Searching and finding your architect for whatever project you're thinking about is an important decision. I wanted to write a short article on our experience with potential clients, and the work involved in providing architectural services.

At the early stages of speaking with potential clients, there is a large majority of people who have first spoken to a builder - which should not be the first step. A completely innocuous act, almost everybody knows a builder (whether it's a friend-of-a-friend who is a handyperson or if it's a cousin who runs a construction empire). The thing I must bring to light is that this is a "cart-in-front-of-the-horse" situation. A builder's job is to construct something. An architect's job is to design something to be built. So, logically, the first call should be to an architect if you're thinking of a project.

From a macro level, the role of the architect is to act as a client's adviser. The client will have certain ideas or wishes, and the architect advises on how that can be manifested in the built environment.

From a micro level, the role of the architect is to generate a design to be built.

What to expect when reaching out to an Architect

We get calls all the time. In those initial phone calls, our job would be to understand the purpose of the project, get a sense of a client's lifestyle and living situation, and eventually produce price to design something. We typically ask rather personal questions at these initial calls, as each answer gives us a glimpse into the life we would be potentially designing for: "How old are your kids?", "Do you enjoy drinking wine in the evenings?", "Are you "fireplace" people?", "Do you sleep with your pet dog?", "Why do you hate cats?". These are all very personal questions from a perfect stranger. The goal for us is to gather enough information so we can get a sense of the design costs, since we are designing for a client's lifestyle.

The problem at the beginning is usually centered around budgets. It is a completely legitimate fear that a client's hopes and dreams might not be within their financial means. Our mission is to make those dreams come true - in some cases, we have phased projects to suit the client's financial situation.

This is where we get to the tricky part: how does an architect initially price a design? Essentially, we listen to the potential client, get a sense of the project and give a ballpark scope of work. From that determination, we can guess at what this project might require and try to formulate a cost to design.

As a general rule of thumb, the variables that we can determine up front are as follows:

  1. overall project square footage

  2. a tally of parts (how many bedrooms or washrooms, new kitchen, etc. in the project).

  3. our experiences of design costs from previous projects (how many working hours will it take for us to design the project)

  4. a client's sense of style (usually a pinterest board or series of images helps us understand each client's level of finishes)

  5. a property survey of a client's property

Even with all those items determined at the onset, providing a price for architectural services is tricky because we are essentially trying to quantify the cost to design something that does not yet exist. Further, we are also at the beginning of a client-architect relationship, and each relationship is different. Some relationships are slow to start, some require more effort than others, and some relationships move at lightening pace.

Architect Fees

The scope of work tends to lead to a discussion of construction budgets and architect fees - which is another way of asking: how much money do you want to spend?

Each person has a different financial situation. We have clients who have money at the bank to spend, whereas others are borrowing against the equity of the property - knowing where the money is coming from does help with sound decision making throughout the design process.

However, the first step in trying to get a sense of architect fees is by getting a sense of the potential construction budget to anchor what the design fees might be. One method is to use a square footage estimate to understand construction costs, but this can vary in range as some clients look to spend a lot of money whereas other clients look to spend as little as possible.

For reference to square footage construction costs, this is what we expect for the various construction budget ranges:

Low Budget: $100-$150/sqft (Vinyl Floors, typical windows, nothing too fancy)

Mid Budget: $150-$300/sqft (better performing windows, hardwood floors, a bit more custom)

High Budget: $300-$750/sqft (Full custom, out-of-the-box thinking in design)

*Side note: I have seen initial construction budgets at around $75/sqft, but then after tax and contractor markups, it ultimately punches up to $100/sqft. The irony is that when potential clients have expectations for a construction budget that is well below the $100/sqft mark, it tends to require extra creativity to make a design work so efficiently - it technically costs more resources in design thinking to produce a cheap building.

But I digress.

With a general idea of a construction budget in mind, we typically target between 6% to 12% of that construction budget for design services - and we typically produce a tiered service proposal (basic, full service and premium service).

Our basic service would be for a few design iterations and submitting to the City for a building permit. We would not give much information on finishes (as the City doesn't really care if the floors are hardwood or carpet, as an example). The full service would be more of what a typical architect would do: design iterations, material selections, 3D modelling, etc. The premium service would be where we would design full-out custom millwork and detail every inch of the project.

Basic: 6% of construction cost

Full Service: 9% of construction cost

Premium Service: 12% of construction cost.

In other words, if a potential client is looking to spend about $200,000 on a rear addition (say about 1000sqft across two floors, at $200/sqft), then our cost should be around $12,000 at a basic service level to design it (of course, we would double check that against other similar rear additions we have completed). This tends to lead to sticker shock on the client's part, as a project of this nature is meant to be small and straightforward. It is always difficult to tell a potential client that the design fees have increased their budget beyond what they're comfortable spending.

It is a difficult pill to swallow for anyone. But what we are discussing is design services to create something new, and the design must potentially last a few lifetimes. To put things into perspective, real estate agents would typically have a commission of 5% to help buy or sell a home. We, as architects, are asking for a minimum of 6% to design a home. I do not mean to diminish the work of real estate agents, but an architect's job is a creative endeavour with a very high duty of care (with is reflected in our professional and general liability insurance premiums, decade of schooling, years of experience, regulated examinations, and ongoing requirements for continuing education). It would not be uncommon to spend 200 hours on a small project (to design for clients, coordinate with engineers, and clarify to contractors).

A brief summary of our work is as follows (at a minimum):

-measure the existing building, and draft all the floor plans with ceiling heights to form a base for the new design.

-produce a few design iterations to match a client's preferences. Usually we go back and forth to develop something that a client really likes. This requires drafting and modelling in an iterative process.

-produce permit drawings, which is a technical endeavour that usually involves engineers and an understanding of a City's zoning bylaws

-negotiate the design with the City plans/zoning examiner, clarifying items they may not understand, or incorporating building code items that they are within their rights to enforce (but may well be grey zones in the building code).

-clarify the design to the contractor, making sure they understand the design intent and that their construction is sound

This is the "job". In reality, we also have to also wear many other "hats". In some cases, we would act as a moderator (sometimes between spouses) to help make decisions on design. In other cases, we would go the extra mile to uncover considerations that a client may not have thought about. Many times a big part of my job is in trying to compress years of technical and design experience into a simple explanation to our clients or contractors to understand.

Ultimately, choosing an architect is a bit like starting a relationship. It is very important that the chemistry is right and that everyone is on the same footing. There will be a lot of joy when collaborating to generate a design. And there are always curveballs with construction. So my advice is that you will want to be engaged with a team that communicates well, working easily with one another.

  • Katherine Jones

A co-op is essentially a series of paid work terms where you have the opportunity to apply skills you have learned in your studies to a working office. Students often alternate between periods of study and periods of work terms, but the structure of your co-op varies from university to university. At the university I currently attend, I chose to defer my final year of undergraduate studies to pursue a 4 term (15 month) long co-op; bumping the time it would take me to complete my degree from 4 years to 5. Was it worth it? YES and here is why:

You will have a developed portfolio and resume right out the gate. Even before going to any real interviews with architecture firms, your co-op program advisors will help you develop your portfolio, resume, and interview skills. Don’t get me wrong, you will still have to do the majority of the legwork, like applying for job positions and going in for interviews, but the guidance really helps. For example, my program offered portfolio reviews and mock interviews to our year of co-op students prior to us going in for real interviews.

You will make valuable connections with people in the industry. This will be super important when you graduate because during your work terms you will come into contact with people that could hire you or help you get hired once you graduate. For example, the previous firm I worked for offered to critique my portfolio before I applied and attended an interview for the co-op placement at Jason Fung Architect. This helped me improve my portfolio significantly and I was also able to add some of the work I did at that office to my portfolio as professional work experience (this looks great to future employers).

A co-op placement is going to give you an idea of what it is like to work in your field of study, before you even graduate. The firm(s) you work for are going to rely on you to do billable work for clients. At Jason Fung Architect, some of these tasks are: performing a site measure, 3D modelling, drafting building plans/ elevations, submitting projects to competitions, running social media, meeting with clients, and consulting with structural or mechanical engineers. These are all tasks that you will most likely be doing in any other office once you graduate, so having this experience prior to getting your first job in invaluable. Take in as much as you can!

You will know where you want to work once you graduate. All firms are different and you will get a taste of this during your co-op terms because it is encouraged you work at multiple offices. The size and culture/ work life balance of an architectural practice is what makes it unique. Some may be 7 person startups that focus on residential construction where the boss works directly across from you, checks your work, and holds weekly morning meetings with the team. Other offices may focus on industrial design and be a 120 person firm where you report only to senior staff and come in at 9am, leave at 5pm. By having this experience, you will complete your co-op with a better understanding of what type of work environment makes you most excited about architecture!

Every building and renovation starts with an idea. All around us, from that Victorian home you may pass on an evening stroll in your neighbourhood, to the futuristic condo building you pass on your morning commute, there is architecture that inspires the question: But why…?

Why did they chose that material? How did they decide on that shape? Or even, why is there only 2 bathroom stalls (usually while impatiently waiting for one to become available)? Essentially, how the design choices were informed. In fact, exercises such as this can help identify elements that you enjoy, so if you don’t already, try to look out for elements you like or dislike and take note!

If you are thinking about starting your own construction project you may be curious about how you get from your initial concept to a well-designed piece of architecture. While many architectural projects can be inspiring, and at times mystifying, it can be overwhelming to start a project of your own.

You can access the overview of our Design Phases in an upcoming post! In this article we are focusing on the stages of our design process in more detail.

How does the design process work?

The design process for any field is an approach for breaking down a project into steps, and its pursuit is to arrive at a holistic and refined project completion. The fascinating thing about the design process is how each person may develop their own way of working through it. That being said, there are typically 3 main stages 1 Pre-Design, 2 Schematic Design, and 3 Design Development.

As we work through the stages there are also 3 elements we pay special attention to throughout the process: form, function, and construction.

But first, function?

Form and function are extremely important elements when designing a home or any other structure, and the construction elements, which includes method, technology, and economic considerations, play a crucial role as well. Each have a piece to play in the design process, but depending on the project, some elements may have more importance than others.

These 3 elements are ever present throughout the design process, and each is given appropriate consideration. It is our goal to provide a holistic approach, and our process is calibrated to align with your goals. Reflecting on which element(s) are important to your project can be beneficial to the process!

Fun fact: in the late-19th century and early-20th century, there was a belief that a building’s function or purpose should be the starting point for its design, rather than its form or aesthetic. The principle ‘form follows function’ is generally associated with modernist architects, although it is not exclusively a modern conception.

Guaranty Building, Buffalo, Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2007-2013

New York, 1894 Zaha Hadid (Form)

Louis Sullivan (Function)

Stage 1: Pre-Design

Pre-design is the first stage as it usually occurs in the first few conversations and meetings. Overall, this stage is primarily the gathering of information. We discuss the goals, needs, and requirements concerning your project, and although this information is compiled at the start, it will act as a program we can refer back to throughout the project (and can be revised at any time).

Within this stage we may also inquire about additional information you may be able to provide, including precedent or inspiration images, and any existing documents or plans such as a property survey.

A site measure is conducted in this stage to create a set of as-built drawings, and this will provide us with a base for the next stages. At this point you can expect to see as-built drawings in progress, and perhaps some sketches that convey initial concepts such as layout or basic form.

For example: A client would like to renovate the main floor of their home to move their dinning space beside a new kitchen, they would also like a large arch to be placed within the space, but are not sure where.

A common question we get asked: “what do you need from me (the homeowner) at this stage?”

Just your thoughts and ideas, and if you like, you can start to save some images of anything that inspires you, or that you would like to incorporate into the design!

Stage 2: Schematic Design

In this stage we really start to dig into the project. The concept is developed, and time is spent analyzing the relationships among spaces, and exploring the form and function graphically. Depending on the project, we may sketch, use 3D modelling software to study mass, and/or create several iterations of floor plans to investigate one or many ideas.

Example floor plan iterations

Example preliminary 3D visuals (model + layouts)

Based on our findings and with the guidance of our program requirements (discussed above), we will present a preliminary schematic design package.

For this package we select the best option(s) and present them to you as a first pass. We bring our concepts to the table, highlight opportunities not previously discussed, and use it as a platform to discuss your thoughts and/or re-visit the project requirements. It is possible that we have several schematic design meetings until a strategy is chosen to move forward with, although, it is typically confirmed within a few meetings.

At this time material options will begin to be discussed and the budget is confirmed.

Stage 3: Design Development

At this stage we are developing the confirmed design strategy! The graphics evolve and the drawings are refined as we work towards a fully coordinated and resolved design package.

Within this design package, material choices are decided, and specifications are reviewed. We may obtain information and coordinate with other consultants such as structural or mechanical engineers throughout this stage as well.

While we are conscious of all three design elements throughout the process, construction and function are a focus in this stage. Revisions made at this time are often more minor in nature and they generally do not greatly impact the overall confirmed design, but rather aid the construction requirements and techniques. We want your project to not only look good, but perform well and be efficient too!

Depending on the project, you can expect to see drawings with more detail and information graphically, more developed 3D renders depicting texture and material finishes, and/or a ‘fixtures, finishes & equipment’ schedule to organize project information (if applicable).

Example 3D render development

We would meet to discuss all of these elements along the way and make sure that each choice made is suitable for your needs and goals.

Remember: Have some fun! Material selection is a big component of this stage and can greatly impact the look of a design, what material or finishes do you love?


Thanks for reading through our brief overview of the design stages! I hope this has shed some light on how we get from an initial concept to a resolved design.

Of course by no means is the project complete, but from this point it’s some paperwork and hammers (if only it were that easy).

So be on the lookout for our next post about What to Expect from the City.

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