Can I afford an Architect?

The short answer is, if you’re looking to build, you can’t afford not to hire one.  I know I’ve posted on this topic before, but I read an interview with Micheal Graves (a very successful architect) about the value of architecture from the perspective of all three major stakeholders in a job (owner, architect, contractor) and thought I’d use that as inspiration to discuss this again.  Architectural fees usually run between 1-10% cost of construction with the lower end of that range much more common than the upper end.  For complex projects with a large number of specialist design teams (various engineers, interior designers, etc.) the total design budget will probably not exceed 10-15% of construction, with most of that fee going to the subcontracted designers.  How does the architect maintain his value in today’s environment of complexity and specialization?  By being one of the few generalists available to the owner.

Architecture is a Renaissance profession, both literally and figuratively.  Most major buildings prior to then were constructed by masons or carpenters or other skilled tradespeople.  Although there are architects in ancient times, they would today probably be classified more as Master Builders or artists.  This was the period when the combination of artistic expression, building schedule, and building complexity started ramping up.  In this fashion, architects became knowledgeable about many subjects, but really masters of none.  That holds true today.  We know a little about a lot of the pieces that go into a successful project.  Do we know as much about structure as a structural engineer, no, but a competent architect knows what he can do and who to call when he can’t.  The same goes for all the engineering fields, or the expertise a realtor or developer has about construction.  We probably shouldn’t be asked to come up with a detailed business plan on how to develop a parcel, but we can definitely give feedback on the zoning issues to consider or how much building will trigger a fire marshal regulation or other concerns.

So, how do you get your value?  Make your architect a partner in your work.  If you’re building, renovating, or repairing, consider bringing an architect in and see if he can help.  In fact, the earlier you get him involved, the better the value.  Why?  We can help you avoid pitfalls.  As an example, I get a lot of calls from people who suddenly discover they need an architect.  About 6 months ago, the county I do the majority of my work in instituted a policy that all commercial projects must have an architect’s seal.  This means that knowledgeable clients have spent a bunch of time and money getting their building through the hoops such as the health department and fire marshal that don’t require the seal and then find out they need help.  The problem is that this is the least efficient method as now we will usually have to redraw and edit the drawings (professionals are usually held to a higher standard than property owners) and you’re literally paying me to sign off on all the decisions you’ve made.  As long as they’re all legal, you’re ok, but they might not be the best practices, which is where getting us involved from the beginning helps.  On top of paying to have the plans prepared a second time, we may have to make changes (most commonly, the bathrooms planned by the owners don’t meet ADA standards and have to grow, that’s always a headache) which would have been simpler if we could have considered them earlier in the process.  The most extreme example is someone who’s ready to build, but really should have been told upfront that this was a bad idea.  Sometimes that small consultation that kills a project is better for the property owner, especially if the problem is related to the process which we know much better than the owners (such as an inability to meet a critical deadline simply because it will take 3 weeks to get it reviewed by the agency.)

So, what should you take from this.  If you plan to be active in construction or development, you should go out of your way to include an architect on your team as you would an accountant and a lawyer or a contractor.  We at least usually know what we don’t know, and that can be invaluable in the earliest phases of a design process, knowing what low hanging fruit is and what needs more research is key to making good early decisions which can be key to the success of the entire project (or at least key to keeping a full head of hair.)