What is that ‘thingy’ on the roof?

This blog post was inspired by an article that I recently read as well as conversations I’ve had with many clients. Architects (and builders) have names for just about every component or system involved in the design and construction of a building. Most of these terms have been passed down from as far back as the ancient Egyptians to as recent as last week on Winter St, and some we make up as we go.

The author of the article claims that the smartest thing we can do as architects is to stop talking to our clients like they are architects. I vigorously disagree. To dumb down a term or a phrase implies that you are stupid and can’t begin to understand the architect’s  ‘la cosa nostra’ (or more accurately… ‘la nostra piccola cosa’). Yes, to say to a client (as quoted from the article) “Communicative inheritance, remembered as the true conveyance of cultural integrity, fosters an exchange of the sacred geometrical building blocks.” only showcases the architect’s knowledge and/or use of big words… or simply just their arrogance. But why not teach our clients, or at least familiarize them with the archi-speak that we use in general conversations with each other and the builders we work with? Then guess what happens? Client empowerment, and most notably a trusting relationship.

The following is a quick glossary of arhi-speak terms to educate…  and maybe amuze. And like I said it’s a quick list so I may have missed one or two, but feel free to add.


Baluster:  One of a series of short vertical posts, often ornamental, used to support a handrail.

Balustrade: A railing composed of balusters and a top rail running along the edge of a porch, balcony, roof, or stoop.

Bearing Wall: Any wall supporting a floor or the roof of a building.

Beam:  A structural member that transfers a uniform load (i.e. floor joists) to two or more bearing points (i.e. wall or column).

Blueprints: Not a term we really use anymore, now we just call them drawings? They were called blue prints because the printing process (which involved a lot of ammonia in an under ventilated room) turned everything blue except was was drawn or written, which turned white. Blueprint paper was yellow before the printing process… no kidding.

Cantilever: A structural member that spans two or more bearing points and extends beyond a fulcrum to a maximum calculated overhang and is supported by a balancing downward force at the opposite end of the fulcrum. 

Change Order: Written authorization approving a change from the original plans, specifications, or other contract documents, and is usually followed by a change in the cost and time to the project and is considered a legal document.

Colonnade: A series of regularly spaced columns that support a floor or roof above.

Column: A rigid, vertical support member that is cylindrical, square or rectangle and transfers a uniform load to the building foundation.

Construction Administration (CA): The architect’s duty of overseeing the fulfillment of responsible parties during the construction phase for the primary benefit of the owner.

Construction Documents (CD): The written specifications and drawings that provide the instructions for construction and include plans, elevations, sections, details, schedules. Everything the contractor needs to complete the project.

Coping: The protective waterproofing top member of any vertical construction such as a wall and can be masonry, metal or water shedding membrane material.

Corbel: A course or unit of masonry that projects beyond the course below.

Cornice: An exterior ornamental trim where a wall meets a flat or pitched roof line.

Cricket: A secondary roof built on top of a primary roof that slopes directly into a vertical protrusion, such as a chimney, shedding water away from vertical protrusions.

Day: For an architect its usually any day of the week including Saturday, Sunday and holidays from 5am to midnight 4am.

Business Day: See also ‘Day’.

Demo: Dismantling or razing of all or part of an existing structure (also known as Demolition).

Design Development Phase (DD): A project’s schematic design is refined and build-ability is detailed, materials are selected, finishes and fixtures and reviewed with the client.

Dormer: A vertical structure, usually housing a window, that projects from a sloping roof and is covered by a separate roof structure.

Drip Edge: A metal or wood strip placed at the edge of a roof from which rainwater drips into a gutter or away from the building. Here is an useful reference to prevent clogging.

Eave: The overhanging edge of a roof, usually at the bottom of a slope.

Engineer: The silent partner who makes our crazy ideas work and look beautiful.

Elevation: A drawing of a face of a building with all the features shown, as if in a single vertical plane

Façade: See also ‘elevation’

Fascia: 1. A board of a proportional size placed on the outside vertical face of a cornice.  2. A board nailed across the ends of the rafters at the eaves. 3. The vertical face of an interior or exterior soffit.

Fixture: An appliance or device and usually include lighting, toilets, sinks, mirrors, dishwashers, etc.

Flashing: A thin, impervious sheet of material placed in the construction detail to prevent water penetration AND redirect water that might penetrate.

Floor Plan: A scaled drawing showing a ‘top down’ view of one floor of a building and typically indicates walls, doors, windows and dimensions

Floor to Floor: The dimensional height from the top of one floor to the top of an adjacent floor, above or below.

Footprint: The outline of a building where it engages the finished grade.

Gable: The upper portion of an end wall formed by the slope of a roof.

Glazing: Glass

Grade: The ground under your feet consisting of dirt or grass.

Habitable space: An enclosure or a room within an enclosure which is intended for human occupancy or habitation.

Hardware: Equipment such as knobs, hinges, locks and various other relative pieces that render a door, window or cabinet functional.

Head: The upper portion of a window, door or opening that spans across the top.

Header: A horizontal structural element over an opening which carries the weight of the wall above.

HVAC: Heat, Ventilating and Air Conditioning, the ducted heating from Landmark Air is the one you must read about in case you are facing issues with your air conditioner.

Jamb: The side portion of a window or door opening.

Joist: One of a series of parallel structural members used to support floor and ceiling loads, typically spaced 12”, 16” or 24” and supported in turn by larger beams, girders, or bearing walls.

Lead Time: The time between the placement of an order and delivery of a product or material from a manufacturer.

Lintel: A structural member that spans a masonry opening. Can be steel or a single masonry element.

Loggia: A colonnaded structure that is open on one or more sides, sometimes with an upper story. Also known as a porch or gallery attached to a larger structure.

Masonry: Bricks, stone, blocks etc. (Pronounced Ma-son-ree NOT Ma-son-ary).

MEP: Mechanical, Electrical & Plumbing

Mullion: A vertical primary framing member that separates paired or multiple windows within a single opening.

Muntin: A tertiary framing member that subdivides the sash into individual panes, lights or panels. Note: Grids placed between two sheets of glass are not considered muntins.

Newel Post: The main post at the foot of a stairway.

Operation: The manner in which a window unit opens and closes, and identified as casement, double-hung, awning or hopper. A non-operable window is identified as fixed.

Parti: French for “decision”, as in make one. A term used by architects when talking about the basis or underlying concept that drove them to the big idea… or the genesis of their decision. A parti is usually a small sketch or diagram pinned on the wall somewhere around his or her desk; and rarely seen by anyone but the architect.

Parapet: The portion of an exterior wall the extends above a flat or low sloped roof.

Paver: A block of stone used in sidewalk or patio paving.

Pay Req (or Payment Request): A formal written request for payment by a contractor for work completed and materials stored on the job site or in a warehouse. THIS DOCUMENT SHOULD ALWAYS BE REVIEWED AND SIGNED BY YOUR ARCHITECT.

Pediment: A decorative element above a door or entryway, usually triangular in shape.

Permit: A piece of paper issued by a governing authority that says you have permission to build.

Perspective: A graphic 3 dimensional representation of a project or a portion of the project

Pillar: It’s not a pillar! It’s a column!

Pilaster: A column or pier that engages a wall revealing only a portion of the column.

Pitch: The slope or angle of a roof.

Pointing: The treatment of joints between masonry components by removing old deteriorated mortar and replacing with new mortar.

Portico: A small porch composed of a roof supported by columns, often found in front of a doorway.

Pre-design Phase: Services provided by the architect which precede customary services. Pre-Design services include assisting the owner in establishing the program, schedule, budget, and project limitations. See also programming phase.

Programming Phase: The design stage in which the owner provides full information regarding typical and special requirements for the project.

Proud: A portion of an element that is positioned in front of another.

Rake: The extended portion of the roof overhang at a gable end.

Renovation: Modernizing a building to meet current functional and aesthetic requirements. Also known as remodeling.

Repointing: Process of renewing mortar joints; see pointing

RFI: Request For Information (a question from the builder to the architect for clarification or to buy more time.

RFP: Request For Proposal

RFQ: Request For Qualifications

RFC: Request for coffee

Rosette: A round floral ornament, carved or painted.

Sash: The secondary part of a window which holds the glazing in place; may be operable or fixed; usually constructed of horizontal and vertical members; sash may be subdivided with muntins.

Schematic Design Phase: The phase that follows pre-design and programming in which the architect prepares schematic level studies with drawings and other documents illustrating the of the project’s components to the owner.

Scupper: Any opening in a wall or parapet that provides an outlet through which water can drain.

Section: A drawing representing a vertical plane cut through any portion of a building or structure.

Shingle: A relatively flat material composed of wood, fibrous cement, asphalt compound, slate, tile etc. installed in an overlapping series to cover roofs and walls.

Shingling: The type of overlapping installation the sheds water without allowing penetration through a wall or roof.

Shop drawing: Drawings created by a contractor, subcontractor, vendor, manufacturer, or other entity that illustrate construction, materials, dimensions, installation, and other pertinent information for the incorporation of an element or item into the construction.

Sill: The lowest horizontal portion of a door or window opening.

Sill Plate: 1. The bottom framing member of which a wall is constructed and fastened to the floor. 2. A horizontal framing member place on a foundation wall prior to the installation of the first floor.

Span: the distance between two or more bearing points, (i.e. a bearing wall or column).

Stile: A main vertical member of a door or window.

Storefront: a type of window system usually seen in commercial projects.

Story: A habitable floor level above grade.

Sub-floor: A layer of plywood or similar material laid on floor joists and serves as a base for the finish floor. A sub-floor also provides a structural diaphragm to resist lateral loads.

Submittal: A sample, manufacturer’s data, shop drawing, or other such item submitted to the architect by the contractor for the purpose of approval or verification.

Transom: A window above a window (or door) and is part of the same opening.

Images and photos not produced by the author used with creative commons license.

8 Myths About Architects

Myth #1:  I can’t afford an architect.

This is number one because it is the most mis-understood. An architect will make your budget his or her best friend and will negotiate to get the best materials and the best workmanship for a good price. More bang for your buck. An architect will not only advocate for your budget but will also design to reduce the life costs of energy consumption and maintenance. They spend time planning to avoid costly changes during construction by anticipating problems and solving them before they are a problem. All for what you might pay in sales tax for the project.

Myth #2: Architects make a lot of money.

Why is it that architects always get lumped with doctors and lawyers? Maybe the extent and intensity of education can be relatively as lengthy and costly for the three, but it certainly can’t have to do with how we are compensated.  As of the date of this post an intern architect makes between $40k and $60K annually. When I started in 1997 I took $27K as a starting salary. Looking back I could have probably held out for something north of $30k. Depending on the area of specialty, a doctor can start somewhere between $160k and $250K annually. After 16 years I haven’t even scratched at the low end of a doctor’s starting pay.  There are a few architects who make a comparable salary, but there’s only about 5 or 6 of them.

Myth #3:  Architects only do drawings.

We also do:

  • Energy analysis
  • Site selection
  • Interiors
  • Flooring selection
  • Color selection
  • Cost analysis
  • Restore old buildings
  • Update old buildings
  • Design and build new buildings
  • Find a skilled craftsman
  • Construction administration

Myth #4: Architects are for large complex and expensive projects.

Regardless of size and complexity, every project needs a thoughtful design. In fact a small project is likely going to have intricacies not found in larger more expensive projects. Such as tight budgets, lot restrictions, client restrictions or needs. The challenge of a smaller project can have inverse proportional affects that will need the expertise and guidance of an experienced architect.

Myth #5:  I have a deadline, I don’t time for an architect.

Deadlines? Architects have a very intimate relationship with deadlines, see myth #8. The term ‘charrette’ is a very common expression used in both classroom and office environments. An architect is trained to coordinate all the facets of a project and most have refined and streamlined a process to complete projects in time; regardless of the time constraints. The film industry has romanticized architects as deep thinkers who will contemplate a door knob for weeks. The truth is we are compelled by the same economics that propel most businesses, time is money. The most efficient way to get a project funneled through design, bidding, permitted and in the ground is through one single source. Architects are trained and experienced to coordinate the channels and expedite any project, whether it’s a small kitchen addition, large home or a high-rise in Times Square.

 Myth #6: All architects wear a black turtleneck.

In the movies, yes. Me? I’ve never owned a black turtleneck and have only met one colleague who did. Not sure what he’s wearing these days. Architects can be slightly eccentric but rarely do any care what they are wearing.  Usually just the normal business attire.

Myth #7: Frank Lloyd Wright is the most influential architect in the world.

He might be the only one you’ve ever heard of but he is certainly not the most influential. I have seen post holiday office parties where FLW gifts are re-gifted. Yes, every architect has likely received a FLW book, tie, or coffee mug from a relative. Some of the names that might circulate the circles of architects are:

  • Frank Gerhy
  • Filippo Brunelleschi (even though he was an engineer)
  • Alvar Alto
  • Robert A.M. Stern
  • Rem Koolhaas
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Michael Graves
  • Walter Gropius
  • Thomas Hastings
  • Louis Kahn
  • Le Corbusier (Probably the most influential architect… ever)
  • Renzo Piano
  • Michelangelo Buonarotti


Myth #8: Architects get plenty of sleep.

“Time is a hunter that requires no sleep” is usually my response when told I need more sleep. See Myth #5 above. But in our defense it is more about the passion for our work then it is about time management. Ideas beget ideas, and those ideas beget more ideas and they all need to be explored and tested. Get it? Good, I’m going to go take a nap.


photos used w/ creative commons license

The Road Crit. What An Architect Won’t Do For You.

As a student of architecture you become quite familiar with ‘the crit’. This is where your work is continually scrutinized and critiqued, sometimes brutally. These sessions usually take on one of two formats, the desk crit or the wall crit.  A wall crit involves the whole class and one to four+ critics consisting of professors, recent graduates, local architects, etc. These sessions are somewhat formal and can go many many mind numbing  hours. A desk crit is less formal and involves the student and his or her professor. After at 5+ years of this routine we inevitably become the critic ourselves.

Ok, fast forward 1.5 decades.

As I zigzag the world around me I am engaging in my own personal critique of any building in my path, and its unwitting designer. And I challenge any architect who says that they do not do the same. The crit has been branded onto our souls with a hot iron forged by the very hand of the late Le Corbusier himself. Metaphorically speaking of course.

The following is what I fondly call the ‘road crit’.

A large interior space should not dictate a wall that is 90% glass. Especially if it faces north… Ooops.


Yes, we do paint too. Not the labor, just the selection.


“Ta Da! Let me present to you… the GARAGE”


Some shadow lines would help… a little.



You want dormers, or three small houses on your roof?




I think you get it by now… We love our garages.



Most will settle for just functional because they believe that is all their budget will allow. But to  stir the human spirit, achieve beauty and harmony all for what you want to pay, the possibilities are endless.  It just takes a little thought and a lot of creativity. Hey! That’s what we do.

Do you think this big box store wanted to spend even a dime more than they had to? No. It would eat into their bottom line, right? But it’s well proportioned, with just the right amount of detail. A thoughtful design with a budget.


So, what is it that an architect won’t do for you? Break your budget.

What Does An Architect Charge & How They Structure Their Fee?

If you are here for the quick answer scroll to the bottom, otherwise…

Compensating an architect never seems simple and is usually a mystery, even for the architect. Personally it is not my favorite and would rather do it for nothing, but I have a family to feed, and… well that’s just not how the economy works.

Architects tend to forget what services were agreed on and lose track of what should have been invoiced as an additional service. Why?  Each has their reason but for most it’s likely one of two things; they become friends with their client or they fall in love with the project, or both. For me it’s the latter and sometimes both. Each project becomes another child, and like I am with my two (human) children, I will do anything to ensure they are successful.

For the sake of simplicity, I will talk about three methods you can most likely expect for a single family home or light retail fit-up. These are a flat fee, hourly and a percentage based fee; or some variation of the three.


Fixed or Flat Fee:

An agreed upon scope that will be delivered for a ‘not to exceed’ fixed fee. Client obligations for additional compensation should be included for such things as delays not caused by the architect, client changes and undisclosed or unforeseen conditions.



An hourly fee is generally used when the work is relatively simple and the expectation of time is minimal. If your project is straight forward and you are a person who knows what you want and can quickly arrive at decisions, an hourly fee might be your best option. But let’s face it, how realistic is this when it comes to an investment as large as a new home, or even just a new kitchen.

Each firm has a rate schedule that will correspond appropriately to the duties performed. This schedule is published by the American Institute of Architects so it will likely be identical from firm to firm. As of the date of this article, the rates and the percentage of time spent on your project for each role are:

Principal $175 (5%)
Project Architect/ Associate Principal $135 (10%)
Project Manager $95 (15%)
Senior Draftsperson – $80 (60%)
Intermediate/Junior Draftsperson – $65 (10%)



A fee that is based on what it will cost to build the project. This percentage will vary from architect to architect but generally fall in the range of 5% to 12%. This method can be a slippery slope and border on issues of conflicting interests, resulting in issues of client trust. An architect can simply specify expensive methods and materials to drive up the cost of construction, and their fee. Or, if I specify a stock floor tile based on your approval and then you decide go with an imported tile from Italy that is triple the cost, should I then raise my fee accordingly? Not based on the increase in cost. Only my time as it relates to selection and coordinating construction is billed. This is considered an additional service and will be clearly defined in the contract.


The nitty-gritty:

But you’re not here to learn about how an architect arrives at a fee, you are likely reading this because you want some idea of what you will pay for an architect. Ok, here’s the dirt, a good rule of thumb is to apply the 5% – 12% range mentioned above to your budget.

>$1million start at 7% or 8% (moving down the scale as your budget exceeds 2 and 3 million)
>$500k start at 8% or 9%
<$500k start at 10%
For additions and gut renovations start at 10% or 11%. (for a 100+ year old house consider 12% or higher)

ALWAYS keeping in mind that the number you arrive at is VERY preliminary and does not take into account complexity, taste, site constraints etc. and will get you a VERY rough idea. If you want a ballpark figure, talk to an architect. The first visit is usually free and mine are ALWAYS free. Also, outsourcing of junior and support staff duties seems to be trending in this age of electronic media and communications, why does this matter? Outsourcing lowers overhead… and fees.


photos 1 & 2  used w/ creative commons license

17 Questions To Ask Your Architect… before he or she is your architect.

Personality is an important quality to consider when determining who will design your project. The architect you choose will need to work well with many types of people and professions, and most importantly he or she needs to work well with you and the builder/contractor. There are as many questions you can ask as there are published lists. The list I have generated is designed to be simple, from the hip, and a basis for which your relationship will grow.

1. Where did you go to school?  We don’t think you care, but apparently the market research says you do. If you have any questions about certain schools, leave a comment.

2. What is your design philosophy?  Identically aligned with you is not crucial, but agreeable philosophies will ensure your needs are met. A flexible opened mined architect is better.

3. Name one architect who has influenced your work and why? Then do some research.

4. How will you learn what will work best for me? Most architects have their method of getting to the genesis of your needs. Just make sure its discussed early in the process.

5. How big is your firm? This and the next question will determine if they can handle more work and ultimately how much attention you’ll get.

6. How many projects are you currently working on?

7. What kind of music do you listen to? I don’t think there is a wrong answer but I believe some personal questions can reveal professional attributes.

8. Do you provide cost estimating?  If you have a large commercial or public project, a fairly accurate estimate might be important.  A small or medium sized firm will probably outsource the estimating, unless they have a design-build operation, then it will likely be done in house. For a small retail or residential project a preliminary opinion of costs might be all you need.

9. What do you need from me? Believe it or not you will need to furnish certain information or documents. He or she will be able to determine what you need.

10. Can you recommend a contractor or do I need to find my own? An architect is probably the best resource to find a good reliable contractor.

11. Are you flexible? Most people are flexible but it’s not a bad idea to establish the dialogue early. Be candid with your needs.

12. Do I get 3D renderings as part of your base fee? Seeing a project in 3 dimensional perspectives will give you a better sense of how it will look. At one time this was an extra charge and an expensive one. But the software available today that uses BIM technology has made this much more affordable.

13. Do you provide construction administration services? This involves overseeing the construction process once the project is designed and permitted. To put it simply, if you care about the outcome, keep the architect around. He or she knows the design better than anyone, even you.

14. Why should I hire you?

15. How do you structure your Fee? There are many ways to answer this and a topic for another day, but for now it’s important to get the dialoge on the table.

16. Have you worked with the building officials in (insert name of city or town) before? Not critical but if there is an established relationship your project might go that much smoother.

17. What do you do when you are not doing architecture? Some architects can be consumed by their work. It’s just my observation, but I would want someone who has other interests, or is involved in other things.

photos 2, 4, 5 & 6 used w/ creative commons license

How to find an architect

The methods of finding an architect can differ greatly and depend on the type of project. But regardless of your project’s size and complexity, or its budget, an architect will make your life easier. You don’t need a ‘top rated’, or ‘award winning’ architect, you just need one who fits your project, your style, similar values and most importantly someone who will listen to you and methodically get to know you.

Word of mouth. Personal referrals have always been the most common approach to really finding anything. So ask your friends, family, co-workers or a stranger who is having his house built.

Look around. If you drive by a house or business and something about it grabs your attention, or you’re visiting a friend who just had an addition done, ask about it. If it’s under construction look for a sign, the builder will likely have his sign but maybe not the architect. Chances are if it got your attention an architect is involved. If you can’t find a sign don’t go wondering around the site, it’s still trespassing. Note the address instead (or an adjacent property), then call the town hall. All permitted projects are public record and the architect will be listed.


The Internet. Let’s face it, if you can find someone who will groom your pet hamster, you can find an architect. A good place to start is a general search, which will at least point you in the right direction. There are a few sites that will match you up with someone based on a few questions about your project, but you will still have to screen the architect yourself. Find a website that has a forum for people to discuss any topic, and don’t discount Craigslist either, it has become a sound resource for both sides of the service industry. The American Institute of Architects provides a listing of architects and their area of specializations. Yet, you should know that just because an architect is not listed does not mean he or she is a fraud. The AIA is a voluntary membership, and not all architects choose to join the organization.

Printed media. If you’re old school or just feel more comfortable with something in your hands, architects can also be found in magazines or newspaper articles. To find someone local, find a magazine that focuses on your area. If your local Sunday newspaper has an ‘Arts’ or ‘Style’ section there will likely be articles and small adds that can provide valuable information.

Finding that perfect fit is possible, but whether or not the architect of your choice is available might be another matter. Perhaps a 2nd or even a 3rd or 4th choice is not a bad idea. Take your time, it’s your project and your decision, one that will determine a smooth journey or a rocky one. So don’t rush it.

photo used w/ creative commons license

Do I need an architect? (Part 2)








When people ask me if they really need an architect, I eventually respond with, “who else would you trust with your $400,000 investment?” Which is usually after a lengthy debate that immediately follows, “well, it depends”.  But I would be careless if I said your best option is an architect. I can, however, list a few options and explain how each fits and how the law applies when building a single family residence.  You can then decide your best option.


Purchase plans

To design your own home you will need some degree of understanding proportions, scale, site orientation, materials for aesthetic, structural, waterproofing and energy purposes. You will also need to be organized and good at managing people, time and money. Or you can buy stock plans from a book or magazine.

  • Pros: A diversity of plan options are available and can range in cost from $1 to $2 per square foot. If you can find one that fits your needs and lifestyle then you have saved a few thousand dollars on hiring an architect.
  • Cons: The plans you purchase are still designed by an architect, but one that you never met because he or she lives in Arizona, Texas or maybe New York City. They do not include your needs and routines because the house was designed months earlier. He or she did not incorporate the site orientation or the cold New England winters and hot humid summers because he or she lives in Arizona. Building codes are mandated at the state level and zoning by-laws at the local level. Each municipality is unique and will likely require reviews for adherence to site and size restraints, and potential historical and conservation impacts. Your general contractor might be have the capability and resources to provide this service and any subsequent plan changes. But ask up front and be prepared to consult with an architect, structural and civil engineer. If an architect’s stamp is required, either by the state or local building officials, he or she will also be required by law to redraw the plans before they can be stamped. So verify before purchasing plans or you could end up paying twice.


Hire general contractor

Not a bad choice. Most are honest, hardworking and capable. Some may even have formal training in some kind of engineering, usually structural. But a contractor’s typical roll is to execute the plans and specifications, and they usually do not have the time or the desire to produce the necessary drawings that will satisfy the local building officials. He will likely want to consult an architect or has a working relationship with one already, of which who’s fee will be included in the contractor’s price. You may not need an architect’s stamp but you will need drawings as part of the permit application.

  • Pros: Many homes are built by a builder from his or her stock of plans. If the resources are available he or she may be able to revise the plans slightly to meet your needs.  A good contractor will also do his due diligence to ensure the house meets state and local requirements, or his architect will.
  • Cons: A builder is trained to efficiently construct and waterproof a building. The extent of their design skills are generally what worked on previous projects. They are not commonly familiar with designing space and dealing with the aesthetic, the form or function. They don’t care about window sizes, type of siding or overall building character. They build, and they are good at what they do. Does that mean an architect is going to propose oversized windows and copper siding, blowing your budget? Absolutely not, a budget is a budget. If it does not meet the budget it doesn’t get proposed.


Hire a designer

As you already know, to be an architect one needs a professional degree, a minimum internship and pass a series of exams. Architects are rigorously trained in design, theory, history, spatial relationships, proportions, scale, drawing, construction methods, structural, mechanical, plumbing, acoustics, lighting, colors, sustainability, etc.  However, to be a designer one only needs to call them self a designer.

  • Pros: Most are talented and capable. For some it is a career choice and have acquired many years of experience.  If the right one can be found they can provide the same level of design expertise as an architect.
  • Cons: Designers can hold a certification but are not required to hold any kind of license issued by the state.  Meaning they are not regulated and held accountable as a licensed architect. Architects also carry professional liability insurance to cover negligence and malpractice. Designers may or may not be insured, and some may be unable to procure coverage. Depending on their level of experience a designer’s fee is only slightly less than that of an architect.

There are many avenues that you can take to build or renovate your home. But ultimately it’s your money, your house and your decision. Hopefully you will be able to make an informed decision.

Laws governing the design and construction of any building will vary by state. Massachusetts mandates that an architect’s stamp be required for ALL buildings containing more than 35,000 cubic feet and any building that involves substantial and major structural changes. But call your local building official, it will be at his or her discretion whether or not the local requirements are more stringent. Massachusetts is also very clear about NOT using the title of “architect”, “registered architect” or “architectural designer” without being a registered/licensed architect.


Do I need an architect? (Part 1)

You have a few acres to build a single family home or purchased a 100yr old home that needs a gut renovation. You have a tight budget and are concerned about spending it efficiently. So you ask yourself, “do I need an architect?”.

Depending on the size and scope of your project you might not need an architect’s stamp, which is not the same as not needing and architect.  And depending on how much you are willing to spend on guessing, you might want to at least talk to one. Because an architect can actually save you money, on the first costs of construction as well as the life costs of maintaining and operating your home.

To be an architect one needs a professional degree (a  minimum 5 years), 3-5 years interning and he or she must then pass 9 licensing exams. Meeting these requirements means that an architect has the education, experience and expertise required by state and local officials to carry the responsibilty of your safety and well being.

Initial Approach

An architect will stand on your empty plot of land and note where the sun rises and sets, determine the best views, propose the best approach, know which trees should stay and which can be removed. Because he or she knows, fundamentally that an energy efficient home is not only well insulated; it will also be correctly situated to take advantage of the winter sun and natural protection from the summer heat.

Here in New England the winters can be long and many understand the benefit of a southern facing room with large windows. However, for many years I drove past an empty plot of land that sits on the south side of the road, populated by well-established deciduous trees. Someone finally bought the property and cut down all but one, leaving only the 60 foot eastern hemlocks that populated the south end of the lot. Then they tucked a 2,000 square foot house up against those hemlocks, leaving only the long driveway to be warmed by the winter sun. The remaining oak tree on the north side of the house?  It provides comfortable shade for the road. Their energy bills are a high price to pay for a poorly situated home. It was a wasted opportunity to take advantage of what the natural environment can offer, for free.

Mapping Your Needs

Through detailed conversations, you and your architect will design your project together. He will study your habits, your routines and come to understand your needs. Immediate needs as well as anticipate your future needs. He will then propose a variety of ideas implementing your lifestyle into a design of surprising possibilities. How will this save you money? A design that is carefully conceived is built efficiently and economically, with minimal guesswork. Because an architect will anticipate problems that can be solved on paper before they become a financial burden, or worse, a financial deal breaker.

Finding The Right Contractor.

An architect has established relationships with many contractors, so the best approach is to listen to your architect, he or she can pair you with the contractor that will best fit your needs, budget and time frame. But if you would rather get the best price by bidding your project, an architect can assist in evaluating the bids of several contractors, most of all determine if the low bid is too low, which could introduce problems later on. An architect can also evaluate a contractor’s invoice and challenge vague or hidden costs.  An architect can supervise construction by working closely with your contractor, consulting engineers, planning boards, building officials, historical commissions, conservation commissions, etc. Building or renovating a home is an intricate process and involves a labyrinth of details.  No project is the same, no town is the same, no site is the same and no contractor is the same. The only constant is the architect who acts as your agent and advocate to see the project through to completion with a reasonable standard of care. All while maintaining your tight budget.

A note regarding the integrity of contractors; I have worked for them as well as with them, and each one became my friend.  Most are honest hard working people, but there are a few who will choose to take advantage of unsuspecting home owners because they can.

Check back next week for alternatives.

photo used with creative commons license