One of the first steps you’ll take towards building your high-performance home is deciding on a design. This means hiring an architect to draw up plans for your new home or enlisting a firm that provides design-build services.
No matter which option you choose, asking the right questions up front ensures that you and your architect are aligned on goals, timelines, and project management. Here are 10 questions to help you identify the right team to design your custom home.
If you’re new to working with an architect or design-build firm, make sure to get clear on their design process. You’ll want to know their availability to start on your design project, how long the process will take, and what major milestones will happen along the way.
A typical design process includes several stages – schematic design, design development, construction documents, building permitting, bidding & negotiation, and construction administration. Ask your architect if they can provide an outline of what you can expect during each of these phases.
Do you want to be hands-on in the design of your custom home? Or perhaps you’re comfortable letting your architect take the lead? Either way, be clear up front about the time and energy you can commit to collaborating with your architect.
Set expectations early by identifying availability and a meeting cadence that works for all parties. Also, be sure to connect on how you’ll receive updates throughout the design process — does this usually happen in person, over a video call, or through an online portal?
While you’ll collaborate with many people when designing your new home, it’s important to find out who is on your project team. Don’t be afraid to ask for introductions – you’ll need to know who you’ll work with directly and what role each person will play. For example, you may initially meet with the firm’s principal architect, but once the design phase begins, you’ll likely meet regularly with a project manager to round out the details.
Asking to see a portfolio of your architect’s previous work allows you to gain a better understanding of their signature style and overall design sensibility. By communicating a clear vision for your custom home, you can quickly identify whether your architect can help you realize your design or potentially enhance it.
For your high-performance home, focus on finding an architect who specializes in passive home design. You can start by asking how much they know about site planning, energy-efficient home systems, and natural lighting techniques.
Most phases of the design process include a drawing or rendering. These drawings explain the project, while allowing you to visualize the design as it comes together.
Ask up front what drawings your architect will provide throughout the design process, and what shape those will take. Should you expect to see 2D drawings, digital renderings, or scaled models? If your architect plans to hand off the drawings to your builder at the end of the design phase, make sure they contain all the necessary floor plans, elevations, and sections.
The big picture view is always important, and an experienced architect can shed light on any challenges with your home’s design. This can range from something as simple as green building technology or HOA guidelines to more complex issues, such as zoning considerations.
By asking this question, you’ll get a sense of how proactive the architect is when dealing with design challenges and whether they can identify solutions early in the process.
One of the primary benefits of passive homes are their lower environmental impact. If that’s important to you, ask your architect if they have experience with green home design. Those who do will have a comprehensive understanding of passive homes, various LEED requirements, and be able to incorporate sustainable elements into your home’s design. They may also be able to outline the tax benefits that come along with LEED certification.
Your custom home project’s success will inevitably depend on the relationship between your architect and builder. A solid partnership between the two parties ensures better communication, stronger solutions, and a home that’s built exactly the way you want it.
If you decide to hire an architect and builder separately, consider bringing the builder on during the early stages of the design process. This allows the builder to see the design come together, help to establish the details, and identify any challenges that may arise during permitting or construction.
Architecture firms typically structure their fees in one of three ways: an hourly rate, a fixed retainer, or a percentage of the total project cost. Inquire up front what the firm will charge for your custom home project and what the payment schedule will be.
You’ll also want to get clear on what the fees include — services like city submittal, engineering, and project management are standard offerings. It’s also important to ask if there are extra costs associated with design changes.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but always be sure to confirm that the architect is registered and licensed. Although having a license is only one qualification for being an architect, it signals that the firm is committed to upholding certain ethical standards. It also protects you in the case of potential negligence or a breach of contract.
Be sure to ask if the firm can provide references — this could include former clients or builders they’ve worked with. This way you’ll get clear on their communication style, work ethic, and ability to stay within your budget.
Clarum Homes can handle your entire custom home project, from planning to construction. Give us a call at (650) 322-7069 to learn more about our services.