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What It’s Like Working with an Architect

When you see an architect portrayed on television or in the movies, they’re either totally unrelatable, wildly eccentric creative-types, or in all black, mingling at a cocktail party as if they would rather be anywhere else. Inevitably, these characters have egos so big they barely fit in the frame. But what’s it like working with real-life architects?

August 13, 2020

Architects have a weird reputation. I won’t go into my extensive theories here, but I do think there is some relation between ego, the creative side of architecture, and the requirement that you must believe your ideas propose the best solutions. As a business owner and an architect, though, film representations aren’t a great place to start from when meeting new people and explaining to them what architects actually do. I wouldn’t want to hire the people I see on screen and I can’t imagine why a client would either.

So, what’s it like actually working with a real-life architect?

The job of an architect is to:

  • Take stock of your goals for your project.
  • Review your goals against applicable building and zoning codes.
  • Produce a design that meets your goals, budget, and satisfies the code requirements.
  • Document the drawings to build that design.
  • And then observe the construction process to answer questions along the way and ensure that things are built to the standards of the drawings.

Great, but what the heck will the process actually be like?

The following outlines a very basic process. Remember, every firm and architect operates a little differently, and asking them how they work should be part of your process of identifying someone you want to work with.

Step 1: Identify You Need an Architect

Whatever your design problem is, you’ve figured out that you can’t do it alone or with just a general contractor and, so, you start figuring out how to hire an architect. You might possibly be reading this post is part of your research! At this stage, you should:

  • Make a list of all your goals.
  • Consider your actual budget, including your overall budget for things like construction, design fees for professionals, and various costs such as permitting and reprographic costs.
  • Save some images of designs or styles you like, note them up, and come prepared to ask a lot of questions when you meet with an architect.

Step 2: Identify an Architect You Want to Work With and Get Started

Once you’ve gone through the interview process with an architect or two (and asked all those questions), you'll need to decide who you want to work with. Find someone you’re comfortable with who listened to your goals and is honest and upfront about their process. Review proposals and hire someone, then it's time to start!

Initially, there will be a kick-off meeting where the design team goes over your goals and reviews preliminary information. At our firm, we usually collect your goals before even starting the project, and our first meeting is what we call a Pre-Design Meeting. At this meeting, we go over code findings, discuss possible solutions and budgets, review inspiration images you might have, and really solidify the goals for your project. Often, there will be some preliminary sketching during the first meeting to convey ideas, but the real design work comes later.

Step 3: Design Begins!

The first design meeting is so much fun. I don’t know an architect who doesn’t get butterflies in their stomach presenting ideas for a project. There’s a lot you should expect from your first design meeting with an architect. Generally, expect to be presented with several options that meet your program and budget and some options that fall on the high and low ends of your budget. This can help you understand what your money actually gets you. You'll probably see some unconventional approaches to solving the particular design challenges of your project, too.

The goal here is to have a collaborative meeting where your responses to the designs presented are as important as the actual design goals. I love presenting a plan and seeing a client’s reaction. (That includes winces and groans!) It’s not uncommon to find a thing you thought you wanted when you wrote out your list of goals is suddenly something that doesn’t make sense when you see it drawn out on paper. We use these design meetings to sketch in real-time in response to your reactions. The process is so much more beneficial when you feel comfortable sharing what you like and don’t like, and, in the end, we usually find general direction. And, it is almost never one of the exact plans we initially presented.

Step 4: Documentation Begins!

The initial design process (what we call Schematic Design) almost always goes through a few rounds of refinement until we get to the point where we can produce a Schematic Pricing Set. At this point, we’ve solidified an overall design and program for your space, but we might not have fully fleshed out the specific finishes or materials we’re anticipating using. The Schematic Pricing Set is a written document incorporating everything we know about your project up to that point, including all of your initial goals, as well as preliminary information on the initial “specifications” of your project. That means, things that may not be drawn yet; such as where tile goes, the assumed cost per square foot of that tile, and the general level of quality and finish for things like plumbing fixtures and lights. This document helps us communicate with contractors and, with their assistance, zero-in on a final construction budget.

Steps 5, 6, 7, Etc.

Moving beyond this phase, the name of the game is documentation. Your drawings go through rounds of design development, are submitted for a permit (during which process we answer questions from the jurisdiction where your home is located and update the drawings accordingly), final construction documents are issued, final pricing occurs (and any value engineering items are revised to accommodate changes in the cost of construction), and then construction happens. All along the way, your architect should be your advocate to help you understand the process and what information you need to provide. It can seem like an overwhelming and complicated process, but a good architect at the helm can help steer you through any rough seas.

Our firm, like many others, carefully vets and trains our team to ensure the design process has a respectful sense of ego. Design comes with passion, and passion, likely, has a basis in ego, so there you go. More important than our egos, our aim is to listen to your goals and come up with a design and set of drawings that meet your needs.

Will the architect you choose have a movie-caricature-level ego? The real divide is how people wield that ego. Working with an architect should be a collaborative process where you feel a connection with your team, know they understand your vision, and maybe can see how their talent and expertise can help guide you to a solution that uniquely and creatively solves the design goals you bring to the table.

Would you like to read more from the team?

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