October 31, 2008

To Architect Or Not To Architect, That Is The Question Of The Day

It’s another case of a reader asks we hope you'll help solve:

We are interested in doing an internal remodel to a small, older home. We want to open up the space and move the bathroom and the kitchen (same floor, different layout). We are not looking to spend too much money, so nothing too elaborate is planned. It is an old cottage home, so has its own charm anyhow.
Does it make sense to have an architect? Does that make the process for permits go more smoothly? Does it still take a long time to get permits approved or is it a case by case thing? Is it better that we are not going to have any additions or changes to the exterior (except maybe painting, landscaping)?
I know there are some architects and contractors on the board that are pretty knowledgeable and would love their input.

It's a bit like religion (we happen to favor an architect), and it really depends on the person (on either side of the table), but so would we (appreciate your input). And the line that secured the post: “I didn't want to take a posting too off topic with my questions.” Cheers.

First Published: October 31, 2008 2:45 AM

Comments from "Plugged In" Readers

In one sense I wish I had used an architect on my remodel to help me "think out of the box", move walls, and add some very up-to-date features that make a property impossible for a buyer to resist.

- That said, if you don't need to move structural walls, i would avoid the cost - especially since it's getting toughter to get a return on investment on remodeling projects.
- it's fairly easy to determine if a wall is load bearing - have a structural/framing contractor give you an estimate and you'll have the answer for free - moving a non-structural wall takes an hour with a sledge hammer. Don't mess with a structural wall yourself.
- technically you need an architect if you are going to move any wall (in order to get a permit). in reality you don't. the bldg inspector won't necessarily know where the original walls were if you don't call him in until after some of the rough work is done - be creative. If you're really changing the floorplan around a lot get a cheap architect to work for a few hours using very simple drawings.
- if it's just a kithen/bath remodel you can get a permit over the counter - just go to the bldg department yourself.
- yes it is much faster if you don't change the exterior - it avoids having to go through neighbor notification.
- i think designers are a waste of money. they all have different opinions. you're better off finding the perfect room in a magazine, a real estate listing, a high-end plumbing/tile store's website. copy the picture.

Posted by: resp at October 31, 2008 6:39 AM

The question i s like do I need a lawyer in court? You can represent yourself in court, and you can do a remodel without an architect.

Posted by: flaneur at October 31, 2008 7:38 AM

I agree with resp. I did most, if not all of the work in my condo myself. We weren't dealing with any structural walls and we knew what we wanted. Would it have been helpful to have an architect look at the space, sure, but I didn't and still don't have that type of money to through at a project.

I would imagine you know your space pretty well and know what you want to do with it. If you go into this knowing it will be a little bit of work, and you're patient with the process, then you'll be fine.

Posted by: Joshan at October 31, 2008 7:40 AM

I would be inclined to go with the architect but it makes a big difference if it's 10% or 100% more to use one. I'm not that familiar with architect costs but aren't there certain basic services provided at a flat fee whereas full ongoing design services amount to a % of total project costs?

Posted by: Jake at October 31, 2008 8:01 AM

We remodeled our place without an architect.

Did the kitchen and bathroom.

In the bathroom there was just a sink and bath in a 7X14 space, so we added a toilet shower and moved the position of the bath.

The Kitchen was almost the same size, so we took down a wall and opened up the whole space, no problem with permits or inspections or anything.

Well with the Kitchen we had none.. as we used a GC. I had a relative do the bathroom, so getting that permit signed off took some persistence at the DBI.

Posted by: BDB at October 31, 2008 8:17 AM

Construction and remodel work has plummeted and there are a lot of good architects sitting around doing nothing (I know two excellent ones with top-notch reputations who have no work at all, and they've told me the work has dried up in SF). If you do hire an architect, drive a hard bargain.

Posted by: Trip at October 31, 2008 8:24 AM

You can go get the permits over the counter, if you call it kitchen and bath remodel with no walls moved. As soon as you say you are going to move a wall you need plans. Everyone, except the people who work the counter, can tell if a wall is structural or not. However, they are the ones who count so you either get plans done or fib. (I cannot recommend not telling the complete, 100% truth, as I have been called out on this site and been given previous legal advise in the past.) Also, you mention "opening up the space" and this brings into question removal of walls vs. moving of walls. If you are taking out walls you are removing sheer factor. This, as well as if the walls are structural, brings an engineer into the picture. Now, an engineer could do your plans for you but not many are willing.

Another big thing here is bids. If you are not creating plans and specifications, then what are contractors bidding. Talk about apples. If you are going to take this out to bid without plans and specs. it is impossible to get and apples to apples comparison of bids. With that in mind my bid is $100K. I don't need anymore information than you already gave to bid against a permit and a few photos.

Also, as far as your place, even if you need plans, they don't need to be stamped. You, your contractor, a friend, or a kitch/bath designer can do them for a single family 1-2 story place.

You either have a contractor you know and trust, you hire an architect, you hire a kitchen/bath designer (should be much less money), or you hire a design/build company (your project is what they are geared to do).

Posted by: sparky-the-bear at October 31, 2008 8:47 AM

i think you might to work with an interior architect,buy they're expensive. What I've done is do my own drawings and then did the new outline with masking tape on the floor(where you can) to test out the flow of the space.
because you're not going outside the "envelope" of your home you don't need plans. You do need permits and licensed contractors (plumbing and electrical) You can pull your permits yourself with just your drawings. You will find that the people at the Building Dept. are very helpful to owners rather then the contractors themselves. And having the contractors pull the permits is again going to effect your costs. Do it yourself, you're learn something, you can pass around to your friends and your friends and family will be impressed with your acumen. And you'll save thousands that you can spend on better appliances, sinks tub and tile etc. Don't expect to live around the construction, find a place to live, really you'll save your relationship. You will need to be your own General Contractor, which really means you will have to manage the job, which means you need to daily check on the work and make sure the workmen are showing up. You will have inspections along the way, plumbing and electrical

Posted by: suzyq at October 31, 2008 9:29 AM

Posted by: soapbox derby at October 31, 2008 9:58 AM

I recently completed a project of roughly the same scope as what the initial poster describes (except that we didn't relocate the bathroom and kitchen). This was my first remodeling project. We used a New York architect who is also a friend, and who gave us a discount. We also hired an SF "architect" (who turned out not to be an architect . . .) for on-site project management (big mistake).

Based on my experiences, this is how I wish I had proceeded:

1. Start by getting references for contractors. If you can find a contractor you trust at the beginning of the project, s/he will be able to give you good ballpark estimates of the cost of alternative design options, and will also be able to give you a heads up about structural/engineering issues (moving walls . . .). Contractors generally have a much better sense of how much it will cost to build something than architects do. The contractor will also know engineers, permit expediters, cabinetmakers, and even architects who you may use on an as-needed basis, and s/he can help you avoid getting overcharged for unnecessary services from them.

If you do use a contractor in this way, make sure you have a frank conversation with him/her about how s/he will be paid for these services, and whether you are committing to give him/her the job. The contractor I used (Raymond Tom of Tom Ray Construction) sometimes does this kind of pre-project walk through and advice-giving for free, as a way of building good will and in the expectation that it will give him a leg up when the final plans are bid out. (My contractor wasn't perfect in every way, but on balance I was *very* pleased with his work.)

2. I would advise hiring an architect if you are doing anything to reconfigure the layout of your living spaces. (And maybe even if you aren't.) Our architect made a huge difference--even on little things, like the design of a new handrail for the front stairs, and the choice of backsplash materials in the kitchen.

But before you hire an architect, do three things: (A) review his/her portfolio of work, and make sure you like it; (B) discuss the scope of work very carefully, and how you will be billed; and (C) present the architect with your own "portfolio" of magazine cutouts, internet links, etc., showing remodels that you take inspiration from. The more visual information you give the architect up front about what you want or at least like, the less time s/he will spend (with the meter running) giving you sketches that you don't like.

Architects can run up huge fees if you're not careful about it, especially on the project-management side of things. In my view, architects are much more valuable with big design ideas up front than with project management during execution. If you have a good contractor, you shouldn't need your architect much during the building stage. You can also save money on the architect by choosing the fixtures, applicances, etc. yourself. A good contractor will also let you know how much detail in the drawings s/he needs from the architect. The fewer high-detail drawings, the smaller the bill from the architect.

3. Our biggest mistake (beyond hiring a local architect for permits and project management, who sent us a huge bill and turned out not to be licensed . . .) was hiring a number of subs and specialists ourselves, rather than leaving it all in the hands of our GC. We did a seismic upgrade at the same time as our interior remodel, using another GC who specializes in structural work, and coordinating the structural GC and the interior GC was a nightmare. We also hired our own floors guy (mistake), our own cabinetmaker (mistake), and our own HVAC guy (probable mistake). In each case, hiring our own subs/specialists ended up costing us a lot more money and there were problems and ambiguities about who was responsible for them. It's worth getting separate bids on some big-ticket items, like custom cabinets, but if your GC's preferred cabinetmaker is in the ballpark, don't even think about hiring someone else.

***

Last point (in response to the initial query): You don't need an architect to speed up the permitting process unless you are doing exterior work. You can have the drawings made and stamped by an engineer instead.

Posted by: cse at October 31, 2008 10:07 AM

get off your soapbox,

an architect is not going to figure out your foundation-you need a true professional. they are called structural engineers.

sparky is right (again) in that you need to bring in a few contractors, explain what you want and let them tell you how they would do it and what they will charge.

for contractors its usually all about timing; keeping your crew busy is more important than getting the highest price. what this means to the homeowner is being flexible saves money.

Posted by: paco at October 31, 2008 10:24 AM

You get what you pay for, or don't pay for - always.

There are good and bad architects just like there are good and bad doctors, lawyers, accountants etc. A good architect can actually save you money because a good experienced architect has done this many more times than you have. Check references, look up their license number online, look at their portfolio, negotiate a fee up front.

Posted by: vonT at October 31, 2008 10:43 AM

vonT,

substitute the word contractor for architect and i will agree with you.

remember, you don't NEED and architect, but you do need a contractor (if you don't want to do it yourself).

Posted by: paco at October 31, 2008 10:50 AM

paco,

for anything larger than a remodel, if you hire just a contractor, you're in big trouble. their self interest is for the construction costs to be high. this is not necessary the interest of the architect. the arch acts as the agent of the owner.

of course if you're just redoing your bathroom or kitchen you don't need an architect, but as i said before you get what you pay for.

of course if you're fixing your foundation you don't need an arch, but a SE and contractor.

Posted by: vonT at October 31, 2008 11:41 AM

vonT, that's not true. The contractors self interest is getting the job at a reasonable price. If they price it high you can use someone else. I design this kind of project all the time. I do the design and specifications for a fixed price. I then bid the work, and request my client get at least one other bid. It makes the project better for both of us. They know my price is good and I know they are comfortable with me and not feeling duped.

Posted by: sparky-the-bear at October 31, 2008 11:58 AM

I confess to being An architect, but my practice is large medical and college level education projects.

A lot may depend on where you live and the bureacracy you must make your way through to get a permit. Sometimes a good architect can be like a good tax planner in avoiding non-intuitive mistakes.

I had a project years ago in a north bay town where we were going to develope the attic level of an older home as living space. This actually was considered to require planning review, preceded by filling out a long application that included "essay" type answers. The first question was "explain how your project will help the town of XXX"s bicycle commuting plan", and they got weirder, in the context of this project, from there. The point is, that you had to construct the right answer. If you said "not applicable" you would still be waiting for the permit.

Posted by: redseca2 at October 31, 2008 12:32 PM

of course, you didn't think I'd hold back on this one, did you?

Some valid comments above, some very ill informed. some just plain ignorant. Paco is right. of course you don't NEED an architect. In your ignorance, you can "save money" and hire all the contractors (qualified or not, but cheap), get the permits. lie on the permit forms about what the real scope of work is. Manage the construction process (you have lots of time), select the right materials, deal with change orders, make on the spot decisions during the construction (happens a lot), and, of course, come up with a design solution that both fits your budget and is appropriate for your home and living style.

You can do all of that without an architect. And end up with a project over budget, permit problems, improper bidding by low ball contractors, wrong, cheap materials, snap decisions you regret later, and a mediocre design that when all is said and done; you really hate.

Or you can hire a qualified, licensed Architect.

Posted by: noearch at October 31, 2008 1:43 PM

Absolutely, use an architect! I have done several renovations over the years so I kind of know my way around a house but I don't have the kind of creativity or vision that an architect brings. Two examples in my own home: The architect put the shower in my VERY SMALL bathroom on an angle which tapers back to the sink counter and uses the same materials as the sink. Added a lot of interest to the space and made the shower larger, or feel larger, that it would have been with the square version I had visioned. Example two, when I remodeled my kitchen the architect opened up the doorway and, again, put it on an angle. Now the space is visually larger, brighter and more inviting. Again, I would not have visioned this change.

There are lots of other things as well; they know where to shop for the materials that suit you and your home and you lose the Home Depot or even Home Depot Expo look that you might end up with if you do all the design yourself.

I have never paid large fees since the work I have asked the architect to do has always been on the lower end of the scale--not a complete remodel with everthing redesigned. I have always felt that I got more than my money's worth!

Posted by: Ilse Cordoni at October 31, 2008 2:43 PM

Biggest factor personally on a decision like this is how long you will live in the place, if this is a home I'm in for 3-5 years, not going to pay for an arch.

But if it's the last house I buy then yes I would.

Posted by: BDB at October 31, 2008 2:44 PM

@ Ilse-

you hit the nail on the head, so to speak. thank you for those excellent comments.The architect will bring a VISION to the project that the homeowner simply does not see..The architect will look at the larger picture and develop ideas to enhance your space and create ADDED value to the project. Every time.

I think if people would start to see the architect as a necessary and key member of a construction team, as opposed to an exorbitant cost, then you would see the value we, as architects, bring to the table.

Posted by: noearch at October 31, 2008 3:08 PM

Full disclosure: I am, among other things, an architect.

Based on how you describe your project, opening up space and moving a kitchen and a bathroom, I'd say first of all that you will need building, plumbing and electrical permits. You may not need drawings for the permits (in SF) but I recommend them anyway in order to facilitate clear communication with your contractor and any subs.

If you already know exactly what you want to do and you are pretty inflexible about it, don't hire an architect. You'll both be frustrated and resentful.

But if you are willing to take a fresh look, a good architect can be tremendously helpful. He or she can help you maximize the potential of the existing situation you are working with and at the same time help you minimize dumb mistakes.

Is it worth the additional cost? Well ask yourself if you would be willing to pay a bit more for a home that is aesthetically and functionally well designed. If the answer is yes (and I think, in general, the market agrees) then hire an architect.

And by the way, if they aren't licensed they aren't an architect.


Posted by: Salarywoman at October 31, 2008 3:10 PM

Up with Architects day!

good comments, salarywoman.

homeowners: ALWAYS check to see if the architect you want to hire is, in fact, licensed. go to the California Architects Board. quick to find the answer.

btw: there is no such thing as an "interior architect" the term architect is legally defined and only a licensed architect may use the term.

Posted by: noearch at October 31, 2008 3:39 PM

I am the one that asked SS to post my questions. Thank you all for your answers. It wasn't that we wanted to cheap out and not get an architect, but wanted to be sure we proceeded in a smart way and didn't pay for more than we needed. Since some of the walls very likely are load bearing, it sounds like a no-brainer. Your feedback is helpful. Good to know that you can negotiate a price with an architect and I think it does make sense to have help since the space is small and we'll want to maximize it for sure. Honestly, we were first scared away from a large pricing estimate ($30K) from an architect on a larger project (rebuilding the back part of the house). This may not sound like a lot, but the house would only have ended up about 1600 sf after the addition replacement (not gaining too much space, but making it smarter - long story really), so seemed like a lot given the size. I welcome any more tips on the process if you have them. Thanks again.

Posted by: Serena at October 31, 2008 3:42 PM

noearch,

hard to tell from your earlier post but are you saying hire a licensed architect, but not necessarily all licensed contractors. I doubt that's your saying.

Posted by: sparky-the-bear at October 31, 2008 3:44 PM

sparky-

of course not. always hire licensed, qualified contractors as well. no exceptions.

Posted by: noearch at October 31, 2008 3:54 PM

Paco, thanks for joining me on the soapbox.

As for posting the article, the point I was making was implied. So to spell it out, this was a prime, albeit catastrophic, example of the kinds of things that can go wrong when an Architect is NOT hired. In other words, architects do much more than make pretty drawings with 4 walls and a roof as explained in other posts above.

My example could have just as easily been the added cost when a door swings the wrong direction and is only discovered once the door is installed, but that would hardly have illustrated my point as effectively.

Posted by: soapbox derby at October 31, 2008 4:03 PM

soapbox derby,

But anyone who walked into that house could have told you it was going to fall down, so it wasn't a great example. You certainly didn't need an architect to tell you. As a matter of fact when I went to look at it my conversation went like this:

Sparky said,"should we go down the ladder to the creapy lower lever?", and fluj replied "no way this sh*t hole is going to fall over, let get out of here."

Posted by: sparky-the-bear at October 31, 2008 4:10 PM

I hope this isn't too far off the point, but it seems worth adding to the thread: I wish more clients would call an architect BEFORE they even buy - and honestly, I'm not just trying to drum up business - no really I'm not.

Very, very often I meet with clients (and a lot of friends who, for the life of me, I feel should know better) who believed, hoped, and/or were told that they could improve their new homes in some way easily and with minimal cost. Sigh. I struggle to smile, and do my best to tell them it won't be quite so easy, quite so fast, nor quite so cheap.

If I charged for every site visit / interview I go out on where someone has bought the wrong house on the wrong street I'd be writing this from ... Yountville.

Posted by: architects for all at October 31, 2008 4:32 PM

This is really a specialized case of the general question of "should I hire a professional ?" The answer really depends on a number of factors including the actual expertise of the professional, the fees involved, the risks of making a mistake, and the amount of experience available from "non professionals" (including yourself).

I have no doubts that in general (but not necessarily) you will get better results by hiring an architect. I can't however surmise whether you will get what you pay for : this is very dependent on who you hire.

I find it ironic that the Shoemaker Architects web site to which noarch links was clearly created or at least recently modified by someone who isn't a professional web designer. I noticed several flaws that no professional or even an inspired amateur would have made. No big deal as there's no rule that everything on the web must be soundly constructed. Despite the flaws shoemakerarchitects.com does a fine job of communicating with the market.

Posted by: The Milkshake of Despair at October 31, 2008 4:37 PM

Do you need architect? Depends.

There are several routes you can take: architect, designer, structural engineer, design/build firm.

Some folks don't fit neatly within these boxes. Some structural engineers know something about space planning. Some designers know something about architecture. It really just depends on your project.

Do what I did: set up meetings with multiple architects, designers, design/build firms, and potentially structural engineers. Tell them what you're trying to accomplish (and your budget) and go from there. Other than your time, it's free to listen to the sales pitch. I even had one architect go down to planning with me for free to see what types of changes they would "support" without a variance...

We ended up using an architect (addition, kitchen remodel, new bathroom) but will also end up needing a structural engineer to help. We steered clear of designers because we don't need help picking out materials, but some of them are also very good with space planning.

Unless you're doing a cosmetic refresh, do everything with permits. Don't get into a position with some unlicensed contractor who takes your money and leaves you with a disaster.

Posted by: "Dave" at October 31, 2008 5:06 PM

good advice that.

Posted by: paco at October 31, 2008 9:45 PM

This is probably way off topic, but the website discussed appears to be a Yahoo! Small Business "Site Solution" website. It's a DIY kind of thing.

Posted by: John at October 31, 2008 9:58 PM

I like experts. WBOA, (Prono: Whha-boa) is my term for remodels undertaken without benefit of architect. There are plenty of clever and experienced owners and contractors who can get along fine without an architect, and architects who need more design experience. But year after year, on Tuesday tour, the remodels that linger in my mind are the ones done WBOA.

Posted by: kathleen at November 1, 2008 9:01 AM

I just did a fairly extensive remodel with the help of an architect (though I didn't technically need one). His aesthetic eye and general good taste absolutely, without a doubt, was instrumental in the outcome (which I loved). He was also VERY reasonable and made my permit process extremely smooth. If you'd like his info, please let me know.

amysabol@yahoo.com

Posted by: citygirl at November 2, 2008 5:47 PM

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