Articles by Eden Greig Muir, Architect

You’re the boss! Interviewing and selecting your architect

Eden Muir

Last week’s article discussed web-based strategies for assembling a "short list" of architectural candidates for your residential renovation or new construction project. This week we’ll talk about contacting and interviewing the architects. This process takes some time, but it is essential. As the American Institute of Architects (AIA) puts it, you need to "choose your Architect at least as carefully as you would your dentist or doctor."

The web has provided you with the online color brochures of several local architectural candidates whose work you find interesting; now it’s time to use that other great electronic communications technology, the telephone. Place a call to each of the candidates asking them to set up a convenient time to discuss your project. If they offer to meet with you face to face right away, so much the better, but a phone call will also do for now. Let them know right away that you have looked at their web site, that you are speaking with several architects and mention your general time frame. For example, you hope to hire an architect in the next month and start building in October. Some may tell you that they are overbooked and could not take on your project right away. You might ask them to recommend another firm. Good architects are always busy, especially now as people’s thoughts turn to summer projects. Try to interview them anyway, just in case you decide that they are absolutely the right firm for you, and are worth waiting for.

Over the phone, you will at least get a general impression of the architect’s manner and his or her approach to a new client. In an in-depth phone conversation you may even get a glimpse of the possible creative chemistry that could develop between designer and client. Be methodical: Prepare for the interviews by creating a score card so that you can take notes and compare the architects later. Here are five things to look for:

1. Does the architect make sufficient time for you and is he or she a good listener? Unless you are looking for a design prima donna to lecture you on how you should live, you need someone who will listen carefully and understand your needs and dreams for your home. You want an architect who is rightfully proud of his work, but sufficiently down-to-earth to appreciate that you are paying the bills, i.e., that you are the boss.

2. Does the architect convey a sense of pride in his or her work? Is he eager provide references and testimonials? The architect should offer to show you photos and plans of projects that compare in scope with your own. And it can be especially useful to visit some older projects to see how they are holding up after a few years.

CAPTION: The architect should direct you to some older projects of a similar type and scale so that you can see how his work is holding up with time.

3. Is the architect forthcoming and straightforward in discussing design fees? If not, there may be confusion later on, and that's the last thing you need when the building is going up. Fees are usually set up in one of three ways, depending on the scale of the project and scope of the service: fixed fees; hourly rates which can vary from $50 to $100 or more; or fees based on a percentage of construction costs which can range from 6% to over 15%. Each approach has pros and cons. Sometimes a combination is appropriate. For example, preliminary design work could be done on an hourly basis followed by a fixed fee for the production of the working drawings. In any case, your architect must be able to present and explain his approach to your satisfaction.

CAPTION: Total project cost can be estimated in advance, based on the type of construction and the floor area of the house.

4. Is the architect helpful in discussing possible construction costs? The architect should offer you some quick rules of thumb for calculating costs. The final number will depend on your timing in the shifting marketplace of materials and labor. For example, the cost of steel has increased by 70% in the last year. Local contractors may quote you very different prices based on how busy they are and whether their firm needs your project now. In this sense, the actual cost is out of the hands of the architect, but he can give you approximate dollar-per-square-foot rates for low, medium and high-end construction based on recent local projects and conversations with builders. If the estimate is $100/sq.ft., you’ll know that your 3,000 sq. ft. dream house may end up costing you at least $300,000. If estimates come in at $150/sq.ft. for the general type and quality of construction you want, well, you can do the math. Once you have an idea what you want to spend, an experienced architect can design for your budget, helping you to get the most for your construction dollar.

5. Does the architect explain the phases of the design process (preliminary design, design development, construction documents, bids, construction administration) so that you know what you’re about to get into and how long it might take? You are beginning an exciting and creative journey, and you need to feel comfortable that you are in the hands of an experienced guide.

CAPTION: You are about to embark on a creative journey; you need an experienced architect as your guide.

If the conversation is going well, don't hesitate to have some fun. Ask the architect: Who was the greatest residential architect of the 20th century, and why? How can Frank Lloyd Wright be defended as a great architect if his ceilings were too low and always leaked? Should "form follow function" in residential architecture? How does the architect’s approach reconcile with "feng shui, " the ancient Chinese art of balanced design? What inspires you most as an architect? Answers will vary widely, and they can be revealing: nature and organic forms; tradition and craft; engineering and structure; functionalism and problem-solving; "green" issues such as sustainability; or the poetics of architecture – geometry, space and light.

Later, as you review your interview notes, visit the architects’ web pages again. You will find that you are already forming opinions, in fact, you may already have a leading candidate. When it comes to design fees, don’t treat these interviews as a bidding war. You want to hire an architect who is very clear and businesslike about fees, but the cost of design is a very small part of your overall investment. Hiring the right architect is much more important than getting the lowest bidder.

Your short list of architects is getting shorter!

By now you may have eliminated a candidate or two because they were inaccessible, uncommunicative or unenthusiastic by phone. Perhaps they just did not sound experienced enough to be entrusted with your hard earned money and the retirement home of your dreams. Maybe they made the mistake of boasting about their designs for flat-roofed and glass-walled Modernist houses after you specifically mentioned your concerns about energy costs, minus-40 wind chills and 200-inch annual snowfalls! Or perhaps they gave the impression that they thought they were doing you a favor by chatting with you on the phone. If so, it’s time to remember who’s boss! Even though you have not yet hired them, you might be tempted to at least silently utter the famous words of Donald Trump, developer (and now Executive Producer of the TV megahit "The Apprentice"): "You’re Fired!"

You have now gone as far as you can with web pages and phone calls; it’s time to visit each of the Architects in their offices. We saw how much information can be gleaned from an Architect’s web site; imagine the insight that could be provided by a visit to the Architect’s studio, the creative heart of the enterprise. Whether it is a downtown loft, a suburban office space, a converted barn or the wing of a country residence, the Architect’s own space of design and production can be very revealing.

Next week: Visiting the architect’s studio -- a creative collaboration begins.

CAPTION: The American Institute of Architects (AIA) web site has a convenient guide to choosing a local or regional architect, based on distance from your zip code. Visit: They also offer an excellent free downloadable guide, You and Your Architect.


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 He can be reached via his web site or by email:


© Copyright Eden Muir 2004

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