Guide to Working with an Architect

A Society of The American Institute of Architects

Guide to Working with an Architect

Building Relationships: A Guide to Working with an Architect

- The Architect’s Unique Perspective

- Architects Work with You to:

- The Design Process: A Healthy Give-And-Take 

- When To Hire An Architect

- How Architects Practice

- Project Delivery Methods

     1. Separate Contracts for Design and Construction
     2. One Contract for Both Design and Construction 

- How Architects Charge for Their Services 

- Practical Details: Contracts

- Phases of Design: An Outline

- Programming: Deciding What to Build

- Schematic Design: Developing Initial Design Concepts

- Design Development: Refining the Design

- Preparing Construction Documents: Drawings and Specifications

- Bidding or Negotiation Phase

- Construction and Construction Administration


The Architect’s Unique Perspective

Building projects are complex and expensive undertakings loaded with critical decisions. You can’t afford mistakes. Hiring an architect to help you through the process is one of the best investments you can make.

Architects are trained to analyze your functional needs, long-term company goals, corporate culture, and budget. Using this analysis, the architect designs a building that helps meet your current and future business needs. When designing a building, an architect seeks to balance several often conflicting elements:

  • function (what the building must do)
  • aesthetics (how the building should look)
  • economics (budget)
  • technology (how the building will be constructed)

And the architect must balance these elements within the context of building code and zoning regulations. 

Architects Work with You to:

  • help clarify and refine your building needs. Through a process called programming, the architect examines your requirements, budget, and building site and then works with you to define what is to be built and to establish the project’s scope. For example, you may think you need a new building. An architect may be able to show you how to meet your objectives by renovating or adding on to the space you are currently occupying.
  • help you look ahead. Architects are planners who look beyond your immediate requirements to design flexible buildings that will adapt to your changing needs. For example, architects think about how to accommodate changing computer/ communications technology. They also think about how computer-controlled heating, cooling, and lighting systems might be used to make the building operate more efficiently.
  • help manage the building project. From conception to move-in the architect is your project leader. As the central clearinghouse for ideas, schedules, and every other facet of the project, the architect manages and coordinates the project elements, allowing you to focus on your business.
  • help maximize your construction dollar. A building designed for maximum energy efficiency can cut your heating and fuel bills now and down the road. The architect’s efficient use of space may reduce initial costs but also can increase in value and attract tenants and customers. A wise investment of today’s dollars can translate into big savings of tomorrow’s dollars.
  • take a broad view. Architects look at the impact the building will have on the people who use it, the surrounding area, and the natural environment. The result is the creation of office spaces that make interaction between departments move more smoothly; retail areas that display your products in their best light and prompt customers to buy; and factory and administrative environments that stimulate employee productivity and satisfaction.

The Design Process: A Healthy Give-And-Take

As in a marriage, both the architect and building owner bring something to the relationship that the other needs. As the owner, you have a building goal and the financial resources to realize that goal. The architect brings extensive professional training and experience, creativity, and project management skills.

Designing a building is exciting and creative. Be open to new ideas. Be frank about how you want the end result to feel and look. It is important that you or someone from your company be very involved with the project, asking questions and providing information to the architect. At the same time don’t control the project to the point that you unnecessarily restrict the architect. Otherwise, you may not get the full value of the design services.


When To Hire An Architect

The best time to bring in an architect is as early as possible in the project. Long before plans and specifications are developed, there are many crucial decisions to be made.

One key decision is the selection of the site, which can determine the form the building takes as well as its cost. A site with steep topography, for example, can be more expensive to develop. A site with specific zoning constraints may limit what you can build on it. Working with a preliminary evaluation of your needs, an architect can help you find a site that presents the best opportunity to construct the kind of building you envision. Other predesign services architects offer include economic feasibility studies, assistance in developing project budgets and schedules, and help in obtaining project financing.

How Architects Practice

There is a wide range of architecture firms, from one-person operations at one end of the scale to firms employing hundreds at the other. Some firms have in-house engineering, landscaping, graphic design, interior design, and other capabilities and services that complement their architectural experience. Firms may have a generalized practice or specialized experience designing interiors, hospitals, corporate headquarters, retail spaces, and so on. The right kind of firm will depend on the demands of your project and what you are looking for in an architect.

Project Delivery Methods

There are a variety of ways in which architects and contractors deliver their services. The choice of a delivery method depends in large measure on the nature of the project and time and budget constraints. An architect can advise you on the method most appropriate to the needs of your project. The most common ways are:

1: Separate Contracts for Design and Construction

There is a wide range of architecture firms, from one-person operations at one end of the scale to firms employing hundreds at the other. Some firms have in-house engineering, landscaping, graphic design, interior design, and other capabilities and services that complement their architectural experience. Firms may have a generalized practice or specialized experience designing interiors, hospitals, corporate headquarters, retail spaces, and so on. The right kind of firm will depend on the demands of your project and whYou hire the architect and the contractor, signing separate contracts with each. The architect is usually hired first to prepare construction documents, which include drawings and specifications. When these documents are completed, they become the basis for soliciting contractor bids and negotiating and awarding a construction contract. During construction, the architect serves as your representative administering the contract and helping check that the contractor’s work is in accordance with the drawings and specifications.


  • gives you greater control over and involvement in project decisions
  • provides a firm cost figure before construction begins
  • during construction, ensures that your interests are looked after by a professional who has no financial stake in the outcome of the construction contract
  • provides a system of checks and balances


  • requires more of your time

This separate contracts system is the most widely used in the United States.

Some owners find it cost effective to involve a contractor during the design phase, to advise on construction costs and scheduling and market conditions. At completion of the design phase, the contractor will negotiate or bid on the project. The advantage of this team approach is that the contractor is available during the design phase.

To shorten project duration, the design and construction phases can be overlapped. Under this arrangement, called fast track, construction contracts for some portions of the work are awarded before fully developed construction drawings and specifications have been prepared. Fast track can be beneficial when there are rigid time constraints or during inflationary times. However, a fast track project requires careful management by a professional knowledgeable about all aspects of construction. One disadvantage of fast-track is that you commit to construction without knowing what the cost of construction will be until the project is completed.

2: One Contract for Both Design and Construction

Under this arrangement, often called design/build, you hire a single firm to both design and construct the project. The architect does not work for you but for the design/build firm. You may not deal directly with the architect but with a representative of the design/build firm.


  • provides you with a single point of project responsibility


  • Allows you less control over the design process
  • because the design/build firm accepts responsibility for remaining within the budget and on time, it also assumes the authority for decisions affecting its ability to do so
  • eliminates traditional checks and balances

One variation of the design/build approach is “turnkey.” Under this arrangement the design/build firm also provides initial financing and site procurement. While this arrangement reduces your risks, it also limits your participation in and control of decisions regarding your project. You do not assume ownership until the project is completed and accepted by you.

How Architects Charge for Their Services

Every project, every architect, and every owner is unique, and so there is no standard fee or fee arrangement for a particular type of project.

Architectural fees are typically calculated using one or a combination of the following ways:

  • hourly rates based on the architect’s cost of operation
  • stipulated sum per unit, where the fee is based on the number of units such as beds, apartments, or square footage
  • fixed fee, based on the type and amount of services the architect will provide
  • percentage of construction cost, where fee is a percentage of the overall construction costs

In addition, there are also reimbursable expenses that are generally billed as they are incurred. These expenses typically include reproduction of drawings and specifications, engineering, and other consultant fees, long-distance travel, and telephone calls. How you pay for architectural services and what they cost are a matter for you and the architect to decide together. Architects are completely free to charge for their services as they see fit, and you are free to request fee proposals in whatever manner at whatever time you think best. Generally, the better defined your project is, the more reliable an architect’s quotation is likely to be.

Practical Details: Contracts

It is best to put the terms of your written agreement in the form of a written contract. The American Institute of Architects has developed a variety of standard form contracts that are used widely. Written and approved by organizations representing architects, engineers, contractors, attorneys, owners, and insurers, these contracts reflect a consensus of current industry practices and legal precedence and are not biased to any one interest.

In the contract, be specific about project scope, location, schedule requirements or constraints, budget estimates, codes, regulations, required design reviews, extent of the architect’s services, architectural fees, and so on. Review your budget and schedule carefully.
Sometimes disagreements and disputes arise on projects. A good contract should include provisions for how to manage and resolve disputes in a timely manner to help cut down on delays.

Phases of Design: An Outline

The following outlines the phases of design when there are separate contracts for design and construction. Because every architect is different, as is every project and, for that matter, every owner, you may find on your project some variation in these roles and steps. Your architect can explain the process further.

Programming: Deciding What to Build

Owner’s Role:

  • Hires architect to develop project scope, goals, budget and schedule as well as information about how the facility will be used, maintenance procedures and any special requirements such as security.
  • May have programming done internally, if there is an experienced staff or in-house architect.
  • Obtains certain documents and tests, such as soil surveys and land deeds.

Architect’s Role:

  • Learns about what owner wants and needs, often through interviews with key staff and management and visits to the current site and new site.
  • Test the fit between what the owner wants to build and the budget. Alerts owner to potential problems.
  • Analyzes the owner’s program.

Note: This phase is extremely important. Complete an adequate program for a more efficient project with fewer surprises.

Schematic Design: Developing Initial Design Concepts

Architect’s Role:

  • Prepares rough sketches, models, drawings of principal floor plans, and a rough preliminary estimate of construction cost.
Note: At this point in the project, there are still many more details to be established and, therefore, 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 usually will include a healthy contingency to cover cost changes that arise as the design matures.
  • Discusses the design approach and alternatives with the client.
  • Makes revisions as directed by the owner.
  • Consults with engineering and other building consultants as needed.

Owner’s Role:

  • Reviews schematic designs.
  • Asks questions, particularly if parts of the design are different from what was first envisioned or are unclear.
  • Approves schematic designs when satisfied that they meet the building goals.

Design Development: Refining the Design

Architect’s Role:

  • Establishes and describes the size and character of the entire project in more detail to illustrate all further refinements of proposed design. Drawings may include sections as well as elevations showing exterior treatment, site plan with grading, and general landscape.
  • Prepares outline specifications, listing the major materials and room finishes as well as a general description of mechanical and electrical systems.
  • Shows owner carpet, furniture, lighting and other samples if architect has been contracted for interiors.
  • Further refines the estimate of construction cost now that more details are known about the project.


Owner’s Role:

  • Reviews drawings to determine how closely the design development documents meet the original program and budget criteria.
  • Reviews selection of floor, wall and ceiling finishes, floor types, windows and furniture.
  • Makes sure all questions are answered.
  • Approves design development documents and estimates when satisfied that they continue to meet the building goals.

Preparing Construction Documents: Drawings and Specifications

Architect’s Role:

  • Prepares with the engineers the detailed working drawings and specifications that the contractor will use to establish final construction prices and to build the project. These drawings and specifications become part of the contract between the owner and contractor.

Owner’s Role:

  • Files documents for the approval of governmental authorities to obtain building and zoning permits.
  • Reviews construction documents and preliminary construction cost estimates prepared by the architect.
  • Approves construction documents when satisfied that they meet the building goals.

Bidding or Negotiation Phase

Architect’s Role

  • Answers questions and clarifies drawings and specifications for owner and contractors.
  • Assists the owner in obtaining bids or negotiated proposals from contractors.
  • Assists the owner in awarding contracts for construction.

Owner’s Role

  • Chooses contractor selection process.
  • Hires and negotiates contract with contractor.

Construction and Construction Administration

The architect’s involvement in the project does not stop at the completion of design. After the bidding and negotiation process, architects can also assist you in managing the construction of the project.

Architect’s Role:

  • Serves as owner’s representative during construction.
  • Visits the site at intervals agreed to by the owner and architect to help check that the contractor’s work is consistent with contract drawings and specifications.
  • Reviews and certifies payments to contractor.
  • Processes change orders.
  • Informs owner and contractor of work that requires correction.

Owner’s Role:

  • Reviews reports from architect and contractor on progress of project.
  • Pays contractor.

This information is excerpted from "Building Relationships: A Guide for Working with an Architect." Copyright 1990, The American Institute of Architects. Printed with permission.