Sunday, November 30, 2008

What you should know before you call an architect

Before you start calling architects, it's a good idea to have some ideas on what you want. You should be collecting ideas from magazines, the web, and by taking pictures of additions on other people's houses that you like. You should also have a good idea of your budget which I'll post separately on later.

But, for choosing an architect, it's probably most important to have an idea of what you want to get out of using the architect. Her are some considerations for choosing the right architect:

1) Creativity. In general, an architect's creativity is a must for major home additions. This is how you avoid adding an uninteresting box onto your existing home. You should be looking for someone who can creatively solve design issues in your house without blowing your budget on a single feature.

2) Budget Mindfulness. Although your budget may not be set in stone when you first interview architects, you should choose a number pretty soon after. Your architect should know what that number is and should be aware that certain design choices may dramatically affect the budget. Although I'll dedicate a separate post to budget, your architect should be aware of your budget and help you stick to it, no matter how large or small.

3) Experience. You should also look to hire an architect who specializes in residential design and who understands the needs of your household either through personal or professional experience. Architects who focus on commercial design may not have the most relevant experience for your residential home addition. You should be comfortable with the number of years of experience they have. For example, we chose to interview architects with a minimum of 10 years of experience. Also, the architect should have significant, recent experience doing similar projects in your jurisdiction (city/county/town) because the codes vary greatly by municipality and can be costly to change plans later. Some architects also choose to hire building engineers to confirm the structural soundness of plans requiring steel, underpinning, or other serious structural issues. This is normal and the homeowner should welcome this input because it lessens the likelihood that your plans will get bounced during the permit process.

4) Billing. You should understand how the architect bills you for the project and this should be clear in any contract you sign. Some architects charge you based on percentage of building costs, and others charge per hour. We wanted an architect who charged per hour because we felt we had more control over the costs. Also, architects who work for larger firms probably charge more than those who work out of their homes. Our architect works out of her house and her billing rate reflects that.

5) Personality. This may seem realy obvious, but you should really like the person who you choose. You may love the samples of their work, but if you don't really like the person and cannot see yourself spending a lot of time with the person, then don't hire them. You will spend countless hours working with your architect both in-person, and by phone and email over a long period of time (probably 18-20 months for us when all said and done). You should also feel confident that the architect will listen to your ideas and requests and not be unnecessarily dismissive.

There are probably other things that you should think about (feel free to post!), but this is a good starting point for interviews with architects.

Choosing an Architect: Do we need one?

Probably the most critical piece of the planning stage is choosing an architect. You may be asking if you need an architect for your addition project and I would say the default answer should always be yes because your product should be more valuable in the end so your money is never "wasted." If you are doing more simple changes such as building a garage or just tearing down or moving interior walls. As soon as you are adding square footage to your house, an architect is probably necessary so you can get the most asthetically pleasing results - both inside and out. It was never a question for us that we wanted an architect.

There are 2 types of architects. There are independent architects who are not directly affiliated with any builder or design/build firm. Then there are also design/build architects who generally work with a specific builder and you get a package deal when you use them. Some architects do both services, but most do one or the other.

I would recommend interviewing both independent architects and design/build firms to see which style you like. If you choose and independent architect, you'll have to then do a second step of choosing a builder. This has the advantage of conrol by the owner over who works on the project and, in most cases, more control over total costs. The design/build option generally gives you architectural services at a reduced cost or no cost if you proceed to the second phase - building - with the same firm. Fees that you paid for the design phase are often credited to you in the building phase or waived if you sign the build contract. The downside is that you may feel locked in and you may not like the builder as much as you liked the architect. You may also pay more overall for the project because you didn't bid out the build phase (more on that later). This may not always be the case, but it's something that you should be careful of as you enter into this phase of your project.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Collecting and Organizing Ideas

Several years ago we decided to time our home addition for 2009 so we could save money for a period of time and also take advantage of the end of the Presidential election cycle (Jim works in politics). By having this time frame in mind for a couple of years, we were able to take our time and work through the planning process without feeling rushed.

Over the past few years, we collected ideas from magazines. My ideas were mostly for designs and Jim's were mostly for systems. I collected our favorite magazine clippings and web printouts in a large loose leaf binder using clear page covers. This makes adding and removing ideas easier. Our favorite magazines for ideas are Renovation Style, This Old House, and BH&G. Better Homes & Gardens has a great website with loads of ideas. Renovation Center is also a great site and is the home to many of the BH&G sister publications. I highly recommend it.

Looking back through my collection of clippings, I now have a clearer idea of what I like and don't like. My style is a slightly contemporary traditional style. For example, I generally prefer painted trim work and cabinets, medium stained wood floors, and warm gold tones for the walls. Although I didn't think that I would want black counter tops, most of the kitchens that I have clipped have white cabinets with black counter tops so I'm clearly attracted to that style!

In addition to the idea book, we have a plastic file folder with 10 or so dividers where we keep brochures, business cards, and other information we have collected throughout this process.

Both sets of ideas came in handy during our initial discussions with our architect...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The "Before" Pictures

Here are some pictures of our house currently. Let's call these the "before" pictures, although there are some real before pictures from when we first bought the house that I'll have to dig out and post.

Getting started

Welcome to my home addition blog. Although my husband, Jim, and I are preparing to break ground on our 1800+ square foot addition in the next month, it has been a long process to get to this point. Ths blog will describe the steps we took to get to this point and our progress as we move forward this winter.

We bought our 1940 colonial in May 2002. It's in very good condition considering its age and we are only the third owners! The second owners lived here for nearly 50 years and raised 4 children so I guess we shouldn't be complaining about the space. This is our first house and it was love at first sight - 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms (sort of) and a flat yard. It was not in our original target neighborhod but this one was in our price range, on a nice residential street, close to the metro bus stop, and walking distance to several restaurants, stores, and pharmacies. It's our first house and we still love it, but it just needs more space to take us through the next phase of our lives.

We spent the first 5 years here fixing it up cosmetically. We painted every room in the house, built bookshelves in the living room and upstairs office, ripped out carpeting, and fixed up the kitchen on a shoestring budget.

Although we always dreamed of adding on, we took our time to think about what we wanted to do and whether it would be worth it in the long term. It was a nice luxury because the house was in good condition and only needed cosmetic upgrades. We were also able to build equity in the house which will hopefully come in handy as we secure financing (more on that later).

Over the next year or so, I plan to write about about how we got to where we are now with our planning and the progress. Hope you join me for the trip.

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