Architectural firms come in many types and sizes and are not all appropriate for your project. Most firms specialize in only a few project types. Some have engineers and interior designers on staff, but most use outside consultants for each specific project. Each architectural firm brings a different combination of skills, experience, interest, and values to its projects and the goal is to elect the firm that best fits you and your project.
The first challenge is usually to identify a list of potential architects. Architectural firms (like all professions) don’t typically spend much on promotion, so you may not even be aware of the firms around you. You can ask friends and colleagues who have worked with architects for referrals. Your trusted real estate agent, if you have one, is often a source. Use Google and design oriented websites such as Houzz.com or Dwell. Find who designed a local home you like by looking up its permit history on your city’s building department website, if available. Consult the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects for member firms that specialize in your type of project.
Contact the architects that you feel may fit your needs and screen them based on their experience with similar projects, interest and availability. Select one or more architects to interview and visit their offices virtually or in person. Discuss their design philosophies and the scope of work as well as schedules and fees, but understand that a selection based on fee alone can be short sighted and a poor investment if the design falls short of your expectations.
Here are 12 question groups for a prospective architect:
- What is your overall design philosophy, and how might it apply to my project?
- What do you see as the most important issues in this project? What are the major challenges?
- How will you approach my project? What is your process and what are the first steps?
- How will you help me establish priorities and make decisions? What materials do you expect me to provide?
- Who from your firm will be working with me directly? Is that the same person who will be designing the project? If not, who will be designing my project?
- How will you communicate your design to me? Will you produce 3D models, renderings, physical models, drawings, sketches, etc? Will we meet regularly in person or virtually?
- How much time should I budget for the design phase and obtaining a permit?
- How busy are you? How many projects do you typically carry at once and how many do you have now?
- How are your fees structured, e.g. Fixed fee, Hourly, Hourly with not-to exceed, percent of construction, other? If the scope of the project changes during its course (which is common), how will fees be adjusted?
- What does your typical contract look like? Does it follow the AIA contract form or another?
- What services do you provide during construction? What additional services do you provide that may be relevant to my project?
- Can you provide a list of past clients that your firm has worked with?
Successful projects only happen when architects and clients form positive relationships with each other. It will be a long road, and you are trying to determine your compatibility to work together throughout the project.
Thoughtful architects are as careful in selecting clients as owners are in selecting architects. Your final selection should be a professional who “fits,” you trust and feel good about and not necessarily the least (or most) expensive. Although the architect’s fees are an important part of your budget, they probably do not amount to more than 10% of your overall project budget and the difference between the lowest and highest fees among candidates will be only a fraction of that amount. Fees can sometimes be negotiated within reason, but selecting the best architect (who may or may not have the lowest fees) is always the best financial investment for a successful project.