Who Comes First… Architect or Builder?

This may seem like the proverbial “chicken or the egg” riddle… who do you hire first, the architect, the builder, or do you choose a design/build firm where both services are under one roof?

From my perspective (trying to remain as objective as possible), the architect should come first as we’re the quarterbacks for the project during the planning phase until construction starts when the builder takes over, then we’re on the sideline.

I find that some clients who don’t quite understand the process will involve a builder first, and his first question will be “do you have a set of plans?” When the answer is no, he’ll recommend an architect who they think will be a good fit for your project.

Architect First:

If you hire an architect first, when the plans are close to done, they’ll recommend builders they’ve worked with before and who they think are a good fit for you and your project.

Note that it’s a very good idea to involve a builder during the design phase to help keep the construction cost in line with your budget, and they should be compensated for their time. When the plans are complete, this builder will be one of those providing a “real” estimate.

You should get at least three estimates from builders but not more than 5, as estimates can vary greatly among builders for many reasons. Hopefully, the architect will be involved during the bidding phase to help you analyze the bids, select a builder, and review his contract to ensure fairness to you. Hopefully, the architect will also be involved during construction to oversee the project to make sure the house is being built according to the plans.

Builder First:

There are some homeowners who at the very beginning of a project have already decided on a builder to work with. This might be due to previous experience working together, a recommendation from a family member or friend, or just by being familiar with their past work and overall reputation.

The builder will recommend architects they know and feel are experienced in designing the type of project you’re considering. The builder can be involved during the design phase which is always a good idea to help keep the costs in line, and the design and construction drawings will reflect the decisions made.

As the homeowner, you “could” involve other builders for final estimates, but that is typically not done when one builder is involved from the beginning. This requires a great level of trust in the builder from the homeowner that his numbers are fair, as you’ll have no basis for comparison.

Design/Build First:

If you like the idea of “one-stop shopping” with one firm for both the architectural firm and builder under one roof, this might be for you… but there’s a downside they may not tell you about.

Design/build firms offer an arrangement that can supposedly improve time management and efficient communication by simply keeping everything in-house. Most design/build firms are builder driven, so be sure that the firm has a strong architectural background with experienced architects on staff.

Note that some design/build firms are really not that, as they don’t have an architect on staff… they might lead you to believe it’s being done in-house, but in reality they involve someone else to provide that service.

You should understand that when going this route, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. You’re committing to one builder upfront and have lost the ability to competitively shop around for other builders who might provide a better value. Just like when hiring a builder first, this requires absolute trust in the builder that his numbers are fair since you have no way of comparing.


All of these scenarios work and no one way is always better than the other.

Whether hiring an architect, builder, or design/build firm, your decision should be based on finding someone you trust and with whom you feel comfortable with, along with a certain level of trust and integrity. Pick wisely and let the design process begin!

Connecticut & New York Architect | DeMotte Architects | Residential Design

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