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hiring an architect


October 2019

By Sarah Ebner, Principal



An architect’s advice on hiring an architect.

Desk Sketch.jpg

Do you need an architect? 

There are a few types of construction projects that are exempt from requiring either an architect, structural or civil engineer.  These are summarized below, check with your local permitting authority to confirm all is applicable in your jurisdiction :

  • Wood-framed single-family home, maximum 2 stories + basement.

  • Up to four dwelling units per lot, wood-framed and maximum 2 stories + basement.

  • Garages and other structures added to wood-framed dwellings not more than 2 stories and basement in height.

  • Wood-framed agricultural and ranch buildings (some restrictions apply).

  • Non-structural or non-seismic work including storefronts, interior remodels, millwork and all supporting work for the aforementioned scope (case-by-case).

For everything else, you’ll need a professional.

Do you want to work with an architect?

Architect’s don’t simply offer value in permitting and technical services.  As highly-trained problem solvers, Architects may help advise on everything from selecting an appropriate site to narrowing in on which faucets to buy.  


The field of architecture is broad-reaching and can offer clients a diversity of benefits.  Here are some important considerations to determine if and who you may want to hire:

  • review of your soft-cost budget

  • complexity of the project

  • which skills and attitudes would you value most in an AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) professional

How to find qualified architects?

There are many great resources to help find a local architect:



The best way to kick-start your search for an architect is referrals.  A recommended architect from friends, family or your neighbors is typically a good bet.  Nextdoor is a great app to post to the broader community and ask around.


  • California Architects Board offers a public License search for all Architects registered in the State. This could be a daunting way to search for architects so save it for the end when a final background check may be helpful: 

  • The American Institute of Architect’s may provide active member information or local recommendations for architects in your area. 

AIA San Francisco:

AIA East Bay:

AIA Silicon Valley:

AIA Sonoma County:



There are many online matchmakers for architects and clients, some more passive and others active:

  • Google, vet websites and cold call.

  • HomeAdvisor

  • Thumbtack

  • Houzz

  • Upwork if you’re looking for a small shop or sole-proprietor

What information can be exchanged during an initial architect interview or consultation: 


How would you describe your project? 

  • Who is the project for: yourself, your family, your customers, an unknown future occupant?

  • Aesthetic preferences

  • Layout preferences

  • Important site priorities: views, noise, privacy?

What are your project goals and priorities?

  • Project size

  • Total budget: soft costs, hard costs?

  • Intended or required project schedule

How much research have you completed to date?

  • Zoning research or disclosures available for your property.

  • Local agency review process and timeline.


  • Firm description and background

  • What similar project types have you completed?  Could you share images and client references?

  • Have you worked in my jurisdiction before?  Are you familiar with the required permit processes?

  • What services do you generally provide and which would you recommend for my project?

  • Do you have a quality control procedure and if so, what is it?

  • What consultants do you typically require?  

  • What is your experience with construction oversight and working with general contractors?

  • What is your fee structure?

MADERA SAMPLES in office.jpg

Proposals and contracts:


California Law requires architectural contracts contain the minimum following contents:

  • Description of services

  • Description of compensation to be provided to the architect and method of payment.

  • Name and address of both the architect and client and the architect’s license number.

  • Additional Service terms and procedures.

  • Termination terms.


Many architects will provide a contract based on the American Institute of Architect’s standard forms of agreement.  

It is critical to have all parties align on expectations before entering into the contract.  It is also important that the contract reflects these expectations.

  • What are the Architect’s responsibilities?  

  • What are the client’s responsibilities?

  • What responsibilities remain outside the contract scope?

  • Are fee, schedule, and deliverables clear to everyone involved?

  • How will differences or conflicts be mediated? 

It is recommended to read through each article carefully and/ or consult a lawyer to review it on your behalf.  You can also refer to this post’s reference document: California Architects Board Consumer Guide to Hiring an Architect for additional legal information and considerations when engaging in an AEC-related contract.

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