If your home or place of business is awful and you can't stand being there.... you may need an architect. That would be the answer if it was part as a comedy routine. The truth is that all first conversations with potential clients are serious dialogues to define objectives and evaluate if - and how - I can help them to improve their lives through design. Spoiler alert: for a variety of reasons, some of which I will touch upon, these discussions do not always lead to them hiring me to be their architect.
of stamps and signatures
First off - are you legally required to have an architect prepare your drawings in order to obtain a building permit? In Washington State, where I practice, for single family residential and small accessory buildings, drawings can be "stamped and signed" by either a structural engineer or an architect. So, for these building types, an architect is not legally required. All buildings that are used for public purposes do need an architect. As I understand it, the reason that architects are required for public buildings is not to protect the general public from the ill effects of poor aesthetics, but to ensure compliance with life safety codes. There are of course life safety issues in houses and accessory buildings, but the thinking must be that these are straight forward enough that plans examiners can ensure nothing life threatening is being proposed.
Architects differ in their opinions and I speak only for myself here - it does not bother me at all that licensed architects may be excluded from the process of building and remodeling homes. In order to become licensed, in addition to completing relevant higher education, architects must demonstrate that they are familiar with all aspects of their job and they must have worked under the supervision of a registered architect. What the licensing requirement does not actually test is design. This may seem strange as this is the architects' primary function, but design ability is really difficult to evaluate. The part of the licensing exam that has design in the title is more of a test of whether the candidate can understand and follow directions. Although having completed architecture school and worked in the profession certainly help, not all licensed architects are great designers and not all talented designers have jumped though all the hoops to become licensed. Life is too short to work with clients who feel that all I can offer is the stamp on the drawings. Further, it would be dishonest not to acknowledge that some pretty lousy buildings have been designed by licensed architects and some pretty wonderful ones have been designed by people without formal credentials.
so, why hire an architect..?
Architects have the training and experience to collaborate with clients to create beautiful, interesting and useful places. They distill ideas about function, appearance and quality of space into a program that informs design. They can analyses a building site and optimize placement of structures upon it. They make sure the project complies with all codes and regulations and can prioritize goals so that the project matches its budget. Their knowledge of different materials and building methods guides them in selecting the most appropriate ones. A good architect ultimately saves their clients time, money and aggravation and earns their fees many times over.
Custom design is tailored to the tastes and lifestyles of its patrons and responds to specific conditions of its site. It is frustrating for professional designers who specialize in residential work to see how much housing is built without the involvement of skilled designers. Behind closed doors we may laugh about various bad decisions that have become built form - I coined the phrase "I could fix that with an eraser and a time machine" - but the humor is a cover for genuine sadness at wastefulness that could have been prevented if someone had hired an architect.
why don't people hire architects?
There are many misconceptions about working with architects. Some of these are perpetuated by depictions in the media. Perhaps a little book called The Fountainhead is still in some people's memories and more modern depictions of architects continue to present architects as eccentric egomaniacs. Admittedly there may be some real life practitioners who confirm the stereotypes, but most are like me, aiming to serve their clients, rather than to have their clients fund their own idealized visions
Hiring an architect will add time and expense at the start of the project. Architects need time to understand the site and specific needs and to generate designs. And while some of us do "pro-bono" work for non-profits as part of our practice, we have to be paid for our work. There are people who are turned off by these up-front costs and feel that they would rather try to make a design they saw in a plan book or on-line work for them, or have a builder draw something up, than hire an architect. I believe that many people make this decision without even talking to an architect, which is a shame because they may be overestimating timelines and fees and underestimating the value that an architect could add to their project.
but maybe you don't need an architect
In my career, a few prospective clients have come to me with initial designs they had done themselves that were good enough that I could look at their drawing set, ask them just a few questions and determine that they did not need my help. For them, I recommend a structural engineer and send them back to their own drawing boards. The people I am describing here are rare - they generally have knowledge of design and construction that goes beyond being able to use graph paper or a computer program.
In the majority of cases, when people who come to me with drawings they have created, either by with a computer or by hand, there are glaring deficiencies. And most plan books have flaws that a trained eye will recognize before they are built. Bottom line is that most people would benefit from hiring an architect. maybe you do need an architect... and it might not be me
As you can imagine, an architect designing a living space will learn all sorts of things about the tastes and habits of their clients. Pick an architect you are comfortable with. Don't just look at their pictures, call the people on their reference list and ask questions. Up until now, most of my clients have found me through referrals, which was helpful because they had already spoken to someone I had worked with. The reality of the modern world is that web searches now connect people more than people connect people. I strongly recommend supplementing your internet browsing with real life research.
There's lots of back and forth when working with an architect. To arrive at superior solutions, both client and architect need to listen with open minds and be willing to adjust based on what they are hearing. That relationship takes work and as cliched as it sounds, sometimes it is just not a good fit. (I've got more to say about this - stay tuned for a future post about "How to Work with an Architect", and maybe one about "How to Choose the Right Architect") But if you have read this far and think that you probably do need an architect, and maybe I am the architect for you, give me a call (or shoot me an email) and let's talk about what you want to build and whether I can be of service.