Finding and Hiring an Architect
by Don Leighton-Burwell, AIA/Tenth Times October 1996

It has been my experience that the profession and role of architects is often misunderstood by the public and even by factions within the construction industry. The reasons for using an architect are as varied as the scope of services that he/she might provide. I want to define a systematic way of finding and hiring an architect who will serve your needs, and of clearly stating the benefits of using an architect on your project.

The construction of a project is a complicated process and daunting to the inexperienced. Amidst a “jigsaw puzzle” of design options, building and accessibility codes, zoning laws, and contractors, it is easy to see why many people are overwhelmed by the shear thought of setting out to build a new project. Add to that the reality that no two buildings are alike, and at best, the construction of a project is an inexact science, it is easy to see that competent professional guidance can add greatly to the success of a project. In the words of Vitruvius, an ancient writer on architectural theory and practice, the three goals of architecture are firmness (durability), commodity (functionality) and delight (aesthetics).

Not unlike dentists, architects have a rigorous routine of schooling, internship and eventual licensing within the states that they practice. Architects are trained to see the “big picture”. We do not just design four walls and a roof, but create environments that solve functional needs in exciting and dynamic ways. We solve problems in creative ways that can have a transformational effect on the quality of life of the people who use the facility. And architects can save you money. The investment that you make in an architect’s services is ultimately not an added cost to your project. A well-conceived project can be built more efficiently and economically; energy-efficient/sustainable buildings will save you money and lessen the effect on our environment; durable, yet economical choices in materials and finishes can effect your budget and reduce maintenance costs; and, good design sells. Your patients and colleagues will see tangible evidence of your commitment to high quality within your practice as manifested in your facility, as well as greater resale value as a result of good design.

Ultimately, an architect can make your life easier by deftly guiding you through the often messy and disruptive process of building. Acting as your agent, the architect can coordinate engineering and other design services; work with your dental dealer and contractor; and, serve as the team leader throughout the design and construction process.

As professionals, each architect has their own approach to design and methods of working. You will want to ensure that your choice of an architect is someone with whom you can be in partnership, someone with whom you trust and feel comfortable. In dental design, it is important to find someone that has had a reasonable background in this discipline; if not, you will spend many personal hours as the consultant taking valuable time from your practice and family. Finding someone who will do your project “cheaply” will often cost you more than if you pay an experienced person a fair fee at the onset of your project.

Talk to your colleagues that have offices (with qualities that you want in your own) about who designed their offices. Check with the local chapter of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) for resources of firms specializing in dental design. Call each firm, describe your project and check their availability to work with you. Ask to see a list of references, as well as documentation on qualifications and experience. Narrow your list to two or three firms, and set up interviews. Remember that the relationship with your architect may last a long time. Ask yourself these questions: Is this someone that you trust? Is the chemistry right? Is this person attentive to your goals? Ask the architect: Who will actually design your project? What range of fees can you anticipate?

After the interview process, choose who you want to work with. Like dentists, architects provide a service not a product. You cannot “test drive” your final design. Choose the architect that exhibits the judgement, expertise, and creative skills to help you realize your project goals at a reasonable cost.

Fees will vary based on the scope of the project. Small projects or consulting are often done on an hourly basis. Projects that require a more comprehensive service are often done for a fixed fee or a combination of other fee structures. Keep in mind that architects spend many hours, weeks and months in creating the necessary documentation and administration of a project. Fees must realistically reflect the amount of time and service required of a project. As we all know, “you get what you pay for”. Hiring an architect is ultimately an investment in the future of your practice and should accurately mirror your goals.

Once you have found the architect that you want to work with, document in writing the terms of your agreement including scope of work, services, schedule, construction budget and the architect’s compensation. Standard AIA contract forms are available and widely used, and will ensure that all the terms of the agreement are clearly understood.

Agree to work in partnership with your architect. Take an active role, and relish your part in the creative challenges ahead. The process should be dynamic, fun and exciting. If at any point you are not satisfied, discuss your concerns with your architect. The teamwork between you and your architect, and the relationship that you are building, will ideally continue well beyond the completion of your project.