What Does An Architect Cost?
By Katherine Salant, Originally Published in katherinesalant.com
One architect describes the initial phase of a project as a "first date," with both sides assessing their comfort levels.
How much does it cost to hire an architect? Most people have no clue, and with good reason. The way most architects charge for their services is confusing.
The traditional method of calculating the fee is based on a percentage of the total construction cost. Here's how it works. An architect charges a standard percentage fee. To make the math easier, let's start at 10 percent. So if the cost to build a 2,500-square-foot house is $500,000, the architect's fee would be $50,000.
If you double the cost to $1 million because you are building a 5,000-square-foot house with more design features, the percentage fee charged by most architects would go down to about 8 percent, or $80,000.
On the other hand, if you are building an addition for $150,000, the rate would go up to as much as 15 to 18 percent, or $22,500 to $27,000. As any architect will tell you, smaller jobs often require more work, especially additions that must be tailored to existing conditions.
At the beginning of a job, the fee is based on the architect's estimate of the total cost. If you shop around, you will find that the standard percentage fee varies from firm to firm, as do the standard services offered. In the Washington, D.C. area, the standard fee can be anywhere from 8 to 18 percent of construction cost.
At the lower end, the architect offers fewer design services and creates a less detailed design. For example, while the architect will design the overall house, the homeowners will work with a kitchen designer at a cabinet dealer who will design their kitchen. They will make most of the finish selections themselves and will work more closely with the builder.
At the higher end, the architect designs everything, including the kitchen, helps the homeowners with selections and works with the builder all the way through construction. The architect's percentage fees can also go up if a project is in an historic district, which imposes many requirements on new construction, or in an area that requires approvals from a fine arts commission.
This method of calculation would be easier to grasp if homeowners understood construction costs and how design choices can affect them, or what exactly they would be doing on their own if they worked with a firm that charges lower fees. But going in, most people have no sense of this. The architect might as well be speaking Greek.
To make fees more understandable, some architects now charge by the hour. It's a method of accounting that most people are familiar with and one that many clients use when billing for their own services.
It's possible to combine the hourly and percentage systems. That's what McLean, Va., architect Margaret Rast and Washington, D. C., architect Norman Smith have done. Initially, they charge by the hour as they develop the basic design concept if clients are more comfortable with that. They switch to a percentage of construction costs if the clients decide to proceed.
Both said hourly charges are easier for most people to grasp. But, they emphasized, the biggest block to understanding fee structures and nearly everything else at the beginning of a job is anxiety. Their clients are contemplating spending a huge amount of money as they take a giant leap into the unknown.
Unlike a car that can be road-tested before you sign on the dotted line, a custom-built house or remodeling project requires paying thousands of dollars before you know what you're getting. That can be unsettling, even for a design professional, Smith said. When he has hired designers for other services for his own house, he said, "the leap of faith was the same." Committing to a few thousand dollars calculated on an hourly basis while testing the waters is much less of a burden for most people.
During the initial design phase, Smith charges by the hour and gives an estimate for that portion of the fee. As the design issues are being discussed, the clients can observe the different hats an architect wears in the course of a project — the exuberant designer whose excitement can be infectious, the disciplinarian who says no to things that exceed budget, and the nudge who badgers you into making a decision and moving on.
It is also the clients' opportunity to decide whether they like the architect’s working style enough to sign on for what Smith described as a "short-term marriage that can last for more than a year." He said, "Like all marriages, we may not always get along —sometimes I'll irritate you and you'll irritate me — but you'll end up with a house adapted to your needs as much as possible."
Rast described the initial phase of a project as "the first date," a time when both sides assess their comfort levels. She said she is acutely aware that beginning with a blank sheet of paper and designing from scratch can be exhilarating for some people but scary for many others, and that many people can become overwhelmed if too many ideas are presented at once.
She likes to start slow and low tech, with freehand sketches. Although her firm does most of its work on computers, computer-generated drawings can be cumbersome and time-consuming to produce. With old-fashioned pen and tracing paper, she can immediately show clients how their suggestions would work. The instant feedback helps the clients feel that they are part of the design team.
As their clients watch the transformation of their ideas into the design for a house or addition, both architects said that they watch skittish novices become knowledgeable homeowners who have confidence in their architect and in the choices that they are making together.The clients begin to get a sense of the factors that can affect construction costs, and at the end of the initial design phase they can get a realistic estimate of the total cost of their project. If they decide to proceed, they are comfortable with fees that are calculated on this basis. (June 2008)