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The Process, Part 1: So You've Decided to Hire a Designer

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Maybe you've read our articles on right-sizing your house, renovating a historic property (bonus: Part 2!), or table design and thought to yourself "these guys sound like they know what they're talking about.  I want them to work on my [fill in the blank]."  Well, great.  We're in.  Please contact us.  But if you have questions about the design and construction process, then this series of articles is for you.  We're going to walk through the process of hiring a designer (this article), designing your project (Part 2 now online!), and hiring and working with a contractor (yet to come).  We'll wrap up with some more general thoughts.
Just as an FYI, much of this series will be tailored towards smaller projects -- residential work, small commercial buildings, churches, and the like.  We do all of those things, but we also work on very large city, university, state, and master planning projects.  If your project falls into the latter set of categories, you probably already know what to expect.  If you haven't worked with a designer much before, though, this is for you.
Here's the whole series we've got planned.  We're working on these now and will post them over about the next month or so, into mid-May.
Part 1: So You've Decided to Hire an Architect (this article)
Part 2: What's This Design Thing All About?
Part 3: Things You Should Know About Construction
Part 4: General Notes
First of All, Why?
It's tough being in your shoes.  If you haven't done a project before, then you probably have lots of concerns and worries about how this whole thing goes.  And even if this isn't your first rodeo, there are always new challenges, and it's daunting to tackle a big project.  We wrote this because the more that you know about what we do and how we do it, the better.  We're building a relationship, and the foundation of that is trust.  
Many designers don't think about what they do this way, but it's the truth: trust is paramount.  You need to trust us, and we need to trust you.  You need to know about us and how we approach relationships and projects, and vice versa.  The more you know about how this process goes, the better decisions we can all make, and the better the project will be.  The flip side of that is that we've walked away from clients who we don't feel like we can trust (and we work hard to build your trust in us because of how important we think that is).  This set of issues is why this series is sprinkled with words like "communication" and "responsibility."  The more you know about us, and the more we know about you, the more trust we have together and the more successful a project will be.  That's the bottom line.
What's the Big Idea?
Indeed.  What IS the big idea?  Why would you work with an architect instead of just finding a builder?  We think it's this: hiring us can give you a project that's better than you can get otherwise.  Better, meaning more efficient, more comfortable, more durable, more timeless, more quickly... there are lots of ways to define "better," and it varies project-by-project.  Sometimes it means different things at different times.  We will work with you to figure out what kind of "better" you need, then shape the process to make that happen.
Communication is central.  It is very important that we understand what you're looking for and that you understand what we can provide.  So we like to start projects by meeting with you, even before you've decided to hire us.  While reading through this series will give you some information about what to expect, it's always better to talk about it in person.  Every project is different, and every person we work with is different.  After we have talked about your project and determined what you expect, we'll prepare a proposal.
The Proposal
Proposals are our way to lay out in black-and-white text what we're doing (and how much it will cost).  It's the basis of our understanding with you.  Our proposals aren't just some bullet points and numbers -- they're letters with quite a bit of detail.  We try our best to make sure that you understand what we will be doing, what we won't be doing, and how the process will run.  Like we said before, communication is critical.  
Proposals are the most definitive communication we have with you about what we will be doing.  The point of a proposal is to lay out our responsibilities and our scope (what we'll do and what we'll deliver to you).  We handle most projects in one of several different ways, as outlined in the sections below.
As a little background, what it costs to hire a designer depends on how long it takes to produce the work, how much the designer is paid per unit of time, and overhead.  We use expensive software -- $3-4,000 per year -- and need expensive computer hardware to run it.  We also have all of the salary, healthcare, office, and other costs that any other professional does.  To pay someone a reasonable salary based on the education and training they have takes billing rates in the $100-$150/hour range depending on the type of work and expertise required.  We build proposals based on those kinds of rates.  Sometimes they're a little lower or higher depending on the difficulty we expect or a number of other variables.  It might make you feel better to compare those rates to those of auto mechanics and lawyers -- architects get paid more like mechanics than lawyers, despite having more hours in education and professional training than most lawyers.  Anyway, the figures below are based on that sort of calculus.
Option 1: Full Service
This is what many people think of when they think about hiring an architect.  We produce a fully detailed set of plans that the contractor will use to pull a building permit and then build your project.  We spend a lot of time with you during design to be sure that the project will meet your needs, then we create a comprehensive set of plans with lots of details about how things will be built.  We work with programs that let us generate views showing how the project will look when it's built, so we can make sure that you're happy with it.  During construction, we make regular site visits to make sure that the project is being built how we drew it up, we meet regularly with you and the contractor, and we act as your agent to protect your interests.  That can include reviewing and approving the materials that the contractor uses, reviewing the contractor pay applications to be sure that you're being charged appropriately, and answering any questions that arise from you or the contractor as construction progresses.
This is the way to go if you want to make sure that construction is streamlined and easy, although obviously hiring the right contractor is critical.  It's our job in this scenario to make sure that you're being treated fairly, that the contractor is building what we showed, and that problems are resolved as they arise.  Depending on size and complexity, our services will generally cost 15-20% of what it costs to build the project -- less for bigger projects, and more for smaller projects.
Option 2: Builder's Set
This is a reduced scope which some people find meets their needs better for small projects, including new houses, residential, and small commercial projects.  Here, we produce the minimum needed to articulate the design and the drawings needed for your contractor to obtain a building permit.  There are lots of variables to this, depending on the size of the project, how many options you want to see, whether you want additional details for your contractor to follow, and how in-depth into various parts of the design you want to go.  Done this way, our average single-family home is seven to eight thousand dollars; the cost of a commercial project will depend on the size of the project.  At the end, you have the drawings that you'll need to obtain a building permit from the city.
It's important to know that going this route will cost less than the full service option, but it also means that once we hand over drawings, we're done unless you call us and ask for something more.  Why is that significant?  Well, there's a whole article coming up on just that topic, but in short, it's this: construction is complicated.  It's not possible to anticipate every possibility.  The contractor will build something differently than it's shown, you'll open up a wall and find something we didn't expect, or there will be something unclear in the drawings.  These are all completely normal conditions and completely normal parts of construction.  
Resolving those situations to your satisfaction is what's important.  If it's just the contractor resolving things, it can be easy to lose sight of what you wanted in the first place.  We can also offer a different perspective on issues than a contractor can.  We think about things differently and will have different ideas about how to tweak things if issues arise.  Sometimes that can save a lot of money.  Sometimes it might cost a little more but save a project from being a major disappointment.  If you'd like support during construction but don't want to go the full service option, we're also more than happy to help out on an hourly basis.  How much that costs will vary depending on your desires and expectations.  
Option 3: Design/Build
You care about design.  So do we.  We'll design AND build.  If you have a small project and want it done RIGHT, then this is an option worth considering.  We've got some fabrication and general contracting capacity for small, design-centric projects, furniture, and similar stuff.  But because we're careful and building up slowly, we're only tackling quite small projects this way right now.  Doing a project this way might also go more slowly and deliberately than if you were to hire a big contractor, but we stand behind the quality of what we do.
Option 4: I Don't Have Any Money to Spend On Design!
We hear you.  Building and designing things can be expensive.  We're also more than happy to consult with you on your project rather than providing a complete design.  We've done everything from choose paint colors, to review plans you already have, to look at a house you're thinking about buying.  We'll do that hourly, and usually an hour or two is enough to give you some ideas about how to proceed.
Got Questions?
Ask, please -- contact us by phone, email, Facebook, or whatever works for you.  We're happy to talk through your situation or to come meet you.  And come back soon for part 2 of the series, about the design process.