What Are You Paying Me For?

A few days ago, I wrote a post that talked about how architect’s are a jack of all trades, but rarely a master of any. So a fair question might be, what the heck are we really responsible for. Depending on the project, the answers can vary significantly.

Let’s start with a small project, a residential project where most of the building systems are figured out on the job site by the contractor and subcontractors. Here, the architect almost assumes a role of master builder without ever actually lifing a hammer (heaven forbid we get our hands dirty). A good architect walks an inexperienced client thru the design process and keeps requirements for practical matters such as ductwork and plumbing access in mind, which makes the contractor’s jobs on site a lot easier. I’ve seen plenty of homes where no thought was given to these critical systems and you end up with awkward bulkheads and weird corners as the contractors are forced to lay claim to space in a less than optimal way due to a lack of designed opportunties. That’s why there are things such as a performance bond which can be used to make sure the projects are completed properly. In these small projects, the architect handles, and is responsible for, pretty much everything about a house from the structure; to the finish selections; to electrical, mechanical, and furniture layouts if the owner asks for such.

In larger projects (where hiring an architect is often a matter of state law) an architect does not usually know enough to have so much control. Our responsibilities are generally to get the building to look and function like that owner wants, and then to herd all the consultants who do know enough in that direction. We’re responsible for communicating to the consultants owner wishes and coordinating between various consultant drawings (for instance, making sure the mechanical engineer doesn’t design a giant duct that runs right through the main structural beam of a building, happens more often than you would think). Issues like treating the site’s soil for contaminates are something you’d see thermal radiation services handling, creating the foundations for the large project and establishing the framework would perhaps have an architect surveying but not likely having any hands-on time with. This would seem to make an architect less important, after all, anyone can coordinate, but truly, coordination is a skill that really takes a few years to master, learning the right words to say, questions to ask, and comparing various technical drawings to the master plans. Here is where what you’re paying for is really the experience and contacts of an architect to save money during construction.

Up to this point, I’ve discussed architect responsibilities up to getting a permit (which is usually the end of the design process) but an architect will usually have responsibilities to make sure the building is built correctly during construction. Many clients figure that they can go without the architect’s services during construction, but in my state at least, owners are required to keep an architect on the project during construction. Much like how the construction workers will be using time sheets to log their time (such as with this software:, so too will architects be keeping track of their hours surveying the build. Despite how it may seem, this is very important. It’s actually a good idea because by the time construction starts, an architect knows those plans intimately and will usually spot a mistake or potential problem in the field quickly. They also are handy when the owner and contractor get into an argument as a nuetral third party who can mediate a solution. Notice I said when, not if, on site disagreements are pretty much a given with all but the smallest construction projects.

Architect’s are pretty much responsible to obtain the owner’s vision, whether that be the least expensive rental home possible to the most grand church ever imagined. We walk the design from napkin sketches through permits and then act as the owner’s agent on regular inspections and help solve and mediate any problems that arrise during construction.