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How to find the best architect for your home improvement

The American Institute of Architects should be your first stop

Sunny Eckerle

You’re ready to start a home renovation, but before the fun begins and your Pinterest dreams can become reality, you need to find an architect.

First, it’s important to note that there is a difference between an architect, an architectural designer, and a design/build firm. An architect is called such if he or she is licensed by the state to design buildings and advise on their construction. The license usually connotes a level of education, experience, and proficiency.

For instance, in Oregon, architects are required to hold a degree in the field from an accredited institution, complete 5,600 hours of experience with a practicing architect, and pass the state’s licensing exam.


In contrast, an architectural designer is usually not licensed by the state and may have less—or different—education and experience. They also may be limited to what they are allowed to do, depending on state regulations. Design/build firms bundle their design and build services together in-house. As such, they may or may not work with licensed architects throughout their process.

To get your bearings, first become familiar with the American Institute of Architects, the professional membership organization for licensed architects in the United States. We asked Amy Sabin, the Managing Director of the AIA branch in Portland, Oregon, to share her insights for starting your architect search.

No matter where you may find one, Sabin recommends the following: "You should talk to a few different people, look at their work, and decide if it meets your aesthetic. This is a relationship that you’re entering, so it should be with someone that you feel you can work with over a period of time."


1. Visit AIA

A simple Google search for "residential architect" in your geographic area could yield way too many results, or too few. The national AIA website will help you fine tune your search; there’s an online database of over 20,000 architecture firms.

Using the Architect Finder tool, narrow the search by location and building type, then review firm profiles and pictures of sample projects. The AIA has nearly 300 state and local chapters around the country, and each of those should have a fairly comprehensive website of their own.

"People can find quite a bit of information about firms in their area on there," says Sabin. Perhaps better, call or visit the nearest AIA office and ask for guidance.


2. Talk to everyone

Cast a wide net here. Ask friends, family members, neighbors, even your realtor, whether they have an architect to endorse. See an architect’s sign outside of a project in progress on your street? Ask the homeowners how it’s going and if they’d work with that architect again.

"I don’t think people really understand the process until they’re in it and see all the details that an architect will help you manage," says Sabin. Getting referrals from people that have been through the remodel process is probably the most reliable source for finding an architect.


3. Take a tour

Many American cities are now hosting design festivals or design "weeks," in order to showcase the work of the local design community. One common event during these is the house tour. These are typically held on one day, wherein a selection of houses is opened to the public for a walk-through viewing (for the price of admission).

"This is a relationship that you’re entering, so it should be with someone that you feel you can work with over a period of time."

Check whether the local AIA chapter hosts a house tour in your area. Or try the Modern Home Tours organization, which has hosted tours in many West Coast localities. Sabin suggests double-checking the line-up before buying your tickets, to make sure a healthy selection of architects are represented, as opposed to homebuilders or interior designers, which may also be featured.


4. Scour the internet

There are several online outlets to aide in the search and read reviews, such as Yelp, Houzz, and Angie’s List, although Sabin says the latter choice trends towards contractors rather than architects. Just search these sites with a grain of salt, keeping in mind that listings can cost money and reviews aren’t fact-checked.

If talking to neighbors in person isn’t an option, sign up with Nextdoor. It is a private social network for individual neighborhoods, with over 99,000 neighborhoods across the country represented. Asking for architect recommendations via its forum is like canvassing the neighborhood without the awkward small talk.


5. Try a specialty outlet

Lastly, visit an outlet that specializes in your area of interest. For example, say you want to initiate a remodel that is more of a historic house restoration. In Portland, Oregon, the Architectural Heritage Center is an advocacy group for protecting and preserving historic buildings. Its website provides a listing of residential architects with proficiency in that area.

Another resource is specialty home shows, which are often large-scale events hosted at convention centers. The Good Earth Home, Garden, and Living Show in Eugene, Oregon showcases "sustainable products and services." Architects with a specialty in eco-conscious remodeling exhibit there, alongside retailers and homebuilders.

Visiting specialty stores in your area is also an option, as staff may be familiar with practicing professionals or have business cards to distribute.