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10 questions you must ask your architect

Asking your architect the right questions is key to a successful home improvement

Drew Kelly

You’ve chosen your architect for your home renovation, and you’re ready to get down to business. Any design project will be the result of many conversations between the two of you—and you want to make sure those conversations are as productive as possible. We spoke with different architects and checked in with the American Institutes of Architects to see what questions firms love to get asked by clients, but often don’t. Keep reading to work with your next firm like a pro.

1. Do you have references?

This one is recommended by AIA, as well as many of the architects we spoke with. Ask your architect about past clients and contractors they’ve worked with, and then follow up on the references they give. Knowing that you’re working with a dependable firm from the get-go will spare you potential headaches caused by an unreliable firm.

"You want to get experience from all sides... architects, owners, and contractors," explains Michael Ingui, of the New York firm Baxt Ingui Architects. "You learn a lot about how your project will go as a whole as well as ensuring you found the right architect," he says.

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Mike Geyer, who runs his firm Michael A. Geyer Architect, says that most of his work comes from referrals, meaning a good firm will have plenty of references to offer. Talking with past clients also means hearing about work that the firm hasn’t necessarily publicized due to the client’s wishes, Geyer notes. "Residential work—often the best residential work—seldom sees the light of day," he says.

2. How much time do I need to commit, and when?

Architects deal with clients are are hands-off and clients who want to be involved in the nitty gritty decisions. Be clear about the type of client you are, and ask your architect the kind of time commitment they expect from you.

"When we’re all on the same page from the beginning, it makes the project move smoothly," says Thomas Hickey, co-founder of the architecture and design firm GRADE. "Having a client as dedicated to the project as we are makes it happen faster and more efficiently, especially if they take the time to sit down with us and talk through every detail."

Eric Safyan, of his firm Eric Safyan Architect, recommends clients get as specific as possible about when they’ll be able to meet with their architect—what time is best, whether you’d like to meet in person or talk by phone. "What comes up often is clients are not available to meet during business hours so [they should] make sure that their architect is available to meet either on weekends, evenings, early mornings, etc."

Be clear about the type of client you are, and ask your architect the kind of time commitment they expect from you."

3. How can I be helpful in the process?

Not sure what type of client you are going to be, or how involved you will want to be with your architecture firm? Then ask! Hickey recommends that you first understand the organizational process already in place, and then ask how you can be most helpful within it.

"Understanding timelines and workflow helps set our clients at ease knowing they can anticipate certain updates or documents to be sent for their review at a certain timeline," he says. "Having a thorough conversation at the beginning of the process with a vision in place and personal preferences on hand helps the architect hone in on the right solution."

4. What's your fee structure and what can I expect in costs?

Architects use different fee structures to charge for their services, and any reputable firm will be able to lay this out right away. On your end, "Be open about your budget," suggests Geyer. "Cost limitations are extremely critical, since quality work can be very expensive."

You also want to make sure your architect is open with you about the additional costs that may not be spelled out in your contract. "These are often additional construction administration hours or amendments to the drawings due to changes during construction," says Safyan. "If the client anticipates these costs, then it doesn't come as a surprise later, so it helps to ask the question and get a detailed response from the architect of these potential scenarios."

At GRADE, says Hickey, "What we found helpful is to present a straightforward solution that meets their budget with the option to upgrade certain features a la carte as often times they’ll want those customized touches to set their home/space apart."

Another important fee-related question, says AIA, regards the architect’s experience and track record with cost estimating and completing projects within budget. The best way to get an honest answer? Ask the clients and contractors your firm has provided as references.

5. What are the important issues, considerations, and challenges of my project?

The AIA recommends you get the big picture view from your architect, picking their brain about what particular elements stand out. They’ll have insight about construction, city approvals, and design challenges you may not have been aware of.

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It’s also worth asking if the firm has previously tackled a similar project to yours. "Every project type has its ups and downs and experience with these is essential," says Ingui. "[It’s] knowing how to solve the problems and knowing what worked last time as well as what didn't."

6. What will you show along the way to explain the project?

The AIA suggests that you ask your architect how he or she will be showing your project to you before the construction process starts. Will there be models, drawings, computer animations? This is a good time to bounce around ideas, express critiques, and make adjustments.

As Geyer says, "Ask for sketches of alternative designs, request samples or showroom visits to get a realistic feel for various possibilities."

7. Are you insured?

You will want to know, very simply, if your architecture firm is insured. If so, what level of insurance do they have? Ingui also points out that it’s a good idea to ask if the architect has "any open claims against you or your firm."

8. What’s your role with the contractor?

Once construction starts, much of the project will be in the hands of your contractor. Many architecture firms will recommend contractors they have a good track record with, but you’ll want to ask how the firm plans to work with them during your project. What role does the architect plan to take on with the contractor, or will you be expected to deal with the contractor directly?

9. Who’s on my team?

Often, there are many different people at an architecture firm that will contribute to your project and you’ll be working with. Ask for introductions.

"Learning more about the team that will be working with you is also incredibly important," says Ingui. "Very often you will meet a principal that you love, but are working with a project manager 75 percent of the time that is too junior or that you don't gel with."

The AIA lays this out with a few specific questions: "Who from the architecture firm will you be dealing with directly? Is that the same person who will be designing the project? Who will be designing your project?"

10. How can we reduce the environmental impact?

Most architecture firms are happy to work with you to design more environmentally sustainable buildings, and there’s a chance the firm will integrate low or no cost sustainable design strategies into your project. If it’s something you’re interested in, ask your architect about the type of green design they have experience with, and what the pros and cons may be moving ahead with it.

"Reducing the impact on the environment is important to us, and we’re open to discussing the benefits of LEED," says Hickey. GRADE advises clients that "it expands the time and many times budget… but there are certain tax benefits that come along with certification."

Bronwyn Barry, a Passive House designer with One Sky Homes, advises clients to ask "what is the energy efficiency/performance of the last building you designed?" She notes, "If an architect can't answer that, they are not reviewing their designs or keeping track of their success or failures. It means each of their designs is an experiment that these clients are paying for, with no guarantee that their architects know if it works or not—risky!"