Post by Catarina Ferreira, AIA

As of late, we have come across several would be clients who hired someone other than an architect to help them design their home. In some cases, the projects in question would be dream projects to a small firm like archi-TEXTUAL. Sizable, contemporary homes, in great locations and fantastic settings. What drives these clients to avoid the services of an architect? What can we do about it, if anything?

Time and again, the public at large fails to understand what we do, and why, from their perspective, it costs so much. Design-build firms often wrap up design fees with overall construction costs, or provide design services for no additional charge (at least on paper). No offense to my colleagues in the design-build line of work, but this is a problem. I'm not trying to make enemies here, after all, I work with you all the time to get our projects built... Many GC's call themselves design/build. In the case of the ones I work with, they do the building, we do the designing.  We do it as a team. This approach works, and delivers a higher quality product to our clients. Architect-led design build firms, or design-build firms that actually higher an architect to do the design work, can also provide quality services.

However, many times, traditional design-build firms are led by well-meaning individuals who are not necessarily architects but like to design houses, and some do a decent job at it, many do not. A structural engineer usually signs and seals the drawings, which allows them to procure permits and get their designs built. So why wouldn't you hire a design-build firm instead of a boutique, over-priced architecture firm to design your house?

There are many reasons. Overall, hiring an architect will get you a better end result, and will not necessarily cost more. Here's why:

1. Just because you are told you are not paying for design fees by a design-build firm, or you are paying $5,000 for 'the plans' for a $500k house, instead of $50,000 to an architect, doesn't mean that's the case. Let's look at the big picture: most GC's have a markup of around 20% built into construction costs by default, whether it is officially listed on the construction cost breakdown or not. On a house cost $500k, that's $100k in fees, above and beyond what is paid to sub-contractors. Those fees are for managing the process, to cover their direct staff expenses, developing schedules and estimates, coordinating sub-contractors work, etc.  Since they are charging 20% in overhead and profit already, these firms can afford to charge clients $5k for bare minimum design services. It's in the construction phase that they make their money, and without an architect involved to help clients evaluate construction costs, the overall cost may be higher than if an architect's services had been procured.

2. Architect's fees cover much more than 'the set of plans.' Most architect's fees for such a house would be in the range of 8% to 15%, sometimes more. For more information regarding how architects charge, go here. Let's say 12% is a reasonable fee for designing a custom, contemporary home. On a $500k home, that's $60k for working with clients for several months, sometimes more than 1 year including construction, to do just this: develop a truly custom designed home working closely with clients, and revise designs as needed; draw every detail of it (or, in our case, build a model of it in the virtual world); prepare detailed documents for permitting purposes, which often involve several consultants as well, whose work we coordinate; help clients get through permitting; help clients with material, finish and fixture choices and often provide 3d views of what it will all look like in the end; help to ensure that construction goes smoothly by visiting the site frequently; attend various meetings; review product orders (aka submittal review) before orders are placed to ensure the right products are being ordered; evaluate change order proposals to ensure accuracy and fairness, or provide alternate solutions if the cost is too high, and finally, ensure that the work has been adequately completed down to the smallest detail, so that our clients can enjoy their new home. These services take up months of solid work and staff salaries and related overhead expenses, including rent, equipment, expensive software, insurance, etc. 

3. When you work with an independent architect and builder, versus an all-in-one design build firm, there is a checks and balances system in place. There are 3 independent parties involved: client, architect, contractor. With a good team and division of labor, the contractor helps to keep the architect's design within budget, the architect helps the client get the most for his money, the client is happy. This is often a contentious process, and perhaps that's the way it should be, but it is in the client’s best interest. When you hire a design-build firm, they have 2/3 of the power: they control design and quality, and cost. There's an inherent conflict of interest in that arrangement: they do the design, and try to build it for the lowest cost possible. You don't get the same level of quality in design or construction. And, again, you are not necessarily paying less overall...

4. We are in the process of helping clients to redesign homes that they had originally intended to build with a design-build firm, but were not satisfied with the designs produced. I'm sure this happens frequently. Again, no offense to my design-build colleagues out there, but quality design is hard to pull off if you are not an architect.

5. Here's an example of what an architect can give you in design quality, which will also result in higher property value, and quality of life:


This single-family residential project in rural MD, by archi-TEXTUAL,  is about to go into construction.

For more information about the value of an architect, and how to work with an architect, go here.