How to find the best architect for your home improvement

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  1. MichelleMichelle says

    Great post! We have been searching for our next house for what seems like forever, and don’t like anything. We have really been thinking about building our next home. A little nervous though!



Understand the scope of services that are being provided

Regulations impose that there must be an appointment agreement in writing. The client must be told what the architect has committed to deliver and what their obligations are in return. As part of this documentation it is important that a client understands and has a realistic expectation of the scope of services that the architect is going to provide. This could entail establishing how far along the route you wish to employ the architect, i.e. only as far as planning, include building regulations, the tender of the building contract, inspection of works on site and administration of the contract. It could also be as simple as deciding how many options might be shown in the feasibility stage.

4. Find an Architect Who Has Experience With Planners

When choosing an architect, it can make all the difference if they have previous (successful) experience of dealing with local planners.

While planning permission for certain projects will always be contentious, regardless of whether your project is small and simple or large and detailed, it pays to have someone fighting your corner who is familiar with your planning authority — they will know what might or might not gain approval, they will have an understanding of the success rate of other projects in the area, and will have built a rapport with those deciding your fate.

Should Architects Charge Percentage of Construction Costs?

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am beginning the process of building a house on a piece of land I own. I spoke to an architect who quoted me “10-15%” range for plan fees. In this area that corresponds to roughly $150,000 – $225,000 for a set of plans. He said he can do the plans in 3-4 months, and that it will take about a year to get it through the planning department. This seems quite high to me, and makes me wonder why plans should cost a percentage of “construction cost”, which have gone up dramatically in the last few years. Thanks.


Hiring an architect for the full suite of services – from preliminary design to move-in – sounds pretty appealing if you don’t have the time or skills to design and manage the project yourself.  And if you find the right architect, it is. You will be relieved of a lot of responsibilities and headaches. But this comes at a pretty steep price.

Most architects will work for either an hourly rate or for a fixed fee based on a percentage of the construction costs – or some combination of the two. For example, some architects charge a fixed fee for portions of the work that are predictable and an hourly rate for less predictable tasks, like client meetings and plan revisions. Some charge an hourly rate with a guaranteed maximum or a fixed-fee with a cap on the architect’s hours. For example, after a certain number of hours in client meetings or site visits, an hourly rate kicks in.

It seems like there are as many variations as architecture firms,  which can make it difficult for a client gauge the actual cost and compare costs between firms. Some firms charge different rates for different packages of services, ranging from basic design to full service, including bidding and construction administration.

Typical fixed fees for a full-service contract range from  5% to 15% of construction costs for new construction, and from 10% to 20% for remodeling. Rates for remodeling projects are typically higher as they tend to be more time-consuming due to the messy and unpredictable nature of remodeling.  Rates will vary with the reputation and size of the firm, complexity of the project, region of the country, the current economy, and your success at negotiating.

Price differences will also reflect the level of service provided. Are you getting the minimum set of plans required to get a building permit? Or will you be getting a high level of detail with many additional drawings and detailed specifications, plus bidding and construction administration?  Make sure you get a clear description of the services offered so you can make more of an apples-to-apples comparison.

So on a $300,000 new construction project, you may need to spend $30,000 for the full-tilt architectural services package. You can also hire architects by the hour, often with a not-to-exceed limit, which may save you money if you are careful in how you use the architect’s time. If you can’t afford the full architectural service, but would like the input of an architect, you can hire them for just the services you need or that you will find most valuable.

Levels of Architectural Design Service

What sets architects apart from other people who design homes is that they are licensed by the states in which they practice. To obtain a license, an architect generally must earn a degree from an approved architectural program, complete an internship, and pass an exam. All of this ensures architects possess a high level of expertise about design, materials, and building systems.

Like architects, architectural designers (sometimes just called designers) have studied and practiced architectural design—some for many years—but are not licensed. They may work on their own or in association with a licensed architect.

Many builders also offer home design services, and some offer the services of a dedicated, on-staff designer. Design-build firms offer both architectural design and construction services under one roof; some are led by architects, and some have architects on staff.

A draftsperson puts your plans on paper. They can produce the drawings you will need to build, but usually only after the design is established. Like designers, drafters often work alongside licensed architects or builders.

You might consider any one of the above individuals to help you in designing your remodel. What many people—particularly homeowners planning “just a few tweaks”—don’t realize, however, is how difficult it can be to adapt an existing home to meet new expectations. Architects are trained to see the possibilities in every structure and are experts at translating those possibilities into detailed plans that your builder can execute with precision.

Help your Architect Help You—and Save Money

Once you’ve signed on with an architect, there are things you can do to make sure your project turns out just as you want it to.

  • Above all, be available. Review drawings and material suggestions promptly.
  • Be decisive. If you’re having trouble with a decision, let your architect know. He or she may have information or strategies that can help break the log jam.
  • Ask questions. The better you understand the design when it’s on paper, the less likely you’ll be unpleasantly surprised at construction time.
  • Speak up if there’s an aspect of the design you don’t like. It’s much easier to enlarge a closet or move a hallway when it’s on paper than after it’s been framed.

Architects will tell you that the more engaged their client is, the better the results. Successful projects don’t just happen. Finding the right person to help you bring your vision to life is an investment in not only your property but your happiness and satisfaction occupying it.

Vetting Your Candidate

Other grounds that may be helpful in making the decision are these:

Previous work

The single most reliable criterion for selecting an architect is his or her previous designs. At the very least, you should review a port­folio of each designer’s work. That will give you the opportunity both to evaluate the designer’s skills and get ideas for your own renovation.

Checking references

If you like what you see in a portfolio, arrange to see one or more of the designer’s projects first hand. Most architects will provide such refer­ences on request and often will gladly take you personally to see a completed proj­ect. If you have the opportunity, talk to the clients themselves. Don’t be bashful about asking questions of the clients. Inquire about the process. How good were the designer’s listening skills? Did he bring good ideas and clever solutions to the process? Was she agreeable to changes along the way? Checking references is sim­ply the best single safeguard you have.

Ask the homeowners how smoothly the job went, how flexible the architect was in dealing with the client’s and the contractor’s questions and problems. Did the job come in close to the estimated budget? The architect is unlikely to send you to see work that either he or the customer is unsatisfied with, but you can still learn a great deal in looking and talking.

The work

Make sure the architect does a good deal of residential work. If there is only one house but twenty commercial spaces in his portfolio, that should tell you something. Residential work can be very satisfying for an architect, but it is likely to be more time consuming than profitable.


Keep in mind that experience is not the only indicator of ability. A young, energetic architect may be willing to do more research and may bring fresher ideas than an old pro with an established, staid practice. But here, again, you must rely on your good judgment. Experience is very valuable but not an absolute prerequisite.


Try to determine whether the architect has adequate staff and a workload that will allow for the right amount of personal attention to the project from start to finish. Who will do the actual design work? Expect that the architect will delegate much of the work on the finished drawings to a draftsman in the office, but who will be doing the actual designing—the designer himself or someone in the office? If it isn’t the person you’re talking to, insist upon meeting him or her. Ask the designer how many meetings will be necessary upfront; how many design hours does he anticipate will be necessary?


Does the location of the architect’s office make it possible for him or her to be available for consultations? If you plan to involve your architect in over­seeing construction, will he have to travel an hour each way to get to the job site? A long trek back and forth may mean fewer inspections, or perhaps larger, portal-to- portal billings.

On the other hand, don’t reject an architect whose work you like simply because of geography. I know of many instances where designers worked from great distances, in some cases never even seeing the work, before, in progress, or after. It’s not ideal, but with a good contractor and a capable designer, it can work.

The cost

Talk about fees, too, as it is never too early to broach this subject. Find out before the first meeting whether it’s free or if the meter will be turned on as you walk through the door. You probably won’t be able to settle upon a final design cost on day one, but don’t allow the subject to be shunted aside with assurances like, That’s no problem, I’m sure we can work that out. Make sure you have a sense of the total cost.


Can I talk to more than one designer?

The short answer is, yes, of course. This isn’t exactly comparison shopping—price alone should not determine whom you hire. But keep talking to candidates until you find one that seems to suit your job and expectations.

If you begin by talking to several architects, pick one you like, and then let him or her create a preliminary design for you. On the other hand, if you have a particu­lar design problem, you needn’t feel shy about turning two or three architects loose, so long as there is a cap on what each architect’s initial presentation will cost. I know of one instance where the owner of a small apartment hired one architect and two designers to create a new kitchen independently of one another. The result was that the architect and one designer came up with workable solutions (the third solution was of no value, in the homeowner’s judgment). And the finished productincorporated elements of one of the rejected designs. If you choose this approach, however, make sure you are very clear with the architects or designers about fees and expectations.

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How to instruct your architect

It’s usual for you to instruct your architect in a meeting. This is when you need to be really clear about what you want them to do, the timings and your budget. You will also discuss the payment schedule, and any penalties for missing these.

Following the meeting, your architect should send you a detailed appointment letter. It can span many pages if the project is complex.

The appointment letter should include:

  • A detailed breakdown of the work
  • Budget estimates
  • A preliminary programme of work – what will happen when
  • Details of fees and payment schedules
  • Details of what will be claimable on expenses and costs involved
  • Whether you will need planning permission, and what their services will be in this respect
  • If their services will include submission of information necessary to meet building regulations
  • Party wall — whether you will need a party wall agreement
  • The extent of their professional indemnity insurance

With the appointment letter, the architect should also enclose a detailed contract setting out terms and a tick box list of services. If the architect is a RIBA member these will be called “Conditions of Appointment for an Architect for a domestic project” and “Small Project Services schedule”, respectively. Check carefully and ask questions before signing it.

And before you proceed to the construction stage, make sure you read all about how RIBA building contracts can help you stay in control of the project and protect yourself in case anything goes wrong.

You may want to understand more about how to work with an architect, to make sure the process goes as seamlessly as possible.

Use our ‘Find an Architect’ service to search for an architect in your area

Meet With The Architect

The process of designing and building your dream home can often last 2+ years. You will have several meetings with your architect – sometimes weekly – and you will get to know one another fairly well. As architects specializing in residential design, we recognize how personal each project is to our clients and want to ensure that we cater to their lifestyle and engrain their personal narrative into their home. In order to do so, we want to get to know you and your family. In your initial meeting, the architect should be asking questions, but more importantly, he or she should sit back and listen to your wants and needs (remember to have that list ready).

The working relationships we build with our clients are critical to the success of the project, both from a design perspective but also for effective communication throughout the process. There will be exciting moments but also stressful ones, and you want to ensure that the person you’re working with has your best interest in mind.

Deja View Residence by FrankFranco Architects. Pho
Deja View Residence by FrankFranco Architects. Photo by Bob Gundu

Your responsibilities as a client

Decide on your budget at the outset. Determine both the ideal and the maximum you are willing to spend, and communicate it clearly. This worksheet will help simplify and clarify the budgeting process.

Make decisions in a timely manner. Try not to revisit or reverse decisions you already have made because it is likely your architect has already acted on them. If you do change your mind, tell your architect immediately.

Carefully review the drawings and materials. Return them promptly with questions, comments, and changes.

Determine What Services You Need From The Architect

Perhaps you’re looking for an architect that can provide numerous design services; often our clients come to us seeking a complete package which includes: permit and construction drawings, interior design, furniture selection, landscape master planning, etc. A firm that specializes in a multi-disciplinary approach will allow for a seamless transition between each scale of design, ultimately creating a cohesive end product. Further, if you’re looking for someone to assist you with both the design and construction, look for firms that offer design-build or in-house construction management services.

Alternately, you may already have a strong sense of what you want and simply need assistance in obtaining a building permit. If you’re intent is to duplicate a design that you’ve seen before, or already have a set of plans sketched out, look for an architect (or qualified designer*) that specializes specifically in permit drawings. The turn-around time may be faster and the fees will likely be reduced. The trade-off is that this process doesn’t typically allow time for customizations or design revisions that would make the home “custom” to you.

Courtyard House Plans by FrankFranco Architects
Courtyard House Plans by FrankFranco Architects

To read more about hiring an architect versus a qualified designer, read more in our blog post “Should I hire an architect, designer, or contractor?

6. Find an Architect Who Listens to You

When interviewing different architects for the job, you’ll discuss your brief and chances are they will present various ideas there and then about how to make your dreams a reality.

Be careful though that when you’re discussing your must-haves and like-to-haves that they don’t steer you away from your plans. Their role as creatives is to develop your brief, but to also make sure they listen to what you want and don’t try to change it.

Many homeowners will express their delight that their architect was able to design a home better than they could have imagined; just be careful that things don’t get carried away and you sacrifice certain elements you’ve longed for, all because an impulsive designer went rogue and wanted to try something new.

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