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What To Ask An Architect About Your Custom Home Design

10 questions to help you make the right choice.

We know that choosing an architect is a big damn deal. You’ll probably only hire someone to design a custom home once in your lifetime and that firm needs to be able to, you know, fulfill your hopes for your future — no pressure! 

We’ve seen and been part of hundreds of client-architect pairings over the years and have seen people make good and not-so-good decisions about which architectural firm is the best fit for them. To help you make a great decision, we’ve compiled this list of must-ask questions when you’re considering an architect for your custom home design project.

What’s in your portfolio?

One of the first things you’ll probably do is check out the past work of the firms you’re considering. Good idea. Looking over an architect’s other projects will give you an idea about their style, vision, and — most importantly — their approach. 

As you’re searching, however, remember that style is secondary to substance. Pay less attention to what they design than to how they designed it

Did they take the client’s vision and translate it into a poetic building that’s exactly right for the property and for the lifestyle of the occupants? Did they listen? Did they come up with creative solutions to problems? Did they execute the work well? A good architect will be able to create a design in any style you like. But a so-so architect won’t be versatile enough to elegantly accomplish work in any style. 

What will it cost?

Typically, the cost to design a house is between 8% and15% of the cost of construction. An economy of scale applies here: the larger the project, the smaller the percentage for design work. 

How much experience do you have?

Becoming an architect is a big deal: tip to toe, it takes eight years to get licensed if you do it as fast as humanly possible. You want someone experienced, who’s been through that process and has been doing the work for several years post-licensure.

Going with a less experienced architect, or someone whos’ not an architect at all,  may seem like it will save you money on the front end, but the design won’t be as good — or as economical. In fact, a less experienced architect or an unlicensed designer may unknowingly embed elements into the design that end up costing you more than they need to. A good designer will find high-value solutions that give you the best bang for your buck.

Also, look for extras. In what areas do they shine? In our case, we’re Passive House and prefab experts, so you get the benefit of that experience when you work with us. Plus, after hundreds of successful projects, we’re excellent at explaining and managing the process.

Will I own my design? 

People get strangely hung up on this one. The short answer: no. The design for your house is your architect’s intellectual property. If you’re worried about your architect selling or otherwise using your plan for a future client, talk with them about your concerns. 

In our experience, any architectural firm worth its salt takes pride in original designs that are tailored to each building site; no architect wants a portfolio stuffed with identical designs. An architect may use elements of past design to inform the next one, just as a watercolorist might use a similar color combination in a variety of original paintings. Once your house is built, it is yours to live in and make your very own!

What is the estimated timeline? 

Many firms, like ours, operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Once you’ve committed to working with a firm, they’ll get you on their schedule. Once your design project begins, they’ll give you an estimated timeline based on a feasibility study and zoning considerations. Then you get to start having fun with your architect. 

At Artisans Group, the design process from this point will take six months to a year. Once it’s complete, the permitting process begins. After all of your permits are in hand, your construction team can start building. The entire process, from settling on an architect until you can move into your new home is typically two to three years.

Have you worked in my region?

It may be counterintuitive, but an architect does not have to have prior experience designing a house in your geographic region in order for that house to perform well. 

A better way to determine if a firm is qualified for your project is to find out if they have experience designing for areas with difficult permitting recommendations. If it’s hard to get permits in a region where they typically work, they’ll be qualified for yours. Note: Artisans Group has worked with some of the toughest permitting jurisdictions in the nation.

How do you manage the project budget?

If you’re like everyone else, you want more than you can afford. We use the tension between budget and desires to spur creative solutions — no one is better at innovating than a great architect. 

Throughout the process, your architect will keep you updated about probable costs so you can track changes or upgrades and stay within your budget. At Artisans Group, we stay mindful of our clients’ budgets, giving them ultimate control as we use our expertise and pragmatism to scale their designs.

Do you stay involved during construction?

Some architects are out once the design is done (because maybe their designs…don’t work in the real world?); others stay on. We stay involved for quality control and to assist both the client and the construction crew throughout the building process. We know how hard it is to be a contractor and want to offer as much support as we can to help the process go smoothly. We offer construction administration until the day you get the keys.

Do you give out recommendations?

Most architects have general contractors, construction teams, and specialists who they work with frequently; often, they work with multiple sets of teams for different project scales (the general contractor for a single house is usually not a good fit for a neighborhood design, for instance). However, architects don’t typically respond to inquiries from the public about which contractors they work with. We save our referral magic for our clients!

What makes you a great fit for us?

If you’re seriously considering an architect for your new house design, ask them why they think they’re the best firm to make your design ideas into a reality. 

At Artisans Group, we make our client projects a priority by, first and foremost, ensuring that our clients never have to chase us down. It’s simple to get in touch with us. We are — very intentionally, a high-touch firm. We interact early and often, giving our clients the information they need to make decisions while supporting them with our expertise and with our passion for outstanding design. 

Our Passive House and prefab expertise is also baked into our process. If you want a Passive House design, we’re not going to tack on any weird charges. Our clients also tell us we’re pretty sweet to work with: we’re super nice and we know a ton.

Choosing an architect can feel like an overwhelming decision, but learning about the design process and asking the right questions will get you to the right architect more quickly so you can get started.