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HOW TO CHOOSE AN ARCHITECT
by Bob Brooke

Few people realize how complicated it is to design and construct a building, that is until they find themselves lost in a maze of building codes, design options, contractors, zoning laws, etc. And since no two building projects are alike, there’s no clear-cut path to follow.

Each architect has his or her own style, approach to design, and methods of work. So it's important to find an architect who understands your style and needs. Choosing an architect for the first time can be a daunting experience, because the wrong choice can lead to bad planning, costly delays, frustration, and, quite possibly, a loss of productivity.

Architects have the education, training, experience, and vision to guide you through the entire design and construction process, from helping you define what you want to build to helping you get the most for your construction dollar.

Your building project will most likely begin with need for more space. As most businesses grow, that need can mean the difference between success and increased profits and the status quo and stagnation. But how does that need get translated into square feet and three-dimensional space?

That’s what architects are trained to do–translate ideas into three-dimensional space creatively. With a broad knowledge of design and construction, a good architect can offer you alternatives you might never have thought of on your own.

Architects don’t just design buildings, they create total environments that satisfy functional needs, while, at the same time, create exciting, dynamic spaces in which to grow a business. In the long run, an architect's services are a wise investment, not an added cost, since a well-designed project can be built more efficiently and economically. By working closely with you, an architect can make changes on paper much less expensively than later on when construction is underway.

If your project requires engineering or other design services, an architect can coordinate this team of experts so you don't have to. And he or she can sort out today’s complex building codes and zoning laws, help you find qualified contractors, and visit your project site to help verify that construction is going on according to his or her plans and specifications.

The more thought and effort you put into choosing an architect, the better off you’ll be in the end. First, think carefully about your building needs and goals. Do you need more space? Where will your building be located? What activities will be housed in the space? What’s your budget? How about financing? Your architect will help you clarify your goals, if necessary.

Start by assembling a list of potential architects. Find out who designed the commercial buildings you like in your community. Get recommendations from friends and colleagues who have worked with architects. Check to see which architects on your list are members of The American Institute of Architects (AIA). Members subscribe to a professional code of ethics and has access to a variety of professional and technical resources. Contact your local AIA chapter for lists of local member-owned architecture firms.

Call each firm on your list. Describe your project and ask if they’re available to work on it. If they are, request literature--brochures, fact sheets, photos of past work, and biographical material of key personnel--outlining the firm's qualifications and experience. Look beyond the style of this package to determine which firms have the right experience and capabilities for your project. At this point, you should be able to narrow your list to two or three architects to interview.

The interview is crucial because it gives you a chance to meet the people who will design your project to see if the chemistry is right. Remember, you want to find someone with whom you feel comfortable, since you’ll be working with your architect for the life of the project.

Allow at least an hour for the interview. The meeting might take place in the architect's office--helpful because you can see where the work will be done. Or it could be held in your office--helpful because the architect can learn more about your project and needs. Do what feels right. The architect may show you slides or photographs of past work and describe how the firm's experience and expertise will help you.

During the interview, ask questions. How busy is the firm? Does it have the capacity to take on your work? Who will handle the job? Insist on meeting the person who will actually design your project. What is the firm's design philosophy? How does the architect intend to approach your project? How interested is the firm in your job? Talk about your budget and find out the range of fees that the architect would anticipate for your project. Before making a final selection, have the architect take you to a completed project. Ask for references from past clients. While many architects do not charge for the interview, some do. Before the interview, ask if there is a fee.

And speaking of fees, some charge hourly rates, others a sum per square foot, still others a fixed fee or a percentage of construction costs. Discuss the fee structure for your project whenever you feel it’s appropriate. The architect may suggest a combination of the above methods. The basis for the fee, the amount, and payment schedule are issues for you and your architect to work out together.

Ultimately, you will choose the architect whom you trust and feel is right for your project. Unlike buying a car, you can't see the final product and test it out. The architect provides professional services, not a product. The right architect will be the one who can provide the judgment, technical expertise, and creative skills, at a reasonable cost, to help your realize a project that fits your needs.

Be prepared to explore new and creative ideas with your architect, but be frank about how you want the end result to feel and work. The architect will ask you lots of questions to get a better sense of your goals and needs and to determine if your expectations match your budget. The architect may suggest changes based upon knowledge, experience, and your budget. After thoroughly discussing your functional requirements, the architect will prepare a statement outlining the scope of your project. During the next step, your program will be realized.

If at any time in the design process you feel uncomfortable, discuss your concerns with your architect. You don't want your architect to control the project to the point that the building is no longer yours. But you also want to be careful not to restrict your architect so much that you’re not getting your money's worth in terms of design creativity.

Once you have found the architect, you’re ready to prepare a written agreement, concerning the scope of work, services, schedule, construction budget, and architect's fee. Although you can have your lawyer draw up an agreement, the AIA offers a variety of standard contracts which are used throughout the industry.

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