Designing a new home — or updating your current one — can be stressful, but vetting an architect doesn’t have to be. We asked architect Kevin Harris, author of The Forever Home: How to Work with an Architect to Design the Home of Your Dreams and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, which questions are most critical to ask before you lock in a residential architect.
Whether you’re tackling a renovation before listing your home for sale in Sioux Falls, SD, or building a home from the ground up in Atlanta, GA, make sure you know the answers to these 10 questions before the work begins.
1. What qualifications will you bring to my project?
Hiring an architect is a process of mutual selection, says Harris. Most architects initially will meet with you free of charge. This is when you’ll ask to see their portfolio and discuss what you want. The homeowners can get the information they need, but the architect also will discern whether it’s a good fit. Just as you have to carefully choose your real estate agent, every architect is not the right one for every homeowner.
2. What is your personal design style?
Really look at the design sensibilities of the architect’s work, says Harris. Go look at some of their designs in person and talk to their clients. “Architecture is a reputation-driven business,” Harris says. “They should be happy to give you clients [as you research], and chances are, the clients will be fans.”
3. What potential do you see in my project?
Take the time to think about your dream home. “Discern who you are and what a house is to you,” says Harris. You may discuss components of the average home that you won’t use. “You can then work together to edit out things you don’t need,” says Harris. “If you don’t use a dining room all the time, don’t build one — that’s a huge investment.”
4. How familiar are you with energy consumption?
If saving energy is important to you, be upfront about this. “I have cautioned people about some things that seem green that aren’t always,” Harris says. “Money is also green. Does this architect share your vision?”
5. Will I deal directly with you on the project?
Be sure the legwork you do to vet your architect won’t be lost because your project is going to be handed off to someone else in a firm anyway. “Every firm is different,” says Harris. “But what I’ve found in 34 years in this industry is that the homeowner wants the person they trust to carry them through the process.”
6. How will the process work?
Every architect has his or her own process, but you need to be comfortable with it. Typically, the first thing you’ll analyze together is your neighborhood. You may already have an idea, but an architect can help in the process.
“I don’t care how nice a house is,” says Harris. “I cannot change a neighborhood with one house.” Then carefully choose your lot. Do you like the views from this site? Do you care that streetlights might shine into your bedroom windows at night? “Some lots seem great, but an architect may be able to point out things the average client wouldn’t notice,” Harris says.
Once you’ve decided on your perfect plot of land, you need to decide on the floor plan. “Your floor plan needs to work for your lifestyle — the flows, the function — it will be custom-made, inside and out.” And even though you might think it’s the most important aspect, style is actually the last thing you’ll consider, says Harris. “It’s the easiest thing to change.”
7. What is your timetable for completing my project?
Avoid surprises. Make sure you fully understand how long your project will take — and that all parties are in agreement. You’ll likely meet with your architect every two weeks or so, says Harris. “I give my clients homework assignments,” he adds. “‘Here are some light fixtures. If you don’t like them, show me some you do and I’ll find a way to make them work.’ Then, when the drawings are finished, we can give them to the contractors to price.”
8. How disruptive will the work be?
Disruption depends on how extensive the renovations are and what the homeowners’ tolerance level is. “I engage the contractor in the same discussion,” says Harris. “If he or she is going to commit to three months, he’s on record now.”
You’ll also want to discuss phasing and staging so that if you plan to live in the house, you can. The kind of work is also a factor, says Harris. “My rule is that if your master bathroom is knocked out and your kitchen is knocked out, then you have to move out. If you pair up those discomforts, I have yet to meet anyone who’s that close to sainthood who could be fun to live with.”
9. What do I need to know about the maintenance on this house?
Maintenance costs add up over time. “If you want your home to fit into a certain region that, for example, uses a lot of wood detail — balconies and balustrades and window trim — know that there are synthetic materials that cast the exact same shadows, but they’ll last,” Harris says. “We know more about materials now and there are more options.”
10. How will I pay for this project?
Understand the contracts. Come to the table with a well-thought-out and realistic budget. “Don’t start talking about all of your limitations,” says Harris. A good architect will be able to design to your tastes within your parameters. But you need to understand how — and when — your money will be spent.
“Designing a house is a service, not a commodity,” says Harris. Building a home is very likely going to be the largest single investment of your life, he adds. “You need to ask yourself if you can trust this person.”