One of the first questions most new clients grapple with is, is this worth paying for? Despite the fact that most design fees for most projects will come in between 1-5% of the cost of construction, this is usually the first potential bill. This is where the dream starts meeting the reality of cost. So it can be disconcerting to a client, so what are they getting?
An architect is one of the last renaissance men, so to speak. Although individual practices may specialize in certain things, we generally are at least a little knowledgeable about many topics. Our firm is definitely generalist and willing to figure out how to build any building our client needs. However, even we have special fields of expertise. A lot of our projects are coastal residential, so we have a lot of experience with those unique conditions. We also tend to do a lot of our structural design work in house. And while we are not engineers, we do provide a lot of value to our clients by understanding it better than many designers. This comes in handy in houses intended to last or survive a storm like the Lewes Beach Residence or a certified fortified structure.
We also have a lot of experience with sustainable techniques of various sorts. This includes ICF, Passivhaus, life cycle cost estimation, indoor air quality, and even a few container homes which are unique, to our knowledge, in the county. At least, that’s what the building officials told us.
On a residential project, our role is often one of experience. We can guide clients to solutions that we can foresee being more in line with their goals. Sometimes it’s helping them determine a roof shape. At times it is a stair location. These three dimension parts of the plans are often tricky for an inexperienced client to envision. Other times it’s making sure we at least consider the how and where of the HVAC system. Sometimes it’s exposing clients to new construction systems or methods that achieve their goals better. We can even help make sure the massing of the house emphasizes the aspects of the lot that are important to them.
We can also assist a client in finding a contractor. The bar for being a contractor is low, and unfortunately, there are plenty of people practicing the trade that probably shouldn’t. And that’s not even getting into outright scammers. So since we have gone through these processes before, we can at least suggest some companies we’ve had success with in the past. This can go a long way towards having a more successful project, and that’s what you’re paying us for. We provide insurance that helps a project run smoothly with as many variables accounted for in advance as possible.
On a commercial or institutional project, you’re partially paying for our seal that allows the project to even happen. This is often the case with a lot of smaller fit out type jobs, where we’re basically verifying code compliance of the client’s project and becoming liable for it in perpetuity. There’s value in that, but it can become truly critical the larger the project gets. Why is that? Because larger projects usually require more and more specialists. These are usually engineers who focus solely on one aspect of a building. Be it the structure, the mechanical systems, the lighting, the fire systems, the acoustical performance, etc. Each of these specialists is very good at their field, however, it’s the architect who coordinates between them. This has gotten easier and more effective over the last couple of decades with the advancements in Building Information Modeling that can help identify conflicts between trades that may not have been as apparent on the traditional two dimensional plans.
What are you Paying For?
In the end, that 1-5% for design fees should pay for itself. Contractors are notoriously conservative when they put together a price. Knowing exactly what they’re doing with a good set of drawings allows them to scale back their fudge factor. In addition, it can drastically scale back redesign time on the job which can drastically slow a job and lead to unexpected cost overruns. You’re paying for the experience and expertise that provides a level of insurance that things will proceed as the client plans.