(Juana Arias/The Washington Post)

When it comes to envisioning what goes into a monumental life event (think: choosing a college or planning your wedding), the vast array of logistical choices and great unknowns about the process can be daunting or downright overwhelming.

And there is often also the assumption that architects are only hired by the “one percent” for grand estates or high-profile public commissions.

I recently conducted a public workshop to dispel those misconceptions and to explain how working with an architect can help you get the most out of your custom residential design or renovation project throughout the entire design and construction phases — and maybe even save you money in the process.

First, you need to begin your selection process and do a little homework.

Here are five ways to find an architect:

  • Word-of-mouth referrals are the most common way.
  • Online searches.
  • Client resource tools at local chapters of the American Institute of Architects.
  • Leads found in design magazines.
  • Referrals from other architects.

Once you have a few architects or firms in mind, be sure to look through the project examples on their websites and try to line up a few options for interviews.  This is an extremely important part of the process — be as candid as possible about your wants, your dislikes, your budget and timeline.  It is also a good idea to show pictures of design styles that you especially like.

For a project like this to be successful, it is wise to approach this as though you are selecting a “partner” as much as you are hiring a design expert. Communication, particularly early on, by both parties is going to help create a strong working dynamic.

Here’s an idea of what to ask during the interview process:

  • Can you share references and show examples of projects you have done comparable to our vision?
  • How much of my time as the client is needed and when in the process?
  • What will you be able to show me during the design and conceptual phases?
  • Who else from your firm will be working on this project?

From there you will need to agree on a fee structure, which will be either hourly rates (which can be open ended depending on effort required), a fixed fee established from the outset, or a percentage of costs that typically run between 8 to 20 percent of construction costs.

Here are services architects provide for their clients:

  • Schematic design: Review of client’s preferred images, analysis of spaces client occupies, questions about client’s lifestyle needs, client critique of architect’s initial plan, drafting of rough floor plans and image drawings.
  • Design development: Floor plan development, detailing of kitchen and bathrooms, determine exterior elevations, select building material choices and review the client’s goals to make sure things are still on track.
  • Construction documents: Detailing and dimensioning of the structure through drawings; selection of all finishes, lighting, appliances, hardware and accessories; coordinating with any specialty designers; and selection of contractors for pricing or bidding.
  • Bidding and negotiations: Issuing bid documents, answering questions and providing clarifications, bid review to present to client, and then finalizing contract for construction.
  • Construction administration: Weekly progress meetings, daily support and oversight of contractors, review of payments, execute change orders, finalize punch-list and project completion.

Easy, right?

Of course not, but the point is that as much as you are hiring an architect for their design prowess, what you also get out of the agreement is a licensed professional who serves as your advocate to shepherd the entire conceptual, design and construction process.

An all too often understated role an architect plays is in helping to actually save the client money, when compared to working directly with other building professionals without an architect involved.

In addition to ensuring that your project’s budget and timeline are adhered to, it is an architect’s responsibility to oversee the contractors and subcontractors to make sure the home is being built both to specifications and to local building codes.

And in these times of “extreme weather” outcomes that have potential for severe property damage, an architect can also advise areas where it makes sense to build “above code,” which can provide greater levels of protection for your house and lead to insurance premium discounts in some cases.

Having the tools to find the right expert can help ease concerns when dealing with all the moving parts associated with a major renovation project.

William Kirwan is a principal at Muse Architects in Bethesda, Md.