The answer depends on whether you plan to arbid your project out to multiple contractors or to work with a design-build firm, where an architect and a contractor are paired together from the start.
“If you're going to ask contractors to bid on your project, the first person you need to engage is the architect,” says Fraser Patterson, a former general contractor and the founder of Bolster, a 4-year-old NYC-based company that matches homeowners to reliable contractors and architects, simplifies the bidding process, and financially guarantees the success of each project. “An experienced and reliable architect will almost always add tremendous value to your project, as they are literally trained how to think about your space and optimize it in ways a contractor is not.”
That said, hiring both the architect and contractor at the same time—typically accomplished in one fell swoop by hiring a design-build firm—can save significant time and money: Statistically, according to Fraser, homeowners save 6 percent on their renovations by having architects and contractors work together using the traditional design-and-build model, and their projects are delivered start-to-finish 33 percent faster, and actually built 12 percent faster.
"Moreover, using Bolster, renovators save on average 5 percent on the value of their project. On a $400,000 project, that's a $19,200 savings," Fraser says. "The reason it's faster and less costly is that if an architect works together with a good contractor—and their subcontractors—they will together be able to propose best-value solutions to make the project cheaper, faster and easier to build before the design is complete."
"Also, he says, "by the time a contractor receives a final set of drawings for the first time, there can be a lot of pressure to produce a bid. This steep learning curve under time pressure often means less diligence by the contractor and their subcontractors, and less analysis of the bids by the architect, the effects of which often materialize during construction in the form of cost increases and time delays. So the earlier you have a competent contractor, the better quality your project will be.”
Two technical brains are better than one, and if they come from different specialties (i.e. construction and design), this is more productive for the homeowner.
"Bolster has found that contractor's involvement in a project early on almost always results in value added for renovators," Fraser says. "The contractor is more vested in the project and also gets to understand the drivers of the homeowners in more detail. Having the right threshold when it comes to a design budget can also significantly improve the savings."
Here are some more tips from Bolster on the value of a good architect—and how to pick one.
While an architect's fees—which typically range from 10 to 20 percent of the total project's costs—add significant expenses to a renovation budget, the investment will pay off in the quality of your renovation and your quality of life afterward.
“There are universal design principles that architects are trained in to help people understand the life cycle of the home, and how to design now so that you don't have to redesign every few years,” Fraser says. Unlike contractors, for instance, architects start by considering how you use your space and move within it. For example, how does your family interact at home at different times of the day? Do you plan to have children and how will they utilize the space as they grow, or will they be leaving for college soon?
A good architect also has the kind of eye for details that you might expect of an interior designer.
“They're able to spot nice tile and a nice lamp and know if they go together,” Fraser says. “They can synthesize lots of different products into a whole that serves the home and serves you."
It is also highly likely that you have to use an architect, unless you are doing a cosmetic renovation only.
Choosing an architect is more like choosing whom you are going to marry than whom you will go on a date with.
"You will work together on important and intimate aspects of your lifestyle and you certainly want to be in tune with them, so don't overlook personality," Fraser says, "as you'll likely be spending plenty of time with him or her."
An architect's aesthetic is also a major consideration. That said, when looking at an architect's portfolio, keep in mind you are seeing what other homeowners told the architect to do. To get a sense of who the architect really is, their style and vision, ask to see images that reflect their own ideas.
An architect's business acumen should also be among the criteria for hiring. Fraser says that one of homeowners' most common complaints about architects is that budget isn't a top priority.
“I always recommend that homeowners put additional standard language from the AIA B101 contract into the architect's agreement that requires the architect to take responsibility for evaluating the cost of the work, reviewing different procurement, delivery, and material options, and reporting back any inconsistencies,” Fraser says. “It should also be clear what constitutes additional work for the architect, so both parties know up front what to expect.”
Your architect agreement should also include value engineering services: After schematics and design development, your architect should do one or two more iterations that further customize your design to better fit your budget.
Be sure to hire a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), as membership requires architects to adhere to a code of ethics and to take continuing education courses.
If you have additional priorities, such as sustainability, you'll want to find a LEED-certified architect. You'll also want to select an architect who is comfortable collaborating with a contractor and open to receiving technical suggestions from them while establishing the right balance on leading when it comes to design.