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HomeAdvisor's Guide to Hiring an Architect or Engineer

Knowing whether you need an architect or an engineer for a project is a constant source of confusion for homeowners. Many people assume that one or the other can handle both design and structural problems, but they don't realize that each professional is trained and licensed to handle specific issues. Hiring an architect for a job that needs an engineer's knowledge and experience, for instance, can cost you thousands of dollars. Know exactly what kind of professional you need for your next home improvement project.

Typical Projects That Require an Architect

Homeowners contemplating either a major home remodel or an addition to their house should strongly consider hiring an architect. A licensed architect will make sure these projects meet code, use safe construction techniques and are completed correctly.

Interior Remodels

You might be tempted to try new paint colors or rearrange furniture on your own, but if you're undergoing a major interior remodel, an architect can help. A professional will design structural elements, such as built-in bookcases or ceiling molding. An architect can also walk you through more demanding construction projects such as adding closets, increasing room sizes and even combining rooms. A professional will consult with you on design issues to make sure your redesigned space reflects your tastes and your family's needs.

New Additions

When you're adding a new room, a new wing or a major component to your home, it's never in your best interest to go it alone. Instead, hire an architect to guide you through the design process. An architect will consult with you to make sure the proposed project does everything you need it to do while working well with the rest of your house from an aesthetic and functional perspective.

A professional will advise you on construction methods and building materials, create drawings of the proposed space and inform you of probable building costs. An architect also understands building codes and ensures your project meets local codes. To complete the labor and oversight of the project, a professional architect will often connect you with trusted contractors and specialists.

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Typical Projects That Require an Engineer

Many homeowners don't think to hire an engineer to take the lead on a project until they run into big problems. As a general rule, when you're dealing with structural issues or land-related problems during a home improvement project, hire an engineer.

Significant Layout Changes

If you're considering implementing major layout changes in your home, it's best to hire an engineer. While architects can help with producing blueprints and developing designs, engineers can advise about completing home improvement projects without damaging your home's structure. For instance, if you're pondering knocking out walls to combine rooms, it's important to have an engineer analyze the situation. A professional can determine whether certain walls are load bearing and can tell you which walls are safe to demolish.

In many areas, homeowners can't pursue major home improvement projects without submitting professional plans or applying for permits. If you find yourself in this situation, consider hiring an engineer qualified to complete these tasks.

Structural Damage

Addressing structural damage isn't something you should typically take on as a DIY project. A minor structural issue can quickly turn into a major problem that most homeowners aren't equipped to deal with. Before you even consider hiring a contractor to fix a structural problem, bring in an engineer who can provide a detailed analysis of the problem and suggest effective ways to handle it. In addition to understanding how the structural elements of your home work together, an engineer has knowledge of the surrounding land and its effect on your house.

Drainage Issues

Drainage issues represent another significant repair that typically requires a professional. Like structural damage, drainage issues can escalate quickly and wreak havoc on your home if not handled correctly. Whether you need to solve an existing problem or design a drainage system for your new addition, an engineer is the most qualified professional to take on this job.

Project Management

Homeowners often manage their own home improvement projects, but when the job is complex, you might be better off hiring a project manager. Many engineers work as project managers, since they have knowledge of the entire design and construction process, along with building issues. Consider contracting an engineer as a project manager if a job starts to become overly ambitious.

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How to Find the Right Architect for Your Project

Not every architect is right for your home improvement project. Architects typically specialize in certain types of projects or particular kinds of design. Some work individually, while others work on teams. Some prefer to work closely with clients, while others take a hands-off approach. Here's how to find the right professional for your project.

Questions to Ask Prospective Architects

When interviewing architects for your project, ask the following questions.

  • What is your design concept? A shared design philosophy might be what attracts you to a particular architect in the first place. Whether or not you think you know the architect's style, ask to look through his or her portfolio so you can see the full range of projects and understand how those concepts will translate to your home.
  • Have you completed similar projects before? Be familiar with your architect's experience and know whether he or she has successfully finished projects like yours. Ask to see before and after photos, and if possible, talk with previous clients about their experiences.
  • Do you anticipate any challenges for this project? It's important to understand whether the project you're considering will be straightforward or rife with potential problems. If the architect foresees issues, be sure you understand the scope and any related costs.
  • Can you prioritize my project? If you opt to work with an in-demand architect, there's always a chance that he or she will have to delay working on your project. Make sure you're on the same page about the timeline, and make sure you know where you stand. Also consider asking a potential architect to assess how often he or she completes projects within the proposed timeline.
  • What is your fee structure? Not all architects assess the same fees. Most charge a percentage of an entire construction project, but the rate can vary widely depending on the project's complexity and the architect's prestige. Other architects charge a flat rate or an hourly fee. Find out whether the architect bills monthly, quarterly or in one large invoice, and work this into your budget.
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How to Find the Right Engineer for Your Project

Like architects, engineers specialize in certain kinds of projects. Most engineers complete training that prepares them for particular issues, so it's important to make sure you're hiring the right kind of engineer.

Structural Engineers

Structural engineers can analyze your home to determine construction methods and building materials. These professionals can also assess structural issues such as cracked walls, shifting door frames and misshapen walls. If you're considering altering your home's structure in any way or attempting to understand the magnitude of a structural problem, consult a structural engineer.

Soil Engineers

Soil engineers or geotechnical engineers focus on how your property's geological structure affects your home. When you're dealing with drainage issues or foundation problems, a soil engineer can analyze the soil and rocks that make up your land to determine how stable the ground is or whether it can support a proposed improvement project.

Civil Engineers

Civil engineers have specialized knowledge of structures and systems, and they often supervise large-scale construction projects. If your home improvement project requires you to address drainage issues, sewer systems or retaining walls, a civil engineer is the professional for the job. Many civil engineers also serve as project managers and have a thorough understanding of zoning and building codes.

Questions to Ask Prospective Engineers

When consulting engineers for your project, ask the following questions.

  • How will you address problems that arise with my project? If you're hiring an engineer, chances are you already expect problems ahead. Fortunately, it's an engineer's job to anticipate and solve problems. Ask your engineer to reference similar jobs, and get a sense of how competently he or she addressed unexpected problems and brought them to a satisfactory conclusion.
  • Can you recommend qualified contractors? No matter what kind of engineer you work with, it's very unlikely that he or she will perform manual labor in addition to consulting on home improvement issues. Engineers typically work with specialized contractors and can recommend companies to hire, so be sure to obtain a trustworthy recommendation.
  • How much oversight will you provide? Many engineers provide project management services, while others serve as consultants for one-time jobs. Know what your needs are before you hire an engineer. Whether you need a professional to oversee the entire project or simply need to get a qualified analysis of a single component of your project, feel confident that you're hiring the right engineer.
  • Does my project meet building codes? Engineers are required to know local building codes and determine whether the projects they manage are up to code. If your proposed project isn't up to par, make sure you understand what changes you need to make.
  • How do you charge for projects? Engineers typically charge hourly rates or flat rates for major projects. As with all professionals, more qualified and respected engineers tend to demand higher rates. Before hiring an engineer, be sure that you know when and how much you'll be charged.
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Important Qualifications for Architects and Engineers

Architects and engineers have to complete years of education, training and practice before they can work in a professional capacity. Here are some of the major associations professionals should belong to and licenses they must hold before qualifying to work as engineers or architects.

National Council of Architectural Registration Boards

To work in any state, architects must pass the Architect Registration Examination to obtain a license issued by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). This exam requires architects to demonstrate competence in site planning, building design, structural systems and more. After obtaining an initial license, architects must renew their licenses periodically.

American Institute of Architects

Most professional architects hold memberships to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the leading professional association in the United States. The AIA has about 300 chapters nationwide, offering educational programs, standard contract documents and professional resources.

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying

To work as engineers, professionals must receive an education from a program approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and several years of field experience. Engineers also must obtain a license to work in their state. They do this by passing examinations in fundamentals, principles and practice administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

National Society of Professional Engineers

The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) is the largest professional organization in the country. Engineers of all specialties join the NSPE for access to educational seminars, industry news and networking.

Before you take on your next DIY job, assess whether you need to hire an architect or engineer. Though finding the right professional for the job will add some time and cost to your project, the result will make the extra expenditure worthwhile. Knowing that your home improvement project meets safety and legal requirements and is completed with skill and expertise will put your mind at ease and make your investment +much more valuable.

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