My husband and I recently took a trip to Europe. As we walked through the streets of London and Paris, I filled my phone up with pictures of pastries and store windows. My husband, on the other hand, was busy taking shots of building facades and window casings. I should have known; my husband is an architect and has been living and breathing buildings for over 15 years. Justin now owns a design firm – Curtis Design Group – where he and his intrepid batch of employees create floor plans and facades for clients throughout the Western United States. So much for vacation, right?

CDG designs about 250 homes each year, which means working with many different types of clients. Most are great; some are challenging. It’s not uncommon for me to hear about a couple that doesn’t have a good handle on their budget or a family that can’t stop making changes to their plans. One day, I happened to ask my husband what he wished his clients knew before they started working with his firm, and he gave some insightful – and helpful – answers. These ideas can help guide you when choosing and working with the architect of your new home.

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things your architect wishes you knew

Don’t choose an architect based on price alone. Image: Curtis Design Group

Don’t bargain hunt – yet

It occurred to us while traveling that architects were highly regarded as artists through European history. In fact, if you visit the Louvre, you’ll see architects’ names inscribed next to those of kings, sculptors and painters. Today, most people who work with architects do so on a much smaller scale, working with one to create the home they’ve always wanted. While it’s possible to build a home on a budget, architecture is not the place for pinching pennies. “Check to make sure your designer’s pricing is in line with the industry standard in your area,” says Justin. “If it’s too far under, I would have some questions about that designer’s experience and product.” At the same time, an architect whose rates are extremely high might not be a good fit either.

If you’re working with a tight budget, that’s all the more reason to work with an experienced architect. They can help you choose building methods and design elements that don’t break the bank. It’s definitely worth it to pay for an experienced designer rather than to go with the cheapest option. Can you imagine if the Sistine Chapel was painted by a bargain-basement artist?

Not all are created equally

You don’t expect every artist to paint the same picture, do you? Every architect has strengths and weaknesses, so it’s a good idea to do research and check out past projects. CDG specializes in mountain modern, French, craftsman and modern farmhouse design. While they could definitely draw up plans for a hacienda-style home, it might be a better bet to choose a firm that has more experience in that style. Ask to see past projects and get referrals from other clients to make sure you’ve got the right fit.

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Give plenty of input to help direct the design. Image: Curtis Design Group

Bigger is not always better

When building your home, it can be easy to get caught up in a “square footage is king” mindset. But your architect might be able to come up with a smarter design based on your budget and lifestyle. Bigger doesn’t always mean better at home. A larger home might be less energy-efficient or totally blow your budget. Coming to your design meetings with a general size in mind is great; being married to a large number when you could get what you want in a smarter design isn’t. The size of your home isn’t nearly as important as the lifestyle and amenities you want while living there.

Speak up!

“The more client input, the better” should be written on a plaque in the CDG conference room. Homeowners are sometimes intimidated at the beginning of the design process, allowing the designers to guide the meeting and come up with ideas. While it’s great to respect the designers’ experience and expertise, architects want to hear from you. After all, the entire purpose of building a custom home is to create something personalized for you and your family. So, speak up during design meetings. Voice any concerns you might have, tell your designer what you do and don’t like and offer up your own ideas and solutions. Architecture really is a collaborative process, so get in there and make yourself heard for the best end result.

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Make sure you’re on the same page about budget. Image: Curtis Design Group

Be honest about the budget

“One of the most common issues with homeowners is budget,” Justin says. “They start the design process with a fuzzy idea of what they want to spend or they bring us a number that is unrealistic. We design the home only to find out that it’s way out of their budget or they can’t get approved for the construction loan, so it’s back to the drawing board – literally.”

Remember that your architect is setting the stage for the rest of your custom build. If you’re not honest about your budget from day one, you could end up delaying the process or, worse, ending up with something you can’t afford. Always be realistic about your budget and bring a firm number to your initial design meeting. Your architect can then be mindful of your budget as they work on the design, creating something both beautiful and affordable.

Changes are more than just a few lines

Change orders are a given during the design process. A custom home requires a lot of input and finesse to get it exactly where you want. But remember that changes can set off a chain reaction that delays your final design. What might seem like a few lines on the page – moving a closet or bumping out a bathroom wall – requires extensive alterations to things like electrical schematics and roofline details. While you should definitely speak up and change elements that you want, be aware that each change requires more work on the backend to achieve. Try and incorporate changes as a group and try to avoid one-off alterations as the plans are nearing completion.

Architects take their work seriously. If I had a nickel for every sleepless night while my husband tossed, turned and dreamed up new designs for a client – well, I’d take more European vacations. The good news? The right architect is almost as passionate about your home as you are. By knowing how to guide the process and communicate with your architect, you’ll both be ecstatic over the finished product.