working with an architect

An architect is a licensed, registered professional whose skills span from aesthetic composition to checking the steel placement in the footings. The relationship with an architect can be surprisingly intimate, since the private details of your life can be the basis for some of your house design. Also, building is not a trouble-free process. You need to feel you and your architect can talk and listen to each other.

Training and Licensing

Architects are now required to have a professional degree from an accredited school. They must also have three years of supervised internship under a registered architect. The next step in registration is an examination covering a variety of topics including design, site design, structure, building systems and professional practice. An architect must apply to each state individuallsy for registration.

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Finding an architect

You can find an architect in a variety of ways. Referrals from friends and colleagues who have personal experience with an architect is a tried and true means. Realtors and contractors can also be a source of information. If you see a building under construction that you like, often there will be a sign with the architect's information, or the job crew can tell you who the architect is. Increasingly, ads and web sites like the one that brought you to this page are another way to "meet" an architect.

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The initial meeting

The first step is to set up an initial meeting. The architect will want to know what kind of project you have, with a general idea of size and budget. In exchange he or she will show you photographs of work or take you on a site visit, discuss fees, experience, and background. During this first meeting, there should be a dialogue of ideas both specific to your project and to the architect's design philosophies. This is a time to test communication, to see if there is a sparking or connection between you and the architect.

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Fees

Fees are always a primary concern. There are a variety of ways to price services - each architect will have specific preferences and fee schedule. Below are some common fee structures:

Percentage of the cost of construction: The range of this fee varies hugely, depending on the scope of the project and architectural services, but each architect sets their own fee; most engineering costs are covered by the architect.

Hourly fees: Each hour spent on the project is charged at an agreed upon rate; the total fee is difficult to estimate, but this allows some flexibility in the scope of service and can be appropriate for some projects such as limited remodels or design or construction administration services only; hourly fees can become contentious if the number of hours becomes controversial; engineering and other fees are separate.

Negotiated flat fee: This fee depends almost entirely on negotiation between client and architect, and depends on what the architect needs or wants to perform the work and what the client wants to pay Printing, models, telephone calls, delivery charges and some consultants are reimbursable expenses and may be charged separately. There are some costs the owner must always bear, whether it is passed through an architect's or contractor's bill or billed directly. This includes any survey work, whether a simple boundary survey or a more complex topographic and tree survey. The owner is also responsible for permit costs, impact fees, and any design review fees from subdivisions or any other body with jurisdiction over their project. If the site has an unusual soils condition, soils testing may be required - the cost of these tests and any related engineer's services are the responsibility of the owner. The list of costs noted here is not exhaustive - each specific project or site may have other expenses.

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Design

The first phase of service is design. This phase usually begins with client and architect discussing needs, desires and constraints in detail. From these discussions, diagrams and/or ideas emerge which the architect then translates into schematic drawings and occasionally models. These drawings typically start small and increase in size as the project goes through successive rounds of design. The first set of designs is rarely "it", the perfectly designed house. The purpose of this phase is give and take between architect and client as ideas are discussed, changed, and refined. The design phase can be swift or lengthy, depending on the project, the client, and the timetable. As an architect, I cannot stress the importance of leaving adequate time for design too much. It's easy to change walls and move windows on paper; it is not easy while the house is under construction. You will not only have to live with the design, you will have to live in it.

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Construction documents

This includes the set of working drawings and specifications for your project; the contractor will build according to this set of documents. That said, construction documents come in a variety of levels. The basic permit set is a "bare bones" set, usually containing only enough information to obtain a building permit. Details will be few. If you intend to work extremely closely with the builder, do details as the job progresses, or must save every penny you can on architectural fees, this may be the extent of your working drawings. A set with minimal information can mean surprises during the project, both in terms of construction cost and detail. For example, you may have wanted a SubZero refrigerator, but find that the builder only included enough money for a 24" Roper apartment unit because there was no appliance list. If this is the scope of services to which you restrict your working contract, you and your architect must be clear about the limitations of such a set both in terms of building and the architect's liability.

The other end of the spectrum is a detailed set which includes schedules for everything from cabinet pulls to plumbing fixtures. It may include tile pattern drawings. closet built-in details, kitchen elevations — whatever specific and special information your project requires. This type of set is more expensive in terms of architectural fees, but means that the builder will be able to price specific choices and have details to guide the project to completion. This type of set means homework for you, too, since you will have to select all the finishes in the house.

Contract documents should always address building code and zoning code issues pertaining to your site, including special requirements such as for historic districts and covenants.

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Bidding and negotiation

A contract may be either bid by a number of contractors or negotiated with an individual builder. The architect will help you choose which is the most appropriate for your project and then help evaluate contractors. Bidding requires organization, to ensure each contractor gets the same information throughout the process and gets their questions answered in a timely way. Negotiation means the architect must have a working knowledge of building costs as well as a thorough knowledge of the specific needs and potential problems of the project.

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Construction administration

During construction, the architect visits the site and keeps in contact with the builder on a regular basis. However, the architect is not there to supervise or oversee construction. The architect is your agent on site and with the builder, to represent your interests and check to see that construction is consistent with he drawings. Usually, communication between owner and builder is primarily through the architect. This minimizes confusion and allows the architect to analyze whether or not any changes may affect other parts of the project.

However, one of the most important things an architect does during this phase is solve problems. Building is not a trouble free process. When problems arise, it is crucial that the owner, the builder, and the architect work together to find solutions.

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The rule: Keep talking and listening.

I hope you've found the above information on working with an architect helpful; many of my clients have told me they have. Please contact me if you have any questions and want to discuss your design plans.
— Deborah Auten   505.982.8956 or dauten[AT]prodigy.net

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