Using an Architect
Perhaps you recognize the name of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America’s greatest architects of the past. Or maybe you’ve heard of that other Frank — Frank Gehry, one of today’s hottest architects. But do you really know what an architect does? Or how to use one? Then let this architect explain it all.
An architect is one who designs and supervises the construction of buildings. In fact, throughout most sizable cities and towns across the country, it is embodied in law; an architect (or perhaps, in few select instances, an engineer) MUST prepare and oversee the construction documents required to obtain building permits for a whole host of structures, from ballet studios to banks, houses to hotels, dorms to detention facilities, museums to malls, office buildings to airports. It is also embodied in most states’ laws that architects must be licensed, or registered to practice architecture within the state. State licensure usually requires not only a recognized college degree in architecture, but also rigorous testing for final license certification, and then continuing education throughout succeeding years to maintain licensure.
Architects must be knowledgeable in a great many areas of expertise, for architects are considered the ‘master builders’ insuring the successful completion of all aspects of a building. They typically oversee all of the other professionals involved in creating finished structures: 1) civil engineers, who often have specific responsibility for grading, drainage, site utilities, roads, walks and earthworks; 2) building structural engineers, who design retaining walls, foundations, footings, structural frames, towers, bridges, and any significant load-bearing components; 3) building mechanical engineers, who develop heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, plumbing and potable water systems, fire protection, and building utilities; 4) building electrical engineers, responsible for power and lighting systems, daylighting, telecommunications, TV and data cabling, and emergency power and alarm systems; and 5) interior designers, who determine interior fixtures, appliances, furnishings, finishes, colors, and accessories. Highly sophisticated structures or developments may also require the involvement of still more professionals under the architect’s purview: traffic engineers, environmentalists, arborists, acousticians, hazardous material specialists, urban planners, space planners, lighting consultants, sign and graphic designers, artists, muralists, restoration specialists, energy consultants, etc. As our society becomes more complex and challenging, with climate change, increasingly limited material resources, demand for energy-efficiency, explosions of wired and wireless and voice communication, and changing work and lifestyle habits, architects are more essential than ever.
It is therefore important when using an architect to obtain the most knowledgeable and capable architect one can. And, since architects, like many professionals, tend to specialize, you may want to seek an architect with substantial experience in just what you are planning to build. Residential architects design homes, apartments and condos, while retail architects focus on stores, shops, malls and lifestyle centers, and so on. You can look to your local directories, online searches, referrals from friends and family, architect websites, the local Better Business Bureau, and local chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for recommendations. And don’t be afraid to interview a number of architects before settling on your choice. You will be placing great trust in your architect and his or her skills, and you must develop a comfort level, a rapport and a clear channel of communication.
Architects must insure that whatever they design complies with all applicable codes and regulations. In most regions of the country, there is in force a state or local building code governing all aspects of a structure’s construction. Some areas have a specific Residential or Dwelling Code that focuses on homes, apartments, condos, etc. Most areas also mandate compliance with a local Fire Code and/or a Life Safety Code; these obviously govern issues of flammability, safety, alarms, handicapped accessibility, and so on. Local zoning codes may specify such parameters as permitted building types or uses, minimum lot width and area, maximum site coverage by structures and/or paving, minimum setbacks from roads and property lines, minimum landscape requirements, sight grading and drainage restrictions, even permissible tree removal. There may also be specific local ordinances or regulations dealing with such issues as parking, driveways, curb cuts, fences, landscaping, backyard firepits or grills, accessory structures (garages, sheds), animals, dumpsters, noise, vermin, property maintenance, and construction equipment access.
How much does an architect cost? Well, that varies widely, as you might expect, since the expertise required for the task at hand might vary just as widely. An architect designing a modest 2,100 square foot single family home on a small suburban lot will not require the same knowledge, experience or support of other professionals as will an architect designing a cardiac-care wing for a local hospital in an urban setting. Historically, across the nation and across all building types, architectural fees have ranged from as little as 1-2% to as much as 15-20% or more of the eventual total construction or development cost of the structure involved. For the design of a single-family home, one might expect architectural fees to range either side of about 7%-8% of the total construction cost of the home. Considering that realty agents may collect 7% of the cost of a home just for aiding in its sales transaction, 7%-8% or more paid to the home’s architect is a bargain, considering all the technical, safety and aesthetic issues under the architect’s control and responsibility.
But there are ways you can hold down the eventual cost of an architect, while insuring that your joint effort is a success. The first is to educate yourself. The more you know about the coming challenge of designing and constructing your structure, the less your architect will have to educate you, and the faster you’ll be able to communicate effectively. There are numerous sources available at your local library and online that can educate and prepare you. Learn how to read and understand building plans and construction drawings, so you can better comprehend what your architect creates. The second is to think and plan, long and hard, about what you want built before setting your architect loose. Visit and view and photograph other buildings that resemble what you seek. Scan library and online and bookstore and magazine sources for the deck you love, the kitchen you want, or the office condo you’re looking for. Start your own sourcebook: gather color and material swatches, window catalogs, appliance spec sheets, garden photos, homebuilder brochures, anything that might help you narrow the many choices you’ll face. Third, respect your architect’s time. Make your decisions early and in a timely manner, so that your architect isn’t doing, redoing, and redoing yet again the tasks of design, layout and detailing. Don’t burden your architect with details inconsequential to his tasks; whether the walls are delft blue or indigo need not affect their locations. Fourth, trust your architect for his or her depth of knowledge and experience. You may not be sure of the optimal size of a dining alcove, but your architect probably is. Fifth , if there's anything you don't understand or are unsure of, ask questions. Any truly effective architect should welcome questions. Only through meaningful and productive give and take can you together create the building of your dreams. (And, speaking of dreams, note the visions at rickzworld.)
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