"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

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Selecting an Architect vs. Selecting a Firm

When faced with a building or a renovation project, one of the first tasks that an owner or tenant faces is the selection of an architect to do the project planning and design work. We are fortunate to have a wide selection of independent architects and larger architectural firms in our area of California from which to choose, although the variety of choices can make the selection difficult.

Early in this process you, the client, must decide if you feel more comfortable choosing an individual architect or a firm of several architects with which to work. Clients often express their selection as if they have chosen an individual when, in reality, they have picked a group of people, only one or two of whom they may know. A marketing goal for many principals of larger firms is to minimize the anonymity of their organization by leaving potential clients with the impression that they are entrusting the successful completion of their project work to that principal alone.

This impression can be significant. Many people feel that the most efficient and productive working relationship with a consultant is a trusting, one-on-one arrangement with the person who generates and refines their project’s design, and then works closely with the chosen contractor to build it. Most clients sense that such a relationship will be more responsive to their wishes, informative in timely ways, and likely to lead to a desirable project result with fewer management errors.

If you wish to work with the particular architect on whose past building designs and operating methods the firm’s reputation and references are based, it is wise to find out what his exact role will be on your project prior to retaining that architect’s firm. Having worked in firms ranging in size from 2 to 65 people, I find that only architects with relatively small practices — say, up to 3 people — can personally do the bulk of the work for each of their projects from design through construction.

In larger firms with more projects and internal management needs, this level of involvement only occurs when a principal makes a commitment to one client to focus on his project and curtail his involvement with other projects and management tasks for the office. An independent practitioner (a one-person firm), of course, does almost all of your work himself.

The difference between selecting a single professional whom you expect to produce your project, and selecting his or her firm to do this work, is important. The special combination of education, work experience, and personal qualities that one professional can tap to do excellent work and provide exceptional client service may not exist in the same way in his or her partners or in the firm’s employees. Having such an individual merely oversee the progress of your project and occasionally contribute to the actual design and production effort, even if he takes responsibility for the work, is not likely to yield the same project result as would be the case if he or she was fully engaged in each day’s work tasks.

The stop-and-go nature of architectural projects, and the likelihood that several employees will periodically work on your project when their other project work is placed on hold, make it more difficult for a firm’s owner to be assured that the design and production work will be developed with the consistency of touch and unity of thought that he might have given the effort had he been deeply involved with it.

The design integrity of the work and the level of thoroughness with which it is produced can rapidly diminish if control of the project is not maintained by the individual responsible for developing the design and observing that it is built properly. When this control is lost, the door is opened wider for error, oversight, and confusion that, in turn, will make achieving budget and schedule goals more difficult.

The principals of top architectural firms are usually the key people in their practices. They set the tone for the spirit and quality of the work produced, usually by personal example. Their individual competence and dedication are the best guaranty you have that your project work will be done with the level of care and attention to detail that you expect. Of all the firm’s members, the success of your project means the most to its principals. Regardless of whether you prefer to retain a small firm or a large firm for your work, it is intelligent to make your selection based less on the general reputation of the organization and more on your sense of how much the firm’s principal(s) will be personally involved in the daily project effort to provide you with exceptional building design and responsive service.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767