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What I wish I’d known before hiring an architect

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Lessons learned from a bumpy renovation

Casey Dunn

I’m writing from a freshly renovated one-bedroom apartment in an elegant 90-year-old building in Brooklyn. My partner and I bought the unit at the start of 2017, inspired by its large windows, 12-foot ceilings, and friendly neighbors. On the down side, the previous owner had put in design elements, like a loft canted at a slight angle and red lacquer kitchen cabinets, that were not only quirky but now also dated. So we hired an architect and general contractor to do a gut renovation. We carved out home offices for us both, updated the kitchen and bath, added closets, and replaced unfortunate finishes on the ceilings and floors.

And while we feel very lucky to have a place where we can work, cook and sleep with some grace in New York City, the project did not go smoothly. It ran 30% over budget. It took twice as long as we expected. It doesn’t have enough storage for us, and the bathroom doesn’t look great. Oh, and it’s still not done. (The straggling bits are not minor: a shower wall needs to be replaced, one set of closet doors doesn’t work, and trim throughout the apartment is still missing.)

We did a lot of research before we started. So why did we wind up spending a whole lot more time and money than we anticipated? And why didn’t we end up with exactly what we wanted?

Everyone knows that when you renovate a house or apartment, you risk running into trouble with the general contractor. The work might be shoddy, or they might disappear. But that wasn’t the problem in our case. Instead, the architect played a bigger role than we expected in the quality and smoothness of the project—and she didn’t deliver. Here’s what we wish our research had revealed before we signed a contract with her.

The role of the architect

We found that architects can—but won’t necessarily—handle a range of responsibilities in a renovation. We didn’t realize how big that range could be, and so we failed to talk through our expectations or hers. If we could get a do-over on choosing an architect, we’d discuss these options during interviews, and then build a shared set of expectations into the contract and budget. Here are some of the services they might perform:

Drafting the plans. This is probably the main thing you think of when you picture an architect. Indeed, the technical drawings are key. Developing them gives the architect a chance to help you flesh out ideas—in our case, adding a small wall in the bedroom gave us room for a king-size bed—and set realistic expectations (a walk-in closet couldn’t be converted to an office and a half bath). Plus, the completed drawings will provide the basis for permits, and they’ll guide the contractors onsite.

Getting creative. Do you want interesting visual elements? More light than the floorplan seems to allow? Secret storage areas? An architect can bake some special elements into the drawings, and more might emerge during the course of the renovation as you learn about, say, a wall that’s four inches thicker than it needs to be, giving you room to add shallow built-ins.

Advising on fixtures and finishes. “Fixtures and finishes” is a grab-bag term that includes paint, tile, flooring, countertops, kitchen cabinets, faucets, lighting, door knobs, appliances, and more. If you’re working with an architect and a designer, the designer will be the point person for recommending fixtures and finishes. If you don’t have a designer (we didn’t), that layer is between you and the architect.

Choosing and managing the contractor. A good architect will have, and want to maintain, relationships with several reputable contractors. So they should be able to recommend a few to bid on your project. The architect should also know what the contractor can do and should lean on them a bit if they’re falling short. For instance, is the slight misalignment of the kitchen cabinets normal or fixable? If it’s fixable, the architect should sort that out with the contractor.

Managing the project. Renovations have many moving parts: there are permits and people to coordinate, plus fixtures and finishes to order and track. While the contractor handles some of this, the architect can be the point person, helping you understand deadlines for items you’re ordering, finding specialized sub-contractors beyond the general contractor’s network, and keeping things moving with permitting and processes that fall outside the general scope of work (like lead abatement).

Making suggestions to keep the project on time. This is a subset of managing the project, but getting help with the timeframe can also be something you designate as a priority. Beyond staying on top of the contractor and other players, an architect’s responsibilities might include recommending attractive finishes that can be delivered quickly and helping you understand which pieces you can reasonably have done after you move in.

Making suggestions to keep the budget in check. An architect’s assistance here can include suggesting appealing, cheaper alternatives to pricey finishes you like; recommending features worth spending on and places to save; and helping you anticipate costs you might not be aware of. (Note: Time equals money—if you’re paying to rent somewhere else and you’re paying mortgage for the place under construction, that dual housing cost can lead to big budget overruns if the renovation falls behind deadline.)

While our architect drew up decent plans, helped us find several contractors who bid on our project and was pretty good at managing the one we chose, she disappointed us on every other front. To cap it off, her fee turned out to be more expensive than we’d accounted for.

In retrospect, it’s clear that when we were searching for an architect, we didn’t ask the right questions to find one who could meet our needs.

Questions to ask before hiring

There’s lots of advice on the internet about what to ask an architect before you hire them. But the questions tend to be too vague to be useful (“Why do you want to work on this project?”). Plus, if you don’t understand the possibilities outlined above, you won’t know how to drill down on specifics. Here’s what I’d discuss next time around:

Which responsibilities will you handle? Which will I handle? As a client, if you know that all you want are architectural plans, that’s cool. Specify that and get a price. But if you think you’ll want the architect involved for the whole cycle, discuss their role in getting permits, choosing and managing the contractor, and managing the project overall. Go into as much detail as you can.

What role will you play in choosing and buying fixtures and finishes? What role will I play? At one end of the spectrum, the architect might handle it all: as the client, you’ll show them pictures and sites you like, they’ll make recommendations based on that, you’ll pick the options you like best, and they’ll handle the ordering. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll figure out most of the details on your own, with little input, and you’ll order everything. Any point on the spectrum can work as long as you agreed beforehand on how you expect to collaborate.

What’s your strategy for bringing a project of this size in on time? On budget? There’s no one right answer to either question. Instead, look for evidence that they have ideas and a commitment to meeting your goals. For instance, can they discuss typical ways you can save time or money? Tradeoffs that will be worth considering? Or perhaps examples of recommendations they’ve made to other clients?

What unexpected solutions have you suggested on a previous project? This question can help you get a feel for an architect’s creativity and problem solving approach.

Can we meet every week on site with the contractor? Will you stop by the site occasionally unannounced? The former is enormously useful for keeping everyone coordinated. The latter gives the contractor’s crew a chance to ask questions on fly, which can help address assumptions and avert mistakes.

How, exactly, do your fees work? While some architects charge by the hour, most charge as a percentage of the overall project cost, and some have variations or hybrids of these. Ask for a detailed explanation, with examples of how the fees might play out for a project of your size. Make sure you understand which services are included and if any cost extra. In addition, if the fees are based on a percentage of the overall project, get a list ahead of time about what will be included in that final tally. (In other words, a line for “fixtures & finishes” isn’t specific enough; ask for a full list of what will they’ll expect to charge against—a discrepancy on this issue is why our architect’s fees wound up higher than we budgeted for.)

How do you handle conflict? All projects have unanticipated problems, which tend to generate conflict when there’s money at stake for everyone involved. Inevitably, there will be disagreements among the parties. Ask not only how the architect has handled disagreement between a client and the contractor in the past, but also how they’ve handle a disagreement between a client and themselves.

Do you have references I can contact? Ask the prior clients these three questions:

  • How does the architect handle conflict?
  • Tell me about a time they helped you save time
  • Tell me about a time they helped you save money

Remember, if your architect isn’t meeting expectations during your project, you’re allowed to ask other architects for advice on how to course correct. While a renovation will almost certainly have some low moments, you should be happy with the process and the results--and your architect should be a part of both.