Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How to hire an architect (or residential designer)

He aced the interview, but sadly doesn't use email.
If you want to learn about how to do a meticulous job hiring an architect and building a house, this Seattle home blog is a must-read.  Mike describes the start-to-finish process of creating a new custom home with the kind of detail and precision I hope to master in my next life as a man.  Mike spent a few months researching and interviewing architects before choosing a firm with a flat-fee structure of $48,000.

It took me about a week to hire our architect Jeanine, who is actually a residential designer.  Her estimate was $18,000.  I call her our "architect" because everyone assumes you have to have an architect design your house and it's easier than explaining the difference (which is highlighted at the end of this post).

For my dear readers who may actually be thinking about building a home, I thought I'd outline how to hire an architect the proper way before explaining the Kay way.  The first list is a compilation of advice from Mike's Picking An Architect post along with Choosing a Contractor tips from Consumer Reports (click on the aforementioned links to get the full details):
Strategic Planner Checklist   
1. Get personal recommendations
2. House stalk to find architects you like
3. Evaluate architects' previous work and style fit
4. Ask for 3D renderings from previous projects
5. Find out who is really doing your design (if it's a bigger firm)
6. Interview previous clients
7. Check with the Better Business Bureau for a complaint history
8. Ensure contractor is properly licensed and insured
9. Get cost of construction estimates
10. Decide on design vs design/build option
11. Get written estimates from at least three contractors
12. Negotiate a fair contract and fee schedule
I call this the "Strategic Planner" checklist because my husband is a strategic planner and I imagine this is how he would've done it.  Buuut, since he's busy getting paid the big bucks for those strategic planning skills, I gleefully sped ahead with my own strategery:
Kay's Get It Done Quick List 
1. Referral from someone I trust and has worked with the person
2. Person responds quickly to my calls and emails
3. Price seems reasonable
I'm the type of person who moves fast and usually learns along the way.  Sometimes moving too quickly ends up costing me extra, but on balance things tend to work out because I rely on the advice of good, honest, and practical experts who help guide my way.  Our contractor, Jeff, is one of those experts and referred us to Jeanine.  Jeff, (also found through a referral), was our trusty general contractor for a large remodel of our current house, so his recommendations carry a lot of weight with us.  Plus, when I called Jeanine, she got back to me promptly and scheduled a meeting that week.  I showed her our property and took her to an open house of another home that we liked in order to give her an idea of what we wanted.  The following week the 18K contract was signed and voilĂ !  A week and a half later (less than a week after we closed escrow on the house), we had our first designs.  Now that's my kind of pace...

It's been about six weeks now, (that includes the holiday break), and we are just about to submit our initial plans to the city of Palo Alto.  The whole process so far has been remarkably efficient and fun.  I will go into further details in future posts but for now I will leave you with two of my biggest learnings.

1.  Hire tech savvy people
In six weeks we've been working with Jeanine, we've spoken on the phone twice, met three times in person, and have exchanged approximately a hundred thirty emails.  The one trait I don't see on peoples' fancy checklists is to make sure you hire tech savvy people.  And by tech savvy, I mean they use email regularly, can locate information (like city building codes) online, and know how to send you a digital photo or PDF.  Bonus points for using Word, Excel or Google Docs files.  Don't take it for granted that everyone knows how to do these things.  I've come across a fair share of people in the home building industry who don't use a computer.  It's most important that your architect (or residential designer) and general contractor know how to communicate via email since they are your main points of contact.  Receiving drawings, contracts and invoices electronically is not only faster, it gives you a timeline and record of everything you've done.  It's also a lot easier sharing a photo of something you like rather than trying to explain your style preferences.  A good way to screen for this is to simply conduct some of your initial interview and conversations via email, including the exchange of the contract and other information.  It's definitely nice if your subcontractors are proficient too, (I hate hanging on to paper contracts and invoices), but not essential.

The second lesson that I learn over and over again in life is that:

2.  Nothing beats a personal recommendation from someone you trust
If there's one thing I've learned from years of working in the corporate world, it's that interviews are a terrible way of hiring people, especially when you're screening for skills you yourself don't have.  Often times the person who performs the best in an interview winds up being the biggest muppet ever.  A candid assessment from someone I trust has always proven to be the single best source of information.

Here's the email from Jeff referring us to Jeanine.  This, along with a phone call asking for more details is why I felt so comfortable moving forward.  So far we've found everything Jeff has said about Jeanine to be true.  Jump to the highlighted section to learn about the difference between an architect and a residential designer.
Hi Kay, 
Over the weekend I was talking to a building designer I work with about a job she’s designing in San Mateo.  I mentioned to her that you are going to be interviewing architects/designers and if she is interested in meeting you, which she is.  Here’s a little background about her and her company.  
Jeanine Unterleitner is the principal of The Residential Designer.  She’s been designing houses for many years and I have worked with her on several projects.  Her strengths are listening to her clients needs and creating intelligent use of space.  She also uses the same Structural Engineer, Jody Tai, P.E. for most projects.  This is a huge benefit because some architects design beautiful houses only to find that the structure is radically altered when it gets engineered.  Anything can get built, but my point is that inefficient design is costly.  Jeanine and Jody work well as a team and use cost effective techniques to achieve great design results. 
To clarify, Jeanine is not a licensed Architect nor affiliated with the AIA.  She is a building designer.  What’s the difference?  In my experience, money and ego.  I’ve met more than one licensed architect that is very rigid about his vision of what the house is supposed be.  Is it about the vision or the client?  There are some excellent architects out there, and I am happy to refer you to one in particular, but be prepared to spend a lot more on design. 
Last thing I want to say about Jeanine, is that she knows how to drive a project.  Big or small, she’s on it.  That means getting revisions submitted to the city quickly, or following-up with an answer to a question.  She’s very capable of designing a custom home that meets your objectives.
Let me know if you’d like me to introduce you or if you would like to contact her directly.  I did tell her that you were at the early stages of interviewing designers, so don’t feel pressured into contacting her, if you’re already planning to work with someone else.  Below is her contact. 

For those of you who have made it this far, here's a bonus tip from my parents who built a new house in Palo Alto a decade ago.
The Frugal Asian Parents Way
1. Visit new homes in your city
2. Find one you like that is about the right size
3. Hire same architect at hourly rate to modify the design for your lot
I learned about this approach after boasting to my dad about the very reasonable quote from our architect and asking how much he paid.  They paid a mere $10,000 for their plans.  They managed this by trolling open houses of new homes in Palo Alto until they found one that they liked.  My dad then contacted the architect of the house and hired him at an hourly rate to modify the plans.  Aside from re-sizing some dimensions, they made no major structural changes and simply added a second archway to the front facade.  Since the designs had already gone through the rigor of the city reviews, the amount of time needed from the architect was low.  I think this is a great strategy if you can find something you like that's already out there.  As for me, an ABC with somewhat less frugal ways, I'm okay making an additional investment in order to get custom features like our two mudrooms, dog friendly layout, and the guest suite designed especially for our much deserving parents.  


  1. I'm all about your strategery. Although I do understand why it can be costlier from time to time, reference the round table I recently bought that was not totally thought through. Nowhere on par with building a custom home but I'm trying to relate here.

    As for the Frugal Asian Parent way of doing things: story of my LIFE.

    Terrific post. Looking so forward to seeing the design and watching this bad boy become reality.

  2. There are various reasons why people should hire an architect for any type of building whether it is new building or remodeling. People hire an architect which is experienced in the designing, planning and the construction of buildings. You are listed useful tips.
    Architect Dublin

  3. Kay, this blog has been such a comfort to me as I plan to embark on the same adventure. Can you give me the contact of your contractor? Are you guys spending about 300 dollars a sq. ft.? My email is vpdot(at) Thanks a bunch..going to keep following your adventure.

  4. Let me preface this comment by saying that I have known some great designers and some really crummy architects in seventeen years of practice.

    One fundamental difference between a "designer" and "architect" is that the manner in which an architects' services are performed is judged by the professional standard of care, which is a standard embodied in tort (negligence) law - the designer has no such obligation. A licensed architect is also "on the hook" for the life of the building and will likely carry E&O (liability) insurance, the cost of which increases with every year of practice, for life.

    If a designer is ignorant of the fact that your new home is being built on expansive soil and none of your doors will open after the first rainy season, they get to walk away because they have no real responsibility for your safety. An architect does not have that luxury.

    Another difference is that architects have typically completed (and have to pay for) at least four years of higher education as well as a minimum of four years of practice at minimum wage under a licensed architect, after which they must complete nine exams (which typically take 12-18 months) before becoming licensed.

    As for ego, our profession may have more than its fair share of egomaniacs but that certainly does not apply to all - there are thousands, pick one that you like!

    1. Hi Scott, Thanks for all the information! It's great to have the additional perspective and I hope you didn't feel like your profession was being indicted. I failed to mention that our contractor also gave us a list of architects he liked and recommended. As for the liability insurance, I'm going to have to double-check, but I do believe our structural engineer carries it and has us covered. And thank goodness we're not on expansive soil!