If you’re looking for an architect you’ve probably read the 20 things to ask an architect article published by the AIA by now. While this is a good list, it doesn’t address all the issues that need to be considered today. Architecture is a rapidly changing profession, especially in the realm of software. Many firms have yet to make the significant investment necessary to be at the forefront of their industry. It is also a profession that balances art and science, and requires good communication and organization skills. While it’s difficult to assess whether a particular architect will meet your needs, here are nine ways to help:
1. Visit the architect’s office.
An architect’s office can say a lot about their design aesthetic and creativity. Typically, though, first meetings with a client will be at their project site, so you may not have an opportunity to see the architect’s office. Consider scheduling a visit at the architect’s office within a few days of the initial meeting.
2. A disorganized architect’s office might be a red flag.
An architect has to organize hundreds, if not thousands of pieces of information, and a disorganized office might be a big red flag. However, don’t confuse artist creativity with disorganization. Models or model building supplies, trace paper and sketches can be a sign of real creativity, but project information is normally stored in binders and filing cabinets. Large piles of unsorted paper are probably not a good sign.
3. Ask your architect if they are using 3D software (the answer should be ‘yes’ – then ask them if they are using BIM).
The latest architectural software is called BIM (building information model) and the more sophisticated architects are using this. A house or project designed in BIM is completely or almost completely designed in three dimensions (3D). In addition, in many cases the software can help eliminate errors in coordination of drawings since the two dimensional drawings are all ‘extracted’ from the 3D model. The software also keeps track of things like sizes of each door and window, and when a size is changed in one drawing, it is automatically updated in another. This can be a real help in reducing errors.
4. Education is the foundation of an architect’s experience.
While attending a good school can help assure your architect has a good foundation to build upon, usually a better indicator is how an architect did in the school they attended. Many architecture instructors will tell you that 10%-20% of students are really talented designers and few students who weren’t got significantly better as they went through school. To get a sense of how an architect performed in school, ask about design awards they may have won or exhibitions they may have participated in. If you ask about academic performance, differentiate between design studio classes, and non-design studio classes.
5. Know who you are going to work with.
If you are hiring a multi-person firm, find out who you will actually be working with. Many times the person you are interviewing with won’t actually be doing much work on your project. If the person you are going to be working with isn’t in the interview, ask to visit the architect’s office and meet the person or people who will be on your team. Ask to see the credentials of those team members as well.
6. Architects communicate with drawings as well as words.
Look at the architect’s drawings and ask questions about them. It may be challenging to read or understand drawings if you haven’t done this before, but if you can’t understand them after an architect explains them, then either the drawings are not very good, or the architect has a hard time communicating. Both may be red flags.
7. A complete set of construction drawings includes specifications.
Not all architectural information is communicated within drawings. Plumbing fixtures, electrical fixtures, finishes, expected quality levels, and other information that is easier said in words than in drawings are communicated in written specifications. If your architect doesn’t prepare specifications, then you’ll likely be answering many questions during construction and may be hit with large change orders.
8. Look at the architect’s website.
A well designed, well organized website can communicate that an architect is organized and can assemble information in a clear format. If their website is out of date or they don’t have one, this might be a hint that they are behind the times.
9. Find out how well the architect works with building departments.
When you or your architect submits your drawings to the building department, they are typically reviewed and a revision/correction notice is issued. A good architect can easily get a residential or small commercial project through with no revisions or one round of revisions. Since each round of revisions takes time to complete, fewer rounds of revisions means you get your permit sooner. Incomplete or low quality documents could hold up construction. If you’re trying to get your project framed and weather-tight before the rainy season, this could push the project into a season with unfavorable construction conditions.
Hiring an architect is challenging because you can’t ‘test drive’ the end product during the interview. You will only know how the project turns out at its completion. So spend the time to choose a good architect. Interview several and see who you think is qualified and a good personality fit for you. You will be spending a lot of time with him or her so choose wisely!