Working with an architect

Architects can help with projects big and small. Here's why you should hire one



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Architects are most often called upon to design a cottage from scratch or to reconfigure an existing cottage to maximize space. But they can also help you with smaller projects, such as retrofitting an old structure to take advantage of natural light and ventilation, redesigning a kitchen to make it more functional, or designing a screened-in porch.

Whatever the size of your dreams, Trevor McIvor, a principal with Toronto;s Altius Architecture — whose portfolio includes boathouses, additions, and new builds in the Kawarthas, Georgian Bay, and Muskoka — recommends going with an architect. “Not hiring a professional,” he says, “is like investing a few hundred thousand dollars in the stock market without an advisor, or not seeking a specialist for a serious health issue.” An architect himself, McIvor might be a tad biased on this topic. But a professional does bring to the table extras such as computer modelling software to “construct” the building or calculate energy use, and animation programs that enable clients to see realistic project images throughout the design phase. They’ll also spend considerable time at the site to create a design, factoring in not just the topography but also the surrounding views and natural light. “This is often lost in prefab cottages and in designs taken from a design plan book,” says James Pitropov of Smith Architect, in Huntsville, Ont. “Architects have been trained for years to look at things in a way other trades can’t,” adds McIvor. “Have you ever been in a poorly designed 2,000-square-foot cottage that felt like 1,500 square feet? Conversely, a well-designed 1,500-square-foot building could feel like 2,000 square feet if the design is efficient. Less really can be more.”

When Judy Huyer and her husband decided to tear down their old ant-infested Torrance, Ont., cottage and build a new one, a standard solution was not an option. “We wanted a cottage tailored to our specific property, as opposed to just taking something out of a catalogue and plopping it down on the lot,” she says. “Using an architect was key.” They interviewed a few firms, looked at their portfolios, and checked references. They asked contractors and other cottagers for leads before they retained Altius on a recommendation from their septic contractor.

Lori McHardy and her husband, John, called on architect Craig Elliott to design a partial replacement for their Port Elgin cottage on Lake Huron. They wanted to tear down an old portion dating from 1929 but preserve a 1999 addition. While they were at it, they asked the architect to throw in unobstructed lake views and a verandah. But the lot presented obstacles: a hill on one side and a privacy-protecting, boundary-defining hedge on the other, coupled with the need for space to move a boat in and out of a storage shed at the back of the parcel. All these restrictions meant the new structure couldn’t take up too much room. By roughly following the footprint of the old cottage and adding a second floor for a master bedroom, dressing room, ensuite bathroom, and small office, Elliott and his clients worked around the constraints. Not only does the revamped cottage, measuring a total of 2,100 sq. ft., fit nicely on the lot, it also blends in with the 1999 addition and the surroundings. “Going with a builder would have been cheaper, but he wouldn’t have had the design background to tie it all together,” says McHardy.

This article was originally published on April 8, 2008

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