Sustainable/ green architects in Concord, CA

Gerard Lee Architects-Residential Design Guide: Working with & selecting your architect

Please read the other FAQs/ guides in this series:

Some of these issues have been dealt with by the AIA as noted in the FAQ for residential clients. However we will list some issues that we have experienced in the past.

Selecting an Architect:
kitchen pavilion

Selecting an architect probably is not an easy task for anyone considering a remodel or new custom home design. Part of your costs for your project will be the design fees and naturally you would be worried about the architect you end up working with. That actually is a key point to consider, the "working relationship" you develop with your architect. Therefore it's advisable to obtain references, check out their projects/ portfolio and to actually talk to the architects you have shortlisted.
Talking to your architect enables you to verbalize your needs and desires for your project. It helps the architect understand where you are coming from and to respond appropriately. Your home is a very personal and private part of your life, bringing in an architect to become part of this process requires a relationship built on trust. Remember that when you work with the right architect, it's a home you are designing and not just a house.

Architectural Design Fees
Many people do not factor design fees in their project budgets. Depending on the complexity, size, budget, schedule, location, etc, your architect will take these into consideration when developing their fees.
Below are some examples:

  • As a percentage of construction costs (utilizing market rates) -roughly 10% for new construction and 15-20% for remodels. See the previous page for a breakdown)
  • As an hourly rate based on the architect's billable rates-what is often referred to as a "Time & Materials" contract. Usually with a not to exceed sum.
  • Based on the number of drawings to be generated (by the sheet)
  • A breakdown by type of services requested
  • What needs to be factored in the equation is that an architect in setting the fee needs to consider the difficulty of the site, what services are required, the quality of materials for the house (i.e. marble vs. stucco), the size of the project, the complexity of the program ( how many rooms, types of rooms, special requirements etc.) the timeline of the project (i.e. -project is due yesterday as opposed to a flexible schedule or the client wants to work through the design as an ongoing exercise to accomodate their growing collection of Flemish tapestries or rubber duckies).

    Something else to consider about the design fee is that architects are not fancy or glorified "drafters". That is we work in concert with the client to develop a design that is functional, site sensitive, aesthetically pleasing and adds value through the design. If you have already designed your home and it's hard and fast, then you probably need the services of a drafter more than that of an architect. Architects are trained to design buildings and we consider a host of factors before we even put pen to paper (or in todays age, mouse to computer).

    Provide your architect with as much information as possible, invite them to see the site or send them digital photos, discuss your proposed construction budget (remain open minded to an architect's comments regarding your budget), discuss your program or if you have a prefered style, mention it, your preferences for a sustainable home, etc. The more information you provide, the better able they are to develop their fees. It does take time and you really should not expect one over the phone if you just called. If your budget does not reflect today's market values, discuss with your architect alternative construction methods. Maybe using shipping containers, prefabricated modules, or a material you just happened to have a ton of and are actually feasbile building materials or ask your architect for ideas. It really isn't the same thing as replacing the fan belt in your car.
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    What an Architect does
    Since the topic above was architecture fees, let's look at what you get for your money.
    First let's clarify a common misconception; architects do not just draft up house plans for the contractor to build.
    An architect works with you. They try to understand your needs and collaborate with you to create a design or vision of your project/ home. You don't go to an architect to get a builder/ tract home as your end result, you use an architect so that dreams can be visualized, created and built. An architect brings many creative and innovative ideas to the table. Not just following trends but creating them around you and your home. They have the ability to help you see things about a home or your way of living that you may never have considered before. Your home is your sanctuary, private retreat and castle, it's the architects job to bring it to fruition.

    To do this, we need to coordinate the services of the different engineers (structural, landscape, mechanical etc) to ensure that the design works and is buildable, we prepare a comprehensive set of design/ construction documents and supplement it with well written specifications (that clarify the quality of the construction), help you find the right contractor, act as your agent during construction to maintain the design and quality of your project and be your advocate throughout the entire process. Oftentimes this means producing drawings and rendered elevations specifically for design review boards or spending hours presenting the design to the planning commission or board of supervisors.

    These set of drawings will include very detailed plans, elevations and sections. They will be dimensioned to indicate the size, height, depth, etc. These drawings will have callouts that will point to drawing details that will communicate to the contractor the different assemblies required. Water proofing, decks, roofs, wall assemblies etc are all part of the drawings. The more information provided to the contractor as part of the contract documents, the more detailed he has to be in his bid. This in turn reduces the possibility of change orders (requests to increase their fees) because of information that was not included.

    Why the effort to explain this? Mainly because residential buildings are considered "exempt" buildings and in most jurisdictions do not require the stamp of an architect on them. Which means anybody can design them. If the person has the experience and the ability, then there is nothing wrong with that. Even the homeowner can choose to go out and purchase some software program and design their own home. The contractor will gladly build whatever is on the plans as long as they get paid. Even if it results in something unlivable. You can self medicate, you can do your own taxes and you can defend yourself in court. However there are times when it is prudent to call in a professional. Somebody who has the training and skills to do the job right.

    There are many good residential designers out there. Their fees will be significantly lower than those of an architect. Probably to the tune of $1-$2 a square foot. However the services they provide you will be very much in line with those fees. Many will not represent you at a design review board nor assist in obtaining your permit.
    They will generate floor plans, elevations and sections. In some cases, very basic drawings with little information on it.
    The premise being that the owner does not need or require this information. You hand the drawings over to the contractor and they will "figure out" how to build the house. Well, if you get rudimentary drawings with little detailed information, you cannot expect a contractor to provide a detailed bid. Therefore the contractor can and will generate change orders costing many thousands of dollars to "figure it out".

    Considering that it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars (and in some cases, millions) to build a home, a small percentage increase can be a very expensive way to "figure it out". The architect's fee is a tiny fraction of construction costs, but their complete services usually results in overall costs savings to a client. The difference lies in the knowledge that the architect will be with you every step of the way to guide you throughout the process. Developing the interiors, helping you select kitchen cabinets, door hardware, working out problems as they arise, etc. They don't just drop off a set of drawings and walk out the door. It is about building a relationship. But with everything you do, you need to research the capabilities of whoever you hire to get the job done.

    Another consideration is if full blown architectural services are not required (guidance and support) from a license architect, feel free to negotiate with them. Tell them that you would prefer a significantly reduced scope of services and that you will provide them with the indemnification necessary to do so. After all an architect is licensed by the state and has to perform to a "standard of care" that a non license designer is not held to.

    An interesting article about unlicensed practitioners, from the September 2009 issue of "Architect":
    Trust Me, I'm an (Unlicensed) Architect

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    Published 11/1/05-last updated October 7,2009