Hiring the right architect for a renovation or a new house is difficult enough. Adding the qualification “green” to the mix makes the search even more complicated.

Architectural plans, bundled, basketThe first question you need to ask yourself is whether you need an architect in the first place. Alternative approaches include hiring a design-build firmobtaining a stock house plan online and working with an un-licensed architect or designer.

There are various philosophies on how to decide. One is that you should hire an architect if your project will increase your home value by 5 percent; another by 10 percent. Some say you only need an architect if you’re making significant changes to your floor plan or to the exterior of the structure. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, and as with many guidelines, we tend to follow those we’re predisposed toward.

Some design-builders, structural engineers and other professionals will argue that you don’t necessarily need an architect even when those rules of thumb apply. And it’s true that the overwhelming majority of custom homes and additions aren’t even custom designed by architects nowadays.

Hiring an architect is generally regarded as the most expensive approach to designing a house. On the other hand, a good architect should put you in the position to get a more aesthetically pleasing, comfortable and better designed house, and to avoid errors that have to be corrected during the construction process or later. At root, avoiding those errors essentially the architect’s job, and the laws are structured in such a way as to place the liability for such mistakes on the architect rather than on you.

The bottom line: Whichever approach you choose, the professionals you work with should be as committed from the start to the green-ness of the project as you are.

If you do decide to go the custom architecture route, make sure your have a solid idea of what an architect actually does and doesn’t do.

Licensed (or registered) architects are the full-fledged professionals of the business. Professionals at architecture firms with such titles as “project manager” or “designer” often have an architecture degree and even quite a bit of experience; but usually they aren’t called “architect” because they haven’t completed the licensing process. That’s significant because anyone who isn’t licensed won’t be able to stamp your construction documents with a professional seal, which is required by most local permitting offices. In addition, the liability they take on for your project’s design will be a lot less clearcut, leaving you more financially exposed.

The American Institute of Architects — and most trained architects — break their work into five stages: The preliminary design, or schematic phase; design development; construction document preparation; bidding and negotiation (with the contractor); and construction administration (oversight of construction). The American Institute of Architects describes those phases more completely here; more than likely, the licensed architect you work with will follow some variation.

For those who do choose do go with an architect, let’s break the task down to a six-step selection process:

1. Scope out your project.

The first order of business is to settle on a good working idea of what your project entails.

With your family, list the features of your renovation, addition or new home project: What rooms will it include? What’s the site like? What’s the neighborhood likes? When do you want to begin? Is there a deadline for completion? How much do you plan to spend (“soft budget” limit)? What’s your hard budget limit? What styles do you and your family prefer? What kind of green features do you envision? Are you willing to pay a premium for those green features? How long do you want to wait before you get a return on your investment? How long to you plan to stay in the house?

Your answers won’t be your final words on these decisions, and you certainly don’t need to answer all those questions before shopping for an architect. It’s just will good to have a structured idea of what you’re shopping for. You can write out those wants and needs in the form form of list. For the purpose of succinctly describing the job to prospective architects, you may also wish to convert the highlights into a paragraph form — sort of like a mission statement.

2. Gather your leads.

There are plenty of places to gather up leads on green architects. If you know people with experience any of the green building fields or just good builders or tradespeople in general, start by asking for their recommendations — with a particular eye toward narrowing it down to architects with experience on projects that are similar to yours.

Currently no single online tool offers any more than a very narrow slice of the talent that’s out there, but some sites should still be able to provide some leads:

  • The U.S. Green Building Council’s online directory allows you to narrow your search of LEED certified professionals by profession, location and specialty. To search for a certified residential architect, type in your city and state, choose “architecture” under “Area of Practice,” and check “LEED AP for Homes.” But that search will only yield a fraction of “green architects” in your area because only a tiny percentage of green architects actually are certified for LEED for Homes.
  • Some state chapters of the American Institute of Architects allow you to search for architects who have a special interest in “sustainability” or “environmental design.” As of this writing, the national site’s “Find an Architect” tool doesn’t provide that option. But you can link from the national site to chapters in your area, some of which will allow you to narrow your search to residential architects with an interested in sustainability. Still, be aware that this database includes only AiA members — again a small fraction of the profession.
  • Chapter leaders in the AiA Committee on the Environment (COTE) may be able to steer you toward green residential architects in their area. Find out more about those chapters here.
  • Regional certification programs — e.g. Earthcraft in the Southeast, Earth Advantage in the Pacific Northwest — typically credential builders but not architects. Still, you may be able to cull leads from these sources by contacting either the organization that runs your local certification program or some of the certified builders who catch your eye. Ask them if they’ve worked with or know of any good green architects.

3. Perform online reconnaissance

Your goal should be to have five to 15 firms’ names at this point. Now, check out what they have to say for themselves on their own websites. I’m more likely to read as lip service one phrase in-passing about “our commitment to environmental quality” on the “About Us”; but multiple examples of certified projects, several green credentials and repeated references to sustainability throughout the website are a sure sign that it’s a core value to them.

Peruse the firm’s website to answer these kinds of questions:

  • Examples of completed projects: Are many of them similar to your project in scale? Do the styles meet your fancy?
  • Mission or vision statements: How central are sustainability and other values you care about?
  • Green credentials: Is the architect you’d be working with certified for any green programs? Has she or he undergone special training related to your project?

Before even calling any firms, you also may wish to check your local Better Business Bureau for any complaints, as well as your state architecture licensing board for any sanctions. While complaints or sanctions sometimes shouldn’t necessarily disqualify a firm (there may be an explanation), they certainly ought to serve as a yellow flag.

4. Test the water.

Once you’ve narrowed you’re prospects down to three to five good potential candidates, you should be ready to give each an initial call. Your project description should be of some help to start the conversation. But here are some suggested questions (whether you ask the bulk of these over the phone or in person should be guided by your preference, although I suggest having most of the conversation in person):

  • Have you completed projects similar to ours?
  • What architectural styles are you comfortable with?
  • What green features have you incorporated into your projects and, off the bat, what features would you want us to consider? What other thoughts do you have on our project?
  • How much client participation do you find best for a project?
  • Would we be working with you directly? What other members of your firm would I be working with? How much of the actual work will be done by you and how much by other staff members?
  • At what stage would you bring other professionals into the planning conversation? Are you comfortable working with a team early on, or do you think it’s necessary for the client and the architect to settle on the design before bringing builders and tradesmen into the converstion?
  • Generally, what does a project like this end up costing?

Obviously some answers will fit the preferences of certain clients or the needs of certain projects. But one important piece of information shouldn’t change: Give the architect an opportunity to ask their own questions. The kinds of questions he or she asks, should give you an idea of the level of interest they have in your project.

As important as the specific details are, it’s also key to gauge your chemistry together. This is somebody you’ll be working with for several months or even longer — somebody who’ll play a major role in what could be the biggest investment in your life. Best to ensure beforehand that this is a person you can get along with when the stakes are that high.

5. Do your due diligence.

Ask your finalists for at least three references — the more recent and similar their projects are to yours, the better. It could be useful to visit one or two of completed sites with the architect, but be sure that you’re able to speak with these three clients separately. It may also be useful to speak with a current client and to view a project that’s currently underway. The objective here isn’t simply to get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down; you also want to get an idea about what makes the architect, about the working relationship, about strengths and weaknesses. Along those lines, here are some questions worth asking:

  • Did the architect work just on the design or did s/he also help with construction administration?
  • Did the the project come in on time?
  • Did the project come in under budget?
  • How did the architect’s commitment to sustainability play into the project?
  • What were the architect’s strengths? Weaknesses?
  • What was the biggest single source of tension?
  • Did you run into any issues over money?
  • Did you have to make difficult decisions together?
  • At what point did your contractor and/or tradespeople get involved in the project? Do you feel that they had the input necessary to plan the project out well?
  • Were their any surprises along the way? For example, was something in the plan
  • What suggestions do you have to make working with the architect go smoothly?

6. Talk money.

During “Test the waters” phase (above), you should start looking into the candidates’ fees and how they like to be paid.

An architect’s standard rates also will vary depending on the kind of project or the scope of the architect’s work on the project. For example, the cost for consulting on a design that just needs some tweaks should be a lot less than the cost for a designing a house from scratch, which — all other things being equal — will be less than both designing a project and performing “construction administration.” They also may vary

But complicating factor is that fee structures can be based on a variety of variables — hours, the overall project budget, square footage, or a combination of a couple of methods. Here’s a closer look at some of the alternatives:

• Percentage of project: This is the most common arrangement for whole houses, additions and major renovations. Typically a whole-house design will run 6-10 percent of the estimated cost of the construction; a whole-house design plus construction administration about 8-12 percent of the cost of the entire project; a renovation or addition design (which may include construction administration) around 12-20 percent of the cost of the entire project. It’s important to note that architects assume that their fees are in addition to the construction costs, not part of them. Obviously, the larger the budget, the more leverage the owner has in getting a lower percentage, which is one reason that high-end houses tend to rely more heavily on custom architects. One drawback is that your interest in economizing differs from the architect’s interest in the project.

• Square footage: Although uncommon (at least, in my neck of the woods — Atlanta), charging by the square foot theoretically makes sense for very standard projects, where the house doesn’t have  a lot of frills, unique features or unusual circumstances. Expect rates, without construction administration, to run as low as $3 a square foot and as high as $10. Architects I’ve spoken too hate charging by square foot because it locks them into the most basic design; but that doesn’t mean it’s good for clients because the incentive for the architect becomes doing the most mundane, least detailed drawings possible.

• Hourly: Hourly rates are often used for jobs of a limited scope, when the architect may be finishing a job that another architect started or where the job is so small so as not to justify charging as a percentage of the project. The big drawback is that hours have a way of creeping up on you: While the hourly number itself looks small, the overall cost of the project can grow huge after a few months. Rude surprise. If you do include hourly rate, the contract should specify the rates for each person who’s going to work on the project, and should lock in the rate for the duration of the project (so you don’t get a budget-busting price hike, just because a staff member was due for a raise). A licensed architect is likely to charge from $100 to $175 an hour, although you may find some perfectly good ones who’ll go as low as $75. Firms will generally charge between $65 and $95 for drafts-people, CAD assistants, and interns, and a bit more for unlicensed architects, often referred to as “designers.”

• “Hourly not to exceed”: This is a hybrid of the hourly rate and the project percentage (or it can be a hybrid of the hourly rate and a square-foot-rate). For the client, it’s preferable to an open-ended percentage not only because it caps architecture expenses, but also because it eliminates the architect’s incentive to keep growing the project (and hence her or his commission). In my opinion, this arrangement protects both the architect and the owner, but some architects don’t like it because they get stuck with low rates.

• Different fee structures at different stages: Architect Bob Borson blogs about a former boss of his who liked to charge hourly rates during the initial stages of a project, and then to shift to a square-footage rate. The idea is that the homeowner has an incentive to help the architect work efficiently and not to make endless changes during the more open-ended creative stages, while the square-foot method locks things in once the project is better defined.

To get a better idea about these money issues, I highly recommended a couple of posts linked from this article on Borson’s Life Of an Architect blog. Borson definitely sees things from the architect’s perspective, but his insights are useful for anyone trying to work out a contract with an architect.

One piece of advice he offers is particularly important: Talk through every potential issue that comes to mind with your potential architect — before signing a contract. We thought we did that with our first architect, but really hadn’t followed through on every little question. That led to misunderstandings afterward, and it cost us a lot of money.

In these early conversations, you’re not just trying to figure out if the architect’s skills and style match what you need. You also want to get an idea of the chemistry between you. After all, this person who will play a key role in setting in motion one of the most important projects of your life.