When shopping around for professional services, it’s important to qualify your prospective architect by answering a few key questions such as;
- What is the ‘going rate’ for an Architect?
- Aren’t Architects too expensive* to use for a simple house?
- Can’t I just hire a draftsperson to draw up my home?
- I’ve designed my home already, where can I get the bare minimum of plans drawn up so that I can just get a Building Permit?
- Why should I pay for additional Construction Documents?
- Won’t an architect just end up designing whatever they like – and not what I want?
Many of our clients have not worked with an Architect before, and many have little or no experience with construction, design or permits and this is why we need to take the time to establish the value that our fees represent. The saying, “You get what you pay for” has a ring of truth to it, but everyone looking to build a home is looking for the best value. When you hire an architect, you are hiring a dedicated service professional that is available to you and your project for the duration of the design and construction period and well afterwards in the post occupancy and warranty review period. This level of service and availability, together with the experience, professionalism and duty of care that all licensed architects require to uphold are in your project’s best interest over the long haul. It’s not just a set of paper documents that we provide, those are just the ‘instruments’ of our service.
What is the difference between a design that costs a) $2,000.00, vs. b) $100,000.00 in Architectural fees? The most likely difference is project size. Different project sizes and budgets demand different approaches; Percentage-based fees typically apply to big projects and Hourly fees to small projects. The higher the project value, typically the the higher the risk. level of finish and quality, and also complexity and so the fees should reflect the risk taken and the professionalism and collateral required (drawings, etc.). A really simple set of cottage plans can probably be bought online for much less than $2,000.00 – but a set of plans is a tiny fraction of the ‘soft costs’ required to actually get the same cottage built. The other considerable difference in fees is the collateral, what services and documentation are you actually getting for the money? Are you getting 5 sheets of detailed plans or 100? Are you getting unlimited access to a licensed service professional with decades of construction experience or just a few sheets of paper that leave you to figure it all out on your own?
When you hire an architect you are hiring a professional advisor that works in your interest for the entire duration of your project – from the first thoughts of purchasing a property, to developing a design that works for you, to optimizing the approach to construction materials, assemblies and even performance goals, to post-occupancy to review warranty items. The design should be complete enough so that multiple contractors can provide accurate pricing, because what is specified in the drawings, right down to the brand and model of the toilet – is what you want – not what a contractor can make the most profit from. The problem with super-low fees is usually that there just is not enough time or budget to justify creating more than the bare minimum of plans, sections and elevations (we’ve seen sets as few as 4 full-size sheets for new builds) than what is required to get a building permit, but you’re not even a quarter of the way through the process at that point! If you’ve made it this far, your contractors will probably either find fault in your designer’s plans and ask for A LOT more detail, at which point your designer may sheepishly remind you that you didn’t want to pay for extensive Construction Documents. As one of our best clients said of our services:
“The best thing about working with Andy: No surprises”
~SolarQ project client
If a contractor doesn’t demand more or better information from your designer after they may have provided a very ‘thin’ set of permit documents (4 to 10 pages), then they may be of the less honest variety. The latter contractor may see an opportunity to exploit your own lack of experience, bid low on the project, and either put you on the hook for the oversight or extras, or worse, simply bail on you when your construction budget has been exceeded. Construction can be a shady business. A good Architect can help you keep a spotlight on all of those areas of darkness – and we know just where to look! Not enough information to successfully envision (renderings/drawings/3D imagery) your design most commonly results in disappointment. “This wasn’t what we thought it was going to look like” and “Why are these stupid bulkheads everywhere” and “We spent twice as much as our budget on this job” are all things you should never hear on a properly planned job. We can easily demonstrate where, because of our professional advisement, more than the entire value of our fee has been justified on the basis of providing door or window suppliers that delivered the same performance for half the cost of a competitor’s product (ie. $50k in one instance), or that our coordination of mechanical designs resulted in a more efficient and less expensive design ($10k in another instance), or by estimating the cost of construction, contractors bidding on a job could be more carefully qualified (there can be a price difference among bids of up to 20% of the total price, up to $100k on a $500k job!).
All that said, we are not the kind of firm that charges $100k even on a $1.5mln job. We don’t believe anyone should pay more than is required (even billionaires) and we also feel we’re in the best position to know what you will actually need, in terms of drawings and services to get your job built properly, on budget, with no surprises. We wish you could just trust us here, but trust needs to be earned. Until then, we have clients, builders and other Architects that have worked with us through the years that are more than happy to act as references for us.
So back to our list of questions; first of all, you should interview Architects to see if their personality is a match to yours because your project might take many months (sometimes years!) to deliver and so the quality of the relationship you have with your Architect can be key to avoiding stress on a given job. A good professional relationship can also make it easier to communicate and coordinate your project with all of the various stakeholders, from your own family, to engineers and even tradespeople. You can look to an Architect’s portfolio to get some sense of style and material palette, although any qualified architect should be able to deliver a wide range of stylistic options to satisfy a client’s vision. That’s right – your vision! One of the key things we learn in architecture school is how to let go of ideas, and try on other ideas, forever in fact, until there is a good fit of form, function, and of course the client’s wishes. Good architecture goes beyond style however and includes an attention to detail that can lower construction costs, increase building durability, improve occupant health and lower utility bills and carbon footprint. Thomson Architecture is heavily invested in building performance, durability, comfort and Indoor Air Quality. We excel in the niche of affordable, high-performance, energy-efficient home design and renovations in the $500k to $1mln bracket. We’ve also done big stuff like breweries and airports, but we’ve been recognized internationally for our expertise in Green and Prefab Design, and we love residential projects.Pro-tip: here are some questions you really should be asking your Architect;
- Are you a licensed and insured Architect? It is a criminal offence to claim to be an ‘Architect’ if you are not.
- Do you answer the phone on the first try? Do you respond to my emails within 24hrs? This is a good test of availability.
- Do you offer a free initial consultation? This is a great way to discuss budget, timeline and project goals.
- May I call some of your past clients? If an Architect’s clients vouch for him/her even after the dust has settled, you’re probably in good hands.
- Can I see a set of your typical Permit Documents? Can I see a set of your Construction Documents? This may be the most important question of all, as it most accurately reflects the likely attention to detail, quality, and standard of care that your professional fees will include.
Registered and Licensed OAA Architects in the Province of Ontario all have a to meet a specified level of education, internship, pass exams, have a properly licensed business and carry mandatory professional liability insurance with a statute of limitations of 15 years. OAA architects additionally need to commit to a program of Continuing Education, a professional Code of Ethics, and all laws and by-laws governing the province from the Ontario Building Code to the Architect’s Act to PIPEDA Privacy legislation. So right out of the gate, licensed Architects establish the baseline value that differentiates us from drafting companies, or non-architect, ‘BCIN Designers‘. This value is most often represented as a percentage of the construction value of a given project, as shown in the chart below. The baseline fee for a new home starts at ~6% and goes up to ~8.5%.
*That being said, we routinely deliver projects that are cost competitive with non-architect designer’s fees, but with significantly higher value to the owner, based on our flexible contract pricing.
When one considers the sheer amount of communication, documentation, hours of work, project duration, and the substantial liability that Architects undertake on a given project when compared to the 5% charged in real estate commissions on a given property sale, this baseline percentage represents an excellent value for the service provided.
It should also be noted that unlike real-estate commissions, percentages based on construction value are not the same as property values because construction value excludes the cost of land. For projects with a construction value under $250k, it is recommended by the OAA that Architects offer an hourly rate with a defined scope of work.
In our own practice, we have found that we spend anywhere from 30 to 130 hours on a given residential project to get it to the level of a Building Permit (it never ends just there!). It takes another 30 to 130 hours to complete Construction Documents and shepherd the project through the construction period to final inspection and occupancy. Typically, renovations and additions are priced at 2x that of new construction. This is because we require to take additional time to accurately draft and model the existing conditions of the building before we can initiate design, and this almost triples the number of drawings in our construction and permit drawing sets from 14 to 20 sheets for new construction, to 30-50 sheets for renovation construction. Renovation construction sets typically have the Measured, Existing Drawings, then Demolition Plans, and finally Proposed Construction plans. Based on our past projects, and understanding the scope of services required on smaller projects, we can provide you with an estimate based on the size, complexity and desired level of service for your own project. Please complete our Intake Form here so that we can provide you with a proposal for Architectural Services.
As celebrity-builder Mike Holmes says in The Blueprint on Hiring an architect:
Don’t let it come down to cost. Choose an architect whose skills you trust, with whom you can work; one who can make it right and keep you happy.
To read more about Architectural fees, we refer you to our colleague in Texas, Bob Borson, AIA who humorously and accurately describes the mutual responsibilities of Clients and Architects to optimize and limit Architectural Fees.