How to shop for an architect (and get what you really want and need)

If you want to know how to shop for an architect, start with what architecture gives you.

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_ Most people shopping for an architect are doing so for the first time.
_ It can be daunting not knowing what to look for when selecting your architect.
_ Focus on functional design and comprehensiveness above all else.

What was the last thing you bought? A cup of fresh coffee? A tank of gas? A new pair of shoes?

Chances are, it wasn’t something you bought for the first time—you had some idea of what to expect in the buying process. You knew if you were getting what you paid for. Each of us gets years of practice buying these everyday items.

But shopping for an architect is a rare event for most people. Uncertainty is everywhere. How do you know who’s reputable? How do you compare architects? What does an architect even do? These are big questions for such a high-stakes decision.

The good news is, shopping for an architect doesn’t have to be stressful. Armed with some good first principles, you’ll be able to avoid the predatory architects who just want to dazzle you, and focus instead on the ones who can deliver an effective design that works for you.

What the best architecture gives you

Here’s a misconception: The only job of our physical surroundings is to look pretty. In fact, a mountain of research (and likely your own experiences) have shown that spaces have a profound effect on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on a moment-by-moment basis. 

For example, it’s no coincidence that cold, clinical hospital rooms make us anxious and uncomfortable, just as it’s no coincidence that places of worship are designed for us to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. In one study, students in classrooms with more natural light performed up to 25% better on tests of math and reading than students in darker or artificially lit rooms.

smart child solving test with diagrams
Photo by Jessica Lewis Creative on

This means architecture is much more than the facade of the building. It is every component within that building and in its vicinity. It’s the lighting, the acoustics, the furniture, the colors, the layout, the air flow, the textures, the embedded technology, and much more. 

Each of these elements either supports or detracts, in real-time, from the purpose of that space. Imagine trying to study in a pitch-black library while intercom static was blasting at full volume. Would you care how nice the landscaping was outside?

Great architecture blends each separate element to create a fully functional space that guides you in the directions you desire most. The trouble is, not every architect can give you those things. 

That’s why, when you shop for an architect, you still need to…

Pick an architect who puts function over form

It’s not enough to find an architect who will “bundle” the various elements of a space and call their offerings “white glove” or “full-service.” Bundles may deceive you. 

Many architects you’ll come across are only there to give you input on the structure of your space. Or they’ll give you basic interior design advice. They’ll talk about the style and the aesthetics, and feed you lines about how the colors and textures “tie the room together.” Frankly, it’s nonsense. 

Many of these designs are ripped straight from trends popularized on Instagram or Pinterest, with little thought given to if the space will be enjoyable to use or help you in any way. (Plus, tastes change. If you design based on today’s trends, will you still like the space 5 or 10 years from now?)

high angle shot of suburban neighborhood
Typical suburban homes are built quickly and without thought paid to homeowners’ needs.

Instead, look for a space built around your needs. The first priority is solving real problems. You should also consider how the architect visualizes their design: Why should you settle for flat, 2D renderings when you could walk around your space in 3D virtual reality? This is what you should be getting from an architect in the 21st century.

To make sure your architect can achieve these goals, bring this list of questions with you to your next consultation. Pay close attention to how the architect answers each one:

  • What kinds of details do you consider when creating your designs?
  • What process do you use for arriving at those key details?
  • How have your past spaces led to the client’s desired outcomes?
  • How will you know if a space is successful in creating the desired outcomes?
  • Can you show me examples of visuals you provide clients to help them understand and see the design before it’s built?

If the answers to these questions don’t feel satisfying—because they don’t make explicit how your space will work for its users, and what specific elements are doing that work—you’ll know you haven’t found the right architect yet.

Get everything you need

So what kind of architect should you look for? 

It’s simple. You want to find someone who 1) puts function over form and 2) applies that functional thinking across all the various architectural elements of a space, not just a handful. 

Otherwise, you’ll end up with an incomplete space. It will either be fully designed, but only from an aesthetic standpoint, or it will be functional but only in certain places and not integrated throughout the whole space. 

How much you end up spending on such a design will reflect what you’re actually getting. Sure, you may spend less, but you’ll also be getting much less. And even then, it’s only a matter of time before you notice the light glare on your computer screen, or the lack of airflow on one side of the room. Pretty soon, you’ll be hiring people to make changes you initially shrugged off.

To shop for an architect wisely, consider all those details up front. That’s the expert who will design something for you that will look great and, more importantly, work for you for years or decades to come.