Articles by Eden Greig Muir, Architect



The Art of Choosing a (21st-century) Architect


Eden Muir

This article assumes that you have already decided to hire an architect for your residential renovation or new construction project. Experienced architects can help you get the most from your construction dollar by working with you to develop a custom-tailored solution that addresses your project's particular spatial, structural, environmental and aesthetic challenges. Increasingly, municipalities are requiring an architect's seal on residential blueprints, especially for larger homes, or for residences that fall within a historic district. Check with your local building department to see if they require drawings to be stamped by an architect with professional registration in your state.


So you've decided you need an architect! Now what?

The best way to find any professional may be good old fashioned word-of-mouth, but how do you locate a good architect if you don't have any leads or enthusiastic recommendations from friends, real estate agents or local builders?

Fortunately, there are new web-based search technologies and professional-services directories that can help you in your quest. Also, more and more architects are adopting web marketing strategies that make it easier for you to discover them and learn more about their work. These two factors combine to create entirely new strategies for finding the right architect for your project.

The traditional search for professional services began with the phone book, but if you browse your local yellow pages under the heading "Architects" you will see an immediate problem. The Plattsburgh listings, for example, include more than 20 firms. Burlington's yellow pages list more than 60. Often the listings do not indicate whether the firm specializes in commercial, institutional or residential design. You could spend days calling architects and you still would not have seen their work! And the yellow pages probably do not list many highly qualified architects who are located some distance away but occasionally do residential work in your area.

The Internet to the rescue!

The web is the place to start your search. Most architecture firms had to computerize over the last decade in order to stay competitive. With the rise of computer-aided design (CAD) and digital photography, most architects have been immersed in digital design and presentation technologies and have proceeded to the next logical step: online documentaion and promotion of their firms. On a typical site you can read about the firm's design philosophy and review images from their design portfolio. Some will provide client lists, helpful advice, and press clippings as well as photos and bios of the firm's employees. But finding those web sites is not always easy, especially of you do not have an architect's name as a starting point in your search.

Chamber of commerce sites sometimes provide a listing of local architects. For example, www.northcountrychamber.com lists 8 architecture firms. However, these are mostly large firms, and some of them are based in Albany, New York City or Montreal. A short text description lets you know the size of the firm and what kind of work they do. One firm, AES Northeast, offered this important rational for hiring locally: "We optimize our effectiveness by intentionally staying a regional firm that is familiar with local conditions, local governing administrators and local contractors." Another simple reason for preferring a local architect: you will need to spend a lot of time with the designers to make sure they understand your needs and to review the design as it evolves. However, this web site listed very few of the smaller local firms that specialize in residential work, and none of the listings included web links to the architects' sites--a waste of the hyper-linking potential of the web.

Googling for Architects

With the help of a search engine such as AskJeeves.com or Google.com you can go a little further, but it will require some creativity. For example, a recent search using the keywords Architects and Lake Placid brought up 2,130 listings. The first of those was LakeChamplain.com, a web registry from which only one useful link was easily extracted: www.timmccarthyarchitect.com. His site could not be called slick, but it has a lot of information, photos and computer-generated renderings of recent projects.

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Using the web to find an architect can be fun and fruitful, if you know how to search.

Searching again with "Lake Placid" in quotation marks eliminated listings that included just one of those words and narrowed the Google search to 766 listings, still an unwieldy number. Searching for "residential architect" "lake placid" resulted in just 3 listings, including www.prescreened-architects.com which offered the names and phone numbers, but not web addresses, of five local architects. Not bad for a quick web search, but we still hadn't been able to click to a photo gallery of their work. Several other online professional directories were revealed along the way, such as www.architectsusa.com which listed 4 Plattsburgh firms, as well as some sponsored links (paid advertisements) by companies that sell blueprints from pre-designed home catalogs. Follow these links at your peril; most led to incomplete or outdated directories that listed very few local architecture firms.

Going to the source, the AIA web site

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is a professional organization with more than 300 local chapters nationwide. Registered architects are not required to join the AIA, but AIA members tend to be current with professional standards through continuing education courses, and they subscribe to a code of ethics and professional conduct. One excellent reason for architects to join is that part of the AIA mission is to provide assistance to the public in the selection of an architect. And the AIA appreciates the power of the web.

Using the "Find An Architect" page at AIA.org, a search for "Residential, single-family" brought up 12 AIA members within 100 miles of zip code 05488 (Swanton VT) with phone numbers and addresses. 6 of these offered clickable links to their web sites. Finally, a useful, up to date directory of local architects! With a few clicks of the mouse you can begin to get to know their work. Should you resist the temptation to judge the architects by their web sites? Not at all! You are reviewing the work of professional designers who should understand the importance of the web in 21st-century marketing. What is more, clients depend on their architect's powers of presentation and persuasion throughout the design and construction process, in dealing with contractors, inspectors, local review boards, and so on. Simply put, you need an architect who communicates effectively in all media.

The six web sites found in this search were all very different, but quite effective in their own ways:

  • The small Vermont firm of E. H. Danson Associates offers one of the best web sites in this group, with snappy graphics and online tours of recent projects. (www.ehdanson.com)
  • Selin & Selin introduce themselves with thoughtful musings about a building having "good bones" and Churchill's aphorism: "We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us." (www.selinandselin.com)
  • A Newport VT firm, Mark G. Stewart Architects, displays sketches, watercolors and photos at www.mgsarchitects.com.
  • The simple but elegant site by Robson Bilgen Architects shows numerous residential projects and waxes poetic: "One of the most basic human goals is a shelter that is imprinted with our beliefs and connected to our dreams. This, then, is our home." (www.robsonbilgen.com)
  • The Ramsay Gourd Architects site displays thumbnail images of many residential projects across the top of the page as a quick interface to a large, well photographed residential portfolio. In a phone call, Gourd estimated that 70% of his business came from word of mouth, but said that he was seeing an increase in the number of calls generated by his web site. (www.ramsaygourdarchitects.com)
  • Once you get past the slow-loading animated effects, five private home designs are presented with a spare elegance at www.truexcullins.com.
  • The Graham Goldsmith site introduces the firm with bios and a group photo and documents 30 residential projects. (www.jggarchitects.com)

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You can search for local architects at the American Institute of Architects site, AIA.org.

Thanks to the AIA.org site, our web quest has led us to a listing of consistently interesting, high-quality online design portfolios of local residential architects. It is now a simple matter to print out the most interesting mission statements, biographies and photographs, or to bookmark the pages for later review. You have, in effect, collected the most up to date color brochures from your architectural candidates.

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The RobsonBilgen.com site offers an extensive photo gallery and notes on site planning, construction costs and alternative energy issues.

Creating your short list of architectural candidates...

You might be inclined to favor those architects whose web sites are well designed, easy to navigate and rich in useful information. And why not; do you want hire a firm that allows its official site to project disorder and lack of attention to detail? These sites may have been created by outside web-design professionals, or cobbled together in-house by the office whiz kid. Either way, the architect is ultimately responsible for what the web-surfing public sees.

Look carefully at the photos of recent projects: does the architect appear to have a sensitive eye for the local context and climate? Do you like the sense of style and use of color and materials? Does the architect display handsome interior spaces as well as exterior views? Does the web page demonstrate excellent communication skills and respect for the future customer's need for real information about the architect? Or is it a superficial glossy treatment cooked up by a web designer with little appreciation for the art and business of architecture.

Are there links to testimonials, reviews and profiles in local papers? Is there a photo portrait of a friendly and creative design team that exudes a sense of pride in the firm's work. Does the site offer a mission statement or quotes that provide some insight into the philosophy and artistic nature of the designer that you may end up hiring to reshape your home (and life!).

It may seem unfair to judge architects by their web sites, but 21st-century designers are specifically trained to persuade through design and presentation techniques which are now largely digital. Their web sites provide a window into their practice, and offer potential clients a useful tool as they begin their search for the right architect.

In future columns we'll discuss strategies for contacting and interviewing the architects on your short list, as well as ways to work effectively with the architect that you decide to hire.

Web sites listed in this article include:

  • www.northcountrychamber.com
  • www.askjeeves.jpg
  • www.google.com
  • www.prescreened-architects.com
  • www.architectsusa.com
  • www.timmccarthyarchitect.com
  • www.aia.org
  • www.ehdanson.com
  • www.robsonbilgen.com
  • www.mgsarchitects.com
  • www.ramsaygourdarchitects.com
  • www.truexcullins.com
  • www.jggarchitects.com

© Copyright Eden Muir 2004

Architect Eden Muir, AIA, has been licensed in New York State since 1991. He taught for 17 years at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture and is the author of 3 books on topics related to 3D design and digital technology, all available at www.Amazon.com. He can be reached via his web site www.AtelierMuir.com or by email: edenmuir@yahoo.ca.

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