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Selecting the Designer

The first step in the construction process is to determine if you will need a professional to provide design and drawings suitable for permitting and construction. Each jurisdiction has their own requirements regarding when a Building Permit is required for a construction project. This can be easily verified by contacting the Plans Review or Permit Department of the jurisdiction where the work will occur. In general, if your improvements only involve painting and flooring, a Building Permit will not be required. In most locales, any reconfiguration of the space or any structural changes will require permits. Also, depending on the jurisdiction, you may need a use and occupancy permit and inspection prior to move in. This may also require a professional.

In most cases, a new space will need modification which will require permits. Today, building departments and landlords typically require a professionally prepared permit and construction drawings. This means you will need to hire a registered architect to produce the required documents. If the construction scope includes structural, mechanical, plumbing or electrical work then the architect will hire engineers who are licensed in these disciplines to prepare the required permit and construction drawings. At this point there are two options:

  1. Hire a registered architect or architectural firm.
  2. Hire a general contracting firm that is equipped to provide both the design and construction. This firm would typically be known as a Design/Build General Contractor.

In this episode, we will look at the first option and the recommended process in hiring the architectural firm that fits your needs.

The search can begin with asking for referrals from the new landlord, property owner, friends and business associates. If you are a member of an organization or association, this could also be a good resource. Ideally, you can find at least 3 firms to consider. Begin researching each of the companies by checking their web sites and their on line portfolio of past projects to determine if the firm has provided designs that are similar to your needs and the style you are pursuing.

The next step is to meet with at least 3 firms to determine your best fit. You should be prepared to present your preliminary ideas for layout, finishes, budget and schedule. Then, carefully listen to what the candidates say. Are they good listeners?  Do they hear and understand your thoughts and ideas? Do they think your budget and schedule are within reason? Will the architect you meet personally be involved with your project? Is there positive chemistry between you and the prospective architect? Also, it is important to determine that the architect is licensed in the jurisdiction where your project is located. You should also confirm that they carry liability insurance and that their policy is current with policy limitations that are reasonable.

Assuming you receive acceptable responses, ask for references and diligently check them out. They will only give references that they feel will provide positive reviews so, you will need to ask some probing questions. When speaking to the referrals ask if the design team met their schedule. How close did the actual cost come in with your budget? Were there change orders due to design errors? How well did the architect respond to the contractors questions? Were revisions made in a timely manner?

If the references are positive, then request design fee proposals from each of the 3 firms. These should detail their work scope, costs, fees for extra work and billing process. When reviewing the design fee proposals, confirm that the Scope of Work in their proposals align with your needs and expectations. Confirm that all necessary engineering is included. If you requested interior design services, confirm that this service is included in their fee or will it be an extra service. If you requested presentation renderings, confirm that they are included in the proposals. Basically, assume nothing and ask questions when in doubt.

To clarify the proposals, it is a good idea to make a checklist of the following:

  • Relevant experience
  • Technical competence
  • History of cost overruns
  • History of time delays
  • History of design errors
  • Sensitivity to budget considerations
  • Sensitivity to your schedule
  • Did they listen to what you were saying?
  • Did they ask the right questions?
  • Did they offer creative solutions?
  • Did you feel comfortable?
  • Verify that you will be working directly with the architect you are interviewing

Then, based on the checklist, your level of comfort and their proposed costs you are now in a position to make a logical and intelligent final selection.

So, where did the dentist in our first episode go wrong? The first architect he hired created a design that turned out to be insufficient and did not meet the dentist’s needs. Unhappily, the dentist did not realize this until permits were in place and walls were built. The second architect met the needs for the layout of the new offices but did not consider constructability and budget. In the end what should have taken a few months for design, permits and construction took more than a year. To make matters worse, the cost was more than doubled.

In the next episode, we will review the Design/Build option.

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