How to Work With an Architect

How to Work With an Architect

Before Reaching Out

Depending on who you speak to, you’ll hear the terms floor plans, blueprints, architectural drawings, etc thrown around quite a bit. For a homeowner with zero construction background, I had to educate myself in some common terminology before starting to think about how to work with an architect.

Learn the Terminology

  • Floor Plan: A top-down view of the structure as if you were looking at things from above with the roof removed.
  • Elevation: A side view of the structure from the exterior, such as the front of the house, left side, right side, and rear.
  • Section: An interior side view of the structure, as if someone had sliced the structure in half and opened it up.
  • Architectural Plans/Drawings: The drawings needed to submit an application for a building permit. These are also referred to as “blueprints”. These are most often provided by an architect or draftsman. Most cities require the drawings to be signed by a licensed architect or structural engineer. Occasionally, for “like-for-like” remodels (where everything is being removed and replaced in the same locations and no structure is being modified), cities will accept the signature of a contractor when applying for a permit. But anything that involves structural details requires the signature of a licensed architect or structural engineer.

Plan for What You Want

Now that we have some terminology down, this is how we approached things. The first thing we did was take measurements of our backyard and started thinking up floor plan ideas. We had no idea about easements, required space between buildings, property lines, and electric poles. We drew up a bunch of different floor plans that all failed to take these things into account. Once we had a self-made floor plan that we liked (which would eventually be changed drastically) we knew we needed to get them vetted to determine the feasibility of our designs. Then we would need more detailed drawings so we could submit them to the city. 

Finding the Right Professional for Your Job

Being a construction novice on a budget, we wanted to find someone who would do a good job but at an affordable price. As we looked online we found a few options.

Architecutre Firms

These folks were the most knowledgeable of building design as well as the various city codes but they charged accordingly. They typically were doing designs for larger projects. Some charged by the hour and others charged by the project.


We read online that ADU’s are pretty straightforward and that most draftsmen would be able to put our plans together. For a more comprehensive explanation of the difference between a draftsmen and architect, click here. Since they weren’t as experienced as architects, they typically were not as expensive. The downside to this lack of experience was that they may not have the best input for design decisions which an architect with many years of experience could provide.

Virtual Architects/Designers

There is a growing number of companies that will do the designs and blueprints without ever visiting your home. They use tools like Google Maps and Zoom to coordinate everything remotely. They are usually more cost effective and are convenient to meet with. They typically charge per project instead of hourly. Virtual architects are popular for those building ADUs because of the simplicity of building an ADU. Anything larger or more complex than an ADU or single room addition will likely be too complex to use virtual architects. In these situations, a local architect who can respond meaningfully to the details of your project is a must.

Design/Build General Contractors

Some general contractors (GCs) have pretty big operations and have a designer and/or architect within their company. Some will even have a structural engineer on staff for more complex projects. So when you want to build something, you only have to deal with one company and usually just one project manager instead of a bunch of different people. The advantage of this is the person building your project will have a much deeper understanding of what you are trying to build, which will come in handy once you start the project. The communication will also be easier since there is continuity in the conversations you have. The downside to this is that they’re slightly more expensive since you’re paying for that convenience of only dealing with one organization.

Who We Chose and How Much it Cost

In the end, we decided to go with a virtual architect/designer because the price was more in our budget. We paid $6000 but felt like that was a bargain considering they did the research to determine the feasibility of our project, looked up the easements and any other zoning requirements, worked with their designer on multiple iterations of the floor plan, assembled our architectural plans, and had one project lead through which 90% of our communication went through.

We did have to pay an extra $1500 for a structural engineer since we wanted to have a vaulted ceiling in the living room that needed to be specially planned out. We were unaware that we’d have to pay for a structural engineer when we originally signed up with Housable, but at that time we also had a very different floor plan in mind. In total, we ended up paying $7500 in total for our architectural drawings which was within the ballpark of some architecture firms we had originally spoken to. This did NOT include applying and submitting for the building permits, nor the cost of the actual permit. Housable gave us the option to have them drive that process but we opted to do it ourselves to save some cash. I will give a run down of the permit process in a later article.

It is possible to look up the zoning and building requirements yourself. This information is usually available by contacting your local city clerk. If we were doing a smaller project like a room addition or garage conversion, we may have tried finding this information ourselves and then getting a draftsman to build the plans to save on cost but even that carries a degree of risk if you aren’t well versed in construction. The folks working in construction have been doing so for years. It would be naive of us to think we could come in with no background in construction and properly manage a project of this size.

What I've Learned Since Starting My Project

  1. Having a local architect/project engineer would have been really nice since they could have visited our job site prior to the project starting to ensure all of the measurements were accurate. We had a few small hiccups that could have been caught if someone was on site physically measuring things. Luckily for us our backyard was primarily flat.
  2. We should have consulted a professional earlier in our “floor-planning” phase. If we had done that, we would have saved ourselves a few months of dreaming up outrageous floor plans that either didn’t abide by local building codes or created complex roof structures that would have drastically increased the cost of our project for the minimal extra square footage we were trying to get.
  3. Building on a slab foundation for small structures like an ADU is cheaper and easier with minimal drawbacks than building on a raised foundation. If you live in an area with problematic soil like expansive clay, you should consult with a structural engineer first.

If you’re beginning the process of constructing an ADU, make sure your contractor utilizes residential construction management software that keeps them organized and gives you a window into the decision making process.

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