FAQ: How to Choose an Architect

Choosing an architect may be one of the most impactful decisions you ever make.

Choosing an architect may be one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make. Make sure to find one who will listen to you and understand your needs and effectively communicate your vision to the builder through their design and plans. Do preliminary research by reviewing the online portfolios of architects in your area who specialize in what you’re seeking to have done to determine if they have the required skills and experience. When you’ve narrowed your choices down, interview each architect and ask them questions about their work experience, expectations, process, and terms. 

Review the architect’s testimonials and ask for at least three references so you can talk to former clients. Ask references questions like if the architect was easy to work with and honest and trustworthy, what they liked and didn’t like, if the architect worked well with the contractor, and whether the project was completed on time and on budget. Finally, when you’ve made your choice, make sure you understand and agree to all the terms before you sign on the dotted line. This step is often overlooked, yet could be the wisest investment you can make when remodeling or building your new home.


What is the difference between an architect and a builder?

An architect designs the project, generating plans and construction documents for the client and builder along the way; the builder is responsible for the project’s physical construction. 

Where does an architect start in the building process?

The first step in the process is for the architect to meet with the client to discuss the client’s needs, including the proposed budget and overall vision for the project. From there, the architect will enter the predesign stage, assessing the as-built structure and its environment, including researching local codes and zoning. From there, the architect will develop the design, meeting regularly with the client to review the plans to ensure the client’s needs and expectations for the project are being met. After the preliminary design plans are approved, the architect then prepares the construction documents for the project’s construction phase.

Do architects work with cities for permits?

Although it’s ultimately the property owner’s responsibility to comply with local regulations and obtain the necessary permits from their local building, planning, and zoning departments, an architect will often assist the client with this sometimes-complicated process. For this reason, it’s imperative that an architect is knowledgeable about local building and construction codes and zoning. Occasionally, a permit expediter will be brought in to help expedite the sometimes protracted and tedious permitting process.

Do architects directly manage construction work?

While an architect may often observe and consult during the construction phase of a project to determine whether their drawings are being followed in general and to address any issues, the architect doesn’t typically manage or supervise the construction process. The contractor or the construction manager is the one responsible for overseeing the physical completion of a project.

What are architects NOT responsible for?

Generally speaking, architects are not responsible for landscape design, interior design, engineering services, and, unless it’s a design-build firm, construction services. Although the architect will work in conjunction with the professionals from each of these areas and may even provide hiring recommendations, it is usually the property owner’s responsibility to hire these additional service providers. 

What experience should an architect have?

Aside from having a professional architecture degree from an accredited institution and being licensed by the state, an experienced architect should have a firm grasp of basic design principles and be adept at producing highly detailed drawings, plans, and construction documents. The architect should have years of practical experience in their area of expertise with a portfolio to back it up and show proficiency in project management with hands-on experience working with contractors. Showing ease with problem-solving and collaboration, the experienced architect should demonstrate they are as comfortable taking a leadership role as they are working as part of a team. They should also be familiar with the permitting process and demonstrate their knowledge of local building codes, regulations, and zoning.

What are typical costs for plans? For a consultation? For project supervision?

For design through construction observation services, most residential architects report charging 8% to 12% of the construction budget. As for a consultation, it varies and can range anywhere from $250 to $400, depending on the architect. Some firms offer free initial consultations; RLB Architecture is one of those firms, and you can go here for more information.

How do I compare bids?

First, do some research on your own on the potential costs of materials and labor for your project so you’ll have a benchmark, and then solicit at least three bids from contractors. It’s always best if you have your architect coordinate the bidding and help analyze the bids. After you receive the bids, vet your contractors. Do they have experience in the work you need done? If so, how much and were the projects somewhat recent? If available, read online reviews and, if possible, talk to former clients that had projects similar to yours. Of course, consult with your architect as they may have worked with the contractor before or know others who have. Make sure each bid is detailed, and the scope of work is spelled out. Compare inclusions and exclusions, terms, and construction schedules; if you’re unsure about a fee, ask for clarification. 

Don’t be afraid to negotiate if the bid you’re considering is higher than you expected. If the contractor refuses to budge on price but justifies his bid to your satisfaction, you’ll feel better about things should you proceed with them. Sometimes the lowest bid is not necessarily the best bid. Ask yourself if the contractor is realistic about the costs involved. Do they have the proper experience for your specific needs? Sometimes contractors who submit lower bids use lower quality materials, a less experienced crew, or take longer to complete the job. You don’t want mistakes or shortcuts that will end up costing you more in the long run. Finally, don’t ignore your instincts. If something about the contractor doesn’t smell right or the bid looks too good to be true, it probably is.

What defines a good architect?

A good architect is creative and passionate, has laser focus, an exceptional sense of design, and expresses their vision clearly and persuasively. Both a leader and a team player, a good architect possesses excellent craftsmanship, strong drawing and technical skills, and is a problem solver who seeks innovative solutions to whatever challenges should arise. Finally, a good architect values collaboration and communication and always listens to the client, puts the client’s needs first, and always protects the client’s interests.

How do architects get paid, and at what stages?

An architect will charge an hourly rate or a fixed-fee or a combination of the two. Additionally, some architects base their fees on the total square footage of a project. For larger projects, some firms will charge a percentage of the overall construction costs, which can be anywhere from 8% to 20%, depending on the firm and the project’s size.

Aside from invoicing monthly for any services billed on an hourly basis and for reimbursement of any project-related expenses, architects are compensated during the various stages of the project. These stages can include predesign, preliminary design, completion of construction documents, submissions and meetings with local building departments and government agencies, and observation services during the construction phase.

Do architects spec materials?

In most cases, yes. Depending on the contracted services, the architect will specify materials and finishes as part of the design. 

Do architects hire builders?

Typically, they do not. While some design-build firms have both architects and contractors in-house, architects commonly will consult on the contractor selection process, even suggesting referrals, but ultimately will leave the hiring of the builder to the client. 

Are architects licensed? Do they need insurance?

Yes, architects must be licensed to practice. In the U.S., licensing and certification requirements are determined by each state. Although insurance is not legally required, having a professional liability insurance policy is strongly advised, and many clients won’t proceed with an architect without it.

What questions should I ask an architect?
  •  What kind of projects do you enjoy the most and the least?
  •  Have you designed similar projects, and if so, can I see photos?
  •  May I speak with previous clients who hired you for similar projects?
  •  What is the most challenging part of the design process?
  •  What do you expect so that our communication meets both of our needs?
  •  If we disagree on a matter, how do we come to an agreement?
  •  How much do you oversee the project and the construction process?
  •  Are you easily reachable by phone?
  •  How does the quote process work?
  •  What are the steps for creating the design plans?
  •  What are your terms?
  •  Do you have insurance?
Should I look for a generalist or a specialist?

While a generalist has a wide range of skills and can do a bit of everything, a specialist focuses on an area of expertise, bringing specific knowledge and a unique set of skills to a project with similar requirements. Of course, it all comes down to personal preference, but if you are looking to build a Mediterranean-style dream home, wouldn’t it make more sense to hire an architect that specializes in traditional-style residential architecture rather than one who designs everything from strip malls to luxury condos?

What is LEED certification?

Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is an internationally recognized green building certification program. The system provides third-party verification that a building, home, or community employs sustainable design across a variety of metrics, including energy savings, water efficiency, and CO2 emissions, among others.

Richard’s work resulted in two classic houses of great beauty, delivered on time and on budget. He overcame the inevitable construction surprises and design changes because he is a gifted problem solver. We would never consider anyone else for our next project and are proud to call him our friend.
—Bob and Laurie Glenn, Pacific Palisades, California


RLB Architecture is a high-end architecture and design firm that provides custom design, planning, drafting, and construction administration services for projects in the Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Malibu, Santa Monica, and other Westside communities. Richard L. Blumenberg is the proprietor.


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RLB Architecture
15200 Sunset Bl, #201
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
(310) 459-0244

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