10 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Architect

Designing an addition or a new home is stressful, but vetting an architect doesn’t have to be. We asked Seattle architect Chris Serra for the essential questions to ask—and the answers to look for—before handing over your home and your money

Joanna Linberg
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What are you designing now?

For the most part, an architect’s portfolio gives a clear impression of the type of project (remodel or new construction) that excites the architect, and his or her style. But sometimes a portfolio is so diverse that it pays to ask about their most recent work: Was that Asian-influenced project just a phase or is it a passion? "You want to find an architect that really likes working on your type of project for the best fit," says Serra.

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Which of your projects represents your best work?

Let’s say you are familiar with an architect’s portfolio and you’ve pinpointed one or two previous projects that are your favorite. Asking the architect to choose his is another way to see if your sensibilities align. “If he brings out projects you don’t identify with, that will be revealing,” Serra says.

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What is my project’s potential?

Once an architect has seen your site (or walked through your home for a remodel), ask her what strengths she would bring out with the design. She might want to capitalize on a view or work around existing landscaping. “You’re trying to see if what the architect see is complementary to what you see,” Serra says. If it’s not, it might be a hint your visions won’t be in sync.

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How do you manage the regulations and the permit review process?

Method doesn’t matter as much as timing, Serra says. Whether the architect uses a checklist or a meeting, he or she should express that they begin researching city codes or meeting with the city’s permitting office at the beginning of the project, not after the design is completed. What you don’t want to hear? “It will get taken care of in the permit process.” Those delays could add to the cost.

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How are decisions documented; is there a way I can refer back to them?

“There are probably 100 decisions a client is involved in making during a substantial project,” Serra says. And many times, the only way to reference them is too look at the architect’s final drawings, which aren’t easy for the average person to navigate. Most architects don’t automatically produce a more user-friendly document of all the fixtures, finishes, and materials chosen, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if they would, Serra says.

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How is my budget managed?

Architects often provide preliminary estimates based on their experience or from area contractors. No matter who tabulates it, don’t move past the schematic phase without this figure. It verifies the project is on track to meet budget, or if the design or budget needs adjustment. It also serves as the reference point until the final estimate that accompanies final construction drawings.

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Do you stay involved during construction?

If an architect doesn’t include construction services as a default or at least as an option, that’s probably a red flag, Serra says. If the architect isn’t involved, the construction drawings might get misinterpreted and you could dilute or lose an aesthetic or technical feature. Typically, you can expect an architect to make a site visit once a week or once every other week, depending on the phase of the project.

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What do you charge and what is and isn’t included in your fees?

“It’s hard for clients to compare fees if they don’t have a clear idea what’s included or not,” says Serra. You may think one architect is inexpensive, but they may not be quoting for interior architecture, just the shell. Clarify what is and isn’t included, then get a written agreement even for preliminary services. Architects charge a fixed fee or a percentage of construction costs.

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What is your hourly rate for additional work?

Changes to construction drawings, detailed regulatory work (like for an environmentally sensitive site), or variance permitting are all services that typically fall under an architect’s hourly rate. “If one architect charges $175/hour and another $120, that could make a big difference in the end,” Serra says.

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Do you have references I can speak with?

An architect should readily volunteer these, but don’t forget to contact the references. They’ll offer insight into how the architect performs during each stage of the project.

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Meet Chris Serra

Chris Serra designed Joel Bell and Julia Kuskin’s Seattle home (pictured). The warm, modern style of his projects prompted them to start a conversation with him about if it was possible to build a new home with a tight budget. See the results in our January 2015 issue, and view Serra's portfolio .