When is an architect worth paying for?

Architecture by the hour

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 4, 2012

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Architecture by the hour

Arrol Gellner
Inman News®

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part 1.

Last time, we saw that designing a small remodeling project doesn't always require the comprehensive services you typically get from an architect working on commission. And we also noted how hiring an architect on an hourly consulting basis can be less expensive while maintaining the benefit of his expertise in the areas that really matter.

At first glance, paying an architect $80 to $150 an hour may not seem very economical. Yet when this time is delegated wisely, hourly consulting is typically cheaper than hiring an architect on commission. What's more, the design process remains in your control for the duration. If you don't like the way things are shaping up, you can part company with the architect and look elsewhere.

Naturally, the trick is to use the architect's expertise where it matters most -- and just which areas of the design process this entails may surprise you.

It's not well understood by most people, for instance, that the work of drafting construction drawings (or "blueprints," as they're still commonly known) is merely the culmination of the architect's real work, which entails sorting out the whole three-dimensional puzzle of how a building or addition should be arranged.

The ability to solve this spatial puzzle in a way that's both functional and artistic is what sets an architect apart from a drafter. Hence, this early phase -- known as "preliminary design" in the trade -- turns out to be the most critical time to invest in the architect's skill.

Once the architect has produced a preliminary design that suits you, it'll probably also be worth your while to have him help you thread the project through the ever-increasing maze of bureaucratic approvals. Time was, people simply built whatever they pleased as long as it conformed with zoning laws (and often even when it didn't).

But those days are long gone. In many towns, even small projects are closely reviewed by the city staff or by a special design review board. Often, you have to notify your neighbors that you intend to build, and almost inevitably, one or another of them will raise some objection.

Having jumped through these hoops many times before, an experienced architect will be able to head off potential problems, while quite literally presenting your project in the best possible light.

Once the architect has shepherded his preliminary design through the approvals labyrinth, you'll need to decide how to proceed with the actual construction drawings or "blueprints." If there's not much left in your architectural piggy bank and you're a decent drafter -- or if you don't mind entrusting the job to an unlicensed designer -- this may be the time for your architect to bow out.

On the other hand, having saved a good chunk of money by avoiding the commission fee -- and hopefully, having gained an appreciation of your architect's ability -- maybe you'll decide to have him complete the construction drawings as well, albeit with the least information necessary to obtain a building permit.

In the meantime, you can busy yourself with the time-consuming chores you've kindly spared your architect: choosing all those paint chips, toilets, baseboards and doorknobs.

Read Arrol Gellner's blog at arrolgellner.blogspot.com, or follow him on Twitter: @ArrolGellner.

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