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Working with an Architect

About this Guide
Hiring and working with an architect is a process that may be unfamiliar to you. You may know an architect, but you may not be quite sure exactly what one can do for you. This guide should answer many questions and dispel some of the myths about architects.

Q: Who is an architect?
A: An architect is a professional who is trained specifically to guide you through the design and construction process. An architect is licensed by the state to practice architecture. An architect usually has a minimum of five years of professional schooling and three years of experience before becoming eligible for licensing. He or she is the only professional who is specially trained to design the places we inhabit.

Q: What does an architect do?
A: An architect is a skilled professional who interprets and helps realize your dream. An architect turns your hopes into sketches and building plans. An architect determines how the plumbing, heating, electrical and other systems will fit. An architect does everything necessary to translate your idea into reality. Your architect is a counselor, a planner, a designer, a work coordinator, a business administrator.

Q: What kinds of projects benefit from an architect's services?
A: New homes and other new buildings, additions to existing buildings, renovations, restorations, remodeling, planning, selecting a site, providing cost analyses, designing interiors, analyzing energy needs, dreaming with you-architects provide a broad range of services.

Q: What value does an architect provide?
A: An architect can provide value at each stage of the design process. First, he or she will work directly with you to assess and describe your needs in great depth. Next, the architect's extensive study of design alternatives, some of which you may not have considered, allows you to choose the design most appropriate to your needs. By keeping abreast of the latest construction technologies and materials, architects can recommend materials and construction systems to fit your design and budget.

With an architect's ability to define precisely the work to be done, you are assured of accurate, competitive bidding by contractors. An architect's knowledge of site planning and natural energy processes (the influence of wind and sun on the design; water flow; etc.) makes it possible to accommodate your site's characteristics, including its urban or neighborhood context. During the construction phase of the project, the architect acts as your agent in dealings with the contractor and works to see that the project is built as specified.

Last but not least, the unique value the architect provides is his or her design-including the aesthetic character of your project. The fact that an architect has focused on your project's special characteristics, and created a uniquely appropriate design, is evidence of this value.

Q: Why hire both an architect and a builder?
A: Historically, the architect functioned as a "master builder." Today the architectural and building parts of the industry have evolved into separate disciplines. Most architects provide designs and drawings and are skilled at developing design schemes which are in your best interest, with respect to use, views, materials, site, and environmental opportunities and constraints. Architects help you determine how to plan a building that best serves your lifestyle, living and working habits, hobbies and interests, changing family size, and fantasies. Builders provide construction services based on architect's designs and can offer advice on building methods.

The primary services of an architect and a builder may be obtained by hiring a single "design/build" company, provided that the company actually works with an architect registered in California. Advantages may include more accurate cost estimates and construction method advice right from the initial design stage. Tighter scheduling may be possible because the time period for the bidding process and redesign for cost adjustments may be minimized. Possible disadvantages may include a lack of competitive bidding by builders.

Q: Are there different types of architecture firms?
A: There are many different types and sizes of architecture firms, some of which specialize in certain building types. Some firms are very large, employing 100 people or more, and may have branch offices nationally or even worldwide. However, most firms consist of fewer than ten people-and many architects (like doctors) practice in one- or two-person offices. Many larger firms do not design individual houses. Smaller firms are often in a better position to handle your needs if you are contemplating a residential or small-scale commercial project.

Q: How do you make an intelligent decision?
A: There are many ways to select your architect. The most popular, and usually the best way, is by interviewing candidates. By this process, you may select several architects from lists provided by the American Institute of Architects/Los Angeles. The AIA/Los Angeles is the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the national professional association of architects. The AIA/Los Angeles list includes architects who are licensed to practice throughout the state of California.

A brief call to an architect can help you determine if his or her experience is appropriate to your needs. Once you determine that the architect does the type of building you want, set up an interview to discuss your project and review photographs and other samples of the architect's work. Interview as many firms or individuals as you wish; we recommend you talk with at least two to four. After the initial meeting, you should be able to narrow the list. After more meetings it will become obvious which firm is best for your needs. Check the architect's education, training, experience, references-and personality. Your architect will need to get to know you well, so he or she should be someone with whom you feel comfortable. Be prepared: this process will take some time-and it is probably one of the most important decisions you will make.

Q: Why should you hire an AIA architect?
A: The AIA is the American Institute of Architects, the national professional organization of architects. The AIA/Los Angeles is the local chapter of the organization. Members who use the AIA initials after their name are licensed architects; however there are licensed architects who are not members of the AIA. AIA architects benefit from the AIA's focus on their professional needs and the public service obligations of the profession. Members of the AIA have unique access to continuing professional training, timely access to information on new building materials and technologies and, perhaps most important, access to other AIA members who include the best practitioners in the nation.

AIA architects are also guided by and must adhere to the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.

Q: When should you hire your architect?
A: The earlier in the process, the better. Your architect will not only help you design your dream, but also can help you anticipate design and construction problems and save you time and money.

Q: How do you compensate an architect for his or her services?
A: Architects are normally paid in one of three ways. One method specifies a percentage of the total construction costs. This percentage will vary in proportion to the size and complexity of the project. A second option is payment of an hourly fee plus expenses. The third method is a "lump sum" fee. You and your architect should agree upon fee method, conditions, and pricing parameters before design work begins. It is customary for the architect to be paid in several stages or monthly rather than in full at the end of the job. In most cases, the architect's fee also includes compensation for structural, mechanical, and electrical engineering consultants the architect may need to hire.

Q: Is a written contract necessary?
A: Yes. We strongly recommend that you and your architect begin your relationship with a written letter of agreement or contract that details your expectations, the architect's services, schedules and everything else you and your architect consider important. A good, clear, written agreement will prevent later misunderstandings or disappointments. Contract documents are available for purchase from the AIA/Los Angeles; you may call 213-639-0777 or visit the documents section of this web site to obtain a Document List and Order Form.

Q: Now that you have hired an architect, what is the next step?
A: The architect will meet with you to develop your program-a description of your needs-and start designing your facility. The architect will meet with you as many times as required throughout the process to ensure that the design fits your needs and budget.

Once the design is approved, the architect will prepare detailed drawings and other documents upon which construction firms will base their bids. The architect may need to enlist the help of structural, mechanical, electrical and other special consultants to help design specific parts of the building and identify the materials to be used. The architect will coordinate all of these specialists and integrate their work into once comprehensive set of documents. At the same time, the architect will see to it that the design complies with relevant building codes, regulations and accepted building practices.

Q: How is a building contractor selected?
A: Usually, if you haven't already selected a general contractor, you will invite contractors to submit bids. Usually three or more general contracting companies should be invited to review the documents prepared by your architect and submit total construction-cost bids. Usually (but not always) the responsible contractor with the lowest bid is hired.

Q: What is the architect's role during construction?
A: During the construction phase, the architect performs "contract administration" (not "inspection" or "supervision") by visiting the site as appropriate, preparing supplementary drawings as required, and reviewing the contractor's progress and workmanship, in order to determine if work is proceeding in accordance with the contract documents. The architect will review the contractor's applications for payment and issue orders for changes that you may authorize in the work. The contractor, not the architect, is responsible for adherence to the construction documents; the architect will keep you abreast of any unauthorized deviations from the design. The architect serves as your eyes and ears throughout construction.

Twenty questions to ask yourself before you get started:

1. Describe your current home.
What do you like about it?
What don't you like about it?
What's missing?
2. Do you want to change the space you have?
3. Do you want to build a new home?
4. Why do you want to build a new house, or to add to or renovate your current home? Do you need more room?
Are children grown and moving on?
Is your lifestyle changing?
5. What is your life style?
Are you at home a great deal?
Do you work at home?
Do you entertain often?
How much time do you spend in the living areas, bedrooms, kitchen, den, utility space, etc.?
6. How much time and energy are you willing to invest to maintain your home?
7. If you are thinking of adding on, what functions or activities will be housed in the new space?
8. What kinds of spaces do you need?
(e.g. bedroom, expanded kitchen, bathrooms, etc.)
9. How many of those spaces do you think you need?
10. What should the addition/renovation/new home look like?
11. What do you envision in this home that you don't have now?
12. How much can you realistically afford to spend?
13. How soon would you like to be settled into your new home or addition?
Are there rigid time constraints?
14. If you are contemplating building a home, do you have a site selected?
15. Do you have strong ideas about design styles?
What are your design preferences?
16. Who will be the primary contact with the architect, contractor, and others involved in designing and building your project?
It's good to have one point of contact to prevent confusion and mixed messages.
17. What qualities are you looking for in an architect?
18. How much time do you have to be involved in the design and construction process?
19. Do you plan to do any of the work yourself?
20. How much disruption in your life can you tolerate to add on to or renovate your home?

Once you have answered these questions, you will be better able to talk with an architect. The more detailed information you give, the easier it will be for the architect to address your needs.

Twenty questions to ask your architect:

1. What does the architect see as important issues or considerations in your project? What are the challenges of the project?
2. How will the architect approach your project?
3. How will the architect gather information about your needs, goals, etc.?
4. How will the architect establish priorities and make decisions?
5. With whom from the architecture firm will you be dealing directly? Is it the same person who will be designing your project? Who will be designing your project?
6. How interested is the architect in this project?
7. How busy is the architect?
8. What sets this architect apart from the rest?
9. How does the architect establish fees?
10. What would the architect expect the fee to be for this project?
11. What are the steps in the architect's design process?
12. How does the architect organize the process?
13. What does the architect expect you to provide?
14. What is the architect's design philosophy?
15. What is the architect's experience/track record with cost estimating?
16. What will the architect show you along the way to explain the project? Will you see drawings, models, or sketches?
17. If the scope of the project changes later in the process, will there be additional fees? How will those fees be justified?
18. What services does the architect provide during construction?
19. How disruptive will construction be? How long does the architect expect it to take to complete your project?
20. Does the architect have a list of past clients that his or her firm has worked with?


Most architects are both general practitioners and specialists; that is, while an architect may have a special preference for certain types of projects, most can and do provide architectural services on all types of projects. Listed below are some illustrative examples to give you an idea of the range of most architects' capabilities. As you talk with a number of architects, you will discover if they have specialties that are of particular value to you. The AIA/Los Angeles office also keeps a faxable list of member firms and their specialties. Please call the Chapter Office at 213-639-0777 for referral information in these and other categories.

Residential Projects
New single family home construction
Single family home remodeling or additions
Condo or apartment conversion or remodeling
Townhouse, condo, apartment construction
Multifamily and institutional residences
Historic Renovation/Preservation
Outbuildings and other structures
Landscaping and related site design
ADA & accessibility services
Consulting-only services

Small Scale Commercial Projects
New office construction
Office remodeling
New retail facilities
Retail remodeling
New food/entertainment facilities
Food/entertainment facilities remodeling
New recreational facilities
Recreational facilities remodeling
New institutional facilities
Institutional facilities remodeling
Historic Renovation/Preservation
Hotel/Motel projects
Scientific/Medical projects
Landscaping and related site design
ADA & accessibility services
Consulting-only services

Project Budget
Create a budget similar to this one before starting the design process. Your architect can assist you with this.

Land and building acquisition and financing
Land Cost
Building Cost
Title Report
Real Estate Appraisal
Financing Costs & Loan Fees
Bonds & Assessments
Legal Fees (Rezoning, variances, etc.)
Topographic & Boundary Survey
Soil Report/Geotechnical Analysis
Subtotal $ ____________________________________

Architect's Fee
Engineering Fees
Landscape Architecture Fees
Interior Design & Color Consultation Fees
Special Engineering Fees (solar, acoustic, etc.)
Subtotal $____________________________________

Cost Estimating
On Site Work (grading, fences, walks)
Off Site Work (utilities, curbs, gutters, sidewalks)
Building Construction
Landscaping, planting, irrigation
Recreational features (swimming pool, tennis court)
Permit fees and construction taxes required by various governmental agencies Insurance ("builder's risk or "owner's risk") and bonds
Materials testing & inspection
Subtotal $____________________________________

Interior finishes, flooring & draperies
Interior furnishings & appliances (both standard & custom)
Subtotal $____________________________________

Contingency for estimate errors and unforeseen expenses
Cost of temporary lodging (if appropriate)
Subtotal $____________________________________

TOTAL $____________________________________

To search for an AIA architect in your area, visit http://www.aia.org/architect_finder/.