How Do I Identify an Architect for My Startup Business?

Choosing the right architect for your project is a critical step that can “make or break” your startup. In reality, you are selecting a business partner to manage your project who just happens to use the “tools” of architecture to set your business up for success. Your architect is more than just a design consultant.


Commensurate experience is important when selecting a professional service provider for your commercial interior, retail location, or restaurant concept project. Many startup businesses are rich in concept, but many startup business owners are not rich in startup experience. You need a roadmap for selecting your architect.

The first step in the process is to prepare a Request for Proposal document. This document can be advertised publicly or distributed privately to solicit interest in services for a project. The goal of an RFP is to identify a qualified team of professionals for your business. Making the process competitive allows you, the business owner, to list your requirements and level the playing field for “apples-to-apples” comparison.

There are many formats an RFP can take, but the key concept here is to clearly identify a format for which each respondent will prepare their proposal for your review. One key component of an RFP is for firms to list their qualifications. Qualifications can include business location, number of employees, number of licensed professionals, and number of years in business.

This information can give you a snapshot of an architectural firm’s profile. Firms come in all shapes and sizes. The goal here is to find one that is appropriate for the project.

An architectural firm’s experience with similar projects is an important point of differentiation and a necessary line of inquiry. If you are selling shoes, you would likely desire a firm that has experience designing shoe display and shoe storage. They would likely know the industry tricks of the trade for such design. Asking for a list of similar projects in your RFP will help you bring each responding firm’s prior experience to the forefront.

While this RFP component seems obvious, frame the project experience inquiry in terms of specific proposed professionals for the team and how recent the experience was. You may receive feedback on a project completed a dozen years ago by a professional who is no longer with the firm. Request resumes of project team members. A professional services team requires balanced skill sets and rich experience with relevant project type.

Pre-Design Services

Architects often assist their clients with pre-design services. Engaging architects and architectural teams for pre-construction services will help you determine whether you have identified a good fit for your project. Pre-design services can include lease work letter review, site investigation, and preliminary building code review.

The work letter is the part of a lease that defines what the landlord will provide to the tenant in the space. Consulting with an architect on what is proposed in the work letter allows the architect to help you determine the scope of work required, which will help establish budget expectations for your build-out.

Ask your architect about a preliminary site investigation report. Numerous components of a space help a tenant decide whether the space is appropriate for their business plan. Some elements are visible in a walk-through, but many are not. Cooling capacity, electrical service, domestic water service, and zoning codes are all important elements to consider when deciding whether a lease space will support your business plan. A preliminary site investigation report can identify all issues relating to the existing condition that may affect your business. Engaging an architect for a limited scope of services consult also can provide you with valuable insight into how a long-term relationship with them will work.

A preliminary building code review is another essential step to identifying a lease space. If the leased space is not constructed to current building codes, additional unforeseen cost may be added to the project. Involving an architect in the lease process is a good way to avoid any discovery issues with the building code once the lease is signed.

Pre-design services are not expensive and provide good planning and expectation tools as the capital for a startup business begins to flow. They also can help a business understand the parameters and scope of work a project will require.

There are so many challenges in getting your business open and operating, and managing the design and build-out of your space shouldn’t be one of them. Really, selecting an architect who shares in your vision is an opportunity to make the process easier and will set your business up for long-term success.