Elizabeth Lavin

Architecture & Design

D Home’s Blueprint for Working with an Architect

Insider tips to help you build a successful partnership. Plus, meet our 2020 Best Architects winners.

For the second year in a row, we surveyed the field to find the best architects in the city. But having a list of names isn’t helpful unless you know what to do with it. Is it really necessary to hire an architect? What’s the best way to choose one? And where do you go from there? We found answers to the most pressing questions by asking those who know best—the architects themselves—so you can focus on moving your project forward.

Why Should I Hire an Architect?

In some cases, it’s necessary (or even required) to hire an architect—such as when remodeling a historic home with strict regulations, when the property site is complicated, or when city rules dictate. But even in the most straightforward of projects, an architect can make all the difference.

“A learned, listening professional will discover your desires and interests, and enhance and combine them into a delightful composition,” says Wilson Fuqua of Fuqua Architects. “Their training and experience reveal the most important aspects of your site, using them to your advantage: views, landscape, topography, sunlight, scale of house for the neighborhood.”

Instead of having to conform your lifestyle to fit an existing space, an architect can create something to meet your specific needs—and then some. “A home should reflect more than just pragmatic requirements,” says Mark Hoesterey of SHM Architects, who touts the pleasant “surprises” of a well-designed home: “It’s an outdoor court they never anticipated using every morning; a warm, welcoming approach for the neighbors; or a perfect retreat from the stresses of a hard workday.”

Then there are the practical benefits. Not only do homes crafted with an expert’s visual sensibility and technical expertise often garner better resale, architects can provide cost-saving solutions, from materials to smart spaces with lower utility costs. “A home is normally the largest investment someone will make in their lives,” says Patricia Magadini of Bernbaum/ Magadini Architects. “Architects bring value to that investment.”

Sticklers for detail, architects also relieve much of the stress that comes with building a home, juggling zoning ordinances, HOA mandates, and design challenges. They “simultaneously think in the right-brain realm of art, harmony, and form, and in the left-brain mindset focused on detailing, building science, and budgets,” says Dan Eckelkamp of Eckxstudio for Modern Architecture. Notes Lloyd Lumpkins of L. Lumpkins Architects: “Few people realize how complicated designing and constructing a home can be until they get so far in they find themselves over budget, taking much longer than anticipated, and stuck with a home that doesn’t solve the issues that prompted the process in the first place.”

Yet perhaps the most persuasive reason is because you’re more likely to end up in a home you’ll enjoy—longer. “A beautiful building is always beautiful for years to come, while halfway thought-out design has a short shelf life,” Fuqua says.

How Do I Choose an Architect?

The best way to find an architect? “Word of mouth,” says Laura Juarez Baggett of Laura Juarez Baggett Studio—and most of our experts agree. Adds Eric LaPointe of Studio EL73, “If you have friends or family members you trust that have worked with an architect, you can find out the ‘real’ story of their experience.” You should also check with those in allied professions (realtors, interior designers, builders, contractors) and with organizations like the Dallas Builders Association and American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Then, do some research: Flip through local publications and drive through neighborhoods to snap pictures of homes, both new and old, that are emblematic of your vision. “I have driven by homes I liked and simply knocked on the door to see who the architect was,” says Bentley Tibbs of Bentley Tibbs Architect.

Next, interview your top contenders. Initial questions to ask: Is the architect licensed or an architectural designer? Does the firm have the capacity for your project? “Ask to meet who will actually be working on your home,” notes Scott Roberts of Creative Architects. “In some larger firms, after the sale, the job will be shifted to someone else.” Find out about the architect’s design and documentation process and how it involves you. What’s included in their services? How and when do they present their ideas, drawings, specifications, and construction documents? Do they attend weekly jobsite meetings or step in only when called? How do they ensure your expectations are met? What’s the fee structure?

“My favorite clients are the ones who tell the truth about how they live, how they sleep, how they will use their home.”

Christy Blumenfeld of Blume Architecture

Ask design-specific questions, too: What’s their design philosophy? What artists and architects inspire them? Ask for examples of projects of a similar scale and style, and to explore an under-construction home. But don’t get so hung up on an architect’s style that you overlook compatibility, a crucial factor in a project that could span years. “Find an architect you can positively engage with,” Lumpkins says. “Someone you can trust.”

One word of warning from Jenna Janson of Janson Luter Architects: “Beware of people who promise you everything and don’t give any pushback or ask you questions in return. There are a lot of decisions to be made when building a custom home and there are often trade-offs. You want people on your team who will help you keep on track.”

Lastly, remember that entering into a partnership is a two-way decision. Notes Thad Reeves of A. Gruppo Architects: “Keep in mind that you are being interviewed as well.”

When Do I Hire an Architect?

Though they can jump into a project at any time, architects suggest hiring them right after hammering out a realistic, all-encompassing budget with the bank. Choosing an architect prior to site selection enables them to assess and evaluate details such as topography, elemental impacts, and neighboring properties, while pinpointing any design challenges or barriers such as code limitations and potential development costs that aren’t readily apparent.

Most we spoke to agreed that the architect should be the first professional you hire, but assembling a team that works well together “is more important than the sequence by which they come together,” insists Rizwan Faruqui of Far + Dang. “Forming as much of a complete team as early as possible will always bring the most value and collective energy to any project. This lets the expertise of each group better inform that of others and helps the project develop most efficiently.”

When it comes to fleshing out the rest of your team, while most say they are open to working with new professionals, carefully weigh their recommendations—they often have a good idea of who might best fit you, your budget, and your aesthetic.

What Do They Expect From Me?

When describing the ideal client, the two buzzwords are honesty and transparency. “My favorite clients are the ones who tell the truth about how they live, how they sleep, how they will use their home,” says Christy Blumenfeld of Blume Architecture. “The more information we have on the front end, the better the final result will be.” With transparency, “we can conceive a home that actually makes their life better, and let the beauty be a byproduct of the process, not the conscious goal,” Tibbs says.

Initially, thoughtful discussions help architects discern a client’s personality, lifestyle, and aesthetic better than a Pinterest board (though those images do come in handy later). Once an architect pieces the personality puzzle together, they want candid feedback. “Many clients are cordial and don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” says Clay Nelson of C.A. Nelson Architecture Group. “This can mean revisions later in the process when they are more cumbersome and costly to handle.”

Project flexibility is also appreciated—as is an understanding that the client’s own choices impact both the timeline and the bottom line. “The client should understand that thoughtful design takes time,” says Marek Architecture’s Scott Marek. “Design is not just something that happens on paper. It continually evolves through the building process and has major effect on the total outcome.” 

But the best clients “are those who bring enthusiasm to the project, who see the project as far more than a house, and who view the design process as much more than a transaction,” Eckelkamp says. “They are willing to investigate, experiment, and enjoy the journey.”

What Can I Expect?

Realistically, there are going to be a few project kinks and adjustments that might take extra time, require more money, or sacrifice quality. Clients should expect “an honest conversation about the realism of achieving the various targets, and information that allows the client to make educated decisions as to the balancing of those targets,” says Patrick Ford of Rogers-Ford, LC.

When it comes to the budget, the architects’ own fees vary by project type, size, and complexity. Many charge a percentage of the anticipated construction cost. Some instead bill hourly but provide an estimate, while others charge on a square-foot basis for new construction.

Our experts didn’t report minimums but instead weigh projects on uniqueness—“We select projects that are interesting to us, and where we believe there is the opportunity to do something special,” says Mark Dilworth of MDW Studio—and their bandwidth. “It takes several hundred hours to complete a full-service set of design and construction documents for a custom residence,” says Reeves.

Given that collaboration and dialogue are crucial throughout the design process, you can expect frequent meetings and thorough communication. Once the design is finalized and construction documents prepared—a process that can take up to a year—you can expect your architect to regularly visit the construction site to monitor for mistakes and progress. As Bruce Bernbaum of Bernbaum /Magadini Architects notes, “We are the client’s advocate at the site, assisting the contractor to deliver the home according to the construction documents.”

“A learned, listening professional will discover your desires and interests, and enhance and combine them into a delightful composition.”

Wilson Fuqua of Fuqua Architects

Your architect should understand construction enough to offer alternatives for unique design challenges. If things do get off target, you should hear from them. “Beauty is a fragile thing, easily damaged by careless decisions or thoughtlessness,” says Marc McCollom of Marc McCollom Architect. “Part of the architect’s job is as beauty’s bodyguard. The other part is making everyone else’s job easier by getting answers to questions before they are asked, pointing out mistakes as soon as possible, and keeping on schedule and on budget as much as reasonable.”

Above all, you should expect the architect to listen to your needs, as ultimately, you’re the one who will be living in the home. As William S. Briggs of William S. Briggs Architect puts it: “Clever ideas are meaningless (and not really clever at all) if the project is unbuildable, fails to support the people who use it, or is outside the budget.”

What Do They Not Want From Me?

We promised anonymity to get the truth about what architects dislike, and we got it. One no-no is requesting emulation of a preexisting blueprint. “There’s a lot of excitement and intangible benefits that come out of the creative process,” one says. “Copy and paste just doesn’t get you there.”

Another big complaint: an “armchair architect” who insists on being the design’s author and overmans the project. Trust your expert—and have an open mind. “Frustration only begins to describe the sensation of having a transcendent concept scuttled by a client who just doesn’t get it,” says one. Another puts it this way: “The best ideas can seem unusual at first.”

While overcommunication is never a good thing—“our hourly rate is double for marriage counseling,” jokes one—a lack of communication can be frustrating, too. Don’t wait until the design is done to decide you need two primary bedrooms. Indeed, says one, “Indecision can be a killer in the design process.”

Our experts also appreciate clients who are up front about their budget, who don’t cut them out of the construction process in an attempt to trim costs, and who also understand “scope creep”—that adding rooms, square footage, and other changes can result in higher fees. As one says, “We do not have magical control over time and space, or costs.”

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