DO I NEED AN ARCHITECT?

Anyone who uses the title of “architect” or offers architectural services must be licensed by the state in which he or she is offering services. California defines architectural practice as “the planning of sites, and the design, in whole or in part, of buildings or groups of buildings and structures.” Architectural licensing laws may vary slightly by state, but states restrict the title and practice of architecture to licensed professionals.

Although it is generally recommended that you hire an architect for any project that requires a building permit and is larger than something you might take on yourself, you are not legally required to do so in all circumstances. First of all, in California and most states (consult your local building department) you may hire a registered civil or structural engineer in lieu of an architect. If your project requires architectural design or involves complex code or zoning issues, however, most engineers will advise you to bring an architect on board (just as most architects will advise you to hire an engineer if the structural issues rise above a certain level of complexity).

Secondly, certain building types do not require hiring an architect or engineer at all, HOWEVER, the local building department has the authority to override these exemptions. You should always consult your local building department before attempting to take on a project without a licensed architect or registered engineer.

In California (other states are similar, but you should consult with your local building department)certain types of buildings do not require licensed architects or engineers.


Work that does not require a licensed architect or registered engineer (from CA Architect Board “Consumer’s Guide to Hiring an Architect”)

  • single-family dwellings of conventional wood frame construction that are not more than two stories and basement in height.
  • multiple dwellings containing no more than four dwellings.
  • units that are of conventional wood frame construction, not more than two stories and basement in height, and not more than four dwelling units per lot.
  • garages or other structures added to dwellings of wood frame construction that are not more than two stories and basement in height.
  • agricultural and ranch buildings of wood frame construction, unless the building official deems that an undue risk to the public health, safety, or welfare is involved.
  • nonstructural or nonseismic storefronts, interior alterations or additions, fixtures, cabinetwork, furniture, or other appliances or equipment, including nonstructural work necessary to provide for their installation.
  • nonstructural or nonseismic alterations or additions to any building necessary for the installation of storefronts, interior alterations or additions, fixtures, cabinetwork, furniture, appliances, or equipment, provided those alterations do not change or affect the structural system or safety of the building.

  • For most building projects, however, the answer is “yes,” you must hire a licensed architect OR a registered engineer. And, even if your project fits one of the exclusions, you still might have to hire a licensed architect OR a registered engineer if your local building official determines that it is necessary for your project based on state laws as well as public health, safety, and welfare, local environmental and geographical conditions such as snow loads, winds, earthquake activity, tidal action, and soil conditions.

    If the law already states that you “must” hire a licensed architect, it may seem odd to discuss also why you “should,” but the advantages of working with an architect go far beyond simply complying with the law.

    Through education, training and experience, an architect is the one professional person who is equipped to guide you through the design, permitting and construction of your building or renovation project. Unlike other specialized professionals (that you may also need) such as structural engineers, mechanical engineers, geotechnical engineers, etc., an architect is actually trained to be a generalist, to see both the big picture and the fine details. No other professional on your team can to talk with you about space, light, building regulations and the strength of concrete with equal ease (often in the same sentence!). He or she will work with you to define your functional needs, your budget, schedule, the restrictions of your site, building code requirements, engineering requirements, and construction methods to create a building for you that is beautiful, strong and functional.

    Other professions solve problems with public policy, deductive reasoning, diagnosis, mathematics or composition. Almost unique among all professions, architects solve problems with geometry. Architects are three-dimensional problem solvers. You can find architects involved in the design of anything that can benefit from their unique skill set: cities, office towers, hospitals, schools, houses, interiors, furniture, or even dishes. It is the architect’s holistic approach to a design challenge that brings benefit to you.

    It may sound self-serving, but if you are already convinced that you should hire an architect for your project, it is in your best interest to do it as soon as possible after you have made the decision to build or remodel. A well planned project will be both cheaper for you and more successful in the long term. Based on his or her experience and extensive knowledge of local codes and building traditions, the architect can help you evaluate potential building sites, order your budget and priorities, and suggest creative ways of meeting your needs. Particularly in a highly regulated urban environment such as the San Francisco Bay Area, bringing an Architect into the team early will almost certainly save you time, money, and many problems during the building process.

    The services provided by the architect and his or her consultants can vary according to the project type and complexity, the client’s needs, the city’s permitting requirements, the way in which the contractor will be selected, and the budget. The contract between the owner and the client should clearly list what services the architect will provide as well as those which are excluded.

    Although the exact scope of services will vary according to the project, an architect’s services generally cover these six categories or phases. In some projects several of these steps may be combined or there may be additional ones.

    PROGRAMMING/DECIDING WHAT TO BUILD The owners and architect discuss the requirements for the project (how many rooms, the function, size and location of the spaces, etc.), refining the fit between the owner's needs and wants, and the constraints of the budget, site and local regulations. The output of this phase is usually a list or spreadsheet and possibly a number of diagrams.

    SCHEMATIC DESIGN The architect prepares a range of design concepts to satisfy the program requirements. Historically, this was done with a series of rough sketches and simple physical models, but DNM Architect generates simple three-dimensional computer models that can be explored and manipulated easily. Often working together at a computer screen or remotely though a web browser, this approach offers a more interactive and efficient environment for the architect and client to collaborate in real time. The output of this phase is a simple three-dimensional model that satisfies the program and captures the “best of” the various design concepts that were explored.

    DESIGN DEVELOPMENT/REFINING THE DESIGN Based on the accepted schematic design, the architect prepares a more detailed computer model to capture other aspects of the design and its initial structure. Floor plans and sections show all the rooms in correct size and shape. Outline specifications are prepared listing the major materials and room finishes. In reality, with the integration of three-dimensional computer modeling into architectural practice, there is hardly a clear line between schematic design and design development. The schematic design tends to evolve seamlessly into design development while basic design concepts remain open longer for exploration. The output of this phase is a robust computer model that captures the complete architectural design and from which plans, sections, elevations and 3D views can be generated for the client, other consultants and initial cost estimates. In residential projects, cost estimating is typically provided by prospective general contractors.

    PREPARATION OF CONSTRUCTION DOCUMENTS Based on the approved design and initial budget estimate, the architect prepares detailed drawings and specifications that will be required for the building permit and to establish actual construction cost and build the project. The architect also works with other consultants (mainly the structural engineer) to coordinate the design disciplines and avoid conflicts or other problems in the field. The drawings and specifications are the basis of the building permit and part of the building contract.

    HIRING THE CONTRACTOR The client, not the architect, selects and hires the contractor. In residential construction, the architect typically advises in the contractor selection, but the extent and timing of the advice varies. Frequently, the architect will recommend several contractors to the client and coordinate the preparation of proposals from each of them. The proposals often reveal that the project cost exceeds the budget or the schedule or there is some other issue, and the design and/or budget are adjusted. Based on the proposals and interviews, the client selects one contractor with whom he or she negotiates a final contract.

    CONSTRUCTION ADMINISTRATION Once the project is permitted and underway, additional questions are inevitable, as are fresh ideas, opportunities and unforeseen obstacles. The architect stays involved in the project throughout its construction on an as needed basis to assist the client in making sure that the project is built according to the plans and specifications. The architect can make site visits to observe construction, review and approve the contractor's applications for payment, respond to requests for information, and generally keep the client informed of the project's progress. The contractor, however, is solely responsible for construction methods, techniques, schedules, and procedures.


    The following services may be provided by the architect in a typical project:

  • Building code analysis
  • Building program review
  • Conceptual design
  • Design development
  • Civil engineering
  • Structural engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Working drawings
  • Specifications
  • Bidding Management
  • Periodic construction observation
  • Shop drawing review
  • Project close out

  • In addition, an architect may provide one or more of the following services:

  • Detailed functional programs
  • Site selection assistance
  • Feasibility studies
  • Building inspection and evaluation
  • Measured drawings
  • Environmental impact studies
  • Landscape architecture
  • Interior design
  • Facilities management
  • Perspective rendering
  • Finished presentation models
  • Computer drawing database
  • Construction management
  • Full time construction representation
  • Post construction use evaluation
  • Cost Estimation
  • Hiring an architect is expensive, but not as expensive as not hiring an architect. By helping you anticipate, evaluate and solve problems before they become built problems, the up front cost of an architect can pay for itself many times over.

    As a very general guideline, an architect’s fees can range from 8% to 12% of the construction cost of a new custom home. Without understanding what an architect does, this sounds like a lot of money, but think of it this way. Thirty percent of your project budget may be spent on construction materials, 8% on pipes and wires, 15% on various finishes and another 8-10% to keep you warm and cool. But, the organization of space and light to deliver function and joy, while also complying with the laws of the governments and the laws of physics, AND a complete set of instructions to build that functional space and light within your budget and schedule – all of the qualities that you will most enjoy for years or decades - this, costs only about 1/10th of your total budget. The other 90% is the manifestation of the first 10%.

    Architects can be paid using several different formula, such as

  • A percentage of construction cost
  • An hourly rate, with or without a maximum cap
  • A lump sum
  • A lump sum plus expenses
  • Unit pricing based on the area of the home

  • The fee structure is often based on the architect’s experiences, local tradition, requirements of lenders, and the priorities of the client. There is no right or wrong to any of these approaches, as any good business relationship is fundamentally based on trust and the integrity of each party.

    DNM Architect has found over time that a fee structure based on hourly rates with a maximum guaranteed total fee (for work within the defined project scope) provides the fairest and best balance of flexibility to absorb the inevitable unknowns of a design process with the security for the client to manage his or her budget. Historically, our total fees for design through construction documents and obtaining building permits range between 6% - 8% for a new custom home. A smaller remodeling project will almost always be higher because of its relative complexity compared to its construction budget. Once the project is permitted and underway, we charge an hourly rate for our construction administration services. The needs of our clients during construction vary widely. We have been involved in very successful projects with almost no services during this phase as well as other great projects where our fees after permitting exceeded the fees before it.

    If you have a fairly clear idea of your project and the intention to hire an architect, please contact us for a fee proposal tailored to you. There is no charge for that.

    Architectural firms come in many sizes and types, and they are not all appropriate for you and your project. The average firm is made up of 5 to 10 people, but many are smaller (1 to 2 people), and some have over 100 architects on their staff. Some firms specialize in one or more project types, others do not. Some have structural, mechanical or electrical engineers on their staff, while others select the consultant most appropriate to work for them for each specific project. Each architectural firm brings a different combination of skills, experience, interest, and values to its projects.

    The first challenge is typically to identify a list of potential architects. The reality of the architecture business is that firms cannot spend much on marketing themselves so you may not even be aware of the firms that are around you. The architect of your wife’s friend’s kitchen or you child’s pre-school may, or may not, be the best choice you.

    Ask friends and colleagues who have worked with architects for referrals. Use Google (you will anyway), and check out listing services that feature design that you like such as Houzz.com. You may be able to research who designed a home you like by looking up its address on the permit section of your city’s building department website (San Francisco Building Department). Consult your local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (San Francisco AIA) for member firms that specialize in your type of project.


    Questions for your prospective architect

  • What do you see as important issues or considerations in my project?
  • What are the challenges of the project?
  • How will you approach my project? What are the first steps?
  • What is your design philosophy, and how will it apply to my project?
  • How much time should I budget for the design phase and obtaining a permit?
  • How will you gather information about my needs, goals, etc.?
  • How will you help me establish priorities and make decisions?
  • What is your process for taking my project from our first meetings through construction?
  • Who from your firm will be dealing with me? Is that the same person who will be designing the project?
  • Who will be designing my project?
  • How busy are you? How many projects do you typically carry and how many do you have now?
  • What sets you apart from other architects?
  • What would you expect the fee to be for this project? What is included and what is excluded?
  • If the project scope changes, will there be additional fees? How will the fees be justified?
  • How do you handle incidental charges and mark-ups for expenses?
  • What does your typical contract look like? Does it follow the AIA contract form or another?
  • What do you expect me to provide?
  • What will you show me to explain the project? Will you produce 3D renderings, models, drawings, sketches?
  • What services do you provide during construction?
  • How disruptive will construction be? How long do you expect it to take to complete my project?
  • Can you provide a list of past clients that your firm has worked with?

  • Contact architects that you feel may fit your needs and ask them to describe how they would approach your kind of project and what experience they have with similar projects. Select one to three Architects to interview and visit their offices. Discuss fees and schedules as well as their design philosophies and the scope of work. Successful projects only happen when architects and clients form positive relationships with each other. It will be a long road, and you are trying to determine your compatibility to work together throughout the project. Thoughtful architects are as careful in selecting clients as owners are in selecting architects.

    Your final selection should be a professional who you trust and feel good about and not necessarily the least (or most) expensive. Understandably, fees are an important part of your budget, but the architect’s total fees will probably not amount to more than 12% of the total project while the difference between the lowest and highest fees among will be only a fraction of that. Fees should – and can – be negotiated within reason, but you risk being “penny wise and pound foolish” if your selection is based solely or primarily on fees.

    First, get everything in writing. In California, an architect is required to have a written agreement with you if you are a first time client. Hopefully the architect you select uses a standard AIA contract or reasonably close version of it that has been vetted by an attorney. The contract should include a brief description of the project, a list of the services to be provided by the architect within the contract as well as services that are excluded, and the fee basis. Most architects will require a fee retainer, and this should be included in the contract.

    The architect should typically layout a schedule and the next steps. These vary according to the project. It may be that the architect requires you to assemble more information, or that as-built drawings need to be produced, or that a feasibility study be prepared. This is the input phase when as much data as possible is collected. The design output phase comes a little bit later.

    There is no single style to working with an architect, and hopefully you chose an architect who matches your own style. DNM Architect is adept at building project web sites and using technology to communicate with clients through the web. This save both parties a lot of time and money and permits the client to share the design progress with family, friends and other members of the design team. As in all relationships, open communication is the key, whether it be by email, phone or in person, and we take pride in how we make ourselves and all of the project information available at all times.