Nearly 20 years into the practice of architecture, we often get asked the same questions from prospective clients and friends. This FAQ section is to provide helpful information for someone considering work that requires an architect. J_spy is based around the NYC metro area, so some of the advice might be more specific to this area, but we think these questions are a good primer for anyone researching an architect.
1. What services do architects provide?
The minimum services an architect provides is to obtain a building permit. This is a basic set of drawings that demonstrates how the project meets building code. Building codes are about life safety, and energy conservation, not anything aesthetic, therefore the drawing set is minimal. If you give this permit set to a contractor to build your project, they are going to have a lot of questions. What finishes do you want installed (tile, flooring), what light fixtures do you want, and where do you want them, same for plumbing fixtures, door hardware, cabinetry….you get the idea. There are thousands of questions that need to be answered and that is where the design architect comes in. A design architect, in addition to providing the required drawings for permitting, will also work with the client to develop the design including selecting finishes, fixtures, and everything in between. And possibly more importantly, a design architect will document all the details and selections for the project in drawing format to communicate the choices to the contractor.
2. Do I need to hire a separate designer?
Depends, if you hire a design architect, no. The vast majority of work you see in design magazines are by design architects who worked with their clients to visualize, develop and build the project. If you hire an architect to just provide permitting drawings, you will need to either hire an interior designer, or the owner can work directly with the contractor on the interior design and product selections. Just keep in mind that it takes a lot of time.
3. How much will my project cost?
For this one, we are going to start with an analogy. Let’s say you want to make buy a custom tailored coat, and the question is, how much will this coat cost? Well without more information like, who is the person going to make the coat, what fabric is the coat made of, what buttons are you using on the coat. there is no way to provide a precise answer to the question of how much your proposed project will cost. In construction, the finishes, fixtures, and materials play a part in determining the cost, but more importantly which contractor is building the project plays a big role. Just like the coat analogy, some tailors will cost more than others, the same for construction. We often bid our projects out to multiple contractors, and with the same detailed drawings, they all come back with different costs. That is mostly due to how much each charges for labor. So even after we have selected all the materials and finishes for your project and drawn all the details, we still don’t know how much it will cost until we ask contractors to provide proposals.
When we first talk to prospective clients, we do our best to provide budget guidance, and how we do this is to look back at J_spy’s past projects that are completed and see how much they cost per square foot. The one challenge here is cost keep changing, usually up. That said, here are some cost estimates per square foot based on J_spy’s past projects. If you are looking to build high end modern, it is likely your construction cost could end up somewhere in these ranges.
Apartment Renovation Full Gut - $350-$550 per sq. ft.
Townhouse Full Gut - $450-$700 per sq. ft.
Suburban NYC Metro
House/Apartment Gut Renovation - $350-$450 per sq. ft.
New House Ground Up - $500-$800 per sq. ft.
Rural New York State
House Gut Renovation and Addition - $300 - $400 per sq. ft.
New Ground Up House - $350-$450 per sq. ft.
House Gut Renovation and Addition - $250-$400 per sq. ft.
New Ground Up House - $500-$800 per sq. ft.
4. How much does an architect cost?
This is easiest to answer for a design architect who provides the full breadth of architectural services. For most residential and small commercial projects, an architect’s fee will be in the range of 8% - 15% of the cost of construction. Some architects charge hourly for their services, while some propose a fixed fee, or some combination of both. Although less common, some architects will be a strict percentage of the cost of construction, so their fee will adjust as the project moves along. For J_spy, we can say our fees fall mostly between 10% and 15% of the cost of construction, and that split is mostly determined by the size of the job. As an example, the smallest jobs we take on have a construction cost of around $250,000, and our fee would be the highest percentage of 15%. Once a project construction cost gets over $1 million, our fee percentage drops to around 12%. I think every architect would adjust their fee based on the size of the job and how much they want the job. If you want to hire an architect for just a permit set of drawings, that really depends on where you are located. In NYC, the process of getting a permit is ridiculous, but in some rural areas, it is as easy as walking into the permit office and dropping off the roll of drawings. Certainly the cost will be significantly less than hiring a design architect, but the cost is too variable to estimate a fee range.
5. How long will my project take?
Longer than you think. Looking at a recent J_spy project in NYC, a full gut apartment renovation took about 10 months. That is from the time we signed a contract to begin design, until the client moved in. About half the time is drawing and permitting, and about half the time is finding a contractor and construction. If you are building a new ground up house, plan for between 14 and 24 months, depending on project size and complexity. Commercial work tends to be on a faster track. This is done by not sweating the details during construction. Next time you visit your favorite restaurant, take a close look at the wall and ceiling details. They tend to be a bit rough which is accepted in commercial work, but not something we would accept in our home. So what takes so long? Well permitting can be a long haul. For example, you might be in an apartment building that does their own review before you submit to the city permit office, that takes time. If you are in a historic district, that can take a lot of time. If you are building new, are you near wetlands, do you need a septic? These types of additional reviews can take a lot of time. Then getting a contractor on board takes more time than you might imagine. When asking a contractor to provide real and accurate prices they are willing to stand by, they have to send the project out to their subcontractors, (plumber, electrician, framer, etc). Those guys spend most of their time on site working, so it takes a lot of prodding to get them to sit down with the drawings to provide a proposal. Usually pricing a project takes about a month. Then when you get prices, many times decisions need to be made in order to adjust the budget. Maybe some scope is removed to help bring the cost down, that takes time to re-price. When you finally select a contractor, there is usually several weeks of contract negotiations and sending the deposit to the contractor. Even then, the contractor might not be ready to mobilize their works to start immediately. Bottom line is, unless you have an unlimited budget, you will need to take time to bid the project to several people, negotiate, and possibly wait for the right contractor. All this takes time.
6. Are all architects the same?
Definitely not. If you are just looking for an architect to produce drawings so you can get a permit, then you can research for architects with the most affordable fee. If you want your architect to create a memorable design, then which architect you choose matters very much. When looking for an architect, review their work in their portfolio, if you like what you see, then it is a good sign. J_spy is passionate about modern architect that creates experiences. If that is what you want, then maybe we are a good fit. If you are looking for a traditionally designed home, nothing wrong with that, an architect that is passionate about traditional styles would be a better fit.
7. I liked the architect who designed my house, can the same architect renovate my office?
Most design architects are simply good designers, so they can probably tackle any type of project, from furniture design to restaurants, galleries, and offices. The best architects out there have diverse portfolios that can span many types of spaces.
8. Will I have to hire anyone else besides an architect?
In NYC, the permit process is so complicated, most projects use an expediter to liaison between the architect and the Department of Buildings. If you are doing work in NYC, you will need one of those. If the project contains any work that is structural, meaning part of holding up the building, you might want to hire a structural engineer. Ask your architect about the complexity of the structural work and if an engineer would be necessary. Some projects might require other types of engineers, mechanical, civil, or sprinkler design. It really depends on the project, so do research before you commit to the project.
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