Building Cohesion

Many don't know the difference between an architect and a residential designer. Either will design the home of your dreams, whatever your budget.

Essentially, an architect is licensed by the state; a residential designer is not. Licensed architects are allowed to design commercial buildings as well as homes; residential designers limit their practice to drawing plans for houses.

An architect must meet stringent requirements set by the state to use that title. In Florida, architects must obtain a five-year professional degree in architecture from an accredited college. They must work for three years under the supervision of a licensed architect. And they must pass a nine-part exam administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

After that, 20 hours of continuing education is required every two years to maintain a license.

Residential designers can become certified by passing a 10-part exam from the National Council of Building Designer Certification. This council requires six years of experience or three years of education in the design field plus three years experience. Then certified designers must earn eight hours of continuing education every year.

Architects and residential designers also can join professional organizations, such as the American Institute of Architects or the American Institute of Building Design, which offer educational opportunities and networking.

No matter which you choose to hire, you still need to find the professional who best suits you and your project. Here's a guide for making the right choice.

1. How much experience does the architect or residential designer have?

To design a house well takes at least five years' experience in a practice that specializes in residential work. The architect or designer also needs to be familiar with the intricacies of local residential construction costs and building codes and know qualified contractors in your area.

2. Does the architect or designer's portfolio include houses in the style you want?

Some architects or designers are comfortable designing in many styles; others aren't. Make sure the architect or designer is comfortable designing the style you want. If you want something unusual, such as a straw-bale house, look for a professional with experience in that type of house.

3. How does the architect or designer charge for services?

Don't be afraid to bring this up in an initial phone call. No two architects or designers work or calculate fees the same way. Some will charge an hourly rate but will estimate the fee as a percentage of total construction cost -- 5 percent to 15 percent, depending on the complexity of the project.

4. What service options does the architect or residential designer offer?

The biggest part of a traditional full-service package is not the design concept but its development and the preparation of extremely detailed construction documents. To keep fees down, some architects or designers offer a limited contract. For example, the professional might carry the project through the bidding process but won't monitor construction. This might be sensible if your design tastes are simple. But if you want anything unusual, you're better served by having the architect or designer on board for the entire project

5. Has the architect or designer worked with a variety of site conditions?

This is especially important if you're considering a site that has an odd shape, a steep slope or problematic soil.

6. Will the architect or designer have a structural engineer review the design -- and does the architect or designer have liability insurance?

Several hundred dollars for a structural engineer to review the framing and foundation plans is money well-spent. Insurance premiums can be expensive, but even the most experienced architects or designers can make mistakes, especially when designing a one-of-a-kind house. Your architect or designer should have liability and errors-and-omissions coverage and stipulate in your contract that the policy will be maintained for the duration of your project.

7. How soon can the architect or designer begin to work on your project, and who will be doing the work?

If the firm is busy and can't begin to work on it for six months, keep looking. If the firm can take you sooner, try to interview the person who will be doing the design work and get assurance the firm will be able to devote enough time to your house.

8. Is the architect or designer eager for you to look at completed jobs and talk with clients?

If possible, visit homes without the architect or designer. Most people like to talk about their home-building adventures and will be more candid about their experience when their designer is not there. Ask them if they think they got what they paid for and if they would use the architect or designer again.

9. Will the architect or designer give you names of the builders who constructed the houses that you see and others as well?

Ask builders if this design professional's drawings and written specifications were useful and informative and whether the designer was responsive to field questions. If the architect and builder have done a number of jobs together, there's less chance for miscommunication on your job.

10. Are you comfortable with this architect or designer? Do you think you can communicate? Is he or she enthusiastic about your project?

This is subjective, but you could be working together closely for at least a year. The design professional who did a great job for your neighbors might not be the one for you.

CONTACT: Katherine Salant is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the author of "The Brand-New House Book'' (Three Rivers Press, $16.95). She can be contacted through her Web site, katherinesalant.com. Orlando Sentinel research was used in this report.


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