What Kind Of Architect Is Best For Your NYC Apartment Renovation?

Discussing the principles of architectural services within New York City apartment renovations and determining the most suitable architect for different project needs.

June 13, 2024


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What Kind Of Architect Is Best For Your NYC Apartment Renovation?

Not all architects are created equal. So, what kind of architect do you need and what kind is best for your renovation? Let's find out.

Table of Contents

Renovating an apartment in Manhattan is often a balancing act of compliance with stringent and ever changing NYC building laws, adhering to the rules of your building, and satisfying your building engineer or architect's requirements. 

In addition to the administrative and red tape hurdles, there are also the important tasks of designing your ideal apartment while sticking to budgets and timelines - not to mention executing on the plans via a builder or general contractor specializing in apartment renovations in NYC

Behind every renovation project that successfully navigates these challenges is usually an architect or a fully integrated design-build firm consisting of an architect, designer, project manager, and builder. 

While the aforementioned is likely nothing new to most seasoned renovators or even those taking on the process for the first time, a common question often arises: What Type Of Architect Do You Need For Your Apartment Renovation In NYC? Well, that depends. 

This guide explores different situations, the clear benefits, and key factors to help you decide if hiring a traditional independent architect is the right move for your project or if a more full-service design build approach that includes architectural services is a better option. 

Dining area from full renovation of pre-war co-op in Manhattan at 1035 5th Avenue. View full renovation before and after.

[#Role]At A Glance: Understanding the Role of an Architect In NYC[#Role]

Before discussing the role of an architect, it is first worth mentioning that the role of an architect is oftentimes misunderstood. This is especially true for architects in NYC, with much of the confusion stemming from wrongly blurred lines between architects and designers.

A good way to understand the difference is to think about their area of focus. 

  • Architects focus on structures, technical requirements, adherence to building codes/laws, amongst other things chiefly not having much to do with the lifestyle of the residents occupying said structures. 
  • Designers, on the other hand, focus on how the residents of the property will interact with their home (think optimal layouts of rooms, kitchen and bathroom layouts, storage accessories, furniture placements, choices in materials, colors, textures, etc..)

Both roles are important to any sizable renovation but understanding the difference is key.

So what is the role of an architect?: Simply speaking, an architect draws and files plans required by your building and by the NYC Dept of Buildings. The plans consist of your apartment's existing layout, the demolition plan, your proposed layout, and other technical details such as electrical and plumbing plans.

When plans are complete, architects communicate the technical aspect of your renovation to other trade professionals (through the use of architectural plans) such as builders, plumbers, building reviewing architects, and your co-op or condo board. Note that architects do not design interiors (although there are some exceptions).

Lastly, some architects can act in the capacity of an owner's agent, but this topic is for a different article. 

[#When]When Does A Renovation Need Architectural Plans In NYC?[#When]

Before assessing exactly which type of architect you need for your NYC renovation, consider if your renovation even requires architectural plans in the first place. New York City says architectural plans are formally needed if they meet any of the following: 

  • Removing more than 45 square feet of wall 
  • Reconfiguring layouts or moving plumbing 
  • Moving walls or reconfiguring footprint of rooms
  • Adding livable square footage
  • Combining apartments or other projects that require new certificates of occupancy

In these instances, enlisting the services of an architect or fully-integrated architecture design-build firm is necessary to move forward with your NYC renovation. 

[#Plans]When Does A Renovation Need Architectural Plans, Per Your Building?[#Plans]

Most co-ops and condos in NYC will defer to the rules of NYC Dept of Buildings in determining whether architectural plans are required for your renovation. However, there are some exceptions. 

Structural Modifications 

The following modifications typically affect infrastructure, and in turn require necessary approvals to ensure compliance with safety protocols and design standards.

  • Dropping Ceilings for Recessed Lighting: In many cases, installing recessed lighting requires alterations to ceilings, oftentimes necessitating architural plans to show ceiling penetration details. 
  • Washer Dryer Installation: The installation of a washer and dryer in an apartment often involves considerations such as plumbing and ventilation. Building management may require approval to ensure the installation process meets code and doesn't pose risks to the property or other residents, and as such architectural plans may be required. 

Higher End Buildings in NYC

In upscale or historically significant buildings within NYC (think Central Park West, Park Ave, or Riverside Drive) maintaining architectural integrity and meeting specific design standards must be considered throughout your renovation plan. Renovation specs are heavily scrutinized to ensure alignment with the building's overall aesthetic, safety protocols, and regulatory requirements. If you live on any of these coveted addresses then almost any renovation project will require architecturals plans regardless of DOB rules.  

Kitchen from our Manhattan loft renovation at 419 West 55th. View full renovation before and after.

[#Require]Which Type Of Architect Do Your Plans Require?[#Require]

Whether plans are required by New York City, your building, or both, most sizable renovations in NYC will require architectural plans. With that said, not all architects are created equal. So, what kind of architect do you need and what kind is best for your renovation? Let’s find out. 

Fully-Integrated Architecture Design Build

This is a full-service design-build model, which is a firm who employs an architect, as well as interior designers, construction managers, and contractors all under one roof. In this all-inclusive approach, the design-build firm serves as a consultant, who thoroughly guides your renovation from start to finish, executing on your behalf every step of the way. They work together with you to craft a space based around your objectives (timeline, budget, and design inspirations). Read the full design-build process

This approach typically makes sense for clients who have a sense of what they want with respect to design goals, timelines, and costs. 

Typically this approach makes most sense for busy professionals with a somewhat defined timeline and budget and those looking for a level of design sophistication without sacrificing function. (Think: I don’t want the fuss or to manage multiple teams. I want a good quality, well built/well thought out space but I’m not looking to make the front page of Architectural Digest). 

Independent Architect

With an independent architect you will typically need to hire a separate designer and then bid your architectural and design plans out to contractors. Upon hiring the contractor(s) your architect may stay on as an owner's agent/owners representative or typically hand your project off to the contractors (depending on the nature of your engagement).

Some independent architects employ designers within their practice, although depending on your objectives this may or may not be the right approach for your renovation (see below)

Generally speaking, this approach is best for clients with flexible timelines, flexible budgets, and most importantly, those without a well defined scope. 

While it may be unfair to say that independent architects and designers design your home with their own interests in mind, it may oftentimes still feel this way. The reason why this is the case is because independent architects and designers are distinguished by their uniqueness and creativity (think Frank Lloyd Wright). To gain recognition means to continue to push designs in hopes of industry recognition via trade publications the likes of Architectural Digest and Elle Decor. This usually means inflated design budgets and oftentimes conflict between design and functionality. 

More simply put: You may end up with an exquisite apartment, but your input may be minimal and your costs may be excessive, as materials are typically 50-100% more expensive when aiming for the true one of a kind appeal an independent architect offers and seeks. 

Costs scale even further to account for added construction management fees, a number which many independent architects won't assess or provide until around six months after the plans have started - making budgeting up front very difficult. 

For a more detailed break-down between the two approaches, read The Pros And Cons Of Design-Build Vs. Architectural Firms.  


When renovating your apartment in NYC, the question of whether to enlist an independent architect or a fully-integrated architecture design build firm is significant. With their keen eye for technical design, understanding of structural intricacies, and ability to navigate complex building codes, independent architects can be valuable assets in ensuring your renovation is Arch Digest worthy. However, that level of ultra-luxe may not be for everyone and in instances where a peace of mind is preferred above all, a fully-Integrated architecture design build firm can be the most comfortable route. 

Considering an apartment renovation in New York City and want to learn more about our full-service design-build approach? View our portfolio of NYC apartment renovation before and afters, learn more about Gallery, or contact us today.

At Gallery, our blend of architectural services, interior design, expediting, and construction management means all angles are covered. There is no additional management on your end, as clients can provide as much or little insight as needed. With your vision board as our guide, our full-service design-build methodology seamlessly crafts your dream home, blending creativity with precise execution to guarantee your renovation expectations are exceeded.

Chief Revenue Officer

Alex Ushyarovhttps://www.gallerykbny.com/authors/alex-u

Alex Ushyarov is the Chief Revenue Officer of Gallery KBNY, a full service design-build firm specializing in the design and interior renovation of apartments, townhomes, and lofts in NYC. Recognizing the importance of differentiation in a competitive industry, Alex has developed a clear and compelling brand identity for the company. Through meticulous market analysis and a deep understanding of customer needs, he has honed the firm's unique value proposition, highlighting its ability to deliver innovative, sustainable, and high-quality design-build solutions.




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