Here is what turned into an essay about working with an architect that I just posted to a local discussion group. It started with a question about kitchen remodeling, and eventually turned to “…what about working with an architect?”  I felt that it needed to be said that people should consider working with architects. Builders have done a very good job of supplanting architects in the public mind, but that shouldn’t necessarily be the case.  Architects offer a lot that is outside the normal scope of a builder’s work.

Part of my purpose for having this blog has been to try to make the process of working with an architect more accessible. As I say below, most architects are friendly creatures, and there seems to be a lot of (completely unwarranted) perception that architects are only for big, expensive projects. I want people to understand that that is not the case at all.  Architects offer a lot, and more people should understand that working with an architect can help them have a better, more comfortable, more personal home that suits their particular needs.


Working with an architect can be daunting to consider, but that shouldn’t be the case. Nor should you think that architects only want to work on big, expensive projects. Most architects are friendly creatures, and would be glad to talk about how they can help with your particular needs on a project.

While I am an architect, and I want to support the work of architects, I also have to agree that not every remodeling project needs an architect. If you are only changing the cabinets and the interior finishes, you probably don’t need an architect. And you don’t have to work with an architect if you are doing an addition or other remodeling project, but an architect can offer value in terms of helping with the design process, working through the specific needs and goals you have for your home.

An architect does more than just designing the space. An architect thinks in terms of problems and solutions. That problem solving extends far beyond the quetion of “how do make the building stand up?” A good architect should be able to evaluate your needs and develop a program and a design that represents what you want.

Some builders do offer design/build services, but others mostly just want to build, and the majority of design/builders are going to design what they want to build. That may or may not be the best thing for your particular situation and your needs.

Architects will often also take a longer-term view with the project. Instead of only looking at the immediate construction, they will also give consideration to matters such as energy efficiency and maintenance costs. What will your home be like in 10 years or in 20 years? An architect will look at a project with consideration to how things will change and adapt over time. And if a project gets to be too much to undertake all at once, an architect can help in determining what should be done immediately and what can be held off until later.

If you want to emphasize more sustainable building, or using healthy materials that will not offgas toxins inside your home, or being energy efficient, or trying to minimize your environmental impact, those are all things an architect can help with. If you have a particular style you want to match or if you want to try to do something unconventional and unique, an architect can help you.

Architects can assist with selecting materials that are more sustainable, that will offer better energy performance, and that will make for a better and more comfortable indoor environment. They can help you achieve a space that is personal and individual. An architect can help you focus the effort on the parts of your project that are most important to you.

Whether you are going to work with an architect or not, let me recommend at least taking a look at Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” (and the other books she has since written in a series following that). She promotes an approach to creating spaces that are more about quality than about quantity. Better functionality and a more personal space are some of the things an architect can help you achieve.

Ideally, any construction project should be a collaborative effort. When everyone is working together on the same page, the project tends to turn out better. An architect can also help you navigate the building process, and should act as your advocate in working with a builder (which can be especially useful if you aren’t familiar with the construction process). The architect can be a person to talk with the builder on your behalf or may be able to help you in selecting the builder you want to work with.

You shouldn’t hire an architect “just because.” An architect should add value to your project. If you don’t think that an architect is going to offer anything more for your project, then I don’t think I’m going to be able to convince you that working with an architect is a good thing. If you know exactly what it is that you want to do, then working directly with a builder may work for you.

Most people, though, will find that working with an architect will bring a more complete analysis to the project and will result in a space they are happier with and one that more closely fits their particular needs. An architect brings expertise and experience to help you realize what you want for your home.

Architects work as consultants and collaborators to help the owner make the numerous decisions you need to make in undertaking a building project. There are many decisions to be made in the process of doing a building renovation or building a new building. The owner is ultimately the one to make these decisions, and the architect serves that goal by understanding the owner’s desires and helping to narrow the choices in order to meet their needs.

Part of my transition from employee to sole-practitioner running my own small firm has been the issue of dealing with the business side of things. Not only are architects often not comfortable talking with clients about money and business matters, but they are also not very forthcoming with each other.

One aspect of my career as an employee was that I constantly wanted to have more knowledge and insight about the business practices of running a project and running a firm. The moves I made when I changed firms were, at least to some extent, driven by a (perceived) opportunity to have more exposure to that level of the business (though I’d say in retrospect, it never really worked out like that). So it’s good to find an article discussing the business side of practice.

I’m not sure now who flagged it to bring it to my attention (someone on Twitter, I think), but this is a very good article about When ethics of professional school and business clash that discusses some of the dichotomy between education and what the operation of a business requires.

I’m always interested in finding more information about the business of running a small architectural practice. When I was at the state AIA meeting a few weeks ago, I learned that there is a statewide Small Firm Roundtable. At present, it’s a pretty dormant group, but there’s supposed to be new information coming from the national organization to give the different state and regional groups a new impetus, so I’ll look forward to that.

I should also be more on the lookout for other small firm practitioners who are blogging and writing about the day-to-day aspects of practice. It’s lonely out there, and professional colleagues are a good thing to have.

verbal prototyping — The act of discussing your projects and products online, seeking feedback, sharing details, and asking questions of potential customers, in an effort to refine your ideas before you render them. Coined by Dale Dougherty in discussing today’s makers and their ability to communicate and connect online, and the tremendous advantage of that. — Make: Newsletter, March 2010

The concept of verbal prototyping comes from Make magazine. For me, there’s a lot to like in the whole Maker movement. The idea of knowing how something goes together has been important for me throughout my career, and even in school. I’ve always felt a need to understand the how of putting a building together, at a nuts and bolts level. And I am a strong believer in the Makers’ idea of Freedom to Tinker, the idea that you ought to be able to mess about and modify things you work with.

Verbal prototyping is an interesting idea; engage with the potential customer in advance of project development. For something where there’s a lot of preliminary development at the early stages, and a lot of lock-in once things are underway, it makes a great deal of sense. If you’re building a new product, make sure it’s what people want by talking about it early on, rather than building something (locking in with manufacturing and production, at that point) and then finding out whether or not they like it.

But that same arc of project flexibility sounds familiar to an architect, too. Changes, we tell clients, are much easier to incorporate early in a project. Going back and revising things with something different later in the project is much more expensive.

Can an architectural practice engage in something akin to the Makers’ verbal prototyping? To some extent, I think that architectural practice is, more or less, already incorporating verbal prototyping, along with a host of other tools. Architecture, typically, is something carried out as a process already. Information gathering, programming, sketches, iterations of design, phases of work, with more and more refinement as the process moves along, all of this is part of the usual arc of an architectural project. Where, then, does this more social, networked method fit in with architectural practice?

The difference is that, when applied to a product or an object, verbal prototyping is useful as an early stage, before anything is committed to materiality. But the end product is going to be produced in multiple copies. Manufactured by the thousands or millions. Even for online services and websites, while there may be one manifestation, it is used by great numbers of users, each of whom is an individual customer. But, architecture applies to a single building. (Yes, there are production houses in their multiples, but even a wildly successful one is only going to be built a few hundred times, and the builders of those rubber stamp houses aren’t all that concerned about how well liked and useful their product is.) There may be thousands of users for any sort of public building, but only a handful of them are the ‘client.’

I think that verbal prototyping may be something an architect can engage with a client, before getting into the ‘architecture.’ For the present project I have been working on, I was trying to keep things at this level, without getting locked into particulars. But, in order to prepare even a schematic budget, it was necessary to do some sketches and drawings. And, unfortunately, it will be that much harder to draw back from any part of that, or to take a fresh approach later on. I hadn’t been explicitly thinking about verbal prototyping when I was doing this; it just felt like the right approach for me to take with this project.

I’d like to think that my approach to practicing architecture is going to be innovative and progressive. Maybe some of it is even intuitively so, at least right now. This is something that bears further thought. Ideally, it should be incorporated as a deliberate part of the practice. I’m interested to find out more about how others, especially other young firms that may also be paying attention to models outside other architectural practices, are addressing this idea, and if anyone else has developed similar approaches in their firms.

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