How to know if you need an architect

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

"First Time Fixer Upper" is a seven part series on buying, financing and acing your first rehab project, with new posts published weekly in January and February 2020. This is the fourth post in the series.

kitchen shell rehab
A blank slate with so many possibilities.

Have you ever wondered what an architect does, or whether you need one on your project? If you’re thinking about taking on your first DIY fixer upper or developing a vacant plot of land, it might be a good idea to consider working with an architect. Though many consider an architect to be an additional or unnecessary expense that adds to the up-front cost of a residential construction project, using one can be an investment that reaps you major savings and returns in the long run, and can significantly increase the quality and experience of your project in the short run.

Whether or not an architect is a good investment for you depends largely on the type of project you’re undertaking, not just whether or not you will need to submit plans for your building permit. Technically, an architect is not required for residential one and two-family construction in most jurisdictions, whether you’re doing a renovation or a full ground-up build. While you will legally need an architect to develop and stamp plans for multi-family (three or more units) or mixed use commercial projects, you may also want to consider engaging one for your residential projects as well.

What does an architect do exactly, and how are they different from your builder?

While many people wrongly assume that an architect is basically a glorified interior designer, architects are actually rigorously trained and studied in the technical design and execution of “high performance” buildings. While a builder or contractor can certainly build you a house, and in many cases a perfectly fine house, an architect can make sure that you get a high performing house, optimized for functional flow and circulation, energy efficiency and operational cost, durability and low maintenance.

They will also have a good understanding of material availability and performance, and can help you select materials, fixtures, and finishes for your project which are sourced sustainably and responsibly. Because the cost of labor is typically about two-thirds of the cost of construction, the marginal cost of upgraded and optimized materials can have a negligible impact on your construction budget while offering you long term savings and returns. For example, choosing sustainably-sourced wood fiber insulation instead of spray foam or pink fiberglass batt can simultaneously increase your home’s thermal performance, lower your ongoing energy costs, sequester carbon, and eliminate health risks to your installer -- all at a comparable cost to other insulation options.

Architects help you make informed, confident choices.

If you ask a builder to “build you a house,” they are going to build and charge you according to the recipe that they are accustomed to building. While they will certainly let you choose your finishes and paint colors, they’re probably not going to engage you in decisions about construction details. Do they usually use harmful spray foam insulation or use a wall design full of thermal bridges that increase your heating costs in winter? That’s what you’re going to get, and they’re probably not going to offer you an alternative or even consider that you might want one. If they’ve been in business for many years, they also probably don’t even realize that those techniques are problematic, and are actually decreasing your thermal performance and increasing your energy costs for as long as you own your home.

An architect is trained to consider all of the constraints and all of the possible solutions to any project, and they are knowledgeable about a whole range of materials, systems, and techniques which are appropriate to a variety of climates. Throughout the design process, they will be able to walk you through every decision that will affect your value in the project and explain the pros and cons of each. An architect puts you in the driver’s seat, using their knowledge of the available options and rules of the game to allow you to make confident decisions about your project and produce optimal results.

Architects are translators.

In addition to their deep technical knowledge and familiarity with applicable building codes local to your project -- the rules of the game you will need to follow to get a building permit -- architects are also trained in analytical drawing and artistic visualization. This means that they will be able to use drawings and various visualization techniques to help you see what you’re getting before it is built, and to visualize various design and finish options to help you make decisions.

Architects are also capable of developing detailed two-dimensional drawings (aka “plans”) which are submitted to your city’s building department for permitting and shared with contractors for bidding and use in construction. Architectural construction drawings are a language like any other, used to convey information within the building industry among various professionals. A set of architectural plans for permit and construction must meet all requirements of applicable building codes, contain detailed information about size, location, quantity, and materials of all components of a building, and contain information about specific construction techniques that a builder should use to obtain desired building performance outcomes such as airtightness, thermal performance, indoor air quality, and more.

Essentially, architects can translate the language of design from a visual form that you can clearly understand to a technical form that city officials, builders, and tradespeople understand. Communication is everything in construction, and your architect will make sure not only that you understand exactly what you are getting, but also that your contractor understands exactly what you are asking for.

Build it once, build it right.

The reality of the matter is that the act of constructing a building -- whether it is your dream home or a 100-story tower -- is an enormous investment of money, energy, and resources with long-lasting consequences. For many people, a home construction or significant rehab project may be a once-in-a-lifetime project, and they will experience the results and outcomes of the decisions made in the design process for the life of that home. For others, such as real estate investors, they may be undertaking a series of rehab projects meant for buy and hold rentals, in which case their decisions will impact their long term maintenance costs, rent prices, utility bills, and quality for their renters.

Though the cost of construction may be high, the cost of mistakes is considerably higher because you will pay for them over and over again throughout your ownership and eventual sale of your home. The cost of an ineffectively insulated and airsealed h