Contractors, architects compete for design services

Use Angie's List to find the best architect in your area. (Photo courtesy of Tad Craig )

Use Angie's List to find the best architect in your area. (Photo courtesy of Tad Craig )

John Deneen had a problem: He wanted to increase the usable space of his Chicago loft apartment without adding square footage.

Impossible? Deneen, who lives in the Andersonville neighborhood near Chicago, thought so until he talked to architect Peter Alex Dreier, owner of highly rated IDEA Architects + Builders.

Four months and $100,000 later, Deneen’s one-bedroom, one-bath apartment now has an expanded master bedroom with a walk-in closet, a guest bathroom, a kitchen island and additional storage space. “I was blown away,” Deneen says. “He knew how to work with space — wasted space.”

In hiring an architect, Deneen took the road less traveled. Only about 15 percent of remodeling projects involve an architect, according to a study by the National Association of Home Builders.

Who do you hire?

Hiring an architect to design your project can be a matter of necessity — many Chicago-area building codes require a licensed architect for structural changes. But when given a choice, and with more and more contractors offering in-house design services, why would a homeowner pay more for an architect to design their project?

It’s a question that sparks debate among contractors and architects.

Ask Terry DeBartolo, owner of four-time Angie's List Super Service Award remodeling firm CCCM Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill., and he’ll say that on most projects, the only difference between his designs and an architect’s is that his are probably better — and definitely cheaper.

“Maybe they would take issue with that,” DeBartolo says of architects. “When we are done, we are basically giving customers a drawing in color, in three dimensions, of exactly what their house will look like. It’s almost like looking at a photograph in a magazine.”

His son, Jody, who attended architecture school but did not graduate, creates the drawings on computer-aided design software. Included are all measurements, such as plumbing and electrical requirements. “They are architectural drawings for all practical purposes,” DeBartolo says. “They are perfect. When we go to a village, [the governing bodies] have always accepted our drawings.”

Based on Angie’s List reports, architectural drawings range from $1,500 to $6,000 or more, depending on the scope of the project.

Architects say that money buys homeowners a depth and breadth of design knowledge unmatched by contractors.

“Architects are typically very well versed in new materials and construction methods and usually have a greater perspective on new possibilities for a space,” says Zurich Esposito, executive director of the American Institute of Architects — Chicago chapter. “A construction contractor might do a certain type of work using a limited range of material. It creates an efficiency for a contractor. An architect is not going to be limited.”

Learning the law

First, depending on where you live, the architect vs. contractor question already may be answered because your city or community may require drawings stamped by a licensed architect.

“Chicago probably has one of the strictest building codes in the country,” IDEA’s Dreier says. “The rule of thumb is, if you are moving a wall, you need an architect. That’s what the city will tell you.”

John Burrell of Highland Park learned how tough some Chicago-area requirements can be when he wanted to tear down the original detached garage of his circa 1927 Tudor house.

“It was small, built in the middle of the yard and not well-sited,” he says. “Every year it would fill with water.”

His plan to tear it down, move his driveway and build a new, larger garage on a different spot ran into significant obstacles that required a licensed architect. He hired highly rated Joel Berman Architecture & Design.

Not only did Highland Park require Berman to design the garage so it blended with the existing architecture, he had to detail how the new building would affect existing infrastructure and Burrell’s 350-year-old oak tree. Berman’s $4,500 fee was money well-spent, Burrell says. His new two-car garage has a fully insulated upstairs with a pull-down staircase. And best of all, it looks like it was built in 1927.

No job too small

Esposito of AIA-Chicago says one myth about architects is that they won’t handle smaller projects such as basement remodels. “There is an architect for every size project,” he says. “In times like ours, there are probably more people willing to take on smaller projects than before. If nothing else, you might end up with some free advice.”

Dan Callahan of Des Plaines, Ill., hired IDEA’s Dreier for structural design on his kitchen remodel. What he ended up with was a radically different design he’d never considered. “We were pretty clear on what we thought would be the best thing to do and he was able to convince us as to why it didn’t make sense,” Callahan says.

Dreier’s design reoriented the kitchen toward the dining room window’s wall of glass. “That was completely his idea,” Callahan says. “It’s a much better utilization of space and it makes the house more conducive to entertaining.”

Definition of design

If using a contractor for design, homeowners need to know what the contractor means by “design drawings.”

A contractor’s drawing may range from a comprehensive plan with complete specifications using computer-aided design software to a “back of the envelope drawing” with vague statements like, “‘We are going to tear that wall down, put an arch there, you’re going to love it,’” says Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects and a senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

He says homeowners should beware of the latter.

The hybrid approach

One trend in both residential architecture and contracting is “design-build,” where one firm handles all aspects of your project.

CCCM is an example of a builder who also handles the design. Dreier’s company is an example of an architect who also handles the construction.

Dreier began as a traditional design-only architect. “I would do the drawing and I wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the construction,” he says. “Things were not done properly. I really think the architect should be part of the construction process. If not, you end up with an inferior product.”

Regardless of who is leading the project, design-build firms simplify the process, AIA’s Baker says. “It generally avoids the problem of finger-pointing after the fact — ‘It was a design issue’ or ‘It was an installation issue,’” he says.

Communication is key

Regardless of who designs a project, the builder and designer need to communicate.

Dreier remembers one project in particular that he designed on the north side. “The carpenters had framed all the walls up to the ceiling and a lot of them should have been at a lower height,” he says. “They don’t look at the details. They don’t read the notes. I always say, ‘If you have a question, my phone number is on the lower right corner of the sheet. Call me.”

DeBartolo agrees. “A lot of architects design but don’t build, so what you need is a builder to say, ‘What you’ve designed is great, but you can’t build it that way.’ You work together to give them the best product at the best price. Everything is for the customer.”


Hello, Ed! Angie's List recently did a story about remodeling for those who have special needs. Find it at this link: Also, hiring a specialist can help. Find one on Angie's List by logging in to your account and doing a keyword search for "Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist."

I need a special needs remodeler for my house. I have a handiccaped daughter and it is very hard to navigate though our house and bathroom.

I've been an electrician for 30 yrs. Architect jobs turn out better for the owner /end user about 99% of the time. That includes cost.

I distrust doctors who sell what they prescribe. Hire an architect - not just for the design but also to look over the builder's bid & proposed contract, review the materials and watch over the construction. There is a good reason most builders would prefer to design it for you "for free." Think about it. (ps - I'm not an architect.)

I had a new Georgian style house ruined when the contractor had a high school kid draw up the construction drawing...saving my fee and using "too small" windows. Good contractors welcome architects to deal with the owner and run a fair construction operation.

In each of these three groups there are good, OK, and bad companies. The most important thing is to choose an individual who is excellent and has a history of excellence in his (her) company.

Saying "Its always a better picture from these drawings represented versus and architect" is obviously subjective. Selecting an architect that has the experience and expertise for your project, which is what Angie's List is for, is the key to getting higher quality final product than an in-house contractor design team. An architect will typically cost more, however there knowledge can usually save you more than their fee.

Hey, We also are a design build co. Our employees have Technology degrees and do both space planning on CAD system and build. Its always a better picture from these drawings represented versus and architect and cheaper as well. yes you may have to have the drawings stamped by an architect but thats usually where it pays if the company your dealing with has some good affairs with the architects who trust in their planning, building and resourcing of materials. this way you dont pay two design fees.

Both article and the comments were very helpful. I would like to open a cafe and had hard time deciding weather I need to budget for an architect. I most defiantly will.

I used an architect for my new home, and it was the best decision that I made on the home. The builder was trying to cut corners even though he bid on the architectural plans. If my architect wasn't on site managing the compliance to the specification, I would have been "taken" on many of the materials and some of the design aspects would have been compromised. I have a one-of-a-kind home, and there is no doubt that had I just hired a builder, my home would look like anyone else's

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