Do You Need an Architect for Your Remodeling Project?

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By: Oliver Marks
Published: December 18, 2009

An architect can add to the cost of your remodeling project, but there are times when it pays to hire a design professional.

If you’re planning a big home improvement job, you may be wondering whether you should bring an architect onto the team. On the one hand, you want the project done right, so consulting an architect ( seems like a good idea. On the other hand, you want to dedicate as much of your budget as possible to the actual work, rather than siphoning off thousands of dollars in professional fees. Here’s how to decide when it pays to hire one of these pros.

What an architect does

Architects are highly trained in all aspects of building design, from engineering to style to ergonomics. At the outset of the project, an architect will examine your house, listen to what you want, and then propose a number of different solutions, with approximate building costs for each option.

Once you’ve settled on a design, the architect works with you to specify all the details of the job (right down to the style of doorknobs), helps you select a contractor (, and oversees the work to make sure it’s being done according to plan.

What an architect costs

Architects charge based on a percentage of the total project cost. That way, as the project evolves, the fee remains proportional to the scope of the job. Since the majority of the design work happens before a contractor is hired and before a bottom-line price is determined, the architect will bill based on a cost estimate for the project, or set an hourly rate for design work and make any necessary adjustments later, says Pittsburgh architect Gerald Morosco, author of the book “How to Work With an Architect.”

Depending on who you choose, how complex your project is, and how much construction oversight you want, expect to pay an architect 5% to 20% of the total job cost. At the upper end, you’ll get full-service project management. The architect will help choose the contractor, supervise the work, and sign off on the invoices, assuring that the construction is going according to plan and that all contractors have filed lien waivers (

When an architect makes sense

There’s no rule that says you have to hire an architect. Most contractors can design and draw your remodeling job or addition themselves. Others, known as “design-build” firms, have their own architects and engineers, providing one-stop shopping for both design and construction. So hiring an independent architect is totally a matter of choice.

A good rule to follow is this: The bigger the job and the more valuable the house, the more you need an architect’s help. “Any time you’re changing the exterior of the building, making significant alterations to the floor plan inside, or spending more than 5% of the value of the house, you want an architect,” says Stamford, Conn., construction manager William Harke.

The advantages of using an architect

Architects and contractors take very different approaches to problem-solving. If the contractor handles the planning, he’ll look for an efficient and logical solution to your goals that he can execute well, but not necessarily the most creative or aesthetically pleasing approach. An addition, for example, is likely to be a square room tacked onto the existing structure, with the simplest possible roofline.

An architect, on the other hand, will propose ways to incorporate the new space into the existing building in a way that enhances both–with a new roofline that adds visual appeal to the exterior, for example, and interior design that complements and flows with the rest of the house. As a result, the construction is likely to cost more, since the custom-designed addition will be more complicated to build.

Still, architects can sometimes save their clients money by proposing cost-effective solutions that contractors might overlook, or through the creative use of materials and products. And in the end, says Chapel Hill, N.C., appraiser Everett (Vic) Night, you’ll enjoy a unique home that’s going to have a better resale value because of its visual appeal.

Working together to control design costs

If your budget is tight, there are a few ways to get an architect’s skills for less. You can hire an architect who’s just starting out and whose fees are lower than someone with a well-established name. Or you could hire a designer–called an “architectural designer” or a “project designer” in some states. Unlike architects, these professionals don’t necessarily have specialized training and aren’t licensed as architects, so vet them carefully.

“I’ve seen great designers and I’ve seen bad designers,” says Corvallis, Ore., architect Lori Stephens. “As with hiring an architect, it’s all about looking at their work. If you love what they do and you get along well with them, either a designer or a young architect can work out great.”

Another option is to hire an architect for the design phase only. Rather than managing the whole project, the architect will meet with you, propose some options, and draw up plans and specs, typically for 5% to 10% of the total project cost. That can be a good way to get an architect’s imprint on the work without breaking the budget.

A former carpenter and newspaper reporter, Oliver Marks has been writing about home improvements for 16 years. He’s currently restoring his second fixer-upper with a mix of big hired projects and small do-it-himself jobs.

Reprinted from HouseLogic ( with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®
Copyright 2009.  All rights reserved.