How to talk to your architect
Don't be afraid to communicate exactly what you want out of the project — and be sure to speak up if you don't understand the process or the lingo.
So you're going to hire an architect to design your dream home — or perhaps simply to craft your dream kitchen.
Intimidated by the prospect? That's understandable. "For most people, this is the single most expensive decision they'll ever make," Gerald Morosco, a Pittsburgh architect and author of "How to Work With an Architect," says of hiring an architect and building a home. "As with any relationship, the most essential piece is the communication piece. With the absence of clear and honest communication, you get misunderstandings."
The client-architect relationship can be tricky, Morosco says. "Many people do not understand clearly what is the role of an architect in a design project," he says. On the flip side, he says, "Architects are sometimes not good listeners."
Just knowing how to talk to this little-understood creature called an architect can go a long way toward getting you the home you want. We talked to some architects and homeowners who have gone through the process to bring you some sound advice.
Interviewing architects before you choose one is your first, and perhaps best, chance to make sure that you and the architect will click.
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Initially, expect to spend at least an hour interviewing an architect. What should you ask? The American Institute of Architects has compiled a list of 20 questions (PDF), including:
- What is the architect's design philosophy?
- How busy is the architect?
- What will the architect show you along the way to explain the project?
You should also expect the architect during that initial talk to interview you about your plans and vision. "What you should be listening for is to ensure that you're being heard," Morosco says. "Too often, people speak past each other, and I think that that's because people are coming from different points of view."
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Be sure to ask for clarification of anything you don't understand, says Susan Lang, author of "Designing Your Dream Home." Lang also recommends that you ask to speak with the owners of the past several homes the architect has designed, and not just homes the architect lists as references.
(Read more about how the architect-client process works here.)
Communicating your goals
After you've chosen an architect, you'll have that first long sit-down session to talk in detail about your dream home. Expect to be asked all sorts of questions that let the architect know your needs and your lifestyle. Residential architect Mark Demerly of Indianapolis, for instance, gives new clients a questionnaire that asks everything from how many pets they have to what time they get up in the morning.
But you shouldn't just come to this meeting armed with a pen. Come thoroughly prepared to talk about how you use your current house and how you want to use a new space — in other words, having given serious thought to the "problem" you're hoping to solve, Morosco says.
Also, come with a vision in hand — literally. Architects are visual people, so present them with pictures, snapshots, books and tear sheets from magazines that illustrate aspects of homes that you like."That is a good way of visually showing what your tastes are," Lang says. You can also snip and collect pictures online on sites such as Houzz.
The aids don't have to be visual, though. "I've had clients write essays. I've had clients do PowerPoint presentations. I've had clients hand me three-ring binders with clippings," Morosco says.
As Lang puts it, "Give the architect as much information as you can, because they can't read your mind."
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Bob and Teresa Finley of Wildwood, Mo., learned this lesson the hard way. They hadn't decided exactly what they wanted out of their new home, and without that knowledge to help guide the architect, the project just got more and more elaborate.
"I think it's important to have a very good idea of what you want to build before you meet with the architect," Bob Finley says. "I think we should have had a better idea of what we wanted."
Decide how you'll talk to your architect
Ideally, a home's design is a collaboration of the architect and those who will use it. Thus, many architects want to have both members of a couple present at each meeting when they discuss design.
It's great to have both participating in the decision-making process, Demerly says, but it can also be beneficial if one spouse is tapped as the designated spokesperson so two spouses speaking "doesn't stall the design process or decision-making." Will one spouse take the lead on the exterior of the house and one on the interior? Will all decisions be made jointly, before meetings?
Also, tell the architect early on how you want to communicate — by text message? Voice mail? Email? Too many times, Demerly says, he's seen situations in which an architect leaves voice mail messages, only to have the client finally respond, saying, "I never check my voice mail."
"Most failures happen because of miscommunication," he says.
Put it in writing
As the design process gets under way, misunderstandings are easy. "One way to ensure that (doesn't happen) is to follow up meetings with notes or minutes of the meeting, which would be a condensed statement of what we understood or what we heard," Morosco says. Either the client or the architect then sends those notes to the other party, giving that side a chance to comment and respond. "That instigates further conversation," he says.
Talking budget and schedule
"Without question … the No. 1 misunderstanding between clients and architects is cost," Morosco says. Owners frequently don't understand how difficult it is for architects to give an accurate estimate, he says. "The only way to really know is to involve a contractor." The best way to keep this crucial line of communication open is to bring in a contractor "very early on," he says. That way you avoid the pain of drawing up a plan, only then to get sticker shock.
"We did not start with a budget, and that was our biggest mistake, I would say," Bob Finley says.
On a related note, Teresa Finley says, "Make sure your architect gives you a clear-cut picture of all of the steps involved" in the home-design process, so there are no surprises, budgetary or otherwise. For example, the Finleys were surprised to find that their design had to undergo review by a structural engineer, a step that cost them several thousand dollars. "We didn't know that," Teresa Finley says. "There was never really a map or a timeline of how or when things were coming."
DS, here's the deal. Yes there are time constraints, and no one is given the correct amount of time to thoroughly complete a project. Either by self-infliction or owner driven. On the architect's side, the contractor wants quick answers, and the architect throws something out there. On the contractor's side, they never factor in additional time for answers to their questions in their schedule. Architects always are involved in construction (by law in my state). It may differ in yours. Rough sketches don't work when submitting for permits or handing over to a contractor. If your "client satisfaction" rate is 100%, then that is a first for any industry. Most homebuilders have a reputation for cutting corners, but people keep buying it because there is no alternative.
crazyj23, spot on. However, only people in architecture understand your point of view. No one else cares.
RedNWhiteFan, they are asked to over detail because the contractor/ subcontractor has no idea what to do about it, so he looks to the architect. This includes your tempered glass example. It used to be glass companies knew where it went, now they don't. See my point about lack of knowledgable contractors in my first post.
"Rarely charge for Change Orders?" Check that statement. If you have a change order, then you are charging the owner, otherwise there would be no change order to charge.
I've said my peace. Done.
RedNWhiteFan, I noticed you didn't say anything about low-balling bids and change ordering the owner, but you're a licensed contractor? Typical. You worked for $40/ hr (before taxes) on a very small project. Congrats, good for you on your low-end design capabilities. Selecting materials with an owner takes a couple of hours and is stretching out in weeks, which apparently you did not do. Owners are very selective (as they should be) and it requires time (except in your case where you are "so fast" at drawing).
As far as building departments go, they do preliminary reviews, permit reviews, and yet still run into problems, and take no responsiblity in the field or in signing anything bearing a shred of responsiblity on themselves, but you already know this. Devleopment Services' departments are bureaucracy at it's best.
Bottom line, everyone will tell you it's so exciting to build a home, and it's a terrible method.
A draftsman doesn't know anything about building or code issues. They get paid low wages to be CAD monkeys cause that's all the architect can afford. A buidling inspector can't read a set of plans. They get out to the site and demand changes which they should have seen during their plan review. Again, it's a bad situaton.
Here's what you need to know:
Architects are always trying to do things quickly to save money, since their fees are so low. Contractors are always trying to add cost since they low-balled their bid. It's a no-win situation for the owner.
Know exactly what you want in your house. If you change your mind late in the process, then you will be charged additional fees for redesign.
There is no such thing a perfect set of plans without mistakes. The house he designs for you is original not one that has been tried and tested several times to get the kinks out. Expect to pay the contractor for changes during construction.
The architect is there working for you, but it doesn't mean he's on-call anytime you want him. He's trying to save money/ make a profit. He has other clients, just like doctor's have other patients.
Building design and construction has changed in recent times. It used to be that the contractor knew more about the product they were constructing or installing. These days most of the contractors' employess do not understand the products they are installing, and need hand-holding solutions by the architect through the duration of construcion. Therefore expect delays during construction.
It's a horrible process, and by the time construction is finished, if the architect, contractor, and owner are still talking to each other then it's a miracle.