Devin Kimmel, AIA, ASLA, designed a curved iron-and-oak staircase as a focal point in a modern home in Annapolis.

Checklist: Build

Insights from Devin Kimmel of Kimmel Studio Architects on how—and when—to hire an architect

Custom-building projects come to life when an architect designs a house, bids to contractors and the one chosen builds it. In a custom-building project, the architect’s design will reflect the aesthetic you want and adapt your home to your needs.

Your architect should be licensed by the state, which means he or she has worked under a licensed architect and passed exams. In Maryland, DC and Virginia, you must be licensed to call yourself an architect; without a license, you’re an architectural designer. An architect can belong to the AIA without being licensed.

  • Examine portfolios online to find what you like. Ask around. Going with someone from another area is fine; you can meet virtually.
  • Check the portfolio and biographical materials of each firm. Ask for references from contractors. Who would they hire to design their house?
  • If an architect prefers one architectural style, he or she may not adapt well to different ideas. You want someone who can accept feedback.
  • It helps to choose an architect with experience designing in the style you want, but licensing, portfolio and chemistry are more important.

A STRONG TEAM—A good relationship between architect and builder will ensure you get the house you want. If you hire an architect, select a contractor who works with architects; in a design-build firm, the contractor is also a designer, which can make the architect a third wheel.

ESSENTIAL CHEMISTRY—This process is long and can be emotionally loaded. Your architect should buy into your vision. Clients should be part of the design team.


  • Ask the cost of building in your area. What percentage would the architect’s fees represent? If it’s too much, consider a design-build firm, which is typically less costly in the design stage.
  • Architects charge a fixed sum or bill hourly. With a fixed amount, you’ll know the cost from the start. The benefit of an hourly bill is that you only pay for time worked—but the hours can add up. If you’re billed hourly, get an estimate of how long the project will take and calculate the cost. That way, you’ll only pay for the hours worked but will have some predictability.

DURING CONSTRUCTION—Most important of all: Include the architect in the construction process. This will ensure every decision reflects the design intent. The architect is your ally during construction. He or she will make life easier and may eliminate costly mistakes.

Devin Kimmel, AIA, ASLA, designed a curved iron-and-oak staircase as a focal point in a modern home in Annapolis. Builder: Lynbrook of Annapolis.

Pro Tip

“Systems such as geothermal heating/cooling, energy-recovery ventilation and daylight sensors appeal to buyers because they measurably reduce the home’s operating cost.”
—JOHN HELTZEL, AIA, John F. Heltzel, AIA