Architect can draw dreams

So, you're planning to build your dream house. Should you hire an architect?

Yes, members of the architecture profession say, if you value uniqueness over cookie-cutter design, fine details over superficial ornamentation, efficient spaces over size for its own sake.

"Architects can save you money in the end," says Bill Babcock, executive director of AIA Wisconsin, a society of the American Institute of Architects. "They can help you figure out how much space you really need and size it appropriately."

Architects are trained in everything from design and planning to infrastructure requirements and zoning. They must pass a rigorous state licensing exam to be registered.

Kathy Schnuck, an architect specializing in health care design with Milwaukee's Kahler Slater Architects, puts it this way to her own clients: You "wouldn't refer me to a podiatrist when I need an orthopedic surgeon." So it is for residential work, to which an architect, she says, "can bring a level of art and expertise that the average builder cannot."

Still, according to the AIA, only 6% to 7% of people building new homes nationwide hire architects, preferring instead to work with builders who offer variations on standardized home packages that can be tweaked. Remodeling projects, too, tend to be overseen by builders and contractors, not architects.

Many homeowners fear an architect will cost too much. And yet architects' fees - typically 5% to 15% of a construction budget - are a tiny part, possibly as little as 2%, of the total cost of building a home, when land, closing fees, landscaping, mortgage interest, taxes and other costs are figured in.

For developers of most suburban subdivisions, though, "the architecture part is treated as a liability - a line item, like concrete work," says Dennis Burgener, a principal with McWilliams Burgener Architecture in Milwaukee. "If developers can minimize the cost, they'll do it" by cutting corners on architects' involvement.

Then there is the stereotype of the architect as a remote, intimidating figure, a variation on the ego-driven Howard Roark character in Ayn Rand's 1943 novel "The Fountainhead," a man for whom compromise was anathema.

"There's a fear factor," says Burgener, a residential architect whose firm is based in the rejuvenating Brewers Hill neighborhood. "Clients kind of freak out when you meet them. They think they have to dress up in their best clothes."

It can be a challenge finding a residential architect in the first place. There are fewer of them these days; AIA Wisconsin lists only 43 firms doing residential work statewide, although a number of other practitioners do such work on the side.

Residential has become a rarefied niche, architects say, because designing a house is very labor-intensive, requires lots of hand-holding and, except for the occasional high-end commission, provides modest financial rewards.

"We can't make any money on it," says Ursula Twombly, a principal at Continuum Architects + Planners in Milwaukee, whose firm has gotten out of single-family home design altogether and concentrates on commercial, institutional and other projects.

Allyson Nemec, a principal at Quorum Architects, another Milwaukee firm that no longer does residential work, agrees.

"It's hard to play the 'for free' game and keep a business going," Nemec says. "People don't realize there's no free lunch."


Finding the right architect to design your new home or remodeling project is a little like finding the right doctor - part detective work, part chemistry, part luck:

* Ask around. Look at new homes you admire and check out who designed them. Contact your local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the trade group that represents the profession and sets standards of practice.

* Interview several candidates to find one who is on the same wavelength as you. Grill other clients about their experiences with the professionals you're considering.

* For information on Wisconsin architects, click on and go to "Find an Architect" for those in your ZIP code. (But be forewarned: Some of those listed in the AIA Wisconsin's database no longer do residential work.) The AIA's national office in Washington has set up a helpful Web site,, to guide people through the design process.

* Another useful source is "How to Work with an Architect" (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2006, $24.95; by Gerald Lee Morosco, a Pittsburgh architect trained at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin in Wisconsin. The handsomely illustrated book includes information on choosing a site; deciding whether to build, buy or remodel; and working with architects and contractors.


Some of the questions you need to know before hiring an architect include the following:

* What is the firm's design philosophy? Is it in sync with yours?

* How busy is the practitioner? Can he or she devote enough time to your project, including bird-dogging the contractors through the construction process?

* How does the architect set fees? Some charge a percentage of the construction budget; in Wisconsin, that typically ranges from 5% to 15%. Others charge by the hour or on the basis of square footage; still others charge a stipulated sum. Be sure you understand those costs ahead of time, along with wiggle room for unforeseen expenses.

* Homeowners and their architects will get more out of a project if they allow skilled artisans to have meaningful input on detailing and problem-solving, says Vince Micha, an architect with Kubala Washatko Architects in Cedarburg.

"They have years and years of knowledge about things like joinery and different species of wood," Micha says. "And if you're working on a tight budget, these craftspeople can show you how something can be done less expensively and still look beautiful."

- Whitney Gould

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