Which comes first: contractor or architect?

hard hatAh the age-old question…as old as, “which came first the chicken or the egg?”.  Well, I suppose the correct answer is…”yes”!  The egg came before the chicken…and yet there was a chicken prior to said egg which hatched the egg!  The same goes for which one to look for first:  a contractor or an architect.  You will need both to design and build a proper building make no mistake…but does it matter which one you choose first?  What are the benefits to choosing one first over the other?

The first thing owners (fancy word architects use for you, the client) need to understand is the difference between builders (contractors) and architects.   I know that may sound a bit rudimentary, but I actually get people asking me what I do for a living and then when I tell them I’m an architect their retort usually goes something like this, “oh…very cool!  So what kind of buildings do you build?”.  Then comes my stock response, “actually I’m an architect…I don’t build anything.  I design things and let the builders build.”…of course all of this is said with a smile.

This is the point:  architects design, builders build.  simple as that.  It used to be in the days of old that the architect was refereed to as the “master builder”.  Well…not anymore.  And this isn’t a knock on architects…I am one after all!  Nowadays there is just too much technology for one person to know everything.  I always use the medical analogy of a general practitioner and how he has to know how to speak intelligently about the eye, but he is not an Ophthalmologist….let alone a retina specialist – but he IS a doctor that looks after you and will/should be able to direct you to the proper specialist and work with them in harmony.  Same goes for architects:  we need to know how to speak intelligently to engineers (civil, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural, etc.), LEED APs, general contractors, subcontractors, and many other specialists during our projects but that doesn’t mean we necessarily know which electrical panel to call out or how many screws are needed in a particular connector.

The reason for this explanation is to stress the fact that architects truly need contractors.  We need them to build our creations.  Architects love to design and come up with new ideas for buildings – that is why we became architects.  On the flip side, contractors love to build…that is why they chose to become contractors instead of architects.  They need our ideas to build.  But what does this mean to you in terms of which one to go to first?


hammer If you are friends with a contractor…or you know of a contractor that you trust, love…whatever….then the choice is obvious: start with the contractor!  It is hard to put a price on trust when it comes to builders.  Please understand I know many builders and have the utmost respect for what they do, I just feel that in our society they have they are in the unfortunate position of proving themselves trustworthy….whereas most people would automatically trust an architect.  I think this has to do with the fact that most people would look at architects as the “professionals” whereas they’d look at the contractors in more of a “blue collar” light…which is truly unfortunate, but hey I don’t make the rules.

Once you have selected the contractor the first thing they will ask is, “can I see the plans of what we’re building?”  At which point you will say, “what plans I thought you would give me plans?” Now don’t get me wrong, some contractors actually do have stock plans and can help you out with the design (if you’re talking about a home or even a simple metal “box” type building).  These would be what we in the field would call “spec home builders” or “track builders”.  These builders have sets of plans that they’ve built many times (in some cases thousands of times).  The client simply comes to their office, sits down, picks a plan and then the builder builds the home from the plans for them and maybe allows them to move a wall or pick out some kitchen cabinets and then viola you’re done.  You have a brand new home…granted it isn’t a custom home but at least it is one you picked out.  This works for many people and can certainly be an economical way to go.

Sticking with building a home (as opposed to a commercial project like an office building or a church), other builders will immediately direct you to an architect to come up with a set of “design plans”.   These are a set of plans that are good enough to get bids from, but not complete enough to get you a permit.  The reason the builder needs these plans is because if you just tell the builder you want a 6,000 square foot home, there is not builder in the world that will be able to give you a price on that without seeing plans first just because of the amount of moving parts that goes into a a home.  If you do go to a contractor and tell him that and he gives you a firm price, my advice would be to run.  Run fast.  Run fast and never look back.  Seriously.  The reason is because that contractor is simply telling you what you want to hear to get the job.  Once you sign on the dotted line you will undoubtedly start hearing things like, “oh you wanted doorknobs on your doors?  Well that wasn’t in my price” or “oh you wanted appliances?  That wasn’t in my quote”…get the picture?  I am certainly not trying to throw anyone under the bus here…as a matter of fact the builders I know are actually extremely honest with their clients from the start because they know how easy it is to fall into that trap and they don’t want to be in that situation either.  It is a lose/lose situation for both owner and builder.


pencil This has two major advantages:  1) it is assumed that the architect you select is based on their previous work, which will give you an idea of what they will produce for you 2) once the architect gives you plans you love, you can then take those plans to many contractors and have them fight over which one gets the privilege to build it for you!

Now also keep in mind, it does also depend on what the typology of the building is.  As I mentioned above, if we’re only talking about a home, you can really go either way…but if we’re talking about a 200,000 square foot, 6-story mixed use project, I wouldn’t think about starting with anyone other than the architect.  The rationale is that the architect will be able to guide you in so many facets along the way that you might get into early feasibility studies just to come to the conclusion that what you want is not economically feasible.


It depends on what you’re looking to do:  if you want a home that you feel you can “kinda sorta” customize, I would strongly suggest going to a builder first.  Not only a builder, but a home builder.  If you are looking for a completely custom home, you could still start with a builder that you like based on their attention to detail, craftsmanship, etc. and then move to an architect…or you could start with an architect and then follow the protocol outlined above.  If you’re looking to do any building other than house (even a duplex) I would start with an architect just because he would be able to guide you throughout the process as to where you are and where you need to go.  Click here to learn more about our services and how we may help you with your next architectural endeavor.