Planning tool: Do your homework when choosing your architect


Choosing your architect is one of the most important things you'll do when building or remodeling your practice. Your architect sets the pace for the project--and you'll have enough stress without suffering from communication problems with this key player. Here's what to do.

1. Know what you want. "I've built or remodeled many times, and I've sometimes not known what I wanted before meeting with an architect," says Dr. Dennis Cloud, owner of several practices in the St. Louis area. "I hadn't thought through whether I wanted boarding, how many exam rooms I wanted, and so on. But it's important to hammer out these details so you get what you want and what works for you-not what worked for your architect's last client."

2. Check references carefully. This doesn't mean asking the architect for a couple of references, asking those people how their projects turned out, and calling it good. "Obviously if someone calls an architect for references, the architect won't give them the names of disgruntled clients," says Dan Chapel, AIA, an architect in Arkansas who designs veterinary facilities across the country. "But if you ask pointed questions of those references, you'll get a more complete story. For example, ask whether the architect meets deadlines, returns calls quickly, and listens to his clients instead of giving a rote set of plans. Also ask whether he tried to push the client into things he or she didn't want to do."

Other ways to find references: Ask others who've built practices who they used and whether they were happy, then ask your pointed questions. Ask veterinary consultants what they've heard about architects in the industry.

And tap into the online community. "Veterinarians talk," says Chapel. "Go to veterinary message boards, such as the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), and see what your colleagues have to say about different architects. It's really important that you do your research up front."

3. Seek experience and integrity. "If you're hiring a veterinary architect, look for firms that have been working in the industry for a while," says Chapel. "And make sure the people you're actually working with are knowledgeable. You want an architect with real experience."

Dr. Cloud says your architect must also have integrity. How do you know who has integrity? "Again, ask people who've worked with the architect," he says. "I once gave my architect a firm budget, but when I bid out his plan, it was way over the amount I had originally quoted. The architect showed his integrity by redrawing the plans at no charge to me, making it fit my original requirements. That's the kind of thing you're looking for."

4. Find someone who listens. Communication is just as important when you work with an architect as it is when you work with pet owners. Your pet-owning clients depend on you to listen; you need to be able to depend on your architect to listen. "And don't be embarrassed to tell an architect your design ideas, even if they may seem off the wall," says Dr. Cloud. "I've had ideas that really made a lot of sense, and had the architect say, 'I've never seen that before.' You need someone who'll listen to you and consider your ideas. After all, it's your money, your hospital, and your future."

5. Show me the money. Architects use different fee structures, just as veterinarians do. But in general, no architect should ask for more than one-third of the total fee up front, Chapel says. So ask your potential architect to outline the fee structure for you in detail, and make sure it's an agreement you're comfortable with.

"Before signing anything, ask an attorney or someone who is familiar with professional service contracts to review the design agreement," says Chapel. "Have him or her point out red flags: escape clauses, hidden fees, total cost of the work performed, and so on. Question anything that causes you concern."

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