Q: We are remodeling our 86-year-old home. We know what we need—a new garage, a kitchen renovation, and a basement remodeling—but we are stuck when it comes to hiring it all out. Should we go with an architect or with a local building firm? What is the most economical?
A: For starters, let's assume you are tackling these projects one at a time rather than simultaneously. Each of the projects you mention represents a specialized category that some contractors treat as generic commodities. For example, some build nothing but garages, which they offer as a standard package deal at a fixed price. Hiring different specialists for each project might look like a bargain, but the one-size-fits-all approach of commodity contractors doesn't necessarily offer a good value, and these firms typically don't stray much from formulaic designs.
Option number two involves hiring some design expertise (an architect and a certified kitchen designer, in your case), then finding a contractor who can build what they design. You'll probably get more and better design options, but predictably this involves more people and more fees. It also creates the potential for missteps between the concept and the finished project, especially if the design people sign off early and leave too many on-site decisions to the builder. Because you have three potentially complex projects to consider, you want as much continuity as possible between design and construction. If everyone involved is a solo agent, you tend to get more handoffs—and more fumbles.
For your situation, the best bet might be a design-build firm. By combining architectural expertise and/or specialized design knowledge (about kitchens, for example) with the crews who do the actual construction, a good design-build firm can help your project transition from concept to concrete reality. These companies may work under separate contracts for design and construction, but the coordination of services often saves money by streamlining the project process and reducing errors. It also tends to keep the project goals consistent with the client's budget, whereas a solo architect might produce a design that homeowners discover they can't afford to build.