Saturday, September 25, 2010

Reader question - Should I hire an architect?

Today I recieved an email from a reader with the following question:
I was wondering if it is a necessary evil & even more critical to hire an architect before you hire a Contractor to build a couple of major additions on your house (estimated at $100K), and just as importantly, is it the architect who takes your wish list to redo the whole interior with high end, cedar, tresses, stone etc.; or does the contracting company have the structural engineers and designers working for them to do this. When you hired your architect, how much did she charge? Did she have the exact knowledge of the structural supports, readjusting H&V, electrical or is that the Builder? Before you did any of that did you have to make a trip to the municipality to ask what the land regulations were? What did you learn from your process, if you had to do it over.

These are all really good questions and exactly the questions I had when we embarked on our little house renovation/building adventure almost a year ago now.

First, let's deal with whether or not it's critical to hire an architect before hiring a contractor. The short answer is no, it is not absolutely necessary, but chances are you will almost certainly need to have an architect at some point in the process given the size of your renovaton.

In my earlier post Architect, Designer or Design-Build? Lot's of choices for renovating a home I talk about the differences in the qualifications and services provided by architects, designers and design-build companies. Basically, all of the advice that I received boiled down to the fact that if you are doing something really complicated, or if you want to preserve a certain look, then hire an architect first. In any case, if you are adding square footage to your house or your are doing major structural changes, then you will most likely need an architect to sign off on the drawings before you can even submit them to the municipality for a permit.

That said, it does not mean that you must hire an architect before hiring a builder. If you know a builder with a stellar reputation who you have upmost confidence in, and you know exactly what you want, then you could take the cheaper route of hiring an architectural technologist to produce the drawings and then hire an architect just to review and approve the drawings for the permit application. A slightly more expensive route is to hire an architect just to do a design and construction drawings and then take these to several builders to get a quote. The most expensive option is to hire an architect to do the design, produce the construction drawings, run the tendering process and oversee the administration of the builder contract. This last option could cost 15% or more of the overall construction cost in architect fees, but it's a great way to go if you don't feel like going toe-to-toe with a builder because they haven't done their work correctly.

The bottom line is that before you start anything you need to have some sort of drawings or specifications that you can give to a builder to get a quote. The more detailed these specifications are, the more accurate the quote will be. If all you have is a vague, very general description of what you want, then I think you run the risk of a builder either giving you a very high quote in order to cover off many different possibilities, or worse, a very low quote for the most basic of work that will quickly ramp up as you start to specify details. If you really trust the builder, then you could have them design and build it, in which case I think you should pay them produce the design first before you sign a contract with them to build it. In any event, someone is going to have to design the final product and produce the construction drawings, and nobody is going to do that for free. No matter what you do, follow Mike Holmes advice and check lots of references before you hire a builder.

Second, let's deal with whether it's the architect who takes your wish list to redo the whole interior with high end, cedar, tresses, stone etc. or whether it is the contracting company that has the structural engineers and designers working for them to do this.

Architects are certainly capable of doing interior design, as are designers. If you look at the work of Linda Chapman or Chris Simmonds, they do a lot of their own stunning interior design. Again, the benefit of producing a very detailed design first with an architect is that you will then have a specific set of drawings to take to builders to get a quote, which means the quotes you receive will likely be more accurate and more competative. You could also get an architect to design the basic structure of the addition and then have a designer design the interior finishes, but not all architects like to work that way. Finally, a lot of builders do have a good design sense and can put together a pretty nice interior. The only down side is that it is too late to find out that their design sense does not mesh with yours once you have signed the contract with them.

In my research, I certainly heard lots of stories about how architects will design a fabulous house that cannot possibly be built for the budget you provided. Mostly, I heard these stories from design-build companies, so the veracity of the statement is somewhat dubious in my mind. I think that most architects actually have a pretty good idea of how much it costs to build a house and if you give them a budget, they will design a product that fits within that budget. Furthermore, many architects work directly with builders to get more accurate cost estimates. In fact, it is wise to factor in a couple of thousand dollars so that the architect can hire a builder as a consultant to help estimate the costs. In terms of keeping the construction costs down, your biggest enemy is probably yourself. You see a fancy kitchen island or bathtub in a magazine and you tell the architect to add it in and the next thing you know you planned renovation is thousands of dollars over budget.

Third, let's deal with the question of how much an architect costs, whether they have exact knowledge of the structural supports, readjusting H&V, electrical or is that the Builder?

The cost of hiring an architect varies. Some of the more established architects charge a set fee. We interviewed one architect that wanted 15% of the final build cost. The one we settled on cost 10% of the final build cost. Other, mostly younger architects that we interviewed charge a set fee for each service. So, for instance, the initial design drawings might be $5,000. Construction drawings would be$ 5,000 - $10,000. Running the tender process to hire a builder might cost $5000. and so on. The younger architects argued that this was a fairer fee schedule because the amount of work to design and draw a house with cheap fixtures is the same as the amount of work to design a house with expensive fixtures. After all, just because you decide to put in $60,000 worth of exotic wood kitchen cabinets, there is no reason the drawings should now cost $6,000 more. It's a fair point, however, I think for an average quality house the cost will work out about the same whether one hires an architect for a set percentage of the build cost or based on a fee per service. It's when you get into a house with lots of expensive finishing that the price will sky rocket with the former fee schedule. In my blog post Picking an architect for our renovation I talk about some different ways to pick architects and how much they cost.

It's absolutely true that architects will have knowledge of structural components, H&V and electrical, often better knowledge than the builder. For anything really tricky, they may call upon the advice of a structural engineer. In any event, most structural changes to your house must be signed off by an architect or a structural engineer.

Fourth, let's deal with whether we had to make a trip to the municipality to ask what the land regulations were.

Fortunately, I did not need to go to city hall because the City of Ottawa has a pretty good website. However, depending on what you want to do, it's wise to check things out with city hall first. For example, if you wanted to open a B&B, or put in a rental apartment in the basement, your zoning may not allow for that. Similarly, you may not be able to add a floor on to your house because you are already at your zoning's height limit. Before even thinking about doing renovations on our house, I checked out our zoning and the required setbacks to make sure we had enough room to put on an addition. Still, that said, any architect or builder worth their weight in salt should know where to find the relevant regulations and one of the first things they should do before they start to design your renovation is look up the relevant regulations. I talk more about this in my blog post Getting zoning information and old air photos of your property.

Fifth, let's deal with what I have learned from the process so far.

I think going into our renovaton project we vastly underestimated the cost of bringing the home up to the standard we wanted. Part of that was because we came across expensive problems, like the foundation, that there was no way to predict. But part of it was because we really had no idea how much renovations could cost. If I had known from the begining that the cost to renovate would be almost as much as the cost to build new, then I think we would have gone straight to Uniform to begin with and skipped everything with the architect. That said, I loved the process of working with the architect, I felt a good connection with our architect, Linda Chapman, and when I do it again, I will go into the project with a much more realistic budget and the intention of building a new house with an architect.

I would also say that I feel the cost of hiring an architect is worth it, especially for big custom jobs. I had lots of builders tell me it is a waste of money to hire an architect, but I don't think it is. With an architect, you do all the planning up front and end up with a very specific design which can then be taken to a builder for a quote. In turn, the builder's quotes will be accurate and competative, saving you money. Certainly, I did not get the sense through my research that it is any cheaper to go with a build-design company or a designer, at least for big jobs. However, for smaller jobs, where there are no structural changes, then I think a designer would be just fine for the job. It also depends on how confident you are reviewing the work of your builder. If you feel that you have both the time and the technical skill to check the work of your builder on a regular basis, then it may not be worthwhile hiring an architect. But most of us don't have the time or knowledge, which is where hiring the professional expertise of an architect comes in.


  1. Simon,

    They are building a new daycare on the site of your old high school. It is going to emulate the old CP Railway Roundhouse, which I think is a fantastic idea for Canmore. Don't you? $1.7 million or thereabouts, but 8,500 sq.ft. Point, it is being designed by a firm of architectural designers, Russell and Russell, a local firm who do some great expensive houses here. These guys are not architects but they do know most things about regulations and also work with certain tradespeople. For example, Kevin Koronko, a builder par excellence, works with these designers often. He also has the same tradespeople who have worked with him for years. Trusted. A lot depends on where you live and various reputations.

    I gather that the town has decided to save money by going this route.

    I agree that if you want something fantastic and different, or a specific period piece, then it probably is better to hire an architect and work with him from the beginning, as you did.

    You can also hire a project manager (like your dad), who will oversee things for a cost. I don't know how, added up, all these costs compare in the final analysis, you'd have to get quotes. A good local builder is his own project manager.

    I believe there is an added protection when hiring an architect or structural engineer, as they are governed by a professional body and can be sued if they make an expensive mistake. In England, they are under Royal Charter, (I don't know about here!) I think you can complain to their professional body and they will put matters right. I don't think this appplies to architectural designers.


  2. Your readers should be informed that this quote, is in fact not correct.

    "you could take the cheaper route of hiring an architectural technologist to produce the drawings and then hire an architect just to review and approve the drawings for the permit application."

    As an architectural technologist Licensed by the Ontario Association of Architects, I have to say that having a technologist prepare designs and drawings for your house will not require hiring an architect as well, to review the drawings for permit submission. The only case where this is true is if you build over three storeys, or 600 square meters in gross area (which is a very large house). There are a few technologists in Ontario, licensed by the OAA, the same governing body regulating Architects, that can also submit permit documents for residential buildings four stories in height.

    In Ontario "designers" can submit your drawings for permit provided they have written the appropriate building code exams, and carry professional liability insurance.

    You were in fact correct, that a technologist is likely to be cheaper than an Architect. What is also true is, in an Architect's office, a technologist will likely execute the design prepared by the architect and the Architect will barely see the project after he's shown you the design plans and elevation sketches. In some offices, a technologist may well prepare the design too.

    What you do by hiring a technologist directly is sacrifice the "prestige" associated with the architect's name, and free yourself of the overhead cost that goes along with it. Many technologists are as capable designers as any Architect. True, some technologists are technically focused, and design is not their forte. You should choose the professional that best suits your needs; but do consider that your house is a collection of complex technical systems working together to keep you warm, safe, dry, and working efficiently; as well as looking stylish in your neighborhood.

  3. Great points Mark and thank you very much for the clarification about what Architectural Technologists can do for their clients. It is great to see professionals such as yourself reading the blog too. I also agree with you that Architects do not have a lock on good design. I've seen lots of work from builders that looks really nice.

  4. I know this is an old post - but an interesting thread which i wanted to add to.
    I am an architectural technologist but have worked as an architect and design director internationally on various reputable well known projects. In my sincere optinion - although it may be biased being a fully qualified technologist will provide a full concept to completion service on projects and can have additional detailing and specification as well as project management skills that many architects do not possess - And i would like to illuminate that it is often not the 'architect' who reviews the technologists drawings but usually the other way round, as it is the technologist with the technical 'know-how'. Note - There is a big difference between a 'qualified technologist' MCIAT and a cad technician learning the ropes - please bear that in mind. I have also worked with numerous architects and many cannot even draw by hand! The development of ideas is also often lead by scrolling through well known design magazines - which may or may not suit your tastes. The truth is anyone can be a good designer - the first rule is you need to be a good listener... you will know a good designer when you meet them as they will start asking you what you want and assisting you in clarifying your exact needs to suit your own as well as your families requirements, budget and lifestyles. A good designer also needs to be both creative and technical which in itself is hard to find, many designers whether they are architects or other - tend to often have one or the other or be relatively weak in either aspect - a good technologist who is also creative can bridge this gap and provide you with a fully comprhensive and integrated service - instead of leaving various areas of responsbility (specs/MEP/lighting/detailing/construction drawings) to other parties!.
    Also be mindful if paying an architect on a % fee as it will be in their best interest to convince you to build that dream magazine home to increase their fees. I would like to end on a positive note - that you cannot beat an eye for detail and good design - really good design does not have to be expensive but can add true value to your home and life, it needs however, to be practical and feasible in terms of realisation; constructability and cost etc. In the end, who you opt for, whether its technologist, architect, designer or design builder will really depend on their track record and their value proposition