The Public Officials’ Guide to Hiring Architects

Architectural design projects for governmental agencies often have one thing in common: the persons in charge of selecting the architect are not completely familiar with the architectural design process.

Selection of an architect can be a long and complicated process and it can be an unhappy and unnecessarily expensive experience if the client and the architect are not a good match.

Ask the architects you are considering hiring these five questions and allow their answers to guide you toward making the right choice for your project.

1. Have you done similar work before?

And by similar we mean the same. If your project is a municipal building, has the architect recently completed design of municipal buildings? With codes changing regularly, you’ll want to make sure your architect has relevant experience in the past three years. There are plenty of architect s who can dazzle you with an extensive portfolio of impressive buildings. But if there are few municipal buildings among the representative projects, beware. Look at it this way-if you were going to have heart surgery would you want a surgeon who has an impressive portfolio of brain surgery or one who has successfully completed dozens of heart operations similar to yours?

2. Do you have references for similar work?

In the case of the heart surgeon mentioned above, if you discovered that none of his many patients survived the operation would he be your surgeon of choice? The same is true of architects. They should be eager to give you multiple references for similar work. They know good references will seal the deal quicker than anything they could say themselves. However, don’t just ask for references, call the references. Keep in mind, firms seldom use litigants as references, and that is perfectly acceptable. Architectural firms want you to talk with their best clients; the clients who love them. So if all the references are lukewarm, beware. Also be wary if the firm shows plenty of projects just like yours, but none of those projects are included in the references. It could be an oversight, so ask, but if the architect is unable to provide any references for relevant projects, run. Again, if you had a happy client who had just finished a project like the one you are pursuing, wouldn’t you be insisting the prospective client call the happy client?

3. With whom will we be working?

During the selection process the top architect will be your best friend. Will she be assigned to the project once the selection is made? You better hope not, the top architect gets top dollar. For most projects you’ll want the top architect to contribute to, not control the project-perhaps in a Quality Control/Quality Assurance role, reviewing the work of the architect who will be responsible for the project on a day-to-day basis. The person who will work project daily is the person you want to interview. You want to judge what it will be like working with that person for months to come. Ask for client references for that architect and talk to those clients who can tell you exactly what it was like to work with that person. Listen carefully to what those clients tell you because what they might view as a virtue (she called me twice a day to provide updates) might be an annoyance to you.

4. Does the Architect listen to and understand your concerns?

Your project will not be successful if the architect does not understand your needs. This is your project, your vision. You must work with an architect who hears your concerns, understands your vision and who can apply his experience and imagination to make your concepts a functional reality. Your architect should enhance, not hijack, your vision.

5. What happens if the unexpected happens?

Projects imitate life; things happens. Anything from a strike at the manufacturing facility for a specified finish to the discovery of dinosaur bones on the site may happen. We can’t know what bumps in the road lie ahead, but we should know how our architect has reacted to past bumps. Ask the architect to tell you about an unexpected problem that occurred on a project and how he resolved that problem. Have a couple of disaster scenarios ready to discuss during the interview process:

“How would you handle the discovery of an endangered species habitat on the site?”

An experienced and resourceful architect will be able to tell you what he would do, or better yet, what they did when that happened to them. Their demeanor handling difficult questions during the interview process will also give you clues on how they will handle difficult issues on the job.

Hiring the wrong architect will make your project one you won’t forget-no matter how hard you try. However, hiring the right architect for your project can make the entire experience one to be recalled with pleasure for years to come. These five questions will guide you toward selecting the right architect for your project.