How to select an architect?
You might be in a situation where the market doesn’t meet your needs when it comes to finding your dream house or apartment, there might have a need to renovate your existing one, or you might be considering building a hotel, a spa or a mixed-use complex on top of a railway. So, you start searching for an architect. The project is most likely a big investment, so you are looking for a smooth and stress less process to reach your goal. To help you with the selection process, here are some things to consider.
There are several options to choose from
1. Select the desired architect by their values, recommendation, past works and skills. This option is the fastest and recommended especially for small projects. If you order a design service and you are a public-sector authority, you can order a design service up to 60k€ (FIN) without having to request for tenders.
2. Requesting for tenders. If over 50% of your funding is from a government (EU), you can arrange a Public Procurement. Remember to put effort demanding the right criteria to get good quality design, which defines the results. Too often the cheaper bid get selected over the good quality ones and after the choice, it is hard to make big changes to the content. You might end up getting a toxic building with bad acoustics that will cost you a lot in a long run as people want to avoid it and it should be renovate after few years.
3. Competition. Arrange open or invitational competition, in Finland it’s advised to organize a competition with a help of the Finnish Association of Architects, SAFA. Open competition is either international or national. Individuals or groups of architects can participate and only best proposals get awarded. In invitational competitions, usually five groups get selected and all of them are given a price but the winner gets the contract to develop the project further.
What to consider when organizing a competition
It is worthy to spend some time to organize the brief and initial material of the competition. The brief is a quick read that describes what are the goals of the project and what elements get valued in the judging process. The idea is to spark interest and attract good quality proposals. It’s essential to put effort into a good quality of the initial data so the time is used for the most important, design. Many times, architecture offices give up on taking part of competitions if they see the initial data is insufficient as working hours go to modelling existing environment instead of focusing on designing new. In a big project, a good initial data includes written introduction to the site, site pictures with location map, laser scanned 3D environment of the surrounding area showing the tree locations and vector drawings of the surrounding buildings. The prize should be attracting considering that offices plan their time resources according to it. Usually in open competitions the prices are depending on the size of the design work, between 20 to 300k€ divided by the best five proposals. However, the bigger drive is the contract that follows the competition win. Organizing a competition can be time-consuming, but it gives possibility to go through several design options and select the best one. If a competition is international, there are more options to choose from, but the amount of proposals can be overwhelming. For example, Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition received 1 715 competition entries so going through them took some time for the jury.
Big vs. small office
The size of the office might be one of the decision-making factor. Big office is typically specialised evenly in everything that got to do with building and different types of projects are run by small teams consequently. The work is mostly designing public buildings, apartments, renovations, and no or only few small houses.Private houses are rarely designed as it is too time-consuming to take each customers desires into account. In many big architecture offices, the team’s formation change often as many people go there to learn for a short time, so many architects might design the same project over the years which makes it highly likely for information and tacit knowledge to get lost over time and for customers, this can be frustrating. However, in small offices, it’s more likely that there is one architect from the beginning to the end of the project.
The contribution of a single person can also get lost in bigger office where team work is the method but in smaller offices architects can develop with their interests more independently and get instant feedback to develop. In big offices, the outcome can become repetitive in an industrial environment where old plans are recycled. As design options, can come out bulky, new ideas and up to date solutions rarely come out from big offices, which makes them slow followers of time as big ship turns slowly. In big offices, the staff consist of interior designers, architects, interns, students and landscape architects and it’s highly possible that the drawer or designer never even meets the client and communication is through Chinese whispers, so the bigger the office the bigger the risk of variety in quality. In small offices, the designer communicates directly with the client which leads to better quality as the needs and feedback gets communicated directly. In some offices, no matter big or small, there is also a tendency to take in too many projects, so there is more work than can get completed with good quality. The pressure and tight timetables can affect the quality so getting detailed working drawings gets challenging.
A good example of a small office runners are architects Glenn Murcutt and Peter Zumpthor, who refuse to expand their business too big as they want to control the quality of the design. The downside in client’s perspective is that a small offices services may not be available or there is a long waiting list. Small offices don’t have enough time for every offered project, so they will pick the ones closest to their values.
In Finland, architects are graduated from three universities.
Only graduates from these schools can join SAFA, Finnish Association of Architects.
Are the pencils sharp?
Would you hire a carpenter with a plastic hammer? Even if it's more important what you do than how you do it, when it comes to the tools, it’s good to have quality ones. Even if drafts and ideas are drawn on paper, the main design work is done in 3D with help of computers. The shift from hand drawing to using computers has been rapid and many old minded offices haven’t been able to keep up with the development. The evolution of design programs has several competitors which provide their best solution for the market. Students graduating from universities have usually the best experience to say which software to use as they have tried many. The teaching of AutoCAD stopped almost 15 years ago at the Finnish universities, but still many offices keep using the software as they refuse to keep up with the development. Now, there is a competition between two main players, Archicad and Revit. Archicad used to be better at the beginning of the twenty-first century so still many offices use it. Revit started to get ahead since 2010 and has now the deserved first place. Many big offices feel it’s too big effort to change using Revit as they would have to start teaching the staff and for a while there would be a learning period with less income. Some still have those golden years in mind when Archicad used to be the best there is and hope it will catch up but bright students won’t apply for those offices. The downside in Revit is that it doesn’t work in Mac so you must run it through a virtual machine. Other highly recommended program is Rhinoceros and in future possibly SketchUp and Blender.
The sharpness of tools tells how attractive a company is for becoming employees and customers. Many architects are refusing invitations to work in offices with inefficient tools as who would want to spend time on technical problems and bad logic. A well-equipped office has up to date design programs and a 3D printer. So, when hiring an architect, make sure to find out about the tools.
The building industry lives with economic cycles, most apartment buildings are designed in economic boom and public buildings in downturn.The Finnish market offers limited range of buildings which of, many are bulky plastic buildings that are not investments for wellbeing. The amount of different building materials has increased and a customer considering building a house faces misleading marketing and without the right knowledge can end up making one of the biggest mistakes of their life. Many products have unbacked promises with vague testing and producers have no responsibility to explain the source and formula of the ingredients so even today there are new toxic buildings built. Since the 1960´s the quality of building has gone down as natural materials have been replaced by processed ones and we are getting to know the causes even better when new cases keep rising. As a lot of resources are invested in buildings there is a political motivation to not make a big deal out of it, but as more information about the causes get published, we are expecting to have more strict regulations about the health of building materials. Responsible builders can take healthiness into account before it is legally required and ensure the best value for the building, the only thing is that the customer must require it. Unfortunately, some architects except any kind of commissions and cut corners providing unsustainable solution. A good architect can see trough lobbying done by picking cherries.
A good architect
Considers the wishes of a client and combines them to a plan with expertise. Good design affects the atmosphere and dignifies life and when done right, increases the building's reselling and living value. What aspects are important for yourself when suspecting a house, you consider buying? Feeling it gives you, healthiness, durability? How long is the lifespan of a building? Is the building designed for 30 years or 200 years? A house is a big investment and is often build with loaned money, so it is better to build it professionally. Over 80% of the total expenses are decided on the drawing board, so investing in design is worth it. The volume of heated or cooled spaces are significant as we calculate, how much does an extra square meters cost in twenty years.
8 questions a good architect thinks about
How are the spaces flexible over life-cycle changes
What are the life-cycle costs
How big spaces are suitable for desired number of people
What activities or hobbies are the spaces supporting, active or peaceful
Location and scale of private and public spaces
Ecological influence on climate change
How to design for future challenges because of climate change
How healthy is it to live in the building