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Should You Hire an Architect or Designer for Your New Office Space?

Two Experts Weigh in On Which is Best Qualified to Lead Your Renovation

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

When purchasing or leasing a space long term—whether for investment or for your own business—it's likely you'll need to make some minor modifications, as well as some capital improvements. For the latter, you'll need to hire a team of trained and licensed experts.

The principal question is: who is best qualified to lead your renovation project? Must it be an architect? For a small project, would a general or specialty contractor suffice? How is an interior designer different from an architect? If you have one, do you need the other?

To provide some clarity, we interviewed two experts who spend a great deal of their professional time on construction job sites. Laurie March is a project manager who is a third-generation remodeler, and found her sweet spot as an advocate for property owners—which led her to becoming HGTV's "The House Counselor." Colleen Arria is a designer and principal of the Boston office at commercial design-build firm Stantec.

Is an Architect a Project mManager?

Not necessarily, but sometimes. An owner's project manager is someone who advocates for the owner's interests with all the other parties who are working on it—and that can include the architect and/or designer. However, in some cases, the architect also plays the role of project manager. This works well if there's good rapport, trust, and probably some history between the owner and architect.

"Architects know all the legal codes surrounding what you want to do. They know how to comply with construction codes and zoning regulations," says Arria. "They'll know if you can change the use, or in some instances you might not be able to."

However, if the architect is also bringing in their own general contractor, sub-contractors, and/or structural engineer, it may prove more beneficial to have a project manager who the owner trusts to communicate with the architect, vet the other people on the project, and make decisions for the benefit of the project.

Is an Architect an Interior Designer?

Not necessarily. The two roles often work in tandem, but you may see instances where someone is an architect first, then gets design training and certification, or vice-versa.

How do You Know Whether You need an Architect or Designer?

You may actually not know until you consult. Once you pull in either one to work with you on a project, they will tell you who else is needed on the team.

"Both are going to know whether they are personally able to do what needs to be done. If a designer needs to bring in an architect, they'll know," says Arria.

While both of these experts require a certain amount of budget to engage, the benefits of bringing them into a project early can't be denied—especially if you are planning to make capital improvements or do significant renovations.

"The architect deals with the exterior and orientation of the building—architects will be your best friend for that," says Laurie March. “A designer thinks about how people live and work in the space, with consideration for how everyone will utilize it now and in future."

Both Arria and March agree that when you're truly starting from scratch, it's optimal to have both.

When is a Change to a Property too Small to Need an Architect or Designer?

You may be thinking that the space you're about to sign a lease on is so close to perfect, you can DIY the final changes with just a couple tradesmen's help. Let's consider a few examples of small-scale tenant improvements that apply to many small business situations:

  • You need to soundproof one room that's going to turn from an office into a recording studio for branded content.
  • You're converting one kind of quick-service dining venue into another type, and you just need a couple of new commercial appliances.
  • You're moving office spaces, and upgrading the broadband and wireless, but with the help of the provider.
  • You're putting new furniture into the office lobby, and making decorative additions, such as getting your logo produced into signage for your office's interior reception wall.

All of these scenarios, while not strictly requiring a designer, may become exponentially more difficult if you don't have one from the outset.

"Soundproofing a room is not as simple as just putting material on the walls—because of the physics of how sound travels, you may need to reinforce the ceilings, and even the floors, if you don't want to create a nuisance for other tenants," says Arria.

With food service, she continues, not only are there sets of specific food safety regulations and building permits, there are also fire codes to think about. When you make networking changes, there will be considerations for where the cabling is going to run. And even for something as seemingly simple as furnishing—the heights and materials of furnishing that may work in one setup won't necessarily work in another.

The other pitfall to overseeing your own tenant improvements, March reminds us, is that someone needs to assume responsibility for any corrections the city determines you should make. Whoever applies for the permit is responsible for the process. If it turns out to entail several corrections outside your understanding, you'll need someone who has qualified experts in their network.

At What Point Should You Bring on an Architect and/or Designer?

Don't delay this hire. In fact, Arria suggests bringing one on while you're still looking at spaces.

"Before you sign a lease, it's in your best interest to hire an architect or designer to look at the property. We'll be able to see potential costs, problems or other variables."

You might be looking at a property in terms of zip code, foot traffic, proximity to your house, or simply the potential you foresee in the building. But a designer or architect well versed in codes can look into a space, assess things that may not even be visible, and tell you whether or not it will work for your business.

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