Architectural Fees for Residential Projects

Bob Borson —  March 20, 2013 — 100 Comments

. For someone who doesn’t actually handle any of the billing in the office, I spend a lot of time thinking about billing.


I have written two previous posts on the subject of architectural fees: Architectural Fees- Part One:  this posts talks about the different ways architects can develop their fees (hourly, percentage of construction costs, etc.) Architectural Fees – Part Two:  this posts elaborates a bit more on Part One (more on hourly rates, per square foot fees, and combination fee structures) but I introduce the concept of “Skin in the Game.” I like to tell clients that everyone needs to have skin in the game, that both architect and client are accountable to one another and while we both have something to gain, we both also have something to lose. That’s what I was thinking about as I sat down to flesh out this post. Alternate ways of setting up a fee structure that helps the client feel like they have more control over the architectural fees that could be generated while giving the architect the opportunity to plan for and cover their expenses for the services they are providing. One of the issues that we come up against all the time is that during the interview process, most clients have just a few things to base their selection criteria – design style, personality, and professional fees. More times than not, we don’t struggle with the design style and personality portions, people are generally familiar with our design style and as an office, we are a fairly likable bunch. That just leaves the last bit – the architectural fees. In our office, almost all of our contracts are based on a percentage of construction costs. Most architectural firms who subscribe to this way of determining their professional services fee fall into the 8% to 15% range. This means on a $100,000 dollar construction cost project, the architectural fees would fall in the range of $8,000 to $15,000 range – pretty simple really but one of the things that can always cause confusion is what exactly counts as part of the cost of construction. The other issue is the level of service that Firm ‘A’ at 8% charges and the level of service that Firm ‘B’ at 15% charges … and for these new potential clients, they can’t always tell (or even understand) why they would hire Firm ‘B’ when they like Firm ‘A’ and they are so much cheaper!?! Since I am more of a Firm ‘B’ service provider (and our professional fees reflect that) we lose out on a number of project to less costly architectural firms. This drives me crazy for the simple reason that the additional services I generally provide are worth far more than the delta of fees between the two firms might suggest. That’s where my idea of skin in the game is evolving. What I have been thinking about is how I can create a menu of services that allows the potential new client to more readily recognize the value of the service they are receiving. If I am going to provide less service, then my fee should reflect that right? The problem with this model is that most people think they don’t want these “extra” services but in the end, almost always see their value … but at this point, it’s too late and some other firm is working on their project. So by creating a menu of services, we can get down to a more competitive fee – again, seems pretty straight-forward to me.

. Roll of architectural drawings

One of the projects I have been highlighting here on the blog is the Cottonwood Modern house and pool pavilion. These clients signed up for full services and I’d like to say that they are pretty happy with their decision. The drawings package we prepared for them was significant – I get asked some times about our drawings and what sort of effort do we put in to document these sorts of projects. To say “a lot” probably isn’t a very satisfying answer. On this particular project, here is some of the metrics on what the construction drawings package included:

  • 53 – pages of construction drawings at 30″ x 42″ sheets – the breakdown = 31 architectural, 14 structural, 4 landscape, 4 lighting design. That’s 463.75 square feet of drawings or 61.83 yards if the sheets were laid end to end
  • 62 – interior and exterior doors
  • 34 – window types
  • 19 – wall sections
  • 71 – door and window details
  • 105 – interior elevations
  • 14 – exterior elevations
  • 299 – individual architectural drawings
  • unknown – sodas and cups of coffee consumed during the drawing of these documents

There are about 95% more drawings here than are necessary to secure a permit for construction. It is a complicated house but we probably didn’t need to draw 71 door and window details – but we did because it produced a more thorough set of drawings, enabled more accurate pricing, and has led to far fewer construction related issues in the field. But not all clients want to pay for all this additional service … what to do? The idea is that for an architectural fee totaling 8% of the construction cost, you get a standard set of drawings: plans, exterior elevations, door and window schedule  – basic stuff. If you want interior elevations, millwork details, that will be an additional 1.5%. Coordinate interior finishes? Sure, that will be 2% … I think you get the picture. The client comes in for the interview, understands that our fees are competitive with everyone else, thinks that they don’t need these additional services, and we get the project. As the project goes on, they learn more about the process, come to understand and value our input and guidance, and start to select some of the additional services items because … well, because they have real value to them. The flip side to this is that is the client chose to retain our services up front for these “additional” items, the percentages associated would be reduced. Like I said in the beginning, I don’t have anything to do with billing in our office – that task is relegated to those whose names are on the door. I know I don’t have the kinks worked out – I’ve only just started to identify the kinks. One really apparent one is “Construction Observation” which we make a requirement on all our projects. We will occasionally get potential clients ask to have this portion of scope removed from our basic services but we always say no. I have all sorts of reasons why this is the worst area to remove your architect but that’s a different post on a different day. I would be curious to know if any of the readers here either have a menu of services contract like I describe in place for residential projects or if you are a a client who has worked with an architect who had a contract like this in place. What are your thoughts? Thanks. . .

  • Carpeverde

    I’ve just had a potential client call me after receiving my proposal for his residential project asking for a 15% discount. Even though it’s not a large commission, it will be groundbreaking and I’d really love to be the architect for the job. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was picked up in our initial meeting and I even slightly discounted my fee in order to increase the chances of getting the project. I would hate to say no, so this article offers another line of discussion I could have with the client indicating what I would no longer be offering if he wanted a discount in fees. I’ll know better next time.

  • Whales David

    Intresting. Learning whole lot of new stuff, in this forum. Thanks for a meduim like this, Bob.

  • Bruce Ensor PE SE

    I could use an Architect in Boston to help with small projects. We are Structural Engineers and have clients that want or need more then we can efficiently deliver on the Architectural and Design side. please email me

  • Steven P

    I’m an architect in Boston whose clients are working families and I have a four level fixed fee structure based on complexity. The result is that I am extremely competitive and complete 4 projects per month, mostly small, mostly under 300K in construction and most of the work other architects shy away from due to small size and sometimes complexity and at lest one large 1M+ project every 3 year. I have analyzed the fee to be about 1.5%-2.5% construction cost and my service ends at obtaining the permit, except for a few commercial projects that requires CA and oversight. I have been doing this for 27 years working less than 40 hour per week and getting a good laugh at my piers who work 40+/week charging 2-3 time my fee, but refusing to relinquish control, refusing to do small projects, refusing to get involved with variances and loosing their fees during CA on most projects. There are a lot more clients at the bottom 80% of income earners that the top 20% traditionally serviced by architects.
    Your posting has really helped me to see where I fit and why I have been successful during the recession. Thanks

    • Guest

      Steven P – Great job on carving out a market serving fofolks you typically don’t

    • vally4284

      Possibly looking for an architect on our home project, exactly what you’re describing above. Would love to know the name of the firm or a way to get in contact with you!

  • ObsidianArchitecture

    Hi Bob,

    I’m assuming that you use AIA contracts for your projects. For single-family residential jobs in which your fee is based on a percentage of the construction cost, is there a specific agreement that you favor?

    • Bob Borson

      We have our own contract that we use – it still projects us but isn’t as “scary” to the clients as the AIA contracts

      • ObsidianArchitecture

        Ah! It’s the same for me and for most I’ve worked with. I think I’ve only used an AIA agreement two or three times.

  • Jason Tyler

    This is an interesting read as the principle, project manager and myself were just discussing this the other day. Unfortunately all i can do is absorb the info. and not add to it. Thanks

  • Silvia W

    I have a question regarding fees. I hired an Architect to prepare a permit set and construction drawings. Our initial meeting was based around the idea that we really needed to have a ball park price estimate on the job to even know if we could afford the addition. We provided a fully dimensioned to scale plan and elevation drawings. He gave us an hourly contract since his scope of work was unclear at the time. We changed the plans 2 more times and each time I gave him fully dimensioned plans, he provided one detailed estimate. At the 4th meeting we decided to go ahead with the project and have the permit set and plans prepared , up to that point no drafting work was done, I also provided all the finish material specifications ( Home Depot quality). The 700 SF addition consists of the construction of 1 garage bay, the renovation of an existing bthrm and laundyrm and construction of a new office above the garages. All his drafting work was done in the period of 14 days and included 4 meetings with his junior architect. I then received a bill for $13,200 on top of the $1000 retainer already paid. I consider this outrageous because it totals 10% of the construction costs but he didn’t go to the building dept, didn’t design the addition, didn’t apply for the permit, is not involved in the biding process or construction administration. My big mistake was not converting the hourly agreement to a fixed fee agreement. Am I stuck with this bill?

    • Bob Borson

      I never like chiming in on one-sided stories. If the person you are referring to read your description of the work, would they agree with your assessment? It does sound like a lot but I don’t know what the deliverables consisted of – and I don’t want to know. This is a conversation you need to have with your architect.

  • PrayerPoseMom

    This is so helpful. We are moving into an established area, but would like to buy an older home with more acreage than the norm with the idea to redo it to our liking. This post is invaluable in helping make a buying decision!

    • Bob Borson


  • Samar Das

    I have a PE Electrical License in California. Although I am new to embark on the commercial design arena on my own, I am not sure what to charge my customer/client. Should it be on an hourly basis? If so, how much should be a typical hourly charge in California for a consultant? Or, should I charge per sheet of drawing, such as site plan with notes, lighting plan, power plan, panel schedule and title-24 each having one sheet of drawing? Please advice. Thanks a lot.

    • Bob Borson

      I am not a PE.
      I don’t work in California.
      You need to set your own fees based on your expenses and needs not someone else’s.

  • Carolyn

    I have just happily stumbled upon your blog and have spent the last couple of hours reading. Thank you for taking the time to do this–I have found answers to several of my questions. I have fairly recently started down the path of having my future theoretical home (I still have to sell my current home) designed. As land is very scarce where I would like to live, I purchased a fairly small lot when it became available. There is a protected tree issue, so a custom design is necessary to get everything I would like into this small area. I had begun working with a design/build firm, but “broke up” after I heard a few too many negative things about the execution of the designer’s plans and subsequent lack of follow-up. Yes, I did my homework a little late in the process and am back to square one. I have interviewed two designers, a licensed architect, and a final-year architectural student. The fee gap between one designer ( an extremely experienced and respected builder who is only doing design work now) and the architect is staggering. I am still leaning toward hiring the architect, as he seems to have a good grasp of what I like, but I am not sure I can afford him. He is a professor at the local University and only builds one or two projects per year. Is it insulting to negotiate the fee? I have not received his proposal yet, but he mentioned 10% as a starting point, not including project oversight, which would be billed at an hourly rate. I know it is unseemly to comment on another architect’s fee structure, but my question is more about the appropriateness of negotiating those fees. Thanks.

    • Ben

      Hi Carolyn, (and apologies, Bob, for jumping in here (btw just found the site also and am liking it a lot)),

      I’m a younger architect in Australia, and regarding fee negotiation here it would not be insulting to negotiate the fee, although your success would depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to the architect’s workload, and their opinion on your “potential” as a client (i.e. does your project have value to them beyond financial considerations? is your project interesting to them and are your architectural interests aligned).

      The scope of services could alternatively be reduced, but as Bob mentions above that could also mean you’re not getting the value for money you’re after.

      Having said that, the lecturers from my local university often produce the most interesting work in town, because they only do a few projects a year, and their academic work makes them quite practised in focusing on and developing an idea. If you’re after something special it could be a good way to go!

    • Bob Borson

      Hi Carolyn,

      You can always try and negotiate a fee, it would then be up to the architect (or person you are dealing with) to decide if they can accept your offer. You can also go the route that reduced fees mean reduced service – something that you might be comfortable with accepting and the architect comfortable with providing.

      Not that I want to take a project off the plate of a colleague, but maybe someone who does more than 1 or two projects a year might be better suited to accommodate your needs for a reduced fee structure? While 10% for design and construction documents with construction administration doesn’t sound terrible to me, I don’t know what level of service you are receiving for that 10%.

    • Kathleen

      I am not a licensed Architect but I am a licensed Interior designer and Do home plans as the main aspect of my work (fully legal in my state). I like to tell my clients they can have 2 – quality, quick, cheap. you have have good work for cheap but its when we have time so you’re not going to get in a couple weeks or even months, you have have quick cheap work but its going to that – cheap. Or you can have quality work quickly for a decent fee. I have had clients come back and negotiate with me and often I will try to work within their budget, but consider an average home set takes at least 60-80 hours and the one described above is probably triple that. Remember sometimes experience is worth the cost.

  • Jack

    Bob: I enjoyed this post. As an architect, I have had a difficult time explaining to clients our value, especially in an age where the term “Designer” is glorified and engineers often get as much as I do, or more for their work where they are actually working on less than 1/3 of the building in their individual disciplines. I often find I have to make sure they are also running their business as well, as I have to make sure they send an invoice which I am expected to pay in 30 days, but the client can take his time paying me. I loathe channels like the Home and Garden Network, where you never hear the word “Architect”. Building codes and Building inspectors have taken away a lot of the “Master Builder” annotation away from us, as we are expected to know every little code with little responsibility on contractors or consultant’s part.

    • Bob Borson

      Yes, but that’s our current lot in life so unless you can convince/ educate your clients on your value, unfortunately I don’t think you’re likely to find relief anytime soon. If you do figure it out, tell me how you did it.


    • Tim Wong

      Hi Jack,

      I am going through the some of the same issues. Would also be glad to hear if you had figured anything out.


  • Laura

    I enjoyed reading these posts. I am trying to evaluate a proposal from an architectural firm for a 1200 sq ft addition to a 6000 sq foot house. There will be some roof work involved and the construction is limited to one corner of the house and will enlarge the kitchen on the first floor, enlarge a bathroom and add another bathroom on the second floor. I have already paid $6000 for as built plans, $8800 for conceptual drawings. They are quoting $120,000 for “design documents and construction documents”. We are doing interior redesign to the rest of the house as well, but this will be limited to paint/wallpaper, refinishing the floors, and new furniture. I have an interior designer on board for that who has quoted $85,000, plus a markup on purchases, but the architectural firm wants to do a full set of drawings based on her drawings. The proposal also includes another $30,000 for contract administration. I am curious to hear your thoughts on this proposal as it seems quite expensive (primarily for the drawings portion) to me and maybe of overkill since we have the interior designer already. We are in the West Los Angeles area. I would appreciate any comments you might have.

    • Bob Borson

      I generally like to try and avoid talking about fees where other architects are concerned, especially when I know zero about the project. That having been said, one of methods architects use to determine their fees is a percentage of construction costs – the assumption is that the more drawings that are required to successfully convey the full scope of work, the more complicated the project (and by extension, more expensive). I would tell you to look at your professional services rate and compare it to your budget to determine if the fees are out of whack. Something in the 12% – 20% range might be in order.

      Also, in my office, the scope of work we take on versus an interior designer are different so I would expect minimal overlap or services rendered. If that is not the case, that would be a conversation to have with your team.

      Good luck.

  • Andrew Wood

    Hi Bob,
    Thank you for this long overdue conversation. Obviously the folks here who are threatening with anti-trust propaganda have an interest in keep architects working under sweatshop conditions. If any of you owners knew how much works goes into a design, you would think an architect must be a masochist. You easily hand over 6% of the “selling price” of your house to a real estate agent, which is about 15% of the construction cost in many occasion, for …… exactly what? For the agent to put your house on the internet and show the house to people a couple of times. Nobody complains about this, because the Realtors association have a strong backing and have established norms for pricing and punish anyone who charges below this. Unfortunately here in Los Angeles, it is not unusual for starving architects and designers to charge 1% or less, yes you heard right.

    • Bob Borson

      1%? I’d have to move into a different profession, I don’t think that would even be a living wage.

      Yes, I do think find some irony that some people will beat up architects on their fees when they are willing to part with 6% when it comes time to sell (not to jump on Realtors, they’ve made a better deal than we apparently have). I frequently point out that architect designed homes typically sell for a higher price than “common stock” and that my fees are typically recouped during the construction process when we are able to solve problems on paper rather than with things that are already built. I generally think, at least in my area of the world, that the biggest hurdle architects face is one of immediacy, the “I want it now” mentality. There are a lot of builder homes available and can be had right now – it takes a certain type of person who wants to go through the design and construction process and know that from start to finish it might be 18 or 24 months before they get to move into their new home. I’ve never had anyone complain who has gone through the process, but it must not be for every one.

      • Jeff

        Thanks for the input, I have never thought of some of the advantages you have outlined.

  • william

    So what is the reason for the architect to keep the costs down in the design if his fees go up with the cost of the design?

    • Bob Borson

      In the scenario where the architects fees elevate with the cost of the project, the reason the architect would keep[ the costs down (or where they are supposed to be) is that the owner has identified a budget that the architect needs to adhere. If someone comes in in a percentage fee project with an architect and states that he has $500,000 to build the house, the architect should design a house to within a few percentage points of that mark. If the bid comes in and the budget has been blown, it’s on me to work to bring the project back into budget. It doesn’t serve my interests to blow the budget in an attempt to make more fee if I’m just going to have to redo a bunch of it at my own cost.

      If along the way, the client makes the house bigger, or the architect identifies that certain decisions are going to impact the final cost and the owner decides to ignore that guidance, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the owner has some responsibility in creating that budget issue.

      Does that answer your question?

      • Rick Rocchetti

        Yup. Well said. Now if you could only control the clients spending in the later stage of selecting finishes which is usually twice what their budget allows. Good info here, Thanks.

  • JaneD

    I am hoping you can enlighten me on my current project in relation to the architect. I have no idea what to expect, and like his ideas, but am not comfortable yet with his explanations. I am currently dealing with an architect for a room addition and some structural changes to the interior of my home. The architect quoted me $10,000 for the room addition only, which consisted of a master bathroom, master closet and washroom/sewing room. He also added a quote of $4000.00 for the changes to the inside of the house, which we are planning after the addition. He went beyond my square footage expectations (added 900 square feet). and the cost was beyond what I expected as well. He is also adding mechanical and moving existing exterior mechanical (which he said drove the cost up) When I told him it was more than expected and the square footage was too high, he said to continue working with the project he would need a retainer because he had put in too much time already (he came up with very basic line drawings to describe his ideas – nothing more than marker on paper) At this point, he has re-quoted me at 150.00 dollars per hour. He said less square footage will cost less. He is requesting 1800.00 in hourly projections (up to 1800.00) to proceed with the design drawing and then said he would apply “some of the cost” to the construction drawings when we decide on the final design decisions. He said he expects that the total of costs should be around 4000 if he brings the square footage down to about 450 to 500 square feet. I am happy to provide a retainer and I don’t want to cut costs and be unhappy in the end. I trust my current builder, he has done work for us before. I told the builder who originally quoted the job that I was not using him because he quoted me over 150 a square foot, which I felt was too high. The original builder and architect often work together and the architect did not seem happy I was not using the other builder. What are your thoughts?

    • Bob Borson

      sounds like a mess but something I would rather stay out of – I don’t know the particulars from anybody else’s point of view.

      I will say if someone comes to me, tells me their program and their budget, and I egregiously go over without alerting the client to what’s happening at that time, it’s on my time to fix it. My personal experience is that projects fall into two camps:

      1) the client wants what they want and as the project evolves and gets bigger and more expensive, they have some skin in the game because they have been part of the decision making process. I don’t really feel to bad for those folks who like to say after the fact that they didn’t know making it bigger would cost them more – I’m not here to help finance their project by reducing my the fees, and

      2) architects/designers who are not communicating as effectively as is needed to avoid the surprise when their bill – or the construction estimates come in. If the designer knows your budget, and doesn’t advise you along the way what is happening then they have some responsibility in fixing the situation.

      As to which one your project falls into I can’t/ won’t say – but you should know.

      Best of luck.

      • JaneD

        Thanks for reply. I think I fall into number 2, since I feel he went way beyond my original discussion with him. He now is asking for more info; wants me to send pictures and then meet with him and the builder together before proceeding. I’m feeling more comfortable with that, but my level of trust is low. If I decide not to use his services – and he has not done any plans or drawings to date but has spent time doing the rough sketch and talking with me in our original meeting and the builder in one meeting and came to our house to see the layout – what is the usual practice for payment at that point?

        • Muhammad

          Hi.could u please help me for stablishing fee for 5ooo square foot
          residence in U.S.A as i am out sider and would do online coordination
          and i would provide all services.

  • KimQ

    Hi, Bob. Thanks for this post. Wondering, you listed structural, landscape and lighting design sheets in your CD Package. When you quote 8-15% are you including structural, landscape and lighting design (or any other engineering design), or is it strictly your architectural fees including coordination with the client’s other consultants?

    • Bob Borson

      in residential work, consultants are outside of those percentages normally (meaning we have the clients contract directly with the consultants even though we manage and coordinate the work). In commercial projects, all the consultants fees are generally wrapped into a single contract with the client.

  • simplydivine35

    I am looking at purchasing a home to renovate and am covering it on my blog. I wanted to know if you would like to contribute some advice for my readers regarding what to initially ask your architect when beginning a large project?

  • Lynn61369

    My son and I are moving in with my elderly mother to take care of her. My family home has a small second floor with only two bedrooms and one bathroom. The second floor doesn’t extend over the entire house and I would like to add an extension so we can have another bedroom and bathroom (over the first floor kitchen). Is this the type of project I would require architecture plans, would they consider it to small for their time and effort and what kind of price should I expect?

    • Bob Borson

      You should work with an architect on this project and the price you might expect to pay depends greatly on where you are geographically located.

  • Anonymous (for my protection)

    Whoa! I’m a licensed architect working for a small firm in the Inland Empire, CA. We recently did a commercial project with a cost of construction of just under $3mil. The architectural fees were about 1%. Include consultants (Civil, Struct, MEP) and it was about 2.5%. Extremely technical project with client changes almost weekly during the CD phase. It was definitely not a “builders set”. All sections and details included detail incorporation from the various manufacturers (like curtainwall glazing, etc.). Over 100 sheet set at 30×42. Full Const. Admin. included as well. Now I understand why we’re always broke and under the gun. Keep in mind, I don’t write the proposals or have any control over that part, I just make sure the work gets done. To think we should have charged 5-10 TIMES what we charged makes me physically ill. Anybody else around here from the Inland Empire? I know this area has been hit hard by the recession but 1% cost of construction? It can’t be THAT much worse than other areas can it? All those 60 hour workweeks, ugh. Yeah, I’m salary, and very unhappy right now.

    • ArchChicago

      30K for 100 sheets- you got hosed. I don’t know how whoever runs your firm could even pay your salary for the time you must have spent on that. Bad management, and bad for the profession.

    • Bob Borson

      yikes …

    • Chris

      Wow! I wouldn’t expect that from a professional firm. I would think they would know better. ;/ I’m in the Inland Empire and can see things picking up now. I think people are just trying to get the best deal possible…shopping around until they find someone that will give them the lost cost possible. I get calls from people all the time trying to get projects done for dirt cheap! I just try and stay competitive and realize that those people are probably suffering right now with incomplete, inaccurate, and unorganized documentation…or at least that’s what I think to make myself feel better. :)

  • FXA

    Great post Bob. A perennial problem in a society that does not value design. Being undercut by other architects doing a less than professional job is a way of life here. The issue I have with the menu strategy is this. A “builders set” often leads to some poor decisions when details are not shown. The house ends up being not so great and your name gets attached to that not so great house. If you don’t mind your designs being corrupted after the fact then I guess it’s ok but it makes it very difficult to do a good job and it set’s up client low client expectations.

  • GLOBE Residential Design

    8% to 15% – Yipes! I recently did a project for 2.3%. It was an 864 sq. ft. addition that was estimated to be about $107,000. They got plans, elevations, wall sections. The owner picked trim, windows, doors, paint, carpet, lights with the contractor because the contractor shops and buys where he can get deals from suppliers.
    Should I or do I really want to do that? I don’t get deals for my clients but I know that contractors do.
    And Linda, if you need a home design, I’ll do it on an hourly basis. You’ll get floor plans, exterior elevations, wall sections as required, electrical, plumbing and hvac. The drawings will enable you to get estimates from any number of contractors. You are part of the design team and you do a great deal of the leg work that you would otherwise pay me to do. Imagine paying me to go grocery shopping for you when you don’t know what there is on the shelves.
    I work with my clients and give them some of the responsibility to make decisions. But sometimes a contractor can get you better deals and save you money. I don’t know any architects who buy building materials for a client’s project the way that contractors do. Many of the contractors I have worked with have small, medium and large warehouses that they store items for projects because they were able to get great deals and had someplace to store those items. I don’t know any architects that do that.
    So Linda, write me, together we’ll design your project and I’ll facilitate the creation of the drawings.

  • Linda

    I am a retired widow who needs a very small house – 900 heated square feet. After viewing thousands of floor plans online, I realize what I want is not there. I know exactly what I want in the home design and am on a very small budget. Would an architect consider it too small a job?

    • Bob Borson

      No, I don’t think an architect would consider this project to small. The thing that might not work in your favor is telling those architects that you already know exactly what you want … it’s kinda like telling the doctor, “I know what my illness is, just give me the pills…”

      If you do know what you want, a contractor or drafter should be able to help you out.


  • Julie

    Thanks for this thoughtful and informative blog. As a sole practitioner, I have often tried to discuss fee structures with other architects, and have only come away with vague notions. I don’t think the lack of transparency is good for the profession, and appreciate your ability to clearly describe your firm’s practices. Thanks; it’s helpful!

    • Somè Onè

      First unless I am mistaken, the AIA says that any discussion of fees is not permissible as that might be a conflict of interest which could be seen as a violation of Anti- Trust:

      Antitrust Guidelines

      In all operations and activities of the Institute, you must avoid any discussions or conduct that might violate the antitrust laws or even raise an appearance of impropriety. The following guidelines will help you do that:

      · Do not have discussions with other members or competitors about any of the following subjects (unless you’ve first consulted legal counsel):

      ¨ your prices for products or services, or prices charged by your competitors

      ¨ costs, discounts, terms of sale, profit margins or anything else that might affect those prices.
      That may why you come away vague notions – you probably forgot that Antitrust Guideline.

      • FXA

        This is true with regards to the institute but it does not prohibit architects from discussing fees outside of the organization.

        • mark harris

          agreed. the AIA is simply an outside association more worried about the profession as a business model than it is about being an architect, creating architecture, or the quality of our built environment. we see a similar problem in medicine today, as it is more about the administration of medical care as a business model than it is about health care as a human endeavor – you need both to stay in business, but one comes well before the other.

          there is a very broad gap between common or stylized construction and architecture. while most may do well with a common home, it does not mean it’s architecture any more than my dribbling of paint on a canvas mean it’s art. it may hang on someone’s wall, they may have paid a large amount of money for it, and they may love it, but it still might not meet the criteria of ‘art’ by anyone trained to recognize it. until it can move the broader sense of culture and society forward (rather than just satisfying the needs of a single client), it’s just a painting.

          this is the difference between art and painting, between health and medical administration, and between architecture and construction. most think it’s subjective because they like to make up their own rules and definitions and then cry victory, but it’s actually not.

          for those who take the time to study, to train, and to properly prepare to provide service, service can be rendered. for those who take the time to study, to train, and to properly prepare to provide the broader service of architecture, this service is added to the equation.

          frank lloyd wright provided the same services that all architect’s of this day provided – programming, concepts, detailed drawings, specifications. he incorporated constructability into his designs, and worked hand-in-hand with builders. for this portion, he gets paid standard fees. but for the architecture he provided, something few can actually do, he was paid more ………. as appropriate.

          unfortunately, this is something the AIA, and all it’s followers, do not recognize. they want it all but without providing the service, and this is why ‘service’ relative to ‘fee’ is so confused in this profession. quality of design is not understood.

      • TD&A

        As an Engineer this seems like a really dumb policy. Who is it supposed to serve?

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  • Jeffrey

    Thanks for the article, Bob! I also found your accompanying pieces on architectural fees to be quite useful as well.

    I’m a homeowner and I wanted to pose some questions that I haven’t seen come up.

    Do you ever negotiate fees based on whether the client will allow you to use their house in your portfolio? Or, perhaps they would go further and allow you to SHOW the house to potential new clients? Or is it just a given that any job you do would be included in your portfolio and used as a reference for new clients whether the owner likes it or not?

    The context for the question is that I live in a part of the country where modern design hasn’t really taken off (northern New England) and the majority of residential projects are still pretty traditional. In talking with some of the architects and builders nearby, I often hear the same refrain: they love modern design and would work in that realm all of the time, but there just isn’t enough work available. So most of the work they do is traditional stuff, just to pay the bills. In that light, if I want to do a modern project, it would seem like an opportunity for someone, and potentially a meaningful portfolio-building opportunity. Is that worth anything? For an interesting, modern, project in a region where these are few-and-far between, would you consider a lower fee just for the opportunity to work on the project? Might it be that the publicity that comes from the house makes up for the lower fees you charged?

    • Bob Borson

      Hi Jeffrey,

      You ask a reasonable question but here is my 2 cents:

      No, we would not reduce our fees so that the owner would allow us to include their house in our marketing material. Most, if not all, of our clients become our friends and as such, are more than happy to help us out after the fact when their house turns out beautifully (which is every time). Some folks have some privacy issues and we would respect their wishes but, that doesn’t happen too often. Even then, they might not want their house on the website but would have no problems if I called them occasionally to walk a potential new client through their home.

      We do get a large percentage of our projects through referrals and word of mouth and most people wouldn’t think twice about saying who their architect was.

      Truthfully, nobody has ever tried this approach with us but if someone wanted to reduce my fees in this manner, since I don’t know them, it might make me wonder about what other sorts of things might they come up with during the process to get me to lower my fees. I’m not sure I’m painting the best picture – I’m making this up since I’ve never been in this position – but I like to work with awesome people and if someone is working an angle from the get-go, I might not want to take on that project.

      Hope that makes sense and I haven’t just painted myself as an elitist jerk.

      Good luck.

  • craigpurcell

    6% skeleton set – 8% permits good luck with your project – 10% a bit more design maybe some bidding and a little CA -15% architecture & interior design services = full meal deal + being responsible on cost.

  • Rktect

    Too much is never enough. Take a moment and think about how many people have to examine your contract documents and how much that costs.

    I imaging that your drawings began with a program, went through schematic design, design development, and working drawings before going out to bid.

    At some point local authorities looked at a permit set, engineers looked at your design development drawings and outline spec,there was feedback from the owners, engineers and local authorities that resulted in working drawings and as the project went out to bid contractors looked at a bid set.

    All of those different phases of drawings, specs, contracts, agreements as to schedules, are constantly subject to change and someone has to go through and coordinate all the changes and make sure everyone including the people doing the shop drawings has confirmed in writing that they are current.

    What happens if something in that huge set of contract documents is vague, confusing, poorly coordinated, not at the same level of detail as the rest of the set? Does the contractor with the low bid get awarded the contract and immediately deluge you with requests for information (RFI’s) leading to specification clarifications, proposal requests, change orders sketches and revisions that themselves have to be coordinated with schedules?

    It may be necessary for you to re-negotiate contracts with people (including you) expecting that more work means they should have more time as well as more money.

    Do the owners understand that if after all the time you spent laboriously detailing doors and windows if the contractors value engineering provides a better cheaper solution that they will find themselves irresistibly drawn to then you will have to go through the entire set of drawings changing details and charge them for that time?

  • Thad

    Great post Bob. From my perspective we spend a lot of time trying to head in your direction. We are the opposite end of the spectrum from you. It’s a gamble that most of them will see the value and want to cough up the extra money. Whenever we have given options, reduced the amount of documentation, or lessened our involvement during construction, the project really suffers. Too many times the owner and client take over making those decisions that are left out and in the end the project isn’t even worth a couple of photos. You may pick up a few more jobs, but in the end you may wish you hadn’t. The grass is always greener.

  • T. O’Keefe

    That sounds like a great method Bob. We don’t have a lot of choice in my boss’ firm, as the very small town atmosphere that exists here means we’re all competing with ‘drafting services’. The architects here each have their own niche though. What we do is generally offer a flat fee for a basic set of permitting documents, which we work out the price on after a potential client has brought their project to us. Each time is a guessing game between how low we can go without shooting ourselves in the foot as projects inevitably expand. We also break up the preliminary design phase from the CD phase, if the client’s want to just hire us for one. It can be frustrating, but my boss and I are both in it for the love of the game, and as long as we can pay our bills we don’t mind working with clients as long as their change requests don’t become too ridiculous.

  • Brandon Smith

    I can’t so much as attest to the residential world when it comes to billing … my firm has only been doing it for roughly two years and as far as I’m concerned it is still a learning curve of sorts.

    However, from the commercial stand point most of our projects are priced out months, if not a year, in advance of a project becoming a project. We’ve very much been lucky to obtain numerous contracts for entire buildings where we are, quite simply, the design firm of record for all tenant improvements. It’s been quite lucrative, not to mention highly profitable in the long run. The downside is that yes, a highly detailed menu of services is created well in advance of a project’s inception. As-Built/Conditions documentation and spaceplanning are based on pre-determined rate per square footage whilest construction documentation for certain sized tenants has a set fee up to “x” number of square feet. Though it can lead to moments where we may be over our hours to complete certain details, in the long run, designing a 100,000+ square foot interior over the course of four or five years with a roughly 25 to 50% turn over makes up for the losses on a singular project.

    Where menus prescribing individual service rates are particularly tricky is that a) they need to be highly detailed and b) the contract becomes ever more important. I long ago eschewed the standard AIA contract for a lawyer drafted (ie: cost me an arm and a leg) contract which literally spells out every nut and bolt. Additionally, the contract is accompanied by a proposal which details every stage, inclusion, exclusion, etc required as part of the project. Nothing can be left to chance if you don’t want to have to eat something that may or may not cost you big time. Clients are free to pick and choose the services that end up in the final proposal with the understanding that anything else will result in a change order. Communication becomes key though my favorite phrase ever is still “I didn’t read that part of the contract”. *sigh*

  • Raymond Bowman

    I don’t write the contracts, but when I worked at a firm that did a lot of residential, these same problems came up. One idea that was floated was to charge hourly for the design phases (PRE, SD, DD), and then fixed fee for CDs and CA. This way you can get reimbursed for creeping scope (“while we are here we might as well …”) and hemming and hawing (“let me see it this way … what if we …”) during the design phase , and then offer competitive rates for CDs and CA. I wasn’t there for the implementation of this (if it ever happened), but it seemed fair conceptually.

    • walkingarchitect

      This is EXACTLY how I set up my proposals. I explain to me clients that it is actually is in their best interest to do it this way because I do not need to set the fee artificially high to cover any “what-if-costs”. I do, however, give them an estimated fee of between x and y and assure them that they will be notified as we get close to y. I rarely exceed y but when I do, my client is very aware of the reason since it is usually as you put it “design creep”.

  • Tom Hurst

    The hardest part is educating the potential client about the difference between a “builder set” and a true “architectural set” of drawings and the associated difference in service and dedication that we put into a project. I don’t think too many “builders” wake up a 3:00 a.m. to sketch out an idea for the house they’re working on as I have been known to do.
    My favorite question is “How much do you charge for blueprints?” as if our only value is the creation of permit drawings (not to mention that I haven’t run a blueprint in 20 years). I try to explain that the real value that they get from an Architect is the customized design and problem solving process we go through on their behalf before we begin “blueprints.”
    Because of this,I find that residential projects are the hardest projects for which to formulate a fee proposal. I like your ideas and some of the others in the comments too. Thanks as always for an interesting post.

  • Robert Moore

    Great post Bob. I just wonder if this violates the terms of the consent settlement between the DOJ and the AIA requiring the institution and thus its members from discusssing fees?

    • Bob Borson

      My understanding is that discussing fee has to do with price fixing and collusion would need to play a role. My article is really only talking about theory and application and I could easily substitute “architectural services” for any other service provider.

      At least that was the intent

  • Mike Conrad

    The best thing is to work for lawyers. True, they are entitled, argumentative, and even litigious but at least they don’t flinch at your fees!

    • alan architect london uk

      But maybe not property lawyers.
      They have a tendency to revert to type and are likely to strike you down at the end.
      It’s in their make up, their sport even, they simply can’t change their spots.

  • SurfArch

    Thanks Bob. I recently found your blog and appreciate the transparency and sharing. Billing as a percentage of construction cost or per square foot doesn’t sound fair to me. Every project is different and requires a different amount of time. Our contracts are a fixed fee based on the scope of work and how much time it will take the get the job done. This total fee broken down in our proposal into percentages for each phase. We use cost of construction and cost per S.F. as a guide to see if we are in the ballpark but not as a definition for our fees. The scope is outlined in detail and there are provisions in case the scope changes or if there is a significant change after the completion of a defined phase. In the current competitive market, I have been unable achieve anything close to 10% of construction cost. I am probably closer to 5% (hopefully) and trying to close the gap as the economy improves. In 2008-2012, I could not afford to not win a project. As a sole practitioner with relatively no overhead, I could keep our prices low. As the market in improving and demand for our services increases, I look forward to proper compensation for our work. We also provide different tiers of service from a “builders set” all the way to full integration of interior design and construction management. Your blog is a great resource and I look forward to more insightful commentary.

  • Busdriver49

    several folks have advocated for an hourly not-to-exceed approach – which I have always felt to be the worst of all possible worlds for the architect and the profession. Essentially, it’s an insurance policy for the client – if you ‘go over’ the limit, you are working for free (assuming you are indeed using your time effectively). If you ‘go under’, the client is only billed for the hours actually spent, effectively reducing all of your experience and efficiency down to the commodity of ‘hours’. If your multiplier is correct, you come out OK in this case, but you’ve been willing to take the risk of establishing a fee limit (like a fixed fee) and completely walked away from the reward potential that should come with being able to do your work really well.

    If you do get to ‘the limit’ and find yourself asking for more, then the trust in the relationship is in jeopardy, and most of us are nice folks, and tend to be optimistic that we’ll ‘make it up later’… such thinking has been the bane of our profession for a very long time…

  • Bob Swinburne

    Inspiring! – I really need to get more pro and rework my fees to pin things down. Duo Dickenson and (I think) Modative put their fees on their websites with much detail.

  • CathyS

    thanks, Bob. it’s good to talk about the business of architecture like this. generates a lot of thoughts and sharing, i think.
    in my case, i found that hourly with cost-not-to-exceed works for design, especially when they are not sure how much remodeling will need to be done, or which phases they want to do first. then a fixed fee for the CD’s, which i base on psf, with the variable being how much detail i put on the drawings. i always bring a set of drawings with me, which is halfway between basic permit and full high-end custom. right away, this allows clients to see the difference between my architecture firm and the drafting firms we are up against. i always tell the clients to ask to see the other firms’ sets to compare, and tell them how much more specific a contractor’s costs will be with our more detailed set. we charge hourly again for C/A, with an emphasis on a minimum of 2 site visits. this comes with an explanation as well, since many clients don’t know architects do this, since drafting firms do not. the proposal repeats all this.
    a “good” client typically understands this approach to billing, since they have shopped around and talked to other homeowners. with our nascent clients, we tread softly and slowly at first, to get them used to the process and how many hours it takes for each micro-step thru design. we also recommend to all architects to bill every 2 weeks, due in 10 days. leave the 30 day invoices to the big firms that can carry the costs.

  • Daniel

    I have started breaking my fee out between the different phases of the project (SD,DD,etc.)and only asking for a contractual commitment on a phase by phase basis.
    Many clients are concerned about starting the project race and signing a
    contract that is based on the final cost of construction when they are not sure
    where the finish line really is. The overall fee is still based on a
    percentage of a preliminary cost of construction estimate, but the client is
    not asked to commit to the total fee all at once. This way they can make
    adjustments along the way without feeling like they are going to get into to
    something they are not prepared for.

  • MarvinOne

    Thanks for tackling this topic today and the comments you’ve received are great! I like the idea of attaching a percentage of the fee to a part of the project so people might have a better understanding of what they are paying for. I work in commercial (until I can find a way to get to residential!) and one thing my current firm has done is pay by the hour. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone for any project as the client only sees the hours adding up and starts to complain. Pretty soon you’re sending out some drawings you’re not proud of. We had to work on my boss’ house and even he was complaining about the cost (at $$/hour). But that’s another story….!

  • Steve

    My practice is only in the residential sector so this post really caught my attention. Most of my clients won’t come close to agreeing on a percentage basis fee structure. They want to know a set price and what they will get for that price. Also, there is no way of knowing what the cost of the project will be on the front end other than the client’s not-to-exceed budget. The first set of dots a potential client seems to connect is that I have an incentive to use and specify higher cost materials and products which increases the cost of construction. Further, I lack the incentive to make my design as efficient as possible so construction time is reduced as is the overall cost. It has created an interesting dilemma for me.
    I’ve found it easiest (and more profitable) to give them a flat hourly rate with a not-to-exceed number for each phase of the project (SD, DD, CD, CM, etc). I don’t break down the rate by task, either. Clerical work is the same as drafting time, drafting time is the same as design time, drafting staff is billed at the same rate as my time, etc. I’ve done it enough to know that what the average rate is and I just bill that flat fee. It makes it easy on both of us and the hourly rate is lower, and, therefore looks better on paper when the client sees it. It’s more of a perception issue than anything else. Clients can see what they are getting and pay for it as they go. After SD, should they choose not to proceed, I’m happy because I’ve been paid and they are happy because it was their decision. I’ve never had a project start the DD phase and not turn into a completed project. If the client doesn’t want me to do CM work, fine. If they want me to coordinate interiors, fine. It’s in the CD phase at a flat hourly rate.
    At the end of the project, and when I do the math, I’ve found that the percentage I’ve invoiced is higher than the 8%-12% i was aiming for.
    Clients will pay a premium fee if they are confident they are getting what they pay for.
    Your wrote a great post, Bob. Keep up the good work and keep making us think!

  • Christopher Carrigan

    Hi Bob. We use a per square foot model for determining our fees [I know you think they are unreasonable, but it works for us ending up around 10% of construction costs.] We have very similar sized sets to your firm where everything is detailed [not from a non-customized library] and are considering creating 3 tiers of fees rather than an a la carte system. We already have a range of fees and adjust the type/number of details we include in a set accordingly, but it’s at the prinicipals discretion – i.e. is the client a personality fit and the project fun – to reduce fees.

    • Bob Borson

      I like that idea, but how do you determine in the beginning which tier to use? The clients we have on the Cottonwood Modern project couldn’t be better people and as a result, the project has been really enjoyable and pleasant. If all clients were as easy going and agreeable as them, it would be easy to lower our fees a few percentage points. They make timely, well informed decisions and once they’ve made up their mind, haven’t gone back on the decision. Very little time has been spent modifying construction details in the field due to on site design changes.

      • Christopher Carrigan

        Typically, we always start in the top tier and then work our way down. It’s much harder to go up from a middle or bottom tier. Clear communication and full understanding of the services is key.

        I am intrigued by the hybrid system you mentioned in a previous post by billing Schematic Design at an hourly rate. Combine that with a tiered DD/CD/Con. per square foot could cover our bases more frequently. However, our schematic design phase tends to be our most profitable phase, so I’ll have to check that system out.

        I agree with you that the Construction Phase is not negotiable anymore. It used to be that we would reduce site visits or sometimes eliminate altogether, but now we are holding our ground these days.

  • Chris

    Most of our fees are lump-sum but sometimes work hourly for reasons you mentioned. We never work as a percentage of construction cost. I was wondering if you could elaborate more on exactly what a percentage is based on. Is it the estimate, bid, final construction cost, etc.? What happens to your fees as the construction cost inevitably changes from bid to final cost (i.e. change orders)? Does your fee get adjusted? If so, how? Or does it stay fixed based on an early agreement?

    For those of us who prefer lump-sum, we often get compared to other firms who work as a percentage. And lump-sum often seems much more expensive in the beginning due to many clients unrealistic opinion of construction cost. Often this leads to us losing a job over fee when later we learned that when the final construction cost came in, the other firm’s percentage fee was much higher, yet ours would have remained unchanged and ultimately lower.

    Thanks for all the good posts!

    • Bob Borson

      When we initially meet with the clients, we are able to ballpark the cost of construction based on the size of house and type of construction they want. They may want a house that in our experience will run between $250 and $300 per square foot and if the programming for the house is 5,000 sf, simple math can tell us if our understanding and the clients fee are in the same vicinity to one another. At the point at which we write a proposal for services, we identify the approximate square footage and potential cost of construction so that if either deviate significantly. (say 10%) we can adjust our fee.
      If the client has been particularly agreeable and we have not be burning through our fee, more times than not, we don’t adjust the fee. We would rather have a happy client (since most of our work is based on our reputation) than a few extra $$.

    • CC

      Chris, I am interested to know how you bill a “lump sum” project. I would think a client would balk at paying up front, and it would create cash-flow problems if you waited until the end to collect it.

      • Bob Borson

        lump sum doesn’t mean pay everything up front. It means that a total fee is in place for the entire project and is typically billed as a percentage of the work completed at a predetermined period of time (like monthly)

  • Roy H Mayo Jr

    I like this…I try to go above and beyond, but it’s not always appreciated, nor is the invoice, or the (hopefully) lack of questions or problems in the field.

  • Paul Gerber

    Bob, I would say you face the same challenges in residential as most firms that practice institutional or commercial. Unfortunately when the client is not educated/experienced with design and the preparation of Contract Documents, selling why extra services are valuable or necessary is a tough row to hoe! My firm is big on providing services that make everyone’s (client, document team, consultants and CA staff) life easier, but that doesn’t always win out with fees when competing against firms who haven’t yet grasped that lower fees (and the level of service they can afford to provide with them) actually complicate their lives and increase the potential for an unhappy client at the end of the project. Of course at the beginning of the project when fees are negotiated, everyone is on the utopian high of the potential of the project and no challenges have been encountered yet; making it a tougher sell to the cost concious client. I get your conundrum and frustration.

    • Bob Borson

      Thanks for the feedback Paul.

      I frequently hear from people who have worked with other architects (commercial or residential) that going into the process, they didn’t really understand what the architect scope of work was … and as a result, they assumed it was “everything that needed to be done to get a finished product”. More times than not, this really has to do with the level of communication up front. The menu of services is a way of breaking out and identifying the roles – and work performed – by each party.

      As it stands now, we charge a higher fee because we do it all – and we lose out with that attitude because we haven’t been competitively flexible.

  • ChristopherSipesRA

    The idea of providing a baseline of service with additional services as an option offers a degree of flexibility to potential clients. They aren’t interviewing your firm to cost check though that is part of the decision; they are there because of the firm’s work and reputation. This structure gives the client a control point without permanently removing those services from their menu. But I can see where reconciling the % of construction costs and the amount of additional services actually provided not an easy task,…

    • Bob Borson

      It has generally worked out pretty well, and our firm as a general practice doesn’t nickle and dime our clients when they make changes to the drawings at inconvenient times as long as it isn’t an excessive practice.

      This model is really for the people who are price shopping and looking for a little more control over their initial understanding of the services architects provide.

  • Charlie

    Bob, sounds to me like your pricing is based on a mindset from a previous era. Years ago all those drawings took time to create with architects at a drawing table etching line by line. Today most all of what goes info what you have described is in a,computer library database where it can be selected and dropped onto the page. The 34 window type, as you mention, really takes no work other than a few minutes of selection and placement. Clearly if one were designing their first home the library creation would consume some time. But if you are really in the business it has become quite simplified. I suspect people balk at the additional charges because they feel that theymaremgetting overcharged for the basics.

    • Bob Borson

      We thought about trying to make a standardized library but the homes we do are typically complicated, there are probably 15 different window manufacturer’s that we use with any regularity and generic details just don’t get it done. Trying to create drop in details would mean a library of all those different manufacturer’s window profiles, with every conceivable exterior material (rain screens, cement boards, masonry, wood siding, etc.) … Next thing you know, do the math, there are thousands of possible standardized details. As a result, we have a standard based set of details that we use as a starting point and customize them to the project rather than starting from scratch.

      Maybe we are drawing things that the contractor should be able to figure out if we provide them with a generic representation that closely represents the final product. I can’t help but think that since our fee is established prior to the drawing of those details, my only motivation to create them would be the creation of a superior end product – it certainly doesn’t help the bottom line to spend the time drawing details just to draw details, I don’t get paid by the hour.

      • Ray S

        I’ve just started the process of reviewing options for our (hopefully) final home. The thought of paying an architect 10 – 15% for plans is beyond my wildest imagination. I am not looking for a Frank Loyd Wright home. I don’t see the logic in linking architect’s charge and sq ft or final cost of the home unless you are talking about catagorically very different home brackets (there is a big difference between a $50M and $300K). I must admit that this chat has shied me away from considering the use of an architect. Perhaps architects are only for the very wealthy?

        • Bob Borson

          The thing I try and communicate to people who are interested in hiring an architect is to consider what they are doing on your behalf. What drives my fee up into the 10-15% range is the magnitude of the construction drawings I create. Sure, it’s going to cost you some money to get those drawings but from those drawings you will get accurate and competitive pricing, you get far fewer construction coordination items, fewer mistakes in the field – and all of these things will cost you money to fix. What my services provide is the ability to identify and resolve problems on paper rather than in the field where you options become limited and problems are generally resolved by pulling out your checkbook. Pay 5-7% to your architect, or pay a whole lot more to your contractor while getting a lesser product in the end – at least that’s been my experience.

          I wish you well with whatever path you choose.

    • Kate Sandberg

      While that might be true for some offices & types of job (…”really takes no work other than a few minutes of selection and placement”) – some firms still, to this day, design every job from scratch. And by that I mean, each job, while related to the previous job, is a whole new creation – with new details, new finishes, customized built-ins. (My office does high-end residential & ecclesiastical design. EVERY SINGLE JOB requires the creation & integration of new CAD details.) If you come to our office because you like our work – that is why: because we don’t use any cookie-cutters. Sure – we might be able to snag a trim detail or two from the previous job – but that’s unusual. Our design is time-consuming & cost-ineffective & our fees *should* reflect that. But usually don’t – because people think we can just “select & place” a few details… I mean, c’mon! Doesn’t the computer do everything nowadays? ;)

      • Steve

        I agree with Kate. Each of my projects start with an interview and a blank piece of paper. Then it moves to bumwad, then SD, DD, CD. Each project is unique and, outside of CAD standards and digital titleblocks, there are very few items that can be recycled from a previous project.

    • Ted Cleary

      Charlie, I’d have to respectfully disagree with this. Not that computers haven’t made a world of difference compared to the “old days” of hand drafting, with rows of architects bent over their drafting tables awash in graphite & eraser crumbs to produce a drawing set like Bob describes. (Although those of us old enough to remember those days would have to admit to lots of actual [not digital] “cut’n’paste” time-saving tricks, sticky-back transfers, etc. I remember some original drawing sheets looking like a tattered flag barely taped together at the end of multiple revisions.)

      But my point is: it’s like asking a chef how long it took for him (her) to prepare that pan-roasted sea scallops with foie gras entree; the true answer isn’t “one hour”, the answer should be more like, “twenty years”. Those window details didn’t appear out of nowhere; the architect had to either create them himself some time in the past or buy them from somebody else who did; modify them; insert/arrange them in the drawing and most importantly, spend years understanding what the construction detail actually conveys. A savvy client will be wise enough to understand that your expertise has a value that goes beyond a simple dropped-in image of lines & labels. I’ll grant that some designers & architects “pad” a drawing set with a lot of redundant images (whether SketchUp type views or construction details) in an effort to make it LOOK like they did more work than they actually did, but that’s usually pretty transparent to all involved and not what I’m talking about here. Let’s not fall into the same fallacy that too many clients subconsciously have, that computer = education no longer required.

      • Mike Vala

        Ted, I think you nailed it when you said mentioned understanding what the detail actually conveys. Yes, with computers it is easy to drag and drop details into a drawing set, but if you don’t understand what the detail is telling the contractor to build, it’s pointless.
        In my (relatively short – 10 years +) experience, it’s better to not rely on just plopping a detail in from a previous job, even if you think it’s the same detail.
        Building technology is constantly evolving, and the slightest change can make a detail more efficient or clearer for a contractor to understand the intent. Our understanding of what has worked and what hasn’t also continues to evolve.

    • Brandon Smith

      I’m also going to respectfully disagree. After having spaceplanned, designed and constructed well over 1mil square feet of office and industrial properties I find myself still creating new details, sections, etc. even with a library of standardized details. A recent project in Oregon (a 30,000 square foot, $13mil data center for a local cable service provider) required an entirely new set of details to be created quite simply because their building type (pre-fabricated metal) and project type (Tier III Critical Facility + LEED Gold) together created a rather complicated construction instance where even columns along the same column line were sectioned to show ab-normal wall junctures, fur-outs, etc. The entire project set was 142 pages of construction documents – highly abnormal for a project of this size.

      The problem, however, isn’t in the fact that a large number of details are being created from scratch or that a set of construction/contract documents can be abnormally large, but that the myth that “we simply push a button” continues to be perpetuated within the industry. It, to be frank, just isn’t true and will continue to not be true as the industry continues to evolve.

      The same can be said for any project where a change is requested. Even the simplest of changes can result in major additions to time. In the above mentioned project, removing a fire suppression room from the project required an 8 hour change order because it affected every one of the 142 sheets as well as required coordination with the entire team to ensure that electrical/mechanical/plumbing/fire suppression sets were also up to date and reflected the same condition.

      It’s my personal opinion that there are too many within the industry that rely heavily on the “standardized library” for their plan sets that, in the end, waste time, require more coordination on the back end, rely too heavily on the contractor knowing what (s)he is doing, and can be the backbone of mistakes/change orders/etc. We’re being paid to think through all aspects of our designs and that doesn’t stop at just how a design functions but also how it is constructed as well. I just don’t like to leave things to question and in the long run, my clients have appreciated just that.

    • Nathan

      Charlie, sounds to me like your design is based on a mindset from a crappier era.

  • Lizzie

    Hi Bob, this is really interesting for me as I have just purchased a georgian terraced house in Norwich, England & am wondering if i need an architect to create the ‘look’ I am after or if i can achieve it with my builder. This post is really helpful. Liz

    • Bob Borson

      Great! I am glad it helped (and good luck on your remodel)

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