive construction costs and then builds what has been designed.”

Once you have a list of about four to six potentials, then verify their references thoroughly -- especially in phone conversations (past clients may not be as candid in emails). The most important step is to research the architect and her or his firm. Ask for references from past clients, contractors, interior designers and/or engineering firms. Then find the one who fits you, and you feel will deliver what you want and need.

“Design is a team sport and yet also an individual sport,” said Hinton, “and the owner should know who will do what, especially with a larger firm where talents and capabilities can vary substantially. Same issue with a new firm. Keep an open mind, as a new firm might be a spin-off of talented individuals from another firm, and this new entity might be very eager to prove its worth. If you have friends in the construction business, at larger architectural firms, or at engineering firms, don’t hesitate to ask for advice.”

How to Work with an Architect 

“Ask questions before you hire an architect or residential designer,” says Taylor. ThisOldHouse.com offers an extensive list of questions to ask an architect before you go to work. It is important to be able to communicate well with him or her and for your architect to understand you and what you are looking for.

Understand an architects design philosophy and make sure it jives with your wishes. Some are into sustainability. Others do preservation. Some are all about low cost. Others might just want to work on new construction. What are you doing with your home? “Whatever is important to you should be important to your architect,” according to ThisOldHouse.com.

Understand their process. What are the stages they go through? “Typical phases include initial consultation, preliminary (or schematic) design, design development, document preparation, bidding and negotiation and construction administration,” says ThisOldHouse.com.

Understand their past projects. Look at their book and see if they have done anything like your project in size, complexity, style and within the rules of the development, city, country, or state.

Understand who you will be working with directly. Have one contact person if you are working with a large firm. You do not what to have to work with a team, even if you have a team behind you.

Understand the time line. Know the length of the design phase and the building phase. Ask about the timing on current projects, are they running long because of sub or material shortages? What are possible contingencies?

Understand how they solve problems. You are going to run into unforeseen issues, ask them and those who have worked with them about how they will solve various issues. For example, what if a finish you want is not available, will they have a resource to find something similar quickly?

Understand how they work with a budget and about their fees. Make sure they are willing to make changes when necessary to stay in your budget. You do not want to have them keep asking for more money when issues arise, they need to be able to make changes to give you the same esthetic but at a lower cost when necessary to cover the unexpected.

Ask in depth questions about their fee structure and how they work, as well as how building costs will be managed. Architects work on several different fee bases, including hourly (charging an average of $60 to $125 per hour), percentage of building costs (5% to 10% for new construction and 15% to 20% for remodeling), per square foot, or some combination of these. Typical architect fees run between $2,000 and $8,000 depending on the scale of the project.

Understand who will be doing what. Break the project down under three responsible parties: Architect, Interior Designer and Builder. “All three should be working together throughout the course of the project,” said Taylor. “The Architect being the one to work with the client on initial designs of the project and to supply the drawings for construction. The Interior Designer being the one to help the homeowner with material selections. And the builder being the one to provide budgets, order materials and manage the construction portion.”

Find out about how the design plans will be presented to you and if you can fully “see” the project as they plan on presenting it. Some people are fine with blueprints, others need a 3D model. Also, make sure you know who is managing the bill paying, ordering the appliances and finishes, etc. Set expectations for you and for them.

“An architect is a trained professional,” added Hinton, “and a good one will help the owner know of … options, [including] exploring alternatives, functional variations and cost-saving strategies.”

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