Friday, December 18, 2009

Picking an architect for our renovation

Once we had settled on a neighbourhood in Ottawa in which we wanted to live, the next step was to find a house. In August 2009, we bought a bungalow on a pretty 56' X 119' lot. The house has good bones, but is just a little too small for our needs. Thus, we need to add more space, either by adding an addition on the back or front, or by adding a second story to the house. This is no small undertaking. There are a lot of structural changes that we are planning for the house. Therefore, we decided that it was best to use the services of an architect rather than hiring a design-build company or an Interior Designer to do the work.

The next step was to filter through the scores of architects in Ottawa to find one that was available, interested in our project, and able to provide a wide range of creative ideas to produce a design that is aesthetically pleasing, adaptable to the growing needs of our family, and affordable.

To tell you the truth, I had absolutely no idea where to start. Fortunately, though, the Ottawa Home Show just happened to be on at the beginning of October, and offered the perfect launch point into the world of designers, builders and architects. The home show had two things in particular going for it. First, a cornucopia of professionals to talk to, and second, pictures of all the finalists for this years Ottawa home building awards.

At the home show, I met a couple of architects as well as representatives from the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA), who were only too happy to describe the usual process for working with an architect as well as the different ways an architect can be compensated. One architect, Toon Dreessen, was especially helpful. He outlined a selection process that is essentially like a mini design competition. He suggested first interviewing six or so architects to find 3 or so who are interested in the project and who we thought we could get along with. Then he suggested that we offer to pay each a small fee to come up with some conceptual ideas for what they might do with the house. Finally, based on the submissions, we could either select the architect whose work we liked the best, or select a different architect who we thought we could get along with, but incorporate ideas that we liked from the other architects. In the end, we selected an architect who we really clicked with, so we did not pursue Dreessen's competition idea, but I thought it was a good one all the same.

But how to come up with that list of 6 or so architects? Dreessen suggested that we first narrow the list of architects by using the Ontario Association of Architects website to search for Architects in Ottawa with the experience and portfolio we like. Using the OAA site search function, we first narrowed the list down to 46 Ottawa Architects with websites. Then we looked at each website and selected only those Architects who do residential construction. This narrowed the list down to less than 20. Then we winnowed it down to seven architects who had portfolios with styles that we liked and who have been in business for several years - two who I had talked with at the Ottawa Home Show, four who were finalists in the home building awards, and one recommended by a friend.

I then contacted all architects on this list. One was too busy to take on any more work until after Christmas, one was located too far out of town, and five agreed to meet for an initial interview. After the interviews, one architect declined to submit a fee proposal, leaving four architects who we asked to submit a fee proposal and a list of references.

The reference checks are essential. The references can tell you a lot about what it is like to work with the architect in question. For instance, we were quite surprised when one reference said that while their house was beautiful, there really did not get along with their architect. Another said their project came in way over budget. In addition, references may have knowledge of other architects on your list, either because they have worked with the other architects in the past, they have friends who have worked with the other architects, or they interviewed the same architects during their search.

For the interview, most architects will come to your home for a free, 45-minute interview, although one that we interviewed would only conduct the interview in his office. Some architects may also charge a fee for the first interview, but it is rare.

So what questions should you ask during the interview? Our approach was to use the interviews to find out about what working with the architect would be like, how are their fees structured, who is on their team, who would we deal with in their firm, etc. We did not focus on getting creative ideas for the house from the interview. To do that, would have had to have spent more time discussing our needs, which would mean less time getting to know the architect.

Here is the list of questions we used for the interviews, which we got from the American Institute of Architects:

1. What does the architect see as important issues or considerations in your project?

2. What are the challenges of the project?

3. How will the architect approach your project?

4. How will the architect gather information about your needs, goals, etc.?

5. How will the architect establish priorities and make decisions?

6. Who from the architecture firm will you be dealing with directly? Is that the same person who will be designing the project? Who will be designing your project?

7. How interested is the architect in this project?

8. How busy is the architect?

9. What sets this architect apart from the rest?

10. How does the architect establish fees?

11. What would the architect expect the fee to be for this project?

12. What are the steps in the design process?

13. How does the architect organize the process?

14. What does the architect expect you to provide?

15. What is the architect's design philosophy?

16. What is the architect's experience/track record with cost estimating?

17. What will the architect show you along the way to explain the project? Will you see models, drawings, or computer animations?

18. If the scope of the project changes later in the project, will there be additional fees? How will these fees be justified?

19. What services does the architect provide during construction?

20. How disruptive will construction be? How long does the architect expect it to take to complete your project?

21. Does the architect have a list of past clients that you can contact?

We were hard pressed to get answers for all 21 questions during a 45-minute interview, but most of them were covered off either from directly asking the question, or indirectly based on what the architect volunteered.

The AIA site also has some great information on what an architect can do for you. If you have never worked with an architect before, I suggest you check out their site. There are explanations of the five phases of design, maximizing your relationship with the architect, how to identify what services you want from the architect, and how decisions with an architect are made. There are also videos of clients and architects talking about the process and their experiences working together and a publication called You and Your Architect, which summarizes the process of working with an architect.

At the end of the process we picked Linda Chapman to be our architect. She seemed easy to get along with, she is a proponent of the Not So big House concept, she's experienced - with over 26 years in the business - and she has done lots of green buildings, including straw bale houses and the Mountain Equipment Coop store in Ottawa, which is considered to be one of the greenest buildings in Canada.

If you have recently picked an architect, I'd love to hear about your experiences.

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