Do You Need an Architect? (Maybe Not)
Architecture begins when you place two bricks carefully together.
- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Definitely hire an architect
Definitely do not hire an architect
Most people know that if you want to build a skyscraper, you definitely need to hire an architect. Most people also know that if you want to add an outlet in your home office, or a utility sink in your basement laundry room, you definitely don’t need to hire an architect (you need an electrician or a plumber of course).
But what about all those projects in between? Those projects that we Americans spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build each year - the new kitchens, the remodeled bathrooms, the master bedroom suite additions, the basement renovations?
As a homeowner planning work, are you better off with an architect, or without one? You want to do things right, but you don’t want to pay for a service you don’t need. For what types of projects does it make sense to hire an architect? And for a given project type, might it be a good idea to work with an architect in some cases, but not others?
Do you need an architect? Maybe, maybe not...
I feel that I can contribute some good, objective insights toward answering these questions. I am both an architect and a contractor (not to mention a homeowner with a nice long list of maintenance and improvement projects). For the last 17 years I've worked in the field of architecture and construction and for most of those years my work has been focused on residential construction projects, sometimes designing projects, sometimes building them, sometimes both.
Here are questions you should consider when deciding whether to hire architect:
Did a contractor say that you needed one?
If so, that's a pretty sure sign it's a good idea. Generally there is no upside for a contractor to get an architect involved in a project that doesn’t need some important design and/or drawing work.
As an example, you would like to remove the wall between your kitchen and dining room and you bring in your favorite contractor to give you a price for the work.
Architect's drawing for a new bearing wall opening
He says “You want the whole wall gone? That’s a bearing wall - we’ll need to install an LVL beam and posts. I can give you a budget for the work but we’ll need an architect to do calculations and a drawing before I can give you a final number and we’ll need something stamped for the building permit application.”
Once you hear something along those lines from your contractor, plan to hire an architect (or in this case a structural engineer would also be a good option) if you want to proceed with your project.
In another scenario, you would like to widen the door opening leading from your kitchen to your dining room to create an opening about four feet wide. Your contractor says “I did a project like this not too long ago. For this type of house it’s no big deal, we’ll need to install a 2x10 header. I’ll have to double check the code book, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it will be. I’ll put together an estimate and send it over in the next few days.”
Example of a building code table used to size headers
In a situation like this you don’t need an architect (of course you need to have some level of trust in the contractor). Residential building codes are written to cover a large number of typically-encountered situations and a good contractor can apply those basic code requirements just as well as an architect.
Are you considering a complex project?
Most contractors have built or remodeled dozens of standard 5'x8' bathrooms
Sometimes as a homeowner it’s difficult to know whether your project is complex or not, but it’s important to understand that the simpler and more standard the project, the less value an architect is likely to add.
An experienced residential construction contractor has probably worked on dozens, if not hundreds, of bathroom renovation projects, and doesn’t need an architect’s drawing detailing how to remove the old bathtub, install a new one, install basic subway tile on the walls, etc. The contractor knows what to do, and how much it’s going to cost, as long as the project is similar to other projects they’ve completed in the past and the details are relatively standard.
A different scenario: A bathroom renovation in an existing home with space constraints where fixtures and walls will be moving, including a custom-tiled shower with multiple valves, diverters, shower heads and built-in niches. This type of project would be a good candidate for an architect.
This project required a new fixture layout, shower design with handheld and niche, and coordinating recessed medicine cabinet locations with custom sized vanity
For one thing, you want a layout that works and attention paid to the overall look and feel of the space as well as the important details. Also, It’s possible that there are structural implications or impacts to other rooms in the house, and an architect will work through all the complexity to develop drawings that clearly document the final design so that it can be understood and built.
It’s not that a good, experienced contractor couldn’t get through this type of project without drawings or design input (as long as there are no significant structural issues), but the amount of supervision, coordination and communication it would require on the part of the contractor and homeowner is likely to outweigh the architect’s fee. For a more complex project (even a small one), a good layout drawing and some key details developed before the start of the work will be hugely helpful in insuring a cohesive design, as a basis for ordering materials and finishes, and will significantly reduce the risk of miscommunication and mistakes requiring costly rework.
For this type of project, hiring a design professional will require paying an additional fee toward the beginning of the process, but should result in a reduced overall project cost and a better finished product.
Is an architect always the best choice when selecting a design professional for your project? Not necessarily. If the project is an interior renovation or remodel and does not require structural modifications, an interior designer could be a good choice. Like an architect, an interior designer is trained to handle complex design challenges, but due to their focus on interior projects, may have more knowledge and experience related to interior materials, fixtures and finishes.
Occasionally the project team may include an architect and an interior designer, as a way to leverage the expertise of both professionals. While the specifics of the project may dictate the choice of design professional to some extent, it's critical that the homeowner find someone with whom they can relate and build a strong working relationship - Additional design professionals can be brought onto the team if the need arises.
Are you planning a large project?
Larger projects tend to need more organization and planning. Even if the individual pieces of the project are relatively straight forward (not complex), a project that includes many sub-projects, or multiple phases, or a large work area, would likely benefit from a process that includes some structured planning, and architects can help with that.
However, this is where things can get tricky, because while a good set of drawings is always helpful to establish scope requirements and facilitate the planning that needs to happen (e.g. you can mark up drawings, make lists keyed to the drawings, etc.), an architect may not have the experience or knowledge required to develop a budget or detailed phasing plan for the specific type of project in question, in which case contractor input is important. For situations where a specific target budget or phasing plan are fundamental feasibility drivers, bringing a contractor into the process during design (rather than after the design is complete, simply to bid the project) is critical.
A larger project can be completed more efficiently when the overall scope is well defined and documented - An architect can help
Take an example of a project that includes the remodeling of two bathrooms, a kitchen renovation, removing part of a wall, refinishing some floors, new lighting, renovating a bedroom, and construction of a new built-in. Maybe all of these sub-projects are relatively straight-forward, but attacking them all in a single renovation (along with a few more work items that you think of along the way) will require a significant planning effort.
For anyone to properly price or execute the work, they will need to understand all projects individually, as well as how they relate to each other: in physical location, as part of a plan to schedule and coordinate the various trades, in determining options for creating work zones and maintaining dust barriers, in considering options for occupancy during the construction process, etc.
Here, in helping to process and document all the variables and dependencies, an architect will add significant value to the project. To make sure that budget and constructability issues are properly considered, bring a good contractor into the process during the design phase, or make sure that your architect has extensive experience with the particular type of project being considered.
For a different project that involves only a simple bathroom remodel, refinishing some floors, and painting a number of rooms, would it make sense to hire an architect? Probably not. A good contractor should be able to properly define this scope in a written document and create an effective plan for the work.
Are there questions related to zoning?
In many areas, especially more populated areas, municipal zoning is becoming more and more complicated to navigate. Towns are both amending their zoning bylaws to make zoning more restrictive, and are more actively enforcing existing bylaws. In addition, due to upward pressure on real estate values, homeowners tend to want to push the envelope more and more when it comes to maximizing the square footage of their homes.
Example of a plot plan required for a building permit application. The owners were hoping to slightly enlarge a small set of stairs at the rear of the home, but a detailed survey of the property revealed that even a this slight modification would be not be allow by right and would require a zoning special permit approval.
Consequently, for many new construction or addition projects, it’s more and more important to have an experienced professional to check zoning constraints early in the process as you assess the overall feasibility of the project..
So when do you need to worry about zoning? The typical rule of thumb is that if you are building a new structure or altering the footprint of an existing structure, it’s likely to be an issue. But actually, the zoning always needs to be checked. In some cases, zoning can be a factor even when the project doesn’t propose to alter the footprint.
I often hear “Look, two doors down they have a dormer on the driveway side. We just want to do the same thing, so that should be ok, right?” Seems reasonable, and fair. But the truth is that there are any number of reasons that you might not be able to build a dormer to match the one on the house two doors down.
Here are some of them (cherry picked from different towns’ zoning codes):
Example of a plot plan. This project included a small two-story addition and came within inches of not being approved based on a basement height-above-grade survey measurement.
- The neighbor’s dormer was built before changes to the town zoning bylaw that put more restrictions on finishing attic space or building dormers.
- Your house is slightly closer to the lot line on the dormer side than the neighbor’s house. A new dormer cannot encroach into the required setback (often the footprints of older houses might extend into the “no-build” setback area. In the language of zoning, the structure is said to be “existing, non-conforming.”)
- The geometry of your attic space is slightly different from that of your neighbor’s, which could mean the amount of dormering you can do based on the “½ story” guidelines might be more restricted.
- Your house could be built slightly higher than your neighbor’s house, so that the first floor level is higher above grade (there are more steps up to the front porch). If so, your basement might be considered a full story, in which case you may not be allowed to build dormers at all.
- Based on the geometry of your roof which might be slightly different from the geometry of your neighbor’s roof, even with a generous dormer you might not be able to end up with space that has a ceiling height of at least 7’-0”. This is actually a building code issue, but when the obvious solution is to reframe the roof to change the basic geometry, be sure to check into the zoning because there are a number of ways that zoning might prevent that from being a feasible option.
The bottom line is this: If you suspect that zoning might be a factor as you begin to plan your project, it should be checked, preferably by someone that has experience dealing with zoning on the type of project you’re considering. It could be a lawyer, an architect, a contractor, or a real estate professional.
For larger or complex projects where zoning creates design constraints, an architect is typically in the best position to propose workable solutions and navigate the permit approval process. (Note that when the proposed project requires special permit approval, it is often best to also engage a lawyer that has experience with zoning in the specific town and some familiarity with the zoning board that will review the application and conduct the hearing).
Some types of projects will obviously benefit from an architect’s involvement, and some types of projects will not, but often it takes some weighing of the answers to the four questions to determine how much value an architect will add:
- Did a contractor say that you needed an architect?
- Are you considering a complex project?
- Are you planning a large project?
- Are there questions related to zoning?
Reaching out to an architect or contractor to discuss your project is always helpful, especially someone who has experience with your project type. Don’t be afraid to ask directly “Do you think I need an architect for this project?” The contractor’s answer will certainly be worth consideration, but the architect’s answer might be the most helpful - who better to really understand the expertise that can be contributed to a given project?
I often find myself recommending a structural engineer or an interior designer or a good contractor as the best option to work with a homeowner on a certain project. As a professional, I see it as my duty to advise clients and prospective clients regarding their best course of action, and to focus my time on only those project where I can add the most value.
Next Steps - Hiring a Contractor
There are many projects that can, and should, be tackled without an architect being involved. But for any project, from the smallest repair project to the construction of a large new home, you’ll want to make sure that you hire an good contractor to do the work.
What makes a good contractor?
- A good contractor Is responsive and a good communicator. Look for someone who will return your call within 24 hours and then follow up with you as necessary to schedule a meeting and develop a proposal that you can understand.
- A good contractor has a lot of experience with the type of project you are considering. Ask for references specific to the project type, call those references, and ask the contractor a few questions about those projects, focusing on things that are important to you. For example: “How long was the bathroom out of commission?” “Which tile supplier did you work with?” “Was it difficult to move the window?”
- A good contractor is open and honest and takes pride in the work. This is difficult to gauge until you know someone or have worked with them. Calling references can help. Also, paying attention to how they talk about the process and the work and answer questions is important. If they explain to you that it will be all smooth sailing and that they never make mistakes, they’re not being open and honest (that’s not how construction works). If they take the time to question you about some of the details of the work, and offer detailed answers to your questions, that could be a good sign that they take pride in the work they do, and want to get it right.
A contractor that has all these traits is a lot to ask for, and realistically it may be impossible to find someone who scores perfectly in all these areas for your specific project type and with availability to do the work.
Make it your goal to find the best contractor you can for your project, and just know that as you consider contractors that rate lower in the three critical areas, you may see reduced estimates for the work, but you’ll be taking a big risk. Hire a good contractor and you won’t regret it.
Next Steps - Hiring an Architect
So, maybe you've decided your project needs an architect - what’s the next step? Can you google “architect” and just hire someone that works in your area? Or maybe a friend of a friend that works at an architecture firm and is willing to do some work for you on the side? Absolutely. But no matter how you find your prospective architect, it’s important to make sure that you end up working with someone that has experience with the type of project you’re planning, and will budget the time to do good work.
It takes a lot of education, training, and hard work to become a licensed architect. Any licensed architect you hire should have a solid and broad understanding of different types of design and construction, but, just as a medical student that becomes a doctor then goes on to specialize, most architects tend to go on to specialize to some extent.
Ideally you don’t want a heart surgeon to work with you on your sleeping disorder, and similarly, you don’t necessarily want an architect specializing in curtain wall design for large commercial buildings to work with you on your small kitchen addition.
As you start the process of planning your project, do your research. Find a design style you like, which may lead you toward certain architects. Search images online, check online reviews, and call references. As part of the process, talk to at least a few different architects and ask them basic questions:
- What kind of projects do you generally work on? Do you have a lot of experience with this type of project?
- How does your design process work? What are the steps?
- How will you charge for the work you do on my project?
The answers to these questions should leave you with a good sense of whether the architect in question is a good fit for you and your project.
Architecture may begin "when you place two bricks carefully together," but it ends only after countless hours of concerted effort by an owner and architect working together toward a common goal. The design process is all about good communication. Even a very experienced, award-winning architect will not be a good fit for your project if you don’t feel very comfortable working with him or her.
Patrick Rettig is an architect living and working in Belmont, Massachusetts. He helps homeowners and contractors design and build residential renovations, additions, and new homes.