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What to Expect When Working With an Architect

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There are five basic steps when working with an architect

Illustration of a woman in a suit holding a rolled-up blueprint under one arm and pointing to another one spread out behind her. Sunny Eckerle

The process of working with an architect is quite fluid, with the architect donning many hats at various times, from big picture thinker to detailed project manager. That’s the value to hiring one, says architect Gabe Headrick, founder of Steelhead Architecture in Portland, Oregon. Headrick has spearheaded both commercial and residential projects in the Portland-metro area for the past 16 years.

"Architects have the unique ability to envision spaces. To see what’s possible as well as express it," says Headrick. According to him, an architect on a house remodel job is first and foremost a facilitator. "When it comes down to it, these are people’s houses. It’s their project," says Headrick. "Architects are there to facilitate, provide design guidance, and give them a great space to live."

But every architect is different, and this makes their work processes differ. However, many remodeling projects lead by an architect could proceed through the following basic steps. Whether or not you and your architect engage in all of these depends on the scope of work established for your particular project. For instance, an architect might only provide a package of conceptual drawings (stopping after step two), whereas others might be contracted to proceed through construction management.

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1. The First Meeting

The initial consultation or interview is primarily intended to see if you, your project, and the potential architect are a good fit. "The first thing I do is meet with the potential client and talk through their goals," says Headrick. During this meeting, it’s best to communicate your ideas clearly and ask lots of questions. Find out the architect’s approach, fee schedule, deliverables, and what they think is important about your project.

First impressions are important here, as you are evaluating whether you and your potential architect have a good rapport, in order to be able to work together for the remodeling long haul. This is probably the most intangible—and important—part of the entire process. Assess whether the architect listens to your needs and confirms that he or she understands them.

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2. Design Phase

At the start of the design phase, architects will analyze the site’s existing conditions and come up with conceptual drawings or ideas that integrate the client’s goals with the architect’s aesthetic direction and schematic approach. At this part of the process, says Headrick, it’s a good idea to think more broadly rather than getting mired down in specific details. For instance, think in terms of how the whole house will be laid out and interact with the natural setting, rather than focusing on sinks or particular paint colors.

During this phase, Headrick discusses inspiration photos with clients to get an idea of their likes and dislikes. "We’ll ask, what is it about this that gets your eye or gets your attention?" says Headrick. From those conversations, he generally puts together a set of three different concepts, intended to spark feedback and hone in on the client’s desires.

The time that this takes can vary. "It can take a short period of time—sometimes we get it on the first time," says Headrick. "Other times it can take a long time with a lot of back and forth."

3. Documentation Phase

Once the general design direction is settled, Headrick’s firm moves into a documentation phase, during which the architect produces more exhaustive drawings.

"We’re getting more specific about assemblies and details and materials," he says. "And there will still be a back and forth here, but there will be more flat, 2D drawings and not quite so many pretty renderings." As well as specifying the design to the last detail, these drawings are often necessary for obtaining permits and stipulating how a contractor should build.

"There can be a permit set of drawings and a construction set of drawings here," Headrick says. "Sometimes these are the same thing, but other times the construction set has a little more information to it, and the permit set just has enough information to get through whatever municipality is reviewing it."

First impressions are important. You need to have a good rapport with your architect in order to be able to work together for the long haul.

Keep in mind that there is still design work being done during this phase, such as interior finish or plumbing fixture selection, says Headrick. "So the design phase is more overarching, but the drawings themselves get more detailed during the documentation phase."

4. Permitting

This is the period wherein the local jurisdiction reviews the drawings and determines whether the proposed work is in accordance with local safety codes or design review. Every municipality will differ in their approach, from what documentation they require to how long it will take to receive their approval.

What takes three months in one county can take only three weeks in another. "A lot of this part is just waiting," says Headrick. "You turn in a set of drawings and then it just sits in a pile until a plans examiner can get to it. Every now and then they’ll come out with comments that the architect has to respond to."

During this phase, it can feel like the project has stagnated. In his experience, "From the client’s point of view, not a whole lot is happening for a good two or three months," says Headrick.

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5. Construction Administration

There are two parts to the construction stage. The first is finding a contractor to do the work. The timing of this step will depend on the client, as some people have made the choice in the beginning whereas others need the architect’s help in their selection. The latter might entail a bidding process, wherein the architect helps the client select two or three contractors to submit bids for the proposed work, and the client chooses the best proposal.

Timing here is important. "The contractor selection can happen as early as design phase," says Headrick. This way the contractor can offer real time costs throughout the design process. Other times the contractor joins the team during the documentation and/or permitting phase. "Either way, contractor selection usually happens prior to permit approval," says Headrick. "If you wait until after, you’ve got an even bigger time gap."

Once the contractor starts work, the architect’s role is not diminished. There can be a lot going on behind the scenes, such as the contractor calling the architect to make sure they are executing the design correctly or the architect needing to troubleshoot when problems arise. During this stage, many architects will engage in weekly site visits to the project with the contractor and client, and go over instructions with subcontractors in order to get the details right.

Headrick prefers to be fairly involved during this part of the process. "It’s silly to go through all this effort with design and documentation and then when the project gets built, have it not be what was intended," he says. "I think that our being a part of construction is important."