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How to choose a designer for your home addition

A home addition can be a great investment in your property—but only if it’s designed correctly. The right architectural designer can help you figure out the layout, choose the right materials, and more. But how do you find one? And what should you look for when interviewing potential designers? Below, we answer all of that and more.

These are the following types of additions that you want to use an architect for:

  • General addition

  • Foundation extension

  • Porch extension or addition

  • Porch or patio enclosure

  • Garage extension or addition

  • Garage conversion

  • Attic conversion

  • 2nd floor addition

  • Dormer addition

  • In-law suite

  • In-law addition

  • Bathroom addition

  • Mudroom addition

Why should you use an architect for these? Because of the complexity of the project, you want to be sure you have someone experienced who can advise you on the best options for your home and budget, and make sure you get the best return on investment for your house’s value. The process of adding on to a house is complicated. Even in a small job, there are so many details to consider—from foundation to finish work—it’s hard for anyone (even an experienced do-it-yourselfer) to lay out the details just right. It’s not only about design expertise. Your architect will be your guide through the maze of permits, zoning, inspections and financial considerations as well.

Designing a project from scratch, or heavily modifying the house you live in, means engaging in some of the most important money decisions you’ll ever make. It affects your options for remodeling later and for reselling the house. If you want to add an addition, change the layout of bedrooms and bathrooms, or undertake extensive repairs, then doing so without professional help is risky—and is also likely to be more expensive than if you were to get help from a designer.

Tiers of architectural design service

First we have Architectural Drafters or Modelers – these people can put your ideas down on paper (or more likely, Computer Aided Design (CAD) software.)

Then, we have Architectural Designers – often they have a degree in architecture and varying levels of experience doing design, but they don’t have a license. Architectural Designers normally work in a company alongside a Registered Architect.

A Registered Architect has gone through all the education, internships, and exams to earn a professional license. These people are qualified to tell government agencies that the plans you are making for your home align with local codes and will be safe to construct and live in.

Why you should use an Architectural Designer

  • We are the ones to call when you have a problem with your house and don't know where to start. An architect makes initial drawings, following your comments and wishes, that help you make an informed decision on the best way to handle a difficult situation.

  • Before adding to your house, a good architect will ensure you are making the most of all existing space. Even the smallest houses often have underutilized areas that can be reconfigured and brought back into daily use. Sometimes what seems like a square-footage shortage is really a circulation problem that can be solved with a few alterations.

  • For a major remodel or addition, you want an experienced and knowledgeable collaborator who can provide expertise to help you make the right design choices. You want an architect who can translate your ideas into a proper drawing of your home with enough precision to be used for construction. Ideally, that architect should be a licensed professional who has planned dozens of homes like yours in the past and knows best practices around remodeling.

  • Your local building authorities require one. In many communities, for remodels, an architect might not be required, and you can use your contractor to pull your permits. However, depending on your location and project type, you may need an architect or engineer to sign off on your plans. You should always check with your local building department to be completely sure.

  • If you’re planning work on a unique or historical house, changing its style, or building on a complicated site like a hill or a wet area. Maybe you want to raise the roof on your 1700s saltbox. Or change your 50 year old builder colonial into a more modern style. Or maybe you want to add a second story to a home perched on the side of a steep hill. When and where design is critical, you must hire an architectural designer.

  • If your budget is tight. This may not make sense to you, since hiring an architect means one more professional to pay. But a good designer will save you money in the construction and give you more bang for your buck in the end. We do this through value engineering—figuring out the best way to get you the features you want in your budget. We might substitute a more cost effective building material to get the same results. We can also help you avoid making mistakes in material or design that could cost you more money and lead to regrets.

How to choose the right architectural design firm for you

Now that you’ve decided to hire a designer, you need to find the one that fits your needs best. You want a firm who that’s skilled in designing the style of remodel or addition you want, and you also want your project designer to communicate well with you, and whose cost model works for you. Make sure that the design fees are factored into your overall budget – if you are planning to take out a loan for your remodel or addition, you can include the design fees in the total loan amount, which means the extra few grand you spend on design will divide out to be only a few dollars more on loan repayments.

It's easy to find an architect online these days – most architects will show their portfolios right on their website or can send you sample projects upon request. An architect who doesn’t want to send samples is one to be avoided – they should be proud of their past work.

How to prep for an interview with a potential architect

  • First, you want to interview about 3 architects to get a general feel for how the project should go.

  • You should bring a few ideas with you for how you want the space to look, a few inspiration photos, and maybe a hand sketch of your future floorplan. This shows the architect a good idea of what you’re planning to do, and gives them a chance to show you how they’ll make your vision a reality – maybe even better than you were originally envisioning.

  • Share your overall budget with the architects you’re interviewing. How they react to this information will help you decide if the project itself is feasible. If two architects say yes, you can roughly do this project in this budget, and the third one says you’ll have to double the budget, take that feedback to the other two and ask them to elaborate a bit more. This will help you get a good sense of whether they are working for your bottom line.

What to ask the designer

  • What is the architect’s design philosophy? This should be clear from your research, but now you have a chance to talk about how the designer will bring their vision to your project. Is their focus on sustainability and energy? Low cost or bang for your buck? High end luxury feel? Your architect should be willing to focus on what’s best for you, but some architects have a specific focus that matches – or doesn’t match – your specific needs.

  • What is the design firm’s process? Most firms follow a specific path for all projects, but that process can vary a from firm to firm and project to project. The usual phases include initial consultation, concept design, permit sets, construction and bid sets, sending those sets for bidding and negotiation, and construction management.

  • Can you show me samples of projects you’ve done similar to mine? You want to ensure the designer can handle the size and complexity of your project.

  • Who will be my designer? Whether it’s a large firm or a boutique outfit, you will want to know who your contact person will be.

  • Do you predict any problems with my planned project? If you’re dealing with a complicated site, a small budget or other complications, make sure the designer knows about it. How they respond to this information will tell you whether they’re the best option for your project.

  • What is the design process and construction timeline? Be sure the designer has the time to spend on your project and can get it finished in your timeline. Remember, the designer can account for the time they spend on design, but not for delays caused by you changing your mind, or a contractor’s scheduling problems.

  • What is the project output? Will you be able to view your project in 3D, or do they still use paper blueprints? A designer that uses more modern drafting techniques is also more likely to be flexible on construction techniques and material choices, which helps your bottom line.

  • What will the designer be responsible for, and what will I be responsible for? Designing a major remodel has a lot of moving parts. Make sure both of you are clear on the exact scope of work the designer will provide.

  • What is the design fee and its structure? Make sure you get a firm understanding of what the design fees are and what they’re based on, and the billing schedule. Be wary of a firm that asks for the total fees upfront. Most firms will bill based on phase of project. You can expect the architect to charge about 10% of the total project cost for design.

Different types of design fees

Architects’ fees vary widely, depending on the project, the local economy, and the architect’s experience and reputation. The typical design fee is about 10% of the total project cost. But fees can range in price, depending on the size and complexity of the job. Your best bet is to speak to several architects about the design fees for your specific project. And remember -- as with any important service, the cheapest quote is not always the best one.

Contract details

When you’ve decided on your designer, they’ll send you a contract to sign. The contract should detail out the scope of the work, the services the firm will provide, the project schedule, the fees for each phase, and when to pay them. The AIA has developed contracts that many firms use.

Make sure the fee you’re paying includes everything you’ll need. Some firms leave out the cost of drawing up plans, for which you’ll have to hire a separate modeler. Site surveys, 3-D modeling, and other services might incur additional costs – make sure everything is spelled out in black and white. Also, check to see how design revisions will affect the architect’s fee – sometimes additional revisions are an extra charge. A good designer will explain how their scope compares to another one’s, so you can be sure you’re comparing apples to apples.

The contract also clarifies who owns the plans—normally, it’s the design firm. That won’t be anything to worry about unless you and the firm stop working together before the project is finished. In that case, you’ll want to be sure that you have the right to modify the plans to complete the project with another architect.

I’ve Signed with an Architect. What Should I Expect?

Most residential architects follow a similar path when designing or remodeling homes. The following steps are typical.

  • Every bit of data that we collect in the previous stages helps us plan your project. So, for a remodel, we start right in the beginning with sophisticated technology to measure and make a 3D model of your existing building conditions - what your house looks like right now.

  • At the same time, we do a zoning study – this helps us understand what kinds of buildings the city allows for your neighborhood, and we make sure that your plans for your house fits inside those parameters. For projects of a bigger scale, like multifamily, we also calculate the cost-benefit ratio of what size building to build and other financial elements, in our feasibility study.

  • From there, we create the concept plans for how you want the house to look. These are very minimal, just enough for you to understand room layouts and flow.

  • Next is the permit set, required by the city in order to obtain a construction permit. The set normally includes floor plans, elevations, sections, and a site plan.

  • We sometimes also put out a construction set, which is the most highly detailed set of plans, with all the smallest details about how to construct and install elements of the space. This is important for projects with a lot of millwork, complicated fixture installations, custom built-ins, structural idiosyncrasies, etc.

  • Securing a Contractor. Once the plans are complete, the architect can help you hire the right contractor by speaking with those interested in the job and answering any questions they might have about the project. They may also recommend builders they’ve worked with, but ultimately, the choice is up to you.

  • Construction administration. As the project goes to construction, your architect should be available to answer questions, resolve design issues, create additional drawings if needed, and approve contractor payments. The job at this point is to make sure everything goes according to plan, and to help avoid major issues when they don’t.

Help your Architect Help You—and Save Money

After you’ve signed on with an architect, there are a few things you can do to make sure your project turns out just right.

  • Above all, be available. Check over drawings and material suggestions quickly.

  • Make up your mind. If you’re struggling to make a decision, tell your designer. They should have strategies and information to help you with a breakthrough.

  • Ask all your questions. The more you understand the design when it’s in progress, the less likely you’ll have an unpleasant surprise during construction.

  • See something, say something if there’s an aspect of the design you want to change. It’s much easier to do a double sink in the bathroom or move a closet when it’s on paper than after it’s been framed out.

Designers all agree that the more engaged their client is, the better their project results. Successful projects don’t just happen - you need to find the right person to help you bring your vision to life. It’s an investment not only in your property, but your happiness and satisfaction living there.

How Building Data Labs handles your project is by using our team of accomplished Architectural Designers and Modelers to help you make your vision into a reality. All the while, we take into consideration your local codes, zoning requirements, and specific municipal bylaws, and then hand the draft over to our network of local Registered Architects to calculate and stamp the plans. This helps keep your project cost effective, but still good quality and correct to code.

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