How to Work with an Architect

During a renovation, a step-by-step on what to expect

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You need an architect for your renovation, but have only a vague sense of how the process will go. As outlined in our post When Do You Need an Architect?, if your project is fairly small and straightforward, you may only need a la carte services such schematic designs by a registered architect (RA). For whole-home, gut renovations or moving walls, you will need a full-service architect. In this scenario, they may be someone who project-manages a renovation from start to finish and works with you to develop a thoughtful design that suits your lifestyle.

For residential renovations, architects typically charge a percentage of the construction cost of a project. Urban areas usually charge 15-20 percent for projects budgeted between $20,000-$30,000, and 10-15 percent for $250,000 or more. The costs are essentially the same for outside of the urban areas, but in close proximity. Fees, such as permit and application fees, are either fixed or based on the construction costs. Read our previous post for more detail on costs.

To walk you through the sequence of steps while working with this design pro on a full-service basis, we’ve put together the basic milestones for planning—and executing—a renovation with an architect.

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Step 1: Initial consultation and field measurements (1-5 hours)

One of the first steps that must happen is for the architect to measure your site and create as-built drawings. This, along with an initial consultation about what you’re imagining for the renovation, is the basis for starting the design process. As-built conditions will provide a sense of what needs to be changed and what is possible, taking into account the limitations of space, permitting, and budget. With this information, the architect will produce a few different concepts, which will be presented to you in Step 2 below.

Step 2: Concept and schematic design (1-8 weeks)

At the first design meeting, you should be thinking big picture. “We take an extremely collaborative approach with our clients and find this to be at the heart of the design process,” says Sweeten architect Shannon. “We like to think of it as a conversation: our clients communicate their goals and intentions verbally and we communicate back through rendered images and drawings. We will revise and update our drawings as the conversation evolves until we arrive at a client-approved final design scheme.”

The various options presented to you may evoke different aesthetics, parts of which may eventually be incorporated into the actual design. This stage is for considering major decisions such as layout and functionality, rather than the minutiae of finishes (e.g., don’t worry about the height of your baseboards at this meeting, or picking a perfect shade of white). The meeting should give you a lot to think about and talk through with your friends, family, and anyone else who wants a say in your renovation plans.

You’ll give feedback to your architect, and there will typically be another design meeting to refine the ideas that you liked the best. Depending on how prepared you are and how large your project is, this phase could range from 1-8 weeks. Matt, a Sweeten contractor with a design-build firm, tells us, “If they come with a mood board and desired aesthetic, the time can be cut down on conceptual design. It also depends on the project. Conceptual design for a loft apartment is going to be a quicker schedule, for example, than the time spent to conceptualize a four-story townhouse.”

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Once the plan begins to take a more concrete shape, your architect can create the schematic designs, which will contain detailed specifications about materials, assemblies, and finishes. While schematic designs are usually refined further throughout the process, a set (or multiple sets) may be created for submission to co-op/condo boards, as well as for city permits. At this point, you will also start to get a sense of the total cost of the project—though this will continue to crystallize as you decide on fixtures, appliances, and finishes.

“We usually schedule four meetings throughout the design process; the kick-off meeting, which is a meeting of the mood boards; a concept design meeting, which is finalizing the mood board and a basic direction for the schematic design; then a schematic design meeting to present the design options and a material palette; and a final meeting to present the finished plans for any final comments on the drawing set or material palette for the project,” explains Matt.

While you are in the permitting/approvals phase, you should also begin the bidding process for a general contractor. Larger projects with detailed drawings can benefit from the opinions of Sweeten general contractors who can point out any areas that aren’t included in the plans.

Step 3a: Permits and approvals (2 weeks to 3 months)

Once your architect has created the schematic designs, you can begin the process of submitting them to the appropriate groups for approval. In a full-service project, your architect will be the coordinator for all aspects of the permitting and approvals process.

In New York City, apartment renovations inevitably must pass board review, in both condos and co-ops. While condos tend to be more lenient, each apartment building will have specific processes for obtaining board approval. Buildings typically have alteration agreements that you can review prior to beginning the process so that you understand what is commonly required. In buildings with more stringent rules, they may require you use a specific architect to create the drawings that the board will review.

Your architect will also obtain the proper permits from the city; this applies to apartments as well as houses. In New York City, this is the Department of Buildings, and for buildings that fall in landmarked areas, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would also need to be contacted.

Note that this phase is the one over which you have the least control. Once your architect submits the applications, you are waiting for the board to convene, or the city to review your plans. The initial review may generate additional requests for more documentation or changes, or, if you start making changes late in the process, plans may need to be redrawn and resubmitted for approval.

Step 3b: Hiring a general contractor (1-2 weeks)

When looking for the right general contractor, your architect can play a crucial role in the hiring process; many architects prefer to be very involved. “We can review the bids and point out discrepancies between different estimates,” Shannon explains. “We also may ask slightly different questions than the client based on our experience in the industry. For example, “What is the contractor’s process for handling a change during construction?” “What is their preferred form of communication?” “What is the payment schedule?”

The three of you will work together as a team, so it’s important to have a good rapport with both your architect and contractor—but it’s equally vital that the two of them have a positive working relationship. You do not want to end up being a mediator if they have disagreements. Sweeten can help by matching and creating your architect-contractor team from the start. “We often act as an intermediary between the contractor and owner,” explains Shannon. “We are not a party to the contract between the owner and contractor, which allows us to advocate for the client while speaking the language of construction with the contractor and help mediate if miscommunications occur.”

The earlier you bring in a contractor, the earlier you can get a sense of the actual costs of the project. It’s important not to wait too long to bring in a contractor since you want him/her to be able to evaluate the details of the design and provide accurate cost estimating. This allows you to be ready to begin construction as soon as all the approvals and permits come through.

Step 4: Construction administration

Depending on your agreement with your architect, he or she may be involved in varying degrees throughout the construction phase of your project. The architect will make regular visits to the work site and be in touch with the contractor for troubleshooting, along with making sure the designs are implemented correctly. In a full-service project, the architect will be the project manager throughout the process until completion—basically, until all the bureaucratic paperwork has been closed out, and the contractor is finished with the renovated space.

Whether your project is straightforward or more complex, understanding how an architect can work with you will bring clarity to your reno process.

The renovation process has many layers. Check out our guide to start the planning process and finding the best general contractor.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten