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Do I Need to Hire an Architect – Board & Vellum

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Do I Need to Hire an Architect?

Do I need to hire an architect? It's a question we hear a lot out there. If you're building new, of course! But, if you're considering a remodel, addition, or even a new detached garage, we understand that it can be a confusing question. So, let's break it down for you, step-by-step.

July 24, 2016

Summer is a great time to sit, relax, and – if you’re thinking about remodeling or building new in the Seattle area – plan, plan, plan (and likely wait, wait, wait). “Do you need an architect?” is one of the most common questions I hear, and I think that the quiet time that should happen in the summer is a great time to step back and determine how to move forward with your remodel plans. Let me walk you through, step by step, some of the things you should be thinking about when deciding if your project needs an architect involved or not. This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, but given that I imagine most people use some summer vacation time like I do (to sit back, relax, and then actually have a free minute to discuss the pros and cons of big life decisions), this is meant to be some great summer planning advice as you look ahead for your project.

I’ll add that this post is part of the #Architalks series of blog posts and this topic is “summer.” I had imagined I would write about the value of taking a break and how the quieter summer months allows that, but honestly, that would be a lie. I’m amazed at the crazy Seattle market, and thought I would take this chance to remind everyone the value of taking any time you do have in the summer to stop and plan ahead so you can navigate the many months ahead of you for a potential project.

Planning for a Remodel


I’m going to speak locally here, but you should factor in whatever market you’re in to see how ‘hot’ it is, or how busy the local construction market is. The current Seattle construction market is, to be blunt, almost unbelievable. Architects don’t like saying no, and we hate having to pass on really good projects every day. (To those clients we’ve had to say ‘no’ to, please realize how much we hate doing this, but until they can clone people we’re out of luck.) We have a waiting list of people willing to wait. We get 5-8 inquiries for new projects A DAY. The local market is just nuts. I’d love to think that Board & Vellum is doing something extraordinarily special to warrant this attention (well, I do hope that’s the case to some degree… I may have some bias), but the truth is that everyone is busy. (And, honestly, if they’re not, you should ask lots of questions why.) Finding the right team now takes patience. It varies day by day, but right now, we’re likely not taking on new projects until early 2017. So plan, wait, and move on to the next step. (But, as always, don't hesitate to get in touch!)


While you’re waiting, one of the best things you can do is figure out what exactly you want out of your project and who you may want to work with. Let me break this down into some sub-categories.

Research Your Scope

Think carefully about what you want out of your project. List out your priorities and carefully think about which ones are “must haves” and “nice to haves.”

Research Your Budget

You’ll want to discuss your overall project budget (all miscellaneous fees, including design services, plus construction cost), versus your desired construction budget (what is spent just on the cost of construction). A good – but not absolutely perfect – rule of thumb is to add 25% to the construction cost goal to get to your project budget, which includes some sort of contingency.

Research Architects

Wait! But you don’t even know if you NEED an architect or not, right? And, if you start researching architects and ask them if they should work on your project won’t they be so excited to get work that they would never tell you "no"? No. Any good architect right now should be honest with you about what is right for your project. Happy clients mean more work. If they take on work that isn’t the right fit, this will come out in the end, and they’ll be sure to avoid doing this again. We’re always happy to set up a free consultation over the phone (and often in person after that), even when we’re as busy as we are. This is the time to gather information and see what these architects think about your project. Talk to a bunch of different firms and see what each one says. You’ll likely start to see a trend. And, honestly, in this heated Seattle market, if an architect is begging to take on your powder room remodel, I would keep asking questions as to why (there are some good reasons why they may want to, but do ask what those are).

Research General Contractors

As an architect, I vastly prefer to set up a client with a builder. I can tailor a client to a builder that fits their goals and personality. That said if you’re in the research stage go ahead and get some names of builders to talk to and reach out. Describe your scope and ask point blank if they think you need an architect. Some builders will only work on a project when an architect is involved. Others likely can’t stand us and think we aren’t a necessary piece of the puzzle (take a look at their work, it likely disproves their point), and others may have design staff in-house and can offer you a design/build path. Design/Build is a whole separate blog post but it can be a viable option for some projects (I’m biased here as we’re definitively not a design/build firm). I think there are indeed some circumstances where it is a great approach. We’ll often refer potential clients to this direction if we think it might suit them better.

So, Do You Need an Architect?

At this point, you should have a bunch of opinions from architects and general contractors, plus understand your ideas on scope, and at least what you want to spend. (What your desired scope actually costs comes much later, but be prepared that your idea of what it should cost will almost definitely be less than what it actually does... sorry.) Now is the time to check in with yourself about what is important to you.

If you are building in a complicated area for zoning, or your property is in an environmentally critical area (ECA), or has particular neighborhood rules, then an architect is going to be skilled in navigating that process far more than a general contractor. Hire an architect.

If you have a small project that is truly straightforward and aesthetics aren’t important to you (a backyard shed for tools, a really simple addition to your house to meet basic needs), then an architect might be the right fit, but you also might be able to move ahead with just a skilled general contractor or a design/build firm.

If your project is relatively large (a major addition or internal remodel counts) then you’d be wise to consider hiring an architect.

If aesthetics are important to you, then you should strongly consider hiring an architect. We recently did a set of design drawings on a basic garage for a wonderful client who had hired a builder to build a basic garage, and realized he wasn’t happy with how it was going to look. The builder had acquired the permit and engineering in his fee, but the client wasn’t sure about aesthetics. As a small side project, we did some great design drawings, which the builder took as his base and went from there. This isn’t something we do all the time and/or is even that common, but this might be something worth considering.

If you’re repairing your house, or just restoring it, there is a good chance you might be able to get by without an architect, or, at the very least, with an architect working on a reduced scope.

The important thing here is to stop, think carefully, and be honest with the people you are seeking advice from. By talking to more than one person in each field, you’ll be able to weed out any advice that seems biased, and can make an informed decision. And, hopefully, you can do this while enjoying yourself on a vacation, and getting the chance to sit back and actually have time to discuss the options ahead of you. That is what a summer vacation is all about anyway, isn’t it?

This post is part of the ArchiTalk series in which Bob Borson of Life of an Architect selects a theme, and a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is "Summer." To read how others interpreted the theme, please click the links below.

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture (@businessofarch)
Summer is a Great Time To Market Your Architecture Firm!

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson)

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
Summer : A Review

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
summer working, had me a blast

Evan Troxel - Archispeak Podcast / TRXL (@etroxel)
Lake Powell

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Seasons of Summer

Jes Stafford - MODwelling (@modarchitect)
The Dog Days of Summer

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)
4 Secrets To Getting The Most Out Of Your Summer Internship

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
An Acrophobic Architect's Illuminating Summer of Roofs

Sharon George - Architecture By George (@sharonraigeorge)
Glass in Architecture - Summer Wonders

Brinn Miracle - Architangent (@architangent)
4 Reasons Solar Power is a Hot Topic

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept)
... and the livin's easy

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Summer Rhythms

Jeffrey A Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Do I Need to Hire an Architect?

Samantha Raburn - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
An Architectural Spark for your Summer

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
Summer in Seoul

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
[Dis]Connected Summer

Adam Denais - Defragging Architecture (@DefragArch)
5 Things to Make the Most of Your Summer

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
An Architect Summer

Would you like to read more from the team?

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