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How to know if you need an architect

Updated: Feb 29, 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 home is higher utility bills every month, and more carbon released into the atmosphere for the life of the building. The cost of selecting cheap, low quality finishes and fixtures is the cost of replacing them five or ten years later when they have worn out and become damaged.

An architect can help you optimize your investment by educating you on all of your options and helping you to make value and performance-driven choices that will cost less and have less negative environmental impact over the lifetime of your ownership of your home or building.

Manage your expectations, manage your costs.

Your architect will also be able to serve as your representative throughout the course of your project, and can assist you with everything from finding and evaluating property to budget management and contractor liaison during construction.

If it's your first project, an architect can make sure you know exactly what to expect, what to look for, and how to budget for the entire project. Construction costs, while certainly making up the majority of your project costs, will not account for every cost you will incur along the way and your architect can assist you with developing and maintaining a realistic project budget in addition to evaluating contractor’s bids and helping you to select the best value builder for your money.

Considering a new addition or major renovation project? If you’re only in the very beginning stages of planning for a project, you can engage an architect to help you determine exactly what would be involved to realize your vision and what kinds of costs you might expect to incur. By doing your homework before you start, you can avoid getting half-way into what you thought would be a simple and inexpensive project and running out of money before it’s complete. Make sure you know what’s involved and how much a project will cost before you start, and know that it’s a good idea to carry a 10-20% contingency in your budget just in case you run into unforeseen circumstances.

bathroom destruction
Unforeseen circumstances in a plumbing replacement job.

Your architect will also be able to serve as your “quality control” representative to the contractor during construction, making sure that your project is being built and executed according to the design that you worked hard to develop together. They’ll monitor progress on the job, troubleshoot any issues that arise in the field, and ensure that the contractor’s performance is consistent with what they agreed to build. The construction drawings that an architect produces effectively act as a “contract” with your builder: the architect provides the design that the builder agrees to produce. If the drawings call for one thing but the contractor’s crew installs another, you have every right to ask for them to tear it out and fix the problem. Your architect will be able to readily spot these issues and quickly resolve the problem so that the finished building you get is consistent with the high performance building that you and your architect designed.

Architects provide value, not just services.

When you hire an architect, you’re actually hiring them for their value, not just their time. Sure, it takes time for them to walk through your projects, develop designs and visualizations, and produce construction plans. It also takes time for them to sit down with you and talk through your options, and to educate you about the pros and cons of the various decisions at hand, but the time they invest with you and for you now will have significant and lasting impacts on the outcomes and performance of your construction project.

While an architect can certainly provide you with the required sets of plans to check the boxes for your building permit, the real value in hiring an architect rests in their ability to work with you on the actual design of your project and optimize the results of your investment. The money that you invest up front in the design and construction management of your project can mean enormous improvements in the comfort and enjoyment of your home, your utility bills, rental income if it is an investment property, and ultimately your resale value down the road.

While the cost of hiring an architect varies depending on who you hire and how involved you want them to be with your project, it’s a good idea to budget an additional 5-10% of your construction cost for an architect to work with you throughout the design and construction process. Once you find someone you like and trust, talk with them about the various levels of engagement they offer and they will be more than happy to work with you to find a level of value that works for your budget. Most will offer a free consultation to learn more about your project, vision and budget and from there they will be able to make recommendations about how best to proceed.

In most cases, the earlier you involve an architect the better, because they will be able to work with you to find both a realtor and a suitable property for your vision. In addition, they'll be able to advise you on different options for financing your project, including loans, grants, and tax incentives that may be offered in your area. As I’ve mentioned above, they’ll also be able to help you develop a realistic project budget and help you determine your target property acquisition cost, so getting started with an architect first can help you optimize your value from the very beginning.

In summary, hiring an architect for your residential rehab project can be a major value-add to your project even if you aren't technically required to have one. An architect can assist with project planning and budgeting, property acquisition and finance, value-based design decisions, visualization and documentation, and construction quality management. Whether you are taking on a small addition or a major gut-rehab, an architect can work within your budget to help you get the most value for your money and optimize your home's performance for a lifetime.


Heather Medlin is the design architect and founding principal of Ginkgo Vernacular LLC, serving residential and commercial clients in the greater Philadelphia area. She specializes in regenerative design and construction techniques for both building retrofits and new construction and is licensed in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC.

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