To get started, here are some questions to consider about your project. Having answers prepared for these type of questions will help you narrow your search and let the architects you speak to know how to best assist you.

  • How much time and energy are you willing to invest to maintain your home?
  • If you are thinking of an addition to your home, what functions / activities will be housed in the new space?
  • What do you think the addition / renovation / new home should look like? Do you have strong ideas about design styles?
  • What is your budget?
  • Who will be the primary contact for those involved in designing and building your project? (It is good to have one point of contact to prevent confusion and mixed messages.)
  • What qualities are you looking for in an architect?
  • How much time do you have to be involved in the design and construction process? Do you plan to do any of the work yourself?

If you’re not sure what questions you should be asking when searching for the right architect for your project, use these suggestions as a starting point. Choose the questions that speak to your specific concerns and goals.

  • What does the architect see as important issues or considerations in your project? What are the project’s challenges?
  • How will the architect approach your project and gather information about your needs, goals, etc?
  • How will the architect establish priorities and make decisions?
  • Who from the architecture firm will you deal with directly? Is the individual you’re speaking to the same person who will design the project? If not, who will design your project?
  • How interested is the architect in this project? How busy is the architect?
  • What sets this architect apart from the rest for this project?
  • How does the architect establish fees? What would the architect expect the fee to be for this project?
  • What are the steps in the design process? How does the architect organize the process? What does the architect expect you to provide?
  • What is the architect’s design philosophy? Will the architect show you models, drawings, or computer renderings to explain the project?
  • How does the architect handle cost estimating? If the scope of the project changes, when will cost changes be conveyed and explained?
  • What services does the architect provide during construction?
  • How long does the architect expect it to take to complete your project?
  • Can the architect share a list of past clients / references?

What to Expect

The first stage, called programming, is probably the most valuable time you will spend with your architect. It is at this time that you discuss the requirements for your structure: how many rooms; what function it will have; who will use it and how. It is also the time when you begin to test the fit between what you want, what you need, and what you can spend.

Do not start the process with solutions already decided. Be prepared to explore new and creative ideas. Be very frank about how you want the end result to feel and work. The architect will ask you questions to get a better sense of your goals and needs, and to determine if your expectations match your budget. The architect may suggest changes based upon knowledge, experience, your timeline and the budget. After thoroughly discussing your functional requirements, the architect will prepare a statement outlining the scope of work.

Once you have defined what is to be built, the architect will do a series of rough sketches, known as schematic designs. These sketches will show you the general arrangement of rooms and of the site. If you have difficulty understanding the sketches (many people do), ask the architect to explain them to you. Depending on the project, some architects will also make models of the design to help you better visualize it. These sketches are not “finished” construction documents. They are meant to show possible approaches for you to consider.

The architect will refine and revise the sketches until a solution is developed that you agree meets your needs. At this point, the architect will also give you a rough preliminary estimate of construction cost. Remember, there are still many more details to be established about your project and this cost estimate is very general. It is hard to predict market conditions, the availability of materials, and other unforeseen situations that could drive up costs. Therefore, this figure must include a healthy contingency to cover cost changes that arise as the design matures.

Don’t worry if these initial sketches seem different from what you first envisioned. Ask your architect how these designs satisfy the requirements you discussed in the first stage. It is vital that you and your architect are clear about what you want and what the architect intends to design. It is much easier to make changes now when your project is on paper, then later when foundations have been poured and walls erected. Before proceeding to the next phase, the architect will ask for your approval of these sketches.

This step, called design development, is when the architect prepares more detailed drawings to illustrate other aspects of the proposed design. The floor plans show all the rooms in the correct size and shape. Outline specifications are prepared, listing the major materials and room finishes.

When looking at these drawings, try to imagine yourself actually using the spaces. Ask yourself: Do the traffic patterns flow well? Does each space serve the intended purpose? Do I have a good sense of what it will look like? Do I like how it looks? Do I agree with the selection of wall and ceiling finishes, door types, windows, etc.?

Based on these drawings, the architect will prepare a more detailed estimate, though final costs will depend on market conditions. Review every element with your architect to make sure you understand the costs.

At this point, the architect prepares construction documents – the detailed drawings and specifications that the contractor will use to establish actual construction cost and to build the project. These drawings and specifications become part of the contract. When construction documents are finished, you are ready to hire the general contractor or builder.

There are a number of ways to select a contractor. Your architect can make recommendations, or if you already have someone you want to work with, you might send the construction documents to him or her and negotiate fees and costs. Or you may wish to choose among several contractors you’ve asked to submit bids on the job. The architect will help you prepare the bidding documents, which consist of drawings and specifications as well as invitations to bid and instructions to bidders. The bidding documents are then sent to several contractors, who within a given period of time, reply with bids, which include the cost for building your project. The lowest bidder is often selected to do the work, but not always. Your architect will help you make the contractor selection based on the best value.

While the architect can recommend contractors and assist in the selection process, the final choice is up to you. Some people prefer to act as their own general contractor or to do part or all of the construction themselves. These methods can save you money initially but can also add problems and costs later. Discuss the pros and cons of these methods with your architect to help you decide what will work best.

This final step is often the most anxiety-producing of the whole process. Up until now, your project has been confined to intense discussion, planning, and two-dimensions. When construction begins, your project moves from an abstraction to a physical reality.

The architect’s involvement normally does not stop with the preparation of construction documents. Architects also provide construction administration services. These services may include assisting you in hiring the contractor, making site visits, reviewing and approving the contractor’s applications for payment, and keeping you informed of the project’s progress.

While the architect observes construction, the contractor is solely responsible for construction methods, techniques, schedules, and procedures. The contractor supervises and directs the construction work on the project.

The path to a completed building project is paved with lots of challenges and uncertainty. There are literally hundreds of decisions to be made, decisions which have a strong impact on how the project looks and functions over time.

The architect can ease the way by helping you avoid wrong turns, but also can direct you to solutions you never considered. The result is a unique building project created to meet your needs, express your individuality, and provide enjoyment for everyone who uses it.

Choosing an Architect

Each architect has an individual style, approach to design, and method of work. So, it is important to find an architect who is compatible with your style and needs. Build a list of possibilities. Search the Member Firm Directory to find local architects.

Ask around.
Find out who has designed some projects in your community that you like. Get recommendations from friends, relatives, and acquaintances that have worked with architects. Check to see if the architect is a member of The American Institute of Architects (AIA). Membership in the AIA means that the architect subscribes to a high professional purpose to advance standards of practice and service to society. This includes having a Code of Ethics and access to a variety of professional and technical resources.

Call each firm on your short list.
Describe your project and ask if they are available. If so, request literature that outlines the firm’s qualifications and experience. If the office is unable to handle your project, ask if they can recommend another firm.

Interview each firm.
Interviewing a firm gives you a chance to meet the people who will design your project and to learn if the chemistry between you is right. You may be working with your architect for a long time, so look for someone with whom you feel comfortable. Allow at least an hour for the interview, preferably at the architect’s office where you can see where the work will be done. Some architects charge for the interview; ask if there is a fee.

Before you select an architect
Ask to be taken to at least one completed project. Also, ask for references from past clients. These are invaluable. In addition, obtain an Architect’s Qualification Statement (B305) from your local AIA chapter. This standardized document may be used to verify an architect’s credentials and other information prior to selecting an architect for a project.

Making the final cut
Unlike buying a new car or new appliance, you cannot see the product and test it out. The architect provides a professional service, not a product. The right architect will be the one who can provide the judgment, technical expertise, and creative skills—at a reasonable cost—to help you realize a project that fits your practical needs as well as your dreams.

There is no set fee arrangement for a particular type of project. Fees are established in a number of ways depending on the type of project, plus the extent and nature of services required from an architect.

Common methods of compensation include: hourly rates; a stipulated sum based on the architect’s compensation proposal; a stipulated sum per unit of what is to be built (i.e. the number of square feet or rooms); a percentage of construction costs; or a combination of these methods. Your architect will explain how a fee is to be established. Then, the basis for the fee, the amount, and the payment schedule are issues for you and your architect to work out together.

The 2000 Means Square Footage Cost Data Survey indicates that fees for architectural services on a custom house can range from 5 to 15 percent of the total cost of construction. Factors that affect the fees include the scope of the project, the level of quality and detail, and economic conditions.

The architect’s fee is usually a relatively small part of the whole cost of the entire building project including the estimated construction cost (on which the fee is computed), the furnishings and equipment, and the cost of a house over a 25-year period. Your actual expenditure is probably two and a half times the initial price tag. See a simplified hypothetical case for a new house.

The AIA Contract Documents Program, the oldest and most comprehensive program of its kind in the world, develops standardized contract forms and administrative procedures for the building industry. AIA contracts provide the basis for nationwide uniformity for contractual relationships in the design and construction process. They represent the state of the law regarding construction industry practices and new legal developments. Most importantly, they assure fairness to all parties–owners, architects, engineers, builders, and contractors–and contribute to successful projects.

Any project will benefit from the use of AIA contract documents. Contact AIA Pittsburgh to purchase AIA contract documents or follow the link to shop online.

The following are some of the more commonly used documents:

A101 Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Contractor

A201 General Conditions of the Contract for Construction

B141 Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect

G701 Change Order

G702 Application and Certificate for Payment

G704 Certificate of Substantial Completion

Renovating vs. New

An AIA architect can help you decide. The costs of renovating should be weighed against the value of your house, neighborhood real-estate values, and the availability of other properties that could meet your needs. Many times, renovations are not, or are just barely, cost effective. Kitchens and larger bedrooms typically bring a higher return on your investment than other spaces or amenities. When analyzing your wants and needs, an architect might ask: Do you want to improve your house for you and your family or to increase its resale value? If you intend to move three to five years after the renovation is complete, it may not be worthwhile going through the renovation process.

It is easy for renovation projects to snowball when you begin to consider existing utilities, wiring, insulation, and windows–even finishing touches such as window coverings, furnishings, and artwork. Meeting with an architect to plan your renovation sets the stage for building cost-efficiency into your project. By setting parameters early in the renovation process, your architect can help you control costs before construction begins.


Your architect will help you understand how you use the space you have now, and how you will use the space you want to create through the renovation. Do you want formal, quiet space separate from common areas, or airy, informal space? Have you thought about how the renovated space could be designed to fit your family as it changes over time? Have you thought about how the space could serve a dual-purpose, such as a home office that can double as a guest bedroom? Designing for multiple purposes can minimize the additional square footage you’ll need and maximize the square footage you’ll create. For example, you might want to expand the living room to provide quiet space for reading and occasional work at home. But after exploring how your family currently uses space, the architect might demonstrate how the space and privacy you desire is best attained by creating a large bedroom instead. Your architect has the knowledge and experience to show you options and possibilities.

Anticipate potential problems lurking behind walls and floors. Potential problems can be hidden, especially in older homes: plumbing, wiring, heating ducts, and foundation. It is important to consider how these systems might be affected by your renovation and the potential effect this could have on your budget. Outdated wiring may not support the increased power needs of your modern home office or family room. A new kitchen or bath might require considerable rerouting and replacement of existing plumbing. A weak foundation might have to be reinforced to support an addition. An AIA architect takes such possibilities into account when assessing your situation and developing a design, which can help avoid costly surprises later when you are under construction.

Visit the job site and administer construction. An architect’s involvement does not end with preparing drawings for the renovation. As your adviser and agent, the architect will visit the site to protect you against work that is not according to plan. With an architect observing construction, you get informed reports of the project’s progress, a trained eye toward quality control, and even a check on the contractor’s invoices–mandating that the contractor does not get paid until the architect is satisfied that the contractor has fulfilled all obligations to you.


Analyze your wants and needs. Are your needs specialized enough to warrant building a custom-designed home, or would a tract home built to certain specifications suit your needs just as well? An AIA architect can help you decide. The cost of building your custom home and its anticipated value should be consistent with real estate values of the surrounding neighborhood. When analyzing your situation, an AIA architect might ask if you want to make your house more livable for yourself, or make it more salable to the next owner.

Share everything you can with your architect: your thoughts, notes, sketches, photos from magazines—anything that illustrates what you like. Tell your architect about your routines, the way you function in your current home, and what you like and do not like about it.

It is often said that architects not only have the answers they also know which questions to ask: How many rooms will you need? How will the home function? Who will use it and how? What are your tastes? How long do you plan to live in the home? Do you work at home? How much time do you spend in the living areas, bedrooms, kitchen, den, office, or utility space? How much time and energy are you willing to invest to maintain your house?

By asking a wide range of questions about your goals, an AIA architect can outline the scope of your project in detail. Doing so also sets the stage for building cost-efficiency into your project. By setting parameters early in the process, your architect can help you control costs before you even break ground.

Marry your wants with practicality. There are many decisions to be made in the planning stages of a building project and during construction. These decisions will determine how your new home will function, what it will cost and what it may be worth in the future. If consulted in the earliest planning stage, an AIA architect can help you make smart decisions about your home’s design that will serve you in surprising ways. It is critical to have a realistic understanding of the potential and the limitations of your project’s budget. Often an architect can propose ways of altering square footage or the type of materials to be used.

Design for your future. If this is your “forever” home, an architect can: provide flexible design options to accommodate your changing family size or reduced mobility as you grow older; help choose certain amenities that can affect long-term value and resale; propose ways to lower energy costs and house maintenance over the long term; even suggest features such as window options that can protect carpets, flooring, and upholstery from damaging ultraviolet rays. Your AIA architect can help you see the big picture and design solutions with the long term in mind.

Visualize the design. Once you and your AIA architect define what is to be built, the architect can help you visualize the design possibilities in a number of ways. Using rough sketches or computer programs, the architect can show you the general arrangement of your new house and its effect on the site. While not finished construction documents, these visual representations are meant to show possible approaches for you to consider. An AIA architect can refine these concepts until a solution is developed that meets your needs.

Depending on the project, your architect might also provide three-dimensional renderings, build models, or even stake the site so you can physically see important features, such as traffic flow, access, and views.

After your approval, the design is developed even further. Your architect will prepare detailed drawings to illustrate floor plans which show all the spaces to be built in their correct proportions, down to almost every detail. Outline specifications are also prepared that specify the primary materials and finishes to be used.

Many architects also provide interior design services. Ask to see examples of their interior work. If these examples suit your tastes, the architect can help you get the most out of the design process right up to selection and placement of furniture, wall color schemes, fabrics, and window treatments. These important finishing touches, advised by your architect, ensure continuity with the design of the home and enhance of its architecture.

Schedule the work. After the design phases are complete, the management and scheduling of the construction work is critical. The actual work of construction could disrupt your lifestyle considerably. The many details that need to be addressed can be overwhelming. Making such decisions and coordinating the necessary manpower and materials requires professional attention.

Your architect has been through the construction process many times – this may be the first time for you. Depend on your architect as much as possible. An architect can help anticipate problems so that your decisions are followed, construction is carried out efficiently, and the project is kept on track.

An Architect Can Help

It is tempting to look for that idyllic location to build your dream home, but it is best to talk with an AIA architect first. After discussing your ideas and available resources, your architect can help you prepare a preliminary budget that reflects what you want, what you can afford, and what types of properties might suit both criteria. A little work upfront can make your search for the right site more efficient, and can present some unexpected, exciting possibilities. The earlier in the planning process you consult an architect, the better you prepare yourself for finding a site that matches your dreams with reality.

Explore the Potential of Your Site

The property where you will build your home may present some distinct design opportunities and perhaps some hidden hazards. Your architect can help you unmask the character and potential costs of your site-before you buy.

For example, you will probably want to take advantage of a favorable view and sun exposure while protecting your home against wind and weather. Are there existing trees on the site that you will want to save? Are utilities such as water, sewer, natural gas, electric, telephone, and TV/cable available? How much privacy do you want between your house and the surrounding community? Which school district services your area? Are there other costs associated with the site such as traffic impact fees, homeowner’s dues, sewer and water tap fees, landscaping assessments, snow or trash removal fees? Finally, would purchase of the property leave you with enough in your project budget to develop a home? A clear understanding of such factors can help you make smart decisions in choosing the site for your new home.

Consider the Lay of the Land

Of course, building a new home literally begins at ground level. The characteristics of the site affect the design and function of your home. For example, is the geology of the site primarily sand, rock, or soil? The type of soil could affect rainwater drainage. Or, if no public sewage system is available, how well the soil percolates could affect the function or placement of a septic field. And if no public water system exists, how likely are you to hit water by drilling a well?

Can the site support the placement of structures at a reasonable cost? How will the slope of the site relate to the type of house you desire, such as a one-story or two-story home with a walk-out basement? In short, is the land buildable, and at a reasonable cost? Walk the site with your architect to learn if your project is feasible and what impact such factors might have on the site. Doing so also leads to some exciting design possibilities.

Determine if local zoning and other restrictions will affect your project. It is important to know if any zoning ordinances or regulations exist that might restrict development of the property. These might dictate how much of the property can be covered by a structure, its height, how far it must be set back from the property line or roadway, and protection of existing trees and landscape. Likewise, you will want to know about any proposed development of adjacent or nearby properties, such as new roadways or commercial construction. Being familiar with the building codes and zoning ordinances in your area, an AIA architect can help you determine where these apply to your project, and can assist with filing applications or obtaining the necessary permits for building your custom design.

General Architectural Terms

Approved Equal—-Material, equipment, or method proposed by the contractor and approved by the architect for incorporation in or use in the work as equivalent in essential attributes to the material, equipment, or method specified in the contract document.

Architect—-A designation reserved, usually by law, for a person or organization professionally qualified and duly licensed to perform architectural services.

Building Codes—-Regulations, ordinances, or statutory requirements of a government unit relating to building construction and occupancy, generally adopted and administered for the protection of public health, safety, and welfare.

Change Order—–An amendment to the construction contract signed by the owner, architect, and contractor that authorizes a change in the work or an adjustment in the contract sum or the contract time or both.

Construction Budget—–The sum established by the owner as available for construction of the project, including contingencies for bidding to contractors, and for changes during construction.

Construction Documents—-Drawings and specifications created by an architect that set forth in detail requirements for the construction of the project.

Cost Analysis—-The architect calculates expected future operating, maintenance, and replacement costs of desired designs and features to assist homeowners in developing a realistic design and budget estimate.

Design/Build—-A method of project delivery in which the owner contracts directly with a single entity that is responsible for both design and construction services for a construction project.

Design Development—-The architect prepares more detailed drawings and finalizes the design plans, showing correct sizes and shapes for rooms. Also included is an outline of the construction specifications, listing the major materials to be used.

Programming—-The architect and homeowner first discuss the goals, needs, and function of the project design expectations and available budget, and pertinent building code and zoning regulations. The architect prepares a written statement setting forth design objectives, constraints, and criteria for a project, including special requirements, and system and site requirements.

Project Budget—-The sum established by the owner as available for the entire project, including the construction budget, land costs, costs of furniture, furnishings, and equipment financing costs, compensation for professional services, cost of owner-furnished goods and services, contingency allowance, and similar established or estimated costs.

Schematic Design Phase—-The architect consults with the owner to determine the requirements of the project and prepares schematic studies consisting of drawings and other documents illustrating the scale and relationships of the project components for approval by the owner. The architect also submits to the owner a preliminary estimate of the construction cost based on current area, volume, or other unit costs.

Specifications—-A part of the construction documents contained in the project manual consisting of written requirements for materials, equipment, construction systems, standards, and workmanship.

Square Footage—-Can be calculated as both gross and net square footage. No uniform standard for computing residential square footage yet exists. Architects, builders, and realtors each measure square footage differently. Square footage is not always an indication of the livable space available in a structure. Owners are encouraged to ask for an explanation of which spaces were included in the square footage calculation.