5 Keys to Hiring an Architect

Several years ago I had the experience of sitting on owner’s side of the fence – I served as chair of the owner’s committee on a good size project, and hired and managed the architect, consultants and contractor. I learned 5 keys to hiring an architect:

  1. It’s a long term relationship. You will be working closely with whomever you hire for the next couple of years. Be sure you hire someone you are comfortable with, that you can see yourself working with, someone that will work for you and put your interests first. Compatibility with your architect is the single most important issue. We hired an extremely talented and well known architect [designed, for example, the LA County Museum of Art] who wanted the job came in with a very low fee…but was never working “for” us…made the project long and difficult.
  2. It’s your house [or retail center, or…], not your architect’s house. Hire someone that will build your dream house, not theirs. Most architects have a limited “palette,” they do what they do. Few take the time truly understand what you want. Few are willing to fully put aside their wishes in favor of yours. Reasons for this include their preferences, their experience, and money–it is much less work, and thus less costly, to use the same materials, details and products from project to project. On our project, we soon came to understand that the architect we hired does what he does, not what his clients want. We had to accept that there were many things we wanted that he wouldn’t do. I could have replaced him, but only at the expense of a great deal of money and months of lost time. An architect who builds his or her dream, not yours, might easily cost you more than their entire fee as you buy materials, products and perhaps rooms you don’t want.
  3. Plays well with others. Our architect tolerated his consultants, and had what might be charitably called a difficult relationship with the contractor. I found myself continually having to resolve disputes, and the difficulties with the contractor cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars. Your architect needs to foster a team spirit, and to see that the entire team is working to create your dream as painlessly and inexpensively as possible.
  4. Money is important. Money spent on architects is money not spent on stone, stoves or landscaping. Ultimately, though, it is the total cost that matters most. Money ineffectively spent during construction will trump all other costs together. We spent a great deal of time focusing on thousands when selecting our consultants, yet once hired, decisions made resulted in variances of millions. We learned that the key is finding consultants who put our interests, including our money, first.
  5. Apples and oranges are difficult to compare. One architect in Malibu charges $500,000 for every project. His fees are high yet all inclusive, and his projects varied and very custom. Another charges $125,000. His fees are loaded with extras [clients typically end up paying serval times his initial “fee”,] and most of his projects are extremely similar. If you as client see the work of the latter and are happy to let this architect make the decisions and do what he typically does, I would advise you to use him. If, on the other hand, you want to build their own dream, and that dream is significantly different that his typical house, I would advise them to use the former. The extras from the latter will end up costing more money, and you still will not get the house you want. Your architect is also forming a long term relationship with you, and committing resources for a long time. Many architects run what I might term “product production” studios. They do what they do, do it efficiently and quickly, then move on. If you like their product, you can save some design fee. Others are more client, design and process focused. Their process is focused on customization, on creating a house that is uniquely yours. If this is what you want, you will ultimately get the best value with this type of architect. We chose the former, but really needed the latter. The result was a combination of increased costs, headaches and compromised dreams.

These 5 keys to hiring an architect, if carefully followed, will make your project far more enjoyable, and the resultant design reflective of your dreams, lifestyle and budget.


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Brent Thompson is expert in destination design: the master planning and architectural design of public places, including retail, resort, entertainment and town center destinations. Thompson has over twenty-five years of experience in architecture, concept design, master planning and urban design for a wide range of domestic and international clients, including every major entertainment company, with a rich portfolio of projects in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and North America. Thompson’s history is unique among architects. He was educated traditionally as an architect and planner, a course he followed in his first ten years of practice. He further had opportunity to live and work in Prague, where he was a founding partner of Architects’ Atelier Praha and refined his theoretical approach to architectural design. Upon his return to the United States two years later, he began a five year parenthesis, designing entertainment venues for most of Hollywood’s major studios. Entertainers are students of human psychology, and expert at the idioms of story telling and metaphors. Hollywood is extremely pragmatic in its approach, and places great emphasis on the “guest experience,” and Thompson emerged from that time a unique designer. Though now running a more traditional architecture and planning practice, he has learned to combine design theory with entertainment based pragmatism. His projects are media rich, multi-layered, metaphorical, expressive and culturally relevant. Perhaps more important, they work. He has throughout his varied career been involved in the pragmatic study of the way people use spaces, and the knowledge gained is the basis for each of his designs. He has further learned how to hear the vision of clients and to translate their vision into reality. Specialties Expert in retail, town center, resort, mixed-use, urban design and public space master planning and architectural design

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