Understanding Architectural Fees

“Money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver.” –Ayn Rand

Architectural Fees

So you have decided to employ the services of an architect. That fee they are asking for seems large?  You might think, “It is just for plans, and the computer does most of the work… maybe I should just purchase ‘Chief Architect‘ and I can do EXACTLY the same thing… if it weren’t for those laws. Ugh!” Well let me stop you right there, and together we can unpack exactly what makes up those architectural fees (and how they manage to get so large!).

Size and Complexity

By far and away the largest driver of architectural fees is the combination of size of thecomplexity project, and the complexity.  These two concepts work together usually, but can sometimes be opposed to each other. Understanding how the size of the project drives the fee is fairly simple. The more square footage, the more stories, the more enclosed volume that the project encompasses, then obviously, the larger the fee will be with all other things being equal. The fee goes up because the architect needs to design more stuff, create larger drawings, care for more details, to complete a project of larger scale. As you increase the scale, you also inherently increase the complexity. This concept is a little harder to understand, but the essence is that as a single-story structure becomes a two-story structure you have doubled the process of integrating a second floor in combination with the first, doubled the gravity loads, doubled the lateral loads, added further complexities not only in space design, structural load-path considerations, but also in numerous other ways. Complexity is closely related to size, but also closely related to the next topic.

Building Use Type

Not all buildings are created equal. Buildings are built for a specific use in mind. Of course Building typethere are multi-use buildings, and adaptive re-use buildings, and other exceptions to the rule, but basically, one building for one particular reason in time. For this reason, the type of use that is planned for the building will help to determine the complexity of the design. An example might be comparing a two hundred thousand square foot warehouse space with an associated office, and a similar sized nursing home.  The warehouse space is largely open space designed for few occupants, while the nursing home requires special attention to the needs of the future residents and staff.  To expect to pay a similar fee based on the square footage of the project ignores the fundamental differences of the two projects. An architect that has the expertise in nursing home design can be expected to command much higher fees for both the additional knowledge required to design the space to meet functional requirements and extra code requirements, as compared to an architect hired to provide a warehouse (You still need an architect for a warehouse. Just because I use this as an example of a ‘simpler’ design, I do not mean to suggest that designing a warehouse space is simple.)

Traditional versus Avant Garde Construction Systems

Traditional building materials (wood, stone, brick) have been around for thousands of years traditional_constructionas building materials, and the techniques for designing structures with these materials are well known.  Just think about the seven wonders of the ancient world, and you can realize that architects throughout history were able to design using these materials. Architects understand how these materials behave, and how the associated construction techniques work. They have pre-drawn details for many connections.  They feel comfortable using the materials because they have done it hundreds of times before, and nothing bad ever happened (yet). For these reasons, choosing traditional construction methods can save you money in the design phase. However, traditional materials, means, and methods of construction have their practical limits.

More contemporary materials (steel, glass, composites) along with modern constructionAvant Garde Construction techniques have allowed buildings to climb into the clouds. Great gains can also be achieved in energy efficiency, occupant health, safety, and welfare, and cost efficiency, both at initial construction, and over the lifespan of the building. Modern construction materials and techniques do require a significant increase in the complexity of the design.  Less can be left to the contractor to design in the field. Less is prescriptive in building codes. The architect NEEDS to design more just to get the building built. Architectural plans are growing in the number of drawings included and the number of pages at a geometric rate over the past thirty years as evidence of the increasing complexity of building designs. You should expect to pay more when your building project requires the use of modern construction materials and techniques.

Building Code Updates

Building codes are revised every three years. Lessons learned through new technologies, and tragedies provide the AEC community with the ability to better protect the public. These new concerns become law, and are incorporated into building projects. Building code officials need to see that the new laws have been satisfied and require a design on the documents. As the building code become more complex, and concerned with more than just the health and safety of the occupants (such as energy code minimums), architects have to add more to the plans and specifications.


Architects usually carry Professional Design Liability Insurance. This coverage protects them liability-insuranceagainst claims and law suits related to negligence in design. Different types of architectural projects have different rates of claims, and also a significant difference in the dollar amount usually awarded. By far, residential projects experience the greatest number of claims against the architect. Even the smallest project, one for which the architect may not even have to do a drawing, or a design will require that the architect take on a certain amount of liability. You should expect to pay for the right to be able to sue. Often clients will view an architect’s letter to the building department, or a professional opinion as a ‘rubber stamp’ procedure only to satisfy annoying governmental agencies, and require no ‘real work’ so therefore they should be free. Well nothing could be further from the truth. These documents become an instrument of service and transfer liability to the architect. The more liability inherent in a project, the higher the architectural fees will be.

Project Management Triangle

“You can have it fast, cheap, or good – pick any two.” -anonymous

Odds are you have heard the above quote. The premise is simple enough, there are a limited number of resources and they need to be allocated a certain way.  It is the economics of a project. This golden rule of project management affects architectural fees in significant ways.

Project Schedule

Developing an unreasonable schedule for an architectural project, or just ignoring the fact Managing-Unrealistic-Project-Schedulesthat there SHOULD be an architectural schedule will have a serious impact on the profitability of the project. Architects do NOT want to drag a project on forever and ever. They would like to complete the project, get paid, get the building built, and use their glorious design as a marketing tool to get new projects. Architects also do NOT want to be rushed. They need a certain amount of time to complete the work required to produce the design. So for any given project there will be a natural schedule that the architect will want to follow that is a balance of moving the project forward, and having enough time to complete the work (without missing too much sleep). The architect’s naturally developed and unfettered schedule is not necessarily going to be the most profitable one for the owner or developer. Construction loans are expensive, and a large savings can be realized by accelerating the project and receiving delivery months or years ahead of a traditional schedule. This process is called ‘fast track’ or ‘fast tracking’ the project. Essentially you start building before the design is complete.  If you are lucky, and fortune favors you, the savings you gain on interest will outweigh the extra costs for mistakes during the process due to unfinished design, and the extra cost lumped into the architectural fees. The architect will often have to hire extra staff, delay other potentially profitable work, and deal with the headaches of constant change orders and construction SNAFU’s during a fast-track project. Do you want is FAST?

Quality Control

Architectural plans have errors and omissions. Perhaps not all architectural plans have qualitycontrolerrors, but you can always make a case that one more drawing, or detail, or specification could have been added. The purpose of architectural plans is not to describe every single component, connection, finish, but rather to describe in enough detail all the systems required to construct the building and meet the building code minimums. I have been required by certain townships to show the size of nails on my drawings. I am of the opinion that contractors that don’t know what an “8d (eight penny)” nail looks like have no business reading my plans or anyone else’s. This is the kind of information that does not NEED to be on architectural plans. Certainly it is required to build the building, but a certain amount of general knowledge needs to be brought to the project by the contractor. Quality control of the plans can save money over the construction period of the project. There will be fewer requests for information, fewer returns on materials, and fewer mistakes made in the field due to unclear or conflicting information. However, creating an error-free set of drawings requires extra attention to details requiring more staff time and effort. Low information plans with little care for minor errors are what some builders look for due to their low cost. They also tend to view the plans as a necessary document required ONLY by the government to satisfy a few silly laws. Creating a highly detailed, nearly error-free set of plans takes time, effort, and understanding, and has the potential for saving money during construction by limiting mistakes and cost overruns. Do you want it GOOD?

Value and Expertise

The final component of the architectural fee is what makes one architect different from valueaddedanother. The whole POINT of hiring an architect is not as a ‘necessary evil’ or as a ‘rubber stamp’ for your ideas, but as someone that will add value to your project by using excellence in design. The architect’s expertise in a certain building type, or in dealing with a particular town or governmental agency, are there as the over-arching theme for the project. You hire a specific architectural firm because you know them and their work, and you trust that they will complete your project to fulfill your needs within your budget and on time, and you like dealing with them. It doesn’t make sense to hire someone, or a firm, to deal with someone you just don’t like during the course of a construction project, just because they might be a few dollars cheaper. Architects used to believe that the only competition was based solely on excellence in design. It simply isn’t true anymore. Most of us are excellent designers. Our expertise in niche markets, our skill in helping you reach YOUR goals, and our ability to work with you and your team is what set individual architects and firms apart. Architectural fees will reflect the architect’s own belief in how much value he brings to your project. Someone who charges too little may believe that you aren’t getting very much for what he is providing.  Do you want it CHEAP?

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