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Finding Your Architect

Dream House Diaries: Finding the architect

Abigail Pugh, Special to National Post | Jul 24, 2012 1:00 PM ET | Last Updated: Jul 23, 2012 4:28 PM ET
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Blue Print 1

The architect’s job is to meet needs both etherial (‘I want to feel as though I’m waking up in a treehouse’) and pragmatic (‘I want to cut my heating bills in half’). And his or her dark duty, key to doing the job properly, is the sad and boring business of whittling the wishlist so that things stay realistic.

Environmental responsibility, resale value and proper functioning in our harsh elements, are key considerations for an architect; this holds true whether the project is a new build, addition, extra storey or remodel. Budget limitations make each more of a challenge to execute properly.

I am pretty sure we’re typical of most architecture clients, in that although we are paying diligent attention to all the above as our project evolves; the really gripping conversations are about beauty. Can our eight and a half foot ceilings be raised, or at least be made to look higher? Can we please have a really tall front door (with a transom)? What can we do about the ugly front cladding, short of tearing off the entire façade? If steel windows are too heat-leaky, is there a way to mock up the industrial look in wood or vinyl?

Blue Print 2

As well as high function and beauty, there is daily life to consider. In our case, this means sensible compromises, such as keeping some of the existing footprint so that we have a generous hall for winter coats and boots instead of a total blowout. We need rooms and that’s that.

Here are some insights we gained through the process of hiring our architect:

How to find one
*Do as we did: Get pushy. Ask friends to ask their friends. Visit local architecture blogs such as www.nomeancity.net.

*Post enquiries on your local list serv if there is one.

*Status-update your enquiry on Facebook or tweet it.

*If you see a new or reinvented house you like, knock on the door or leave a note in the mailbox with your number. (If the project is in progress and there are workers on the site, even better — just ask one of them.)

How to pick one
*For us, the main deciding factor was the availability of previous work, easily viewable online. This point is more necessary than it might seem. Architects are sometimes prime examples of “shoemakers’ children” syndrome: Though they are designers (and thus work in a visual field) their websites surprisingly are often sparse, unfinished and don’t show much of their work.

*No matter how articulate your candidate might be in person, if he or she can’t readily take you to sites they’ve worked on, or show you lots of photos, testimonials, press clippings and plans either online or in a portfolio, then move on.

*Think resale. Perhaps you are hoping this project is your “forever home.” But don’t forget, life is unpredictable. You might get a job in another city, have another child, start a home-based business or — true story — realize that 122 passing streetcars per day actually is intolerable after all. Make sure your architect understands the importance of a design that will appeal to potential buyers and thus hold its value.

*Think longevity. Just as the 1980 re-bricking, flat roof and vinyl windows of our house rendered it less valuable 31 years later than had the house been maintained with its original façade, your hyper-trendy weathered barn board cladding might also, in the future, scream “2012” a little too loudly. Pick an architect who knows the classics and won’t sell you on something too ephemeral.


How to pay one
*Most architects charge fees on a percentage-of-construction basis: the more you spend on the project, the higher their fee. The usual cost is between 10 to 15% of pre-tax budget, so if your reno or new build costs $300,000, then your architect will cost you at least $30,000 plus HST. While this might seem unfair (why should the architect make more if I decide on the cedar instead of the pressure-treated?), it actually makes sense: Escalating the budget usually entails escalating the amount of drawing and project management. Where this is decidedly not the case, you are within your rights to ask that certain spends be exempt from the percentage rule.