Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Architect, Designer or Design-Build? Lot's of choices for renovating a home.

When the time comes to undertake the renovation, should we hire an Architect, a Designer, or a Design-build company?

When we first looked at this house, we knew it could not accommodate our needs without fairly substantial changes. But we liked the lot and the neighbourhood and we felt that we could work with the house. My first thought was to hire an architect, and in particular, one architect in Ottawa whose work I like. We also told the home inspector of our intentions and he reaffirmed the importance of hiring an architect. However, as we investigated our options further, we received a lot of conflicting advice about the merits of architects, designers and design-build companies.

I learned quite a bit in my investigations about these different professions, so I thought I'd share some of that information along with links to other good sources of information.

Architects: Architects not only provide conceptual ideas and drawings of what your house could look like. They are trained in engineering and site planning and they understand how structures work and what they should look like. They can create a design for your project, prepare construction drawings, make sure that the plans meet minimum code, help estimate costs, oversee the process of hiring a contractor and oversee the project during construction. In my discussions with architects it was made clear that the architect will not renovate the house for us. What we would be paying for are his/her professional services to design and oversee the renovation. The contractor or builder is also not hired by the architect. While the architect may oversee the process of hiring a contractor, ultimately the contractor is hired by us, the owner. Because there is no financial arrangement between the architect and the builder, the architect can offer us independent advice about the progress and quality of the construction and will deal directly with the builder when issues arise.

In Ontario, Architecture is regulated by the Ontario Association of Architects. Only individuals licensed by the OAA may legally use the title “Architect”. The Architects Act and the Ontario Building Code set out the types and sizes of buildings which must be designed by an architect. Chances are, if you are adding on to the square footage of a house or making any substantial changes inside, the plans must be approved by an architect before construction can commence.

I found that the OAA website offered a lot of information about Architects including the ability to search for an list of architects in Ottawa who specialized in residential work. The OAA publication, A client's Guide to Engaging and Architect in Ontario provided great guidance on how to hire an architect in Ontario and how much we should expect to pay. The Ottawa Regional Society of Architects website was also helpful for finding an architect in Ottawa who specializes in residential construction. Finally, the American Institute of Architects also has a great website with information about what value an architect can bring to a project. In a later post, I will provide more information about hiring an architect including a few good tidbits that I received from an Ottawa architect.

Designers: Interior designers are more than just decorators. While I believe that anyone can hang a shingle outside their door with the word "designer" on it, true Interior Designers are registered through a professional organization such as the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario. they are qualified to make recommendations about interior layouts, with the exception of load-bearing walls. They often pick up where architects leave off, helping with room layouts, space planning or storage planning. They also help with cosmetic choices, such as helping you choose wall colours, moldings, cabinetry, sinks, faucets, handles, lights, furniture, appliances, etc. You can hire a designer to do minor or substantial interior work for you - such as changing rooms around or completely replacing a kitchen. Usually, you deal only with them during the work, and they hire any sub-trades needed for the job. If an architect or engineer is needed to approve the plans, they will contract one for the job.

Design-build companies: Design-build companies are contractors that offer design services along with their building services. They may have an architect, an engineer, and/or registered designers on their staff. In this way, they can offer a sort of one-stop-shop - greatly streamlining the process for the customer, and setting themselves apart from other contracting companies. You can hire a design-build company to do small jobs or build you a brand new house. Usually, when you hire a design-build company, you deal only with them during the job and they usually hire any sub-trades needed for the job. As with designers, if an architect or engineer is needed to approve the plans, and they don't have one on staff, they will contract one specifically for the job.

Renomark is a Canadian industry program designed to set minimum quality standards for renovation contractors. It can help you find a quality contractor. Design-build companies who are members of the Renomark standard must abide by a Code of Conduct, which, among other things, includes: abide by a code of ethics, provide detailed contracts, provide minimum 2-year warranty, and return all phone calls within 2 days. I found the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association website to be helpful in finding a design-build company in the Ottawa area who is a Renomark member.

At the end of the day, how do you know if you need an architect, a designer or a build-design company. Mike Holmes offers some advice on this in his book Make it Right. He says that neither cost nor size of the project can determine which type of professional should be used. Instead, if you enjoy the creative process, then you might enjoy working with an architect. Also, if you are particularly concerned about maintaining the style of the home or restoring the historical authenticity of the home, then an architect could be essential. Similarly, if there is an architect whose style you really like, hire him/her. On the other hand, Mike Holmes is clearly of the opinion that many good contractors have picked up a fair bit of design sense over their careers and can often be trusted to have good design ideas.

My personal experience was that I found there was a lot of, shall we say, sibling rivalry, among many of the professionals I talked to in Ottawa. I spoke with architects who told me that design-build companies were good only if you knew exactly what you wanted in the design (i.e. you don't need any creative input). I spoke with design-build companies who told me that architects will design you a great looking house that is often impossible to build for the stated budget. And I spoke with Interior Designers who told me that Architects could not design a room for function.

My advice is to talk to a lot of different people to find the professional that will work best for you. As Mike Holmes says, ask lots of questions and check lots of references. For us, we felt that an architect was the right choice. We knew we would be undertaking potentially significant structural changes to the house, so an interior designer was not the right fit. We also liked the idea of an architect providing independent advice to us on the progress and quality of the construction (I have neither the time nor inclination to go toe-to-toe with a contractor to argue about how they have done the work wrong). And finally, when we compared the cost of design-build companies to the cost of hiring an architect and a builder, we found that there really wasn't that much of a difference in price. In fact, one of the larger design-build companies in Ottawa would have been more expensive than hiring an architect and builder.

That said, I'd really like to hear your stories. Who did you choose to do your renovation work?

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