Do you need an architect?

Before the first hammer is lifted — or even the first check is written — on a home improvement project, homeowners have a big decision: Find an architect or go the design-build route?

Materials. Prices. Colors. Accessories. Home improvement projects involve innumerable decisions. But the most important decision is who to trust with your time and money. Explore the difference between architects and design-build firms, and choose the option that works best for your home.

Why choose an architect?

An architect’s education typically includes five years of college, followed by a three-year architecture apprenticeship. They are then required to pass a professional licensing exam. “Anyone can draw a house or a building. Only registered architects can call themselves architects,” says architect Bruce Knutson of Bruce Knutson Architects Inc. in Golden Valley.

Some architects hire contractors and builders, acting as the liaison between the client and crew. “We don’t expect our clients to be at the site checking the wire and plumbing,” Knutson says. “We’re good at putting together teams.” Others hand off the plans and leave the homeowner to choose a builder.

A common misperception is that architects are only necessary for big jobs. “There is no job too small for me. Architects excel with full houses, but some of our best contributions are small remodeling projects,” Knutson says. Architects specialize in design and “space flow function,” or the relationship between room sizes and function. Architects may be ideal for matching a historic look, dealing with complicated rooflines, or making one-of-a-kind statements.

Lake Calhoun homeowner Sandy Hay has worked with Knutson on several projects. She enjoys working with an architect because of their ability to modify ideas mid-construction.

“The plans are one thing, but then they see a better solution on-site and can rework the plan,” Hay says. “I’m not saying you couldn’t find a fabulous design-build combination. But when the architects and builders are the same people, there’s only one voice representing what you want,” says Sandy Hay.

Why choose a 
design-build firm?

Think of design-build as one-stop shopping for design and construction. Firms use an in-house team of designers, contractors and builders. They control the process from project design to completion, while subcontracting specific plumbing and electrical trades.

Unlike architecture, there is not a legal registration requirement for design-build firms. However, they do hold both remodeling and building licenses. “A true design-build firm has individuals who carry a level of education in design and architecture. Some even have an architect on staff,” says Michael Anschel of Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build, LLC in Minneapolis.

Whereas architects may redesign a home’s layout, design-build firms approach projects from a practical, budget-conscious level. “We’ll use existing structural pieces and avoid complicated solutions. We know what designs work, because we have to build them after we design them,” Anschel says.

A misconception about design-build is that projects have to be small. “Size has nothing to do with the ability to design space. It has to do with talent, ability and attention to detail,” Anschel says. Design-build firms are ideal for modern additions, remodeling projects and non-negotiable budget constraints.

How can you decide?

Ask questions. Interview several architects and firms to get a feel for a working chemistry. Don’t hesitate to follow up with a second interview or to discuss details of the project. “You want someone who is an extension of you and your desires,” Hay says.

Choose wisely. Evaluate the person’s track record and portfolio. “There are some who are good and some who are not. It isn’t a matter of titles, but really looking at the person or team’s skills,” Anschel says.

Build an interpersonal relationship. Be clear about your decisions. “When you’re working with couples, they don’t actually say what they mean,” Knutson says. “The husband might say there isn’t a budget, but of course, there is. People aren’t always as open with a third person until after you establish a working relationship, and that takes time.”

Make a wish list. Write down every detail you want included in the project, from fixtures to crown molding. This helps the process of planning and creating an ideal finished product.