An honest guide to find the right architect for you
avoiding frauds and incompetence.
So, you decided that you need an Architect and that is awesome. How to you look for one and how do you choose?
There is a great offer of architectural services for every taste and need, but most people do not have the technical background or experience to easily discern if they are competent or good for them.
It aches when I see people commit to professionals which are not worth of that name: it leads to the client disappointment, deprives competent architects of good money (it is a tough market) and makes a bad reputation for the profession.
In this short article we try to give some basic guideline to navigate in this scenery and be happy with your choices.
Visualize your needs
Generally, the first step on the road to satisfaction is understanding what you want, before searching for it.
Be aware that in life you always have to make compromises and you need to prioritize. The most common situation when evaluating any offer, is the triple constraints paradigm. Imagine a triangle, give every corner a propriety (usually quality, time and price): you can only stay on a face that unites two corners and automatically you will have to discard the third one. Better said: you cannot have everything and if you are looking for something cheap you will end sacrificing quickness or quality. If you try falling in the middle area of the triangle, you will end making small compromises on all three proprieties: there is no bad decision just be aware of what you choose.
Define your limits: what would your deadline be? How much involvement do you want in the development (discuss and oversee every step or just evaluate results at defined milestones)? How much money do you want to invest (always think about it like an investment, and not just a cost)?
Try defining the quality of service you are looking for with a no longer than five points description.
Let’s make an example: I would like to have an interior design project (1) that focuses on sustainability and the environment (2). I am looking for a cosy (or minimalistic or baroque or whatever) atmosphere (3) and I would like to have it ready for that time of the year (4) and the architect should be able to coordinate everything up to the realization (5) or in another case just deliver a design plan, blueprints for the woodworker (or whatever else).
Now you are already good to go. Open your door or web-browser and start the search.
Navigating the market
Nowadays there is a broad offer of everything, sometimes too much, so much that even afterwards, you often wonder if you shouldn’t have chosen something/someone else, leaving you with that aftertaste of dissatisfaction and doubt: could I have gotten a better deal?
Architecture is no exception: the overall density of architects across Europe is roughly 1 architect per 1.000 population with interesting spikes in Italy (2,6), Germany (1,3) and Portugal (2,1). To give a comparison France and the UK have 0,5 architects per 1.000 population (but they can still make buildings too…).
There are many open networks for the consumer to choose from (like Fiverr, Houzz and so on, also local based). The problem with some of those is that the assistance and support provided could be a little underwhelming compared to you needs. If you need very basic things, like inspiration for a makeover or some quick visualisation of different mainstream moods and styles, it could be the way to go, but there are of course limitations: do not expect to be able to make many requests, have a great freedom in changes and personalization, or receive a lot of assistance along the way. They are cheap though. I do not want to generalize (on Houzz you can find some good offers too), but my word of advice is to look very thoroughly what you are agreeing to and what you will get for that price and just be aware that many of them do not offer any certification, quality guarantee or professional acknowledgment to rely on. Just choose carefully, or you will find yourself throwing away money and time, instead of saving them.
/Professional colleges and boards
Architects are always organized into professional orders and those entities can also be a system of connection with the clients. Look up to those opportunities on their websites or use them to inform yourself about the best way to contact the right professional for you.
There are also different groups around which architects organize themselves, often based on different themes in the profession: the Passivhouse Institute, themed exhibitions like for interior design, lighting, acoustic, or some local groups for specific cities or geographical areas.
/Word of mouth
What’s better than a recommendation from someone you know? Right? Yes and also, no: even if it narrows the choice a lot and gives you some guarantee that you will get similar results as the person who already worked with them, you have to be careful and consider some downsides.
Even with a recommendation you should not overlook key features of these business relationship, like a good contract, well detailed drawings and proof of the right skillset for the job. Not all projects are the same, and what was all right for your acquaintance could be not enough for you.
Then consider that being tied by a too-friendly relationship can be a constraint that hinder your ability to complain or making some requests, especially if you are offering a (real or fake) special price for the job.
/Browse the web
Sometimes took for granted, the internet is a powerful tool, if used right: it is a great way for firms and professional to present themselves and give already many information about what they can do, shaping your opinion and helping you in finding what you want.
A modern, professional website is a very good start for your search, that reveals an active and up to date professional, who is inclined to maintain or build a good reputation and put some effort into that.
Look for ways to validate if they are up to the task of delivering the services they offer, searching for certifications, client recommendations, reviews and portfolios.
If you are looking for a specific feature in your project, or you want to validate the authenticity of a service offered you should ask for certifications.
When you are presented a product or a service by your architect, ask for a certified proof of its properties or origins, in the same way when you buy a car or an appliance by yourself.
When an architectural firm claims that they can make super-sustainable houses, look for actual certifications of their skillset or experience in that type of projects, because slogans are easily just a façade with nothing to back it up.
Those certifications are not easy to obtain, and who actually has them, will be advertising it for sure.
Beware of restrictions and lack of flexibility
You could realize (sometimes when it is too late) that the professional you choose is very unwilling to accommodate your requests and optimize the project to your evolving understanding of your needs (defining an architectural project is a reiterating process and not a fixed idea that you carve in stone at the start).
If your designer or architect is throwing too many don’t-s and can’t do-s at you, or if he is very evasive and generic in justifying why you have to do things in a certain way, ask yourself if you are willing to continue compromising with that line of work, or maybe look for a better option before it is too late. Remember how often people ask for a second opinion in the medical field and make here no exception. You will most likely have to live with your choices for some time, so be considerate and don’t fall into traps.
To avoid these situations, discuss thoroughly your agreement before the start, ask for a clear contract that gives you some decisional freedom and moments to adjust the direction of the project, in order to protect you and guarantee the best results for your investment.
The best way to do so is by signing a contract. One of the big benefits of working with an architect or an architectural firm, is that you can easily obtain this beautiful piece of paper that helps defining all aspects of the project: content, deadlines, insurance, goals, any sort of condition and agreement. The best part is, that the contract is a flexible document, which you both can arrange and suit to your needs. Therefore, there are many types of contracts, but worth pointing out in this context are Turn-Key contracts and Step-by-Step contracts: the first guarantees that as a client, you will have to deal only with one party, and that the architect will be responsible of managing all the steps and people to deliver the highest quality design, from the concept to the end product; the second allows a lot of flexibility and it is perfect to build a trustful relationship, dividing the project in smaller steps and goals to achieve before adventuring in the next phase.
Most contractors in the business of interior architecture are used to work just with offers and estimates, which are fine, but do not offer anything near the legal protection and transparency of a contract. It clarify expectations, avoids surprises, eliminates uncertainties, and resolve conflicts.
It is a must.
Detailed design and drawings
In architecture, drawings are integrated part of the contract, and if they are missing or generic is a big liability. Demand them.
Drawings are a document of your agreements and gradual modifications. They provide a visualization of the new reality and a universal system of communication, for you, the designer, and all contractors. If they are lacking information, you have less control of what will be realized, and they open a door for interpretation or misunderstanding.
They are an important support for thinking, planning, finding problems and solutions. No human mind can fully visualize a space of mid complexity (who’s not a box with an entrance) just in his head: you need a visual support, a vehicle to describe and anticipate this reality. An architect that does not draw in enough detail, is an architect that does not think.
Floor plans alone are not enough (unless you are a two dimensional being). Think about it: you have far more interaction with what is in front of you, that what lies on the floor in another room. Ask for sections, elevations, details, product sheets, material samples. Drawings must be easy to comprehend and should not need further explanations. If it is not on paper and not singed, it is not reliable, legitimate and you don’t know how it will look like.
Ask for estimates. Three is the magical number, a good compromise between freedom of choice and research effort.
Do not choose just based on the price, but on the actual performance: ask for detailed descriptions and if an offer is lacking some features important to you, ask it can be integrated and ne new cost.
Eventually ask more than one professional for concepts and feasibility studies, especially for complex or business-related projects, or in case you are not sure of your first option: it could make all the difference.
Hopefully this was and helpful start for one or some of your projects. Remember that transparency is always a sign for good professionalism, that quality (unfortunately) is never cheap, and that good design does not avoid competition: compare, ask, inquiry, verify.