Which Comes First? The Contractor and Architect Debate.

When starting your home renovation, who do you hire first – the contractor or the architect? It’s the age-old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg? If you ask a contractor, they recommend you hire them first. They can save you money and help you visualize all the ‘mumbo-jumbo’ an architect would charge you hourly for (their words, not mine). Ask an architect, and they’ll tell you to hire them first because their superpower to see into the walls will surely save you money in the long run, since you’ll be less likely to alter plans once the walls start coming down.

The real answer – both these teams want to be hired first because, well, first come, first serve. If hired first, they’ll have a better chance of leading the charge into the home with hammers and mallets in tow. You’re assembling a team of some of the most strong-headed individuals out there, including yourself. Everyone’s invested (hopefully) in your renovation success, but everyone has a specific way they like to operate.

Everyone has an opinion, but the most important opinion is yours and the people living in your house (minus the children, they don’t get a vote.)

Amid all the researching and vetting of qualified renovation teams, you’re also receiving endless advice (albeit unsolicited) from seemingly anyone in earshot. I’ve had people speak with such conviction not to hire an architect; you’d think they’d have a score to settle. I’ve had people tell me I absolutely should not do this or do that to my home because…. because… I’ve honestly stopped listening by now. The point is, everyone has an opinion, but the most important opinion is yours and those living in your house (minus the children, they don’t get a vote.)

After replacing our roof in late October 2020, it was time to nail down a contractor and architect. This was probably the most stressful decision I’ve had to make on this home to date because it’s a long-term risk that you won’t know paid off till you’re too deep to turn back. Who to hire first, the contractor or the architect? There’s no right answer, just right people. Anyone can blow smoke up your ass; it’s the follow-through that counts. When selecting your home’s glam squad, consider these essential tips to point you in the right direction. I learned them along the way, so please, enjoy reading about my missteps, but do yourself a favor and bypass them.

Research, research, research.

Initially, I thought to hire the architect first. They usually have a handful of trusted contractors they can recommend. I liked the thought of this because I have some wild ideas in my mind. For example, I want a record player room designed with a slight 80’s porno vibe (I think the correct term is mid-century modern), and I felt 1.) the architect could better understand my Sarah-speak and 2.) the architect would have a contractor they trust to bring my shag rug, lucite, rounded-wood vision to life. But you have to do your research on both fronts.

Troll the architect’s website, specifically their portfolio of work. If they don’t have a portfolio on their website, I’d immediately scrap them. Don’t fear the portfolio! I remember looking at architect portfolios for homes way out of my price range and initially thinking they wouldn’t even consider my project. In reality, they’re going to put their cream of the crop jobs in their portfolio.

I mean, I wouldn’t lead a job interview with that one time my team received the lowest employee engagement scores in the entire department. (I maintain my belief that I am a great manager. I broke the invisible chains of fear to allow my team to speak freely about the company and their dissatisfaction with it. I let them know their voices should be heard, and together, we can make the change for the betterment of them and future employees! I kicked ass and took names. Sure, not everyone liked me. But if you’re in the management business to be liked, you’re in the wrong field.)

Phew. Okay, back to home renovations. If you are researching contractors, checking out their work quality and speaking to anyone who has used them is essential. Often, they aren’t going to have a website, but they do normally have a Houzz portfolio for their work. Trust your friends and colleagues when they give you advice on contractors, but take it with a grain of salt. So they didn’t like the crew smoking cigarettes in the backyard. To me, if they aren’t smoking inside the house, it’s a win.

Their cost is a reflection of THEE cost.

Before setting out on selecting an architect, have a ballpark figure in mind for what you’re willing to spend on them. When getting proposals from architects, I found a couple of things out:

  • The range in cost between architects was wide. Like, uncomfortably large. I hate the feeling of not knowing if I’m getting value for my dollar.
  • The range in what I get for the cost was also wide. I couldn’t determine what I was paying for, and I found many of them were having difficulty explaining the services to me.

So here I am. Not knowing what I’m paying for and not knowing if the cost is worth it. But I did have a gut feeling, and that feeling was their cost is a direct reflection of your renovation’s total cost. For example, we interviewed this firm that I loved. We had a common background, the guy was truly passionate about architecture and the area, and we just clicked. But when his price came back, I nearly toppled over. It was 3X what I was hoping to spend. My husband and I talked it over, and we were 95% on board to adjust our budget down, yet again (dumb roof), and hire this firm. But I had a hunch that we wouldn’t be able to afford his vision even if we shifted funds around to hire him. I couldn’t hire him because affording him now met not affording his dream for the project. Now, I’m not sure if this is necessarily true, but a rule of thumb I’m trying to stick to is to not go over budget before the project even starts; it only adds additional stress during the actual renovation. If you’re like me, you anticipate going over budget in a couple of areas; call them wild cards, if you will. Don’t use your wild cards right in the beginning.

Vet many architects, and don’t be afraid to inquire about and analyze what they offer. You’ll quickly identify the ones not that passionate about your project, the ones so passionate you can’t afford them, and then a perfect medium between the two, which I consider the sweet spot.

The beer test.

This is a big one for me: would I have a beer with these people? I’m not saying actually have a beer with them; they’re working with heavy machinery, for crying out loud, but see if you can picture yourself raising a glass and getting a little jolly with them. Why’s it important? Because you gotta like them right off the bat. And why do you have to like them right off the bat? Because you’re not going to like them at some point during your renovation, and you’ll have to remind yourself that you hand-selected this team because you trust them and you like them, now stop foaming at the mouth over the width of those grout lines and move the f#@$ on.

The contractor and architect team we picked, in the end, both reminded me of my dad. And many of you didn’t know my dad, but let me tell you, you could have a beer with my dad. Subconsciously, this was a brilliant move on my part because I had no choice but to get along with my dad, no matter how crazy, how embarrassing, and how trying he was in my youth.

Know the material market.

Are you still reading this? Good for you. It’s getting really long-winded, so let me wrap this up with one last tip. This has been particularly important during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – knowing the material market. Currently, renovations are on the rise with more people stuck at home, and funds that would normally be spent on vacations are being spent on home improvements. This means I have to make decisions way ahead of schedule to consider the backlog of materials, particularly wood. If you’re doing a renovation that is heavy on materials, like kitchens with new cabinetry, assume materials will take longer to arrive and reevaluate your completion date accordingly. Watch the cost of services and make sure you aren’t getting taken advantage of by someone using the current market as a platform to jack up rates. It’s natural to increase prices, and I get it, supply and demand, blah blah blah, but there is such a thing as unethically jacking up the cost of services, so research the standard cost of work and keep that in the back of your mind when negotiating the project cost.

So there you have it. No real answers. Super vague. Welcome to home renovations!

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