January 2009 Web Exclusive Article

You and Your Architect

A Guide for a Successful Partnership

Whether you are creating your dream home or just remodeling a kitchen, working with an architect can save time and money while making your new environment more functional, comfortable, and sustainable. The result is a project that is beautiful, original, and distinctive.

The challenge lies in knowing how to communicate with your architect in ways that will enable you to get the most from the collaboration.

Getting Started
Whether you have extensive experience with home design and construction or are coming to both for the first time, ask yourself a few questions before interviewing prospective architects. You don’t need firm or complete answers at this point. Rather, these questions will help to ensure that your initial communications will be clear and productive and will enable you to select the design professional best suited to your needs.

• How will the room or rooms be used? Do you have specific ideas on how to translate these activities into spaces and square footage?

• Do you have a site or will this be a subject of discussion with the architect?

• Have you decided upon a schedule and budget?

• What are your overall aspirations for the project — aesthetic, emotional, and practical?

• Who will make the critical decisions — you, your spouse, both of you, someone else?

• Where will the resources come from to create your project?

• Are you willing to pay more up front for systems that will provide energy savings or other savings over time?

• Do you have previous experience with design and construction? If so, in what ways were you successful and was the experience in any way disappointing?

A good architect will listen closely to your answers, help you solidify your goals, and translate them into an effective project. Look for a good listener, and you’ll find a good architect.

Selecting Your Architect
Every architecture firm brings its own combination of skills, expertise, interests, and values to its projects. The challenge is to find the one that aligns most closely with your needs. Some of the most frequently asked questions regarding selecting an architect include:

When should I bring the architect into the picture?
As early as possible. Architects can help you define your project in every respect and may also do site studies, assist in securing municipal approvals, and provide a variety of other pre-design services.

Should I meet with more than one firm?
Usually, yes. One obvious exception is when you already have a good relationship with an architect.

How do I find suitable firms to contact?
Speak with neighbors, friends, and family members who have hired an architect. Or if you see a home you like, find out who designed it. Another option is to contact the American Institute of Architects for help in identifying firms appropriate to your situation and budget. Visit www.aia.org and go to “About the AIA” and then “Find Your Local Component.”

What can I realistically expect to learn from an interview? How can I structure the interview to make it as informative as possible?
You can learn how the architect’s team will approach your project by talking to key members. Review homes the firm has designed that are similar in type and size to yours or that have addressed similar issues. Find out how the firm will gather information, establish priorities, and make decisions. What does the architect see as important issues for consideration. Ask about the firm’s ability to stand financially behind the services to be provided. For example, does it carry professional liability insurance, much like that maintained by doctors and lawyers? Indeed, you should choose your architect as carefully as you would any other professional service provider.

Why are formal interviews desirable?
An interview addresses one issue that cannot be covered in brochures: the chemistry between you and the architect.

Should I expect an architecture firm to deliver all the services necessary to complete the project?
Not necessarily. You may have experience in design or construction and may be capable of undertaking some tasks yourself. Alternatively, you may find it necessary to add other consultants to the team. Discussion with your architect will establish who will coordinate owner-supplied work or other services.

What is “green” architecture and do I need to discuss it?
Green or sustainable design refers to the increasingly popular and important practice of creating architecture that is friendly to the environment and the homeowner. This can be as simple as using recycled, non-toxic materials or a more comprehensive program involving such elements as green roofs, photovoltaic cells that capture sunlight, and air and water treatment systems. Although many firms are generally familiar with green design, you will want to question prospective architects closely about their level of experience in this regard and examine past projects that incorporated sustainable strategies. (For more information, visit the U.S. Green Building Council’s website at www.usgbc.org.)

Mutual Selection
The most thoughtful architects are as careful in selecting their clients as homeowners are in selecting architects. Be prepared to answer questions about your project’s purpose, budget, timeframe, site, and the team of players you anticipate being involved. Be frank. Tell the architect what you know and what you expect. Ask for an explanation of anything you don’t understand. The more you put on the table at the outset, the better the chances are for a successful project. As you and the architect jointly evaluate alternative approaches to the project’s direction, priorities are clarified and new possibilities emerge. There is no substitute for the intensive dialogue and inquiry that characterize the design process.

Architect Services
You will find it helpful to review the following list with your architect to acquaint yourself with the professional services your project may require. Ask your architect to explain any unfamiliar terms or processes.


• Project administration.

• Coordination of disciplines/document checking.

• Agency consulting/review approval.

• Value analysis balanced with the budget and the program.

• Schedule development/monitoring of the work.

• Evaluation of the budget and preliminary estimate of the
cost of the work.

• Presentation.

• Construction management.


• Programming.

• Functional relationships/flow diagrams.

• Survey of existing home.

• Site analysis and selection.

• Utility studies.

• Environmental studies and reports.

• Zoning process assistance.


• Architectural design/documentation.

• Structural design/documentation.

• Mechanical design/documentation.

• Electrical design/documentation.

• Landscape design/documentation.

• Interior design/documentation.

• Material research and specifications.


• Bidding materials.

• Addenda/responding to bidder inquiries.

• Bidding/negotiation.

• Analysis of alternates/substitutions.

• Bid evaluation.

• Contract award.


• Submittal services and rejection of defective work.

• On-site visits.

• Testing and inspection administration.

• Supplemental documentation.

• Quotation requests/change orders.

• Contract cost accounting.

• Equipment installation administration.

• Interpretations and decisions.

• Project closeout.

Negotiating the Agreement
The formal agreement between you and your architect is an opportunity to ensure that you both envision the same project, requirements, and expectations. Before committing these to paper, use the following steps to identify any items that may have been missed up to this point. Establish project requirements with these crucial questions:

• What is to be designed and built?

• Where will it be built?

• What is the level of quality?

• What is the role of the project in your life and how will it affect the community?

• What are the scheduling requirements or restraints?

• What is the target date for completion?

• What are the budget and sources of financing?

• Who are the anticipated key team members?

Describe and Assign Responsibility for Each Project Task
You and your architect should clarify the administrative, design, and construction tasks essential to successfully completing the project, as well as the services required and who will be responsible for each of them.

Identify Your Schedule Requirements
Place all tasks on a timeline, estimating the duration for each. Identify those that, if delayed, will postpone completion of your project. Compare the timeline with your target completion date and adjust one or both as appropriate.

Take a Critical Look at the Results
Good project schedules allow enough time for decision-making. Is your schedule reasonable, given the project’s requirements and budget? Have you allowed enough time to review the architect’s submissions, receive any necessary municipal approvals, and make your decisions?

Owner-Architect Agreement
If you have done your homework, the written contract should follow without difficulty. One thing to remember: As with medical or legal services, architecture is not a product that can be perfectly quantified, and just like your doctor or lawyer, your architect typically does not warrant or guarantee results. As a provider of professional services, an architect is required to perform to a professional standard.

Compensating Your Architect
The fee an architect charges depends on the type and level of services provided. The formal agreement you develop with your architect will be an excellent basis for a compensation proposal. Compensation may be based on any one of a number of common structures (see below) — or a combination — and arriving at the one that is fairest to you and your architect requires thoughtful consideration.

• Multiple of direct personnel expense. Salaries plus benefits are multiplied by a factor representing overhead and profit.

• Professional fee plus expenses. Salaries, benefits, and overhead are the expense, and the fee may be a multiplier, percentage, or lump sum.

• Hourly billing rates. Salaries, benefits, overhead, and profit are included in rates for designated personnel. This makes sense when there are many unknowns. Some projects begin with hourly rates and continue until the scope of the project is better defined.

• Compensation is stated as a dollar amount. Generally, this includes the architect’s direct personnel expenses, other direct expenses chargeable to the project, indirect expenses or overhead, and profit. The stipulated sum does not include reimbursable expenses, which are out-of-pocket expenses the architect incurs on behalf of the owner, such as long-distance travel and communications, reproduction of contract documents, and authorized overtime premiums.

• Compensation is calculated by applying an agreed-upon
percentage to the estimated or actual cost of the work.

• Compensation equals the square footage of the project multiplied by a pricing factor.

Payment Schedules
Ask your architect to provide a proposed schedule of payments. Such a schedule will help you plan for the financial requirements of the project.

Additional Expenses
These may include site surveys and legal descriptions, geotechnical services, required technical tests during construction, an on-site project representative, and the legal, auditing, and insurance counseling services needed to fulfill your responsibilities.

When You Need Help Defining the Project
In this case, engage the architect to provide project definition and other pre-design services only. You can hire the architect for remaining phases and services later.

Keeping the Project on Track
Successful projects invariably result from effective management by the homeowner and the architect. You can take a number of steps to ensure your project moves smoothly through the design and construction phases:

SCHEDULE FOR ARCHITECT'S SERVICES. Carefully review the architect’s schedule for services. Ask that the schedule be updated on a regular basis.

BE A TEAM MEMBER. Take part in the project-planning process. Be sure that your own deadlines, as well as your own decision-making needs, are reflected in the schedule.

MEETINGS. Plan regular meetings of the project team and participate in them. These should have clear agendas.

AGREEMENT MODIFICATIONS. Keep your owner-architect agreement up-to-date. Modify it when the scope of the project or the services required are changed.

QUESTIONS. When you have questions, ask them. Pay particular attention to design submissions because the work reflected in each submission will be further developed in the next. All questions should be resolved before construction begins.

PROBLEMS. Address problems when they arise and before small ones become large ones. Regular project meetings provide a natural opportunity.

Contract Administration
Once you’ve approved the project, you want it built as designed, and your architect is well positioned to administer the contract between you and the contractor. This requires considerable experience, time, and effort, but contract administration services represent the spending of a penny to save a dollar and are highly recommended. Such services include:

• Evaluating work for compliance with drawings and specifications.

• Approving shop drawings, materials, and product samples.

• Reviewing the results of materials tests and inspections.

• Approving the contractor’s requests for payment.

• Handling requests for design changes during construction.

• Administering the start-up, completion, and closeout process of your project.

How AIA Can Help
The American Institute of Architects, founded in 1857, is the professional organization for 80,000 licensed architects and associated professionals. With headquarters in Washington, DC, and some 300 state and local chapters worldwide, AIA helps to build public awareness of architecture and supports the practice of architecture.

In addition to meeting professional standards for licensure to practice architecture, AIA members adhere to the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, assuring clients, the public, and colleagues of their dedication to high standards of professional practice. AIA members also must fulfill annual continuing education requirements to maintain their professional standing and to stay current in the profession.

The AIA has created a number of documents that will greatly facilitate your arrangements with your architect. These standard forms of agreement, first developed in the 1880s, have been carefully reviewed, court-tested, and modified over many years. Widely accepted by the construction industry, they represent a current consensus among organizations representing owners, lawyers, contractors, engineers, and architects.

The scope of services offered in the AIA documents range from the typical to customized applications. You may choose from a variety of formats that come prepackaged or à la carte so you have the flexibility to customize the scope of services that meet your particular needs. - DNJ

©2007. American Institute of Architects, 1735 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20006-5292; 800-242-3837, www.aia.org.