You have decided to build a custom home or remodel your current house, and have found an Architectural Designer who looks promising.  What now?

To begin
Interview the Architectural Designer or Architect by asking about their company and the design process.  The American Institute of Architects has a great list of Twenty Questions to Ask Your Architect.

Introduce yourself
Tell them all about yourself and your family’s lifestyle.  Who is living at home, and what activities do they do in the house?  What works for you and doesn’t work very well where you live now?  Know what problems you want to solve and what new resources you want to have, as well as all the features you’d like to try to keep.

Show them pictures
By nature, people in the architectural field understand the world through images and spatial concepts.  Collect photos of things you like AND dislike to use as a visual aid in communicating your vision for your project; this will speak volumes to them.  In return, they will show you drawings and images of what they have in mind.  The Houzz website is a great digital scrap-booking tool for residential design ideas.  

List your “Must haves”
Time, cost, materials and building technique are all interrelated; changing one of these will change the other three.  To minimize nasty surprises, know your priorities and have a budget in mind.  Bringing the Contractor onto the design team in the earlier planning stages will help you get the most accurate estimates and cut out the things you don’t care as much about to save money.

Remember who’s the boss
Instead of hiring the designer and contractor separately, you might hire a builder who hires the architectural designer for you.  This contractual structure, called “Design-Build,” will streamline your responsibilities and give you one simple point of contact, but the designer will be directly serving the builder’s interests instead of yours.  When you talk to the designer in these cases, know that they will be unable to act on your decisions without the builder’s approval.  Or, you might want to hire the designer yourself so that they work for you.

Talk about your responsibilities
Some owners want to be extremely involved in every step of the process.  You may want to give the designer your own preliminary sketches, be present as the construction drawings are submitted for permit, or sub-contract out some of the job yourself.  Or, you may want as much as possible taken care of for you - after all, that's what you are paying for!  In either case, your input is vital and necessary along the way.

Don’t get discouraged
My friend told me that her parents were almost ready to give up when they received the first round of ideas from their architect and “they weren’t what we wanted at all.”  “Tell the architect!” I replied.  This can happen at the beginning.  Concept design is in some ways a shot in the dark and serves as a great point of discussion to direct the designer.  If you don’t like the way something looks, be specific and polite as you can while getting your thoughts out there.  At the beginning, the architectural designer will expect you to have lots of changes.  

Say “I don’t understand”
Unless you are in the home building profession yourself you won’t know everything, like what “chamfer” means, how the Fire code affected your window design, or how to read a construction plan.  Make sure you ask lots of questions and get the information you need to make decisions.  It might be worthwhile to add in an extra budget for 3D images to be produced of your new house (if that isn’t part of the process already). 

Establish concrete goals
Everyone is happiest when they know what to expect.  Make sure you know who will be contacting you in the future, by what method, and when.  Together, you can set goals for the project schedule that take into account your future plans, their time constraints, and the time realistically needed for all the necessary steps ahead.

Enjoy yourself
Designing a new house is a once-in-a-lifestyle experience!  If you get stressed, remember that the challenges that come along will be a story you can tell for the rest of your life.  Also, talking to other people who are happily living in their custom-built homes can help you remember that all the design and construction work will pay off.  Your designer will be encouraged to work for such a positive client, and want to go the extra mile in order to keep pleasing you.

Photo Courtesy of Corbisimages.com