When it comes to remodeling, the difference between a so-so result and a stunning result is often one thing: good design. Design, after all, is the home improvement puzzle piece that makes things work, both functionally and aesthetically. With or without good design, you can easily pour well over $40,000 into a new kitchen remodel. It only makes sense to ensure a successful result by going the extra mile to get quality design work.

Also see ways to control your home remodeling costs.

architect and plans with client
A great design team is critically important to a successful building or remodeling project. Goodluz / Shutterstock.com

A well conceived plan is critical to the success of almost any major home improvement project. Whether you’re adding a new master suite or building a patio overhead, you will need a design that shows the project’s construction in detail. You’ll need this to get the building permit and put construction into motion.

The design plan is a necessary guide for ordering materials. It also helps with figuring the sequence of construction, joining the various parts and pieces, and realizing a sound, functional, beautiful home. Architects and professional designers usually develop the design plan.

In some cases, getting the involvement of an architect or designer isn’t really a choice. You need one to prepare the necessary drawings, handle structural calculations, and deal with complex design issues.

So, who can assist you, and what can they do to help? Here is an overview:

What Architects Do

Architects are the most qualified to handle any and all aspects of planning and design, from concept to project management. Working with an architect is particularly important when modifying your home’s structure or expanding it beyond its footprint.

An architect holds a university degree. If “AIA” follows the name, it means he or she is a member of the American Institute of Architects. This association establishes ethical standards and practices for its members and ensures that they stay informed about industry developments.

Architects may charge hourly or by the project. Hourly fees typically run $100 an hour and up. When charging by the project, fees are typically about 12% of the project’s cost.

Architects are usually the priciest of your options. However, they command a premium because they can handle all aspects of planning. In addition to developing plans, they can help you find a contractor, and manage the construction so your project gets done right and on time. Architects must pass a list of requirements to become licensed, though these requirements vary by state. Make sure the one you choose is licensed for your state.

Architectural Designers

Then again, maybe you don’t need full-blown architectural service that includes building-load calculations and the like. In this case, an architectural designer can be a more affordable choice. An architectural designer does not have the same extent of training as an architect. However, he or she definitely has the skills to work through structural and space-planning issues and set you up with working drawings. Many architectural designers are members of the American Institute of Building Design (AIBD). Their rates typically run under $100 per hour.

architect drawing building plans
An architectural designer can produce the drawings you need. © Emilijan Sekulovski | Dreamstime.com

Designers do not need to be state-licensed. When it comes to just drawing up plans, the main difference between an architect and a designer is the architect’s ability to perform building load calculations. (Some will hire structural engineers for this.) If a project requires load calculations, a designer must have an engineer do them.

Kitchen, Bath & Interior Designers

When little structural work is required and space planning and aesthetic choices are your main concern, your best bet may be a kitchen, bath, or interior designer. Experienced professional room designers have typically honed their skills in the art of sensible traffic patterns, selection of surface materials, interior lighting, and similar issues. Those who are members of the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) work according to an established code of ethics.

Interior decorators deal with colors, fabrics, furnishings, and the like. If this is all you need, consider going with an interior decorator. Decorators may belong to any number of associations, the largest being the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).

Design-Build Contractors

The design-build contractor handles both the design and construction. There is an important distinction between the role of a design-build contractor and a general contractor with professed design skills. A design-build contractor works hand-in-hand with an architect who is trained to create an aesthetic, thoughtful, workable design and is able to produce building plans. A contractor is qualified to oversee building the structure from those plans.

Very few contractors have the technical and artistic skills to do quality design work. So, it is very important to know if your potential design-build contractor has a qualified architect or designer on staff or available on a freelance basis. The key to working with one of these companies is making sure that the architect or designer has the qualifications that are important to you and your project. You should interview any design-build contractor the same way you would an architect or designer (see How to Prepare for an Architect or Designer Interview).

The benefit of working with a design-build firm is that it handles everything from start to finish. It coordinates all communications and activities, from the first design meeting to final inspection. Because it is responsible for the entire picture, there is far less possibility that the contractor will blame the architect for cost overruns and other problems, and vice versa. Most importantly to you, costs are more likely to stay aligned with the bid.

An additional benefit of a design-build firm is that the contractor and architect are in close relationship with one another so response time to change orders can be quick.

But this close relationship can be a drawback, too. When you hire an independent architect, your interests are strongly represented. You can also get unbiased oversight of construction quality, adherence to the original vision and plans, mediation of problems, and so forth. With a design-build firm, the architect may wield less power in representing you because his or her paychecks are signed by the construction company. In addition, a designer who works on the staff of a construction company may not have the same level of experience as an architect who works in an architecture-only practice. The flip-side is that a design-build architect may have more hands-on experience with construction concerns.

Featured Resource: Get a Pre-Screened Design Pro

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About Don Vandervort
Don Vandervort has developed his expertise for more than 30 years as a remodeler and builder, Building Editor for Sunset Books, Senior Editor at Home Magazine, author of more than 30 home improvement books, and writer of countless magazine articles. He appeared for 3 seasons on HGTV’s “The Fix,” served as MSN’s home expert for several years, and is featured as Yelp's home improvement expert. Don founded HomeTips in 1996. Read more about Don Vandervort