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Hiring an Architect

As an architect, there are a lot of ways I can get attached to a project. The best way for you depends upon your exact situation. The three most common clients I work for are Owners, Construction Managers, and Contractors. There are advantages to each set up, depending on your situation, so today, since I get asked a lot by people why to use one method over another, to clarify your options and go through the advantages and disadvantages for each party with the different methods. To me, they’re all advantageous to the architect since it means I get to feed my family, however, the best situation is where all the primary stake holders have a seat at the design table.

When an owner hires me, that’s the oldest and simplest method. A property owner contacts me and asks me for a proposal to do his or her project, and we sign a contract. I work directly for the owner and they maintain complete control of the project. For the owner, the benefit is control. They get to select the designer they want, which can make or break a project. They control the drawings, they can shop them around; they can shelve them; they can do pretty much anything they desire with the plans as a part owner (the other owner is usually the architect who drew them.) The downside can be cost. Being an owner, this is often the only time you’ll be hiring an architect, and since the architect doesn’t know you, he assumes a greater risk of the project going bad, the owner not paying his invoices, or other calamities. This means that a one off project will often be a little more costly and while the ability to bid it out will keep costs down can help on the back end, it’s a little more upfront cost. There also isn’t a contractor to lean on for advice during the design process, which isn’t always a problem, but if your project is a very tight budget or a very unique structural challenge, having that advice can save a large amount of money during construction.

The second most common method is a contractor hiring me on behalf of an owner. This can often be facilitated through the services of recruiters. The advantages to the owner here are the inverse of the previous method, cost and advice. Hiring the contractor first means you’re leveraging his relationship with an architect and he may even have the project mostly figured out when he sits down with his architect for you. This means that you’re getting a better price (although many contractors will take on a percentage for their time and overhead) and there is a person involved in the design process who knows how to put it together. The downside is control and agency. Remember, an architect’s client is the one he is ethically bound to protect, which means that we will naturally err towards the contractor during the design and may not be an effective agent for the owner during construction. And if the contractor and owner suffer a split, the contractor owns the drawings and you either have to start from scratch or pay the contractor for them.

The last method of a construction manager hiring an architect is most common with very large and complex projects, and if you’re going this route, you probably don’t need this post. Construction managers are like lawyers in construction for owners. They’re people who are knowledgeable in construction who act as the owner’s agent in signing contracts with subcontractors and designers in his stead. The same basic pro’s and con’s that apply to a contractor apply to a construction manager, but the manager is supposed to act as the owner’s agent, so there’s a little more control for the owner.

So, for your project, which should you do. A simple breakdown would be, what’s most important to you?

Hire the architect directly if:

  • The project is simple or common
  • Construction cost is key, and design fees shouldn’t be more than 5% of construction costs for even the most complex design
  • The quality of the project is paramount, then you’ll need an agent on your side to protect the quality of the house for when the budget goes over and you need to make changes for economic reason

Hire the Contractor first if:

  • You know someone is definitely doing your work, peice of advice, don’t let a friend do it, pick someone because you love what they did to your neighbors, not because your friend is cutting you a great deal
  • Upfront costs are key, sometimes the money for construction is tied up and you need a quick design to get your permits going to release funds
  • Construction Schedule is key, this helps with fast track construction
  • The project is really unique in some way

Hire a Construction Manager if:

  • You know what you’re doing and the project is huge (in which case, I doubt you’re reading this)

Just remember, the person who signs the contract will be on the hook for the design fees, but also control the drawings and the process.