Catch the Architect's Eye

Many of the most exceptional remodeling designs are drawn by architects hired directly by their clients. The trick for remodelers who don’t run design/build firms is to figure out how to become a member of this team.

May 31, 2003


Architect Michael Klement, of Architectural Resource LLC in Ann Arbor, Mich., likes to bring remodelers in at the beginning of his projects: an architect-led design/build model.

Many of the most exceptional remodeling designs are drawn by architects hired directly by their clients. The trick for remodelers who don't run design/build firms is to figure out how to become a member of this team.

Clearly, the goal of a team approach to designing and building remodeling projects is to ensure that the project is built as drawn, in a timely fashion and on budget.

"It's all about the product," says Michael Klement, principal of Architectural Resource LLC in Ann Arbor, Mich. Eighty percent of his work is in residential remodeling (the rest is residential new construction), and he likes remodelers to underpromise and overdeliver. After all, says Klement, "it's the remodeler who turns the lines I draw into reality."

In this manner, the customers get their needs met, and the design/build team can move on to other jobs. Architect Mark Leahy, principal of Pinnacle Design & Consulting, says, "At the end of the day, the customer has to be happy; everything else doesn't matter."


Top tips from Mark Leahy

Getting noticed

While an architect passing by an exceptional remodeling project might take note of the firm whose sign appears out front, this is unlikely to be the primary path to get in an architect's door.

Be forewarned: The burden is on you to demonstrate you own and operate a professional remodeling firm. The professionalism must extend from the project site to your firm's letterhead — and beyond.

First, take the time to learn about architects within your geographic area who design the types of projects in which your firm specializes. Impersonal, mass mailings to architectural firms are mostly ineffective. Architects want to see a remodeling company that has sufficient interest to take the time to seek out their firm because the specific types of jobs they design match the remodeling firm's skills.

A well-crafted letter might attract attention, as might a well-scripted telephone call. A letter should be followed in a few days with a phone call, and a phone call should be followed a few days later by correspondence. This demonstrates that your intentions are serious and your firm can follow up in a timely fashion.

Matt Schoenherr, principal of Z:Architecture in Branford, Conn., has 13 years of experience in primarily residential work (almost all additions and renovations) and also is the author of Updating Classic America: Colonials. He suggests that a remodeler send photographs with his or her introduction letter. The letter should be directed to an individual architect. It might include a reference to a specific project designed by the architect and seen by the remodeler, or details about the types of projects the remodeling firm specializes in and could build for the architect's clients.


Top tips from Matt Schoenherr

Klement prefers the call first, mail second regimen. He says a phone call receives "more immediate attention." Klement also suggests that the follow-up mailing be sent in a timely fashion and that it include photographs of previous work and references. "Literature demonstrates you're established," Klement says, "because I can't help you get off the ground."

Architects also recommend that remodelers contact architects within the immediate geographic area when they are working on a project of note. This provides an opportunity for an architect to note the scope of work provided by the remodeling firm as well as monitor project flow and observe site conditions. "Architects are a curious bunch," says Leahy, whose firm has 31 employees in offices in Fairfax, Va., and Pittsburgh and does residential as well as commercial design.

A unique project you're working on might entice an architect whom you've targeted to stop by the job and allow you to show him your work. This also allows you to address an architect at a place where you're both very comfortable: a job site.

Finally, consider joining or getting more actively involved in your local builders association. The association probably has at least a few architect members, and having discussions with them through the association is typically a more casual and less stressful approach to a first meeting. If you're active within the association, and recognized for your work, you become a known commodity who might get an easier introduction to an architectural firm specializing in remodeling projects.

The sit-down

If you're invited to meet with an architect, go to that first meeting equipped with the types of material and information the architect is seeking to learn about you and your firm. Don't bring anything that might present the wrong impression of who you are and what you do.

Architects don't appear to care about attire worn by the remodelers they meet. While muddy boots should be left in the truck, so should a jacket and tie (unless that's your customary daily attire). "Dirty jeans and plaid shirts are OK," Schoenherr says. "I like talking to the guys who do the work."

That first meeting should include material you can present that is descriptive of what you do and supported by the words of others. When meeting a remodeling contractor for the first time, Klement wants to see photos of projects and letters of recommendation. Schoenherr wants to learn about the size of the contractor's business, the types and scopes of projects previously completed, and which types of projects the remodeler is best at completing. Leahy notes that professional photography is always best, "but, today, digital can be just as good."

Leahy also looks for letters of reference and direct references — people who can be called to attest to your skills. He also is curious as to whether a contractor has "previous architectural experiences" and how working with another architect fared.


What not to do

There are contractors who, at their first meeting, can’t wait to complain to an architect about other architects they’ve worked with who didn’t know what they were doing. Matt Schoenherr, principal of Z:Architecture recommends that you leave the griping behind. And don’t ever tell an architect that your pricing structure depends on the cost of the homeowners’ cars or the property’s ZIP code. All of the above will ensure that your first interview is relatively brief.

Schoenherr looks for contractors who are tired of completing the same projects multiple times and are looking for different types of work. He doesn't want contractors who are unwilling to complete unusual projects; rather, he wants to work with people who "appreciate creative innovation." And Schoenherr wants to talk about subcontractors, to see if the remodeler uses subs with whom the architect's current contractors are working; it gives him an idea of the contractor's quality. During his initial meeting, Klement wants to learn whether he and the contractor will be a good fit "chemistry-wise." "Remodeling is like having your clothes tailored while you're wearing them," he says. Klement believes the projects themselves are more about service and less about product, necessitating that the right individuals become part of the team.

What you should know before taking the plunge

While an architect will take the short time you spend together to learn as much as he can about you and your business, you should take the time to learn about the architect as well. There are specific things you should learn before agreeing to take your new relationship to the next level:







  •  Whether the firm is run professionally: You should inquire as to whether calls are returned in a timely manner. You obviously know the cost of having a crew standing around a job site waiting for a return phone call. If a drawing requires modification while a job is in progress, how long might that take?







  •  To what extent the architect will defend you when — not if — a dispute occurs between you and the owner: Is there an informal dispute resolution system in place? If there is a disagreement on site, will you, the customer and the architect all meet to discuss it?







  •  Whether all projects are bid or design/build, whereby you would be brought into the project as a member of the team at its earliest stage: If projects are bid, how many contractors will be sent the drawings? How long will you have to complete a bid? Is the final decision solely based on price? Do the bidders get to meet the homeowners before the final decision is made?







  •  The level of detail in the architect's drawings: Does the architect provide specifications for all details, including fixtures, lighting and windows, or just certain components?

    In essence, how much work, if any, will you be required to do before the job can be started or finished?

    Will you have to take your customer to select materials, or is that the architect's job? If certain finishes and selections are the remodeler's responsibility, that time has to be included in your overall bid. And that type of information has to be conveyed to the architect so he fully understands all aspects of your bid. "Architects are notorious for providing inaccurate cost estimates," Klement says.







  • Call first, then send a mailing.
  • Top tips from Michael Klement




  • Call first, then send a mailing.
  • Top tips from Michael Klement





  • Provide letters of recommendation and brochures or other marketing materials.




  • Call first, then send a mailing.
  • Top tips from Michael Klement





  • Don’t expect the architect to help you get your business up and running. He is looking for established companies only.




  • Call first, then send a mailing.
  • Top tips from Michael Klement

    Staying in the program

    If there's one thing architects agree on, it's that they all want contractors to do what they say they will do. And they want a degree of flexibility. Everyone knows that a project never goes entirely as planned, so how well the parties deal with problems goes a long way toward determining whether the relationship will continue past the first project.

    One of the most important things Leahy wants to see is that the contractor can think on his or her feet. He suggests that remodelers avoid finger pointing, as that will "sour the relationship" between a remodeler and an architect. He's most impressed when remodelers deal effectively with problem customers who get past his and the contractor's informal screening.

    From Leahy's perspective, a professional remodeler has effective business systems, returns phone calls promptly, responds with follow-up correspondence as necessary and has appropriate documentation to keep a job flowing.

    Schoenherr expects remodelers to call frequently with questions. He finds that problems multiply as soon as contractors make assumptions. He also wants good interaction between the customer, the architect and the contractor because a strong team philosophy helps ensure that the job is completed as drawn. And don't forget to get your bids in on time.

    Don't be offended or surprised if the first project you're offered by an architect is a small one. After all the talking is over, the architect will still want to see if "the rubber hits the road" on a project with a relatively short turnaround time.

    Stanley F. Ehrlich can be reached at

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