How to Know When You Really Need to Hire an Architect

The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Pro

Close-up of hand with pen sketching a custom kitchen
Architects Design for YOU. Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images

Do I need an architect for this? It's the right question to ask. Architects are licensed professionals. Like doctors and lawyers, they have completed university programs and lengthy internships, and they have passed a series of rigorous exams. Their training covers many areas, ranging from landscape design to structural engineering.

This diversity means that architects can see possibilities and find solutions to your special needs.

While a builder or a home designer may make some adaptations at your request, a good architect will anticipate your needs — even if you are not sure how to express them.

What Architects Do

For some projects, architects wear many hats. They may create the design, do the drafting, select the materials, and supervise the entire work process. Ideally, your architect will visit your building site and observe the direction of the sun, note the prevailing breezes, sketch the existing vegetation and contour lines, and anticipate the best views. For renovation projects, an architect not only knows what will structurally work, but will also appreciate symmetry and proportion — understanding how to make the parts of a building look like one, whole structure.

For other projects, the architect's role may be limited to drafting the blueprints. If you can find stock blueprints similar to your own dream house, you may be able to hire an architect to make alterations.

Changing an existing plan is always less expensive than designing a house from scratch.

Before drafting a design, a good architect will spend time talking with you and other members of your family. Like any other professional, the architect will get to know how you and your family live by asking a lot of questions:

  • Who will live in the house? What are their ages? Who might you be caring for in the near future? Do you want spaces to promote group or family activities, like watching television?
  • How important is an informal and formal dining room?
  • Do you like to give parties? How accessible should the kitchen be to groups?
  • Do you regard the bedroom as a sanctuary where you spend many daytime hours? Or, is the bedroom simply a place to sleep?
  • Do you need a private area for your computer? Or, would you prefer a centrally located media center where children can be supervised?
  • What bothers you about the house you're living in right now? And, what do you love about your current home?
  • Is your automobile part of the family?

Even if you are working within a tight budget, it does not make good economical sense to cut corners on design. Talented professionals will help you avoid costly mistakes — and can assure that the home you build is ideally suited for the way you live.

The Cost of an Architect

Unlike paying doctors' bills, architecture insurance does not exist.The services of a professional architect may add 8% to 15% to the final cost of building a new home. For smaller jobs, like specific remodeling projects, an hourly rate can be negotiated.

The architect will keep track of the "billable hours" and charge a professional rate that is usually based on the local economy — generally between $60 and $160 an hour. Remember that what an architectural firm charges per hour may not be what the architect personally earns, which is why a young Frank Lloyd Wright freelanced when he worked for architect Louis Sullivan.

Cost-Saving Options for Your New Home

The stunning homes you see in glossy magazines are almost always custom-designed by licensed architects. They are the unique creations of men and women with the skill and the know-how to explore new and unexpected possibilities. But, what if your own dreams are more modest? Must you hire an architect?

Maybe not. If your taste runs toward traditional, you may opt for one of these cost-saving alternatives.

1. Purchase a Stock Building Plan

Stock building plans are drawn by architects and home designers and mass marketed through magazines, catalogs, and websites.

Advantages: You can easily find stock plans for houses in a wide variety of sizes, styles, and budgets. If you are able to find a stock plan that works for you and your family, you can save the cost of hiring your own architect.

Disadvantages: The architect who designed your stock building plan has never met you and does not know your tastes and needs. Moreover, stock building plans cannot take into account the nature of your building lot or the climate in your region. Many people who purchase stock building plans eventually decide to hire an architect to make modifications.

2. Use a Production Home Builder

New homes in suburban housing developments are often constructed by production home builders. Production home builders have contracted with architects and designers to create plans suitable for the region and harmonious with other houses in the development. When you work with a production home builder, you must select one of the builder's (or developer's) offered plans. You then "customize" the plan by choosing exterior siding, light fixtures, types of windows, and other architectural features from a menu of options.

Advantages: Builders can work more quickly and more economically when they follow familiar, traditional plans with a finite line of construction materials. Since the plans are locally created, they will probably be suitable for the climate and the terrain.

Disadvantages: Your home will be assembled from a limited array of standard features. Although you may request some customization, your house will not be a custom home. It is likely to look very similar to many other houses in your development. Your builder may refuse or charge highly for any changes that are not on the established list of options. For example, planned communities like Celebration, Florida have limited house styles, house plans, house colors, and landscaping — which really doesn't matter if the offerings include your personal dream home.

3. Hire a Certified Professional Building Designer

Another cost-saving alternative is to hire a Certified Professional Building Designer (also known as a Home Designer) to design your new home. Home designers do not have the same level of education or the same licensing requirements as architects, and their fees are usually lower. Nevertheless, professional home designers maintain professional certificates which demonstrate that they have completed coursework and achieved experience in the field.

Advantages: Home designers specialize in private homes — not office buildings, shopping centers, or gas stations. For this reason, a home designer may actually have more experience designing houses than some licensed architects. A good home designer can create a customized home tailor-made for your family.

Disadvantages: Like builders and real estate developers, home designers tend to produce plans which are traditional. In general, home designers do not have the training to create especially complex or unusual designs.

If you have special needs, or if you desire a home that is truly unique, then you'll need to hire an architect.

Financing Your Project

Then there's the question of how you will pay for your project. If you don't have a chunk of cash, you may need to borrow money from a relative or a bank. The source of your funding may put stipulations on how you carry out your project, such as we won't give you any money unless you have plans endorsed by an architect. Then, yes, you need to hire an architect. Other people have tried "crowdsourcing" to raise funds. Alas, looking at the hopes of people who plead their cases on sites like gofundme.com shows that this is not a viable alternative — unless you're a Peace Corps volunteer in a developing country.