Got a Design in Mind? Pros Can Make It Happen


February 04, 1996|By Beth Smith

A few years after we moved back to Baltimore, my husband and I bought a typical 1950s rancher and decided to add a dining room in what seemed like a logical location -- between the kitchen and bedroom wings of the U-shaped house. The project looked routine to us -- simply add a roof between the two wings and proceed from there.

Plunging ahead, we hired a builder -- from the Yellow Pages -- and then watched in dismay as his workmen ripped off the wide roof overhang and squashed a shed roof up against the house. Oh, we got a dining room, but we also got an architectural eyesore that we couldn't afford to "fix" for years and a room that complicated an already difficult interior traffic pattern.

Now more savvy about remodeling, I scold myself for not insisting we hire an architect to help with the original project. We did discuss the possibility, but we had quickly nixed it. We didn't know an architect, and we were sure we couldn't afford one -- at that point we had no idea that we would spend about $5,000 additional to correct the original mess!

The concerns my husband and I had about architects are ones that many people confront when they are about to remodel, add on a room or build a new house. Typical questions include: What can an architect do for me? How can I find an architect? How much are the fees? What can I expect to get for my money? What will I be expected to contribute to the process?

To find answers to these and other questions, we contacted architects David Gleason, Laura Thomas, Ron Brasher and Jeff Penza. Well-established in the profession and known for their residential work, they offer some useful information on the architectural process and share some tips on working with an architect.

What can an architect do for me? Don't expect an architect to be a builder. That is not his or her job. "Architects don't provide a product. They provide a professional service and technical expertise," says Laura Thomas. They listen to your needs, assess your problems, explore solutions, examine alternatives, create a detailed plan and ultimately design a project totally unique to you and your lifestyle.

How do you find the right architect for the job? Without a doubt, most architects are hired through referrals -- a friend builds a new family room, a relative remodels a bathroom; you like what you see and you give the architect a call. But suppose you don't know anyone who has used the services of an architect.

"My suggestion would be to call the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects," says David Gleason. "The AIA will send you a packet of information." In Maryland, there are three local chapters -- Baltimore, Potomac Valley (the suburbs surrounding Washington and Western Maryland), and Chesapeake (the Eastern Shore and Annapolis area).

If you call the Baltimore office, ask for a brochure on the Residential Design Group, about a dozen architects interested in designing or remodeling homes. But keep in mind that there are plenty of architects who do residential design who do not belong to the group. Also, ask the AIA for "A Beginner's Guide to Architectural Services" and "Building Relationships," two brochures loaded with information explaining the architectural process and the architect/client relationship.

Will the AIA recommend an architect? The AIA is a professional organization that serves various educational and informational functions. The staff does not recommend individual architects. However, the initials AIA after the name of an architect signifies, among other things, that he or she has been licensed by the state to practice architecture.

What is the next step? Call several firms; ask if the architects do residential work; request literature. Watch for articles in local papers and magazines about architects. Be aware that many of the large firms with well-known names specialize in commercial architecture and avoid residential work except for special clients; and firms that do residential work exclusively are in the minority.

Should you interview more than one architect? Yes. "I think people should pick about three architects to actually interview," adds Mr. Gleason. The meeting might be held in the architect's office or the client's home. Architects usually prefer the client's home, especially if the project is an add-on or a remodel.

"Plan for the meeting to last anywhere from one hour to three hours," says Jeff Penza. "Ask for resumes and references of previous projects. Architects expect it. Also, ask to see a portfolio of their work."

The portfolio should show if the architect leans toward any special style, which could be important in the selection process. While most architects claim they will design what the client wants, some will admit to a particular interest. Get a list of projects and go see them. "I often drive my clients around to see what I have designed," says Ron Brasher.

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