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Navigating the Design Journey: Understanding the Levels of Architectural Services and Cost

I cannot tell you how many times we have provided a fee for architectural services and have received a response that some other architect was less than 1/3 the price. What's the difference? Why do we cost so much when compared to someone else?


The short answer is, we don't cost more, we just spend more time to craft incredible spaces. And other architecture firms have found ways to streamline their workflow to no longer be a design process as all.


One example (which is a common example) is we once provided an architectural fee of about $35,000 to design an interior renovation of a home - which fell roughly in the 7-8% range of their construction budget - this target design fee makes sense for the amount of work involved. The client's response: a competing architect has quoted $8500 for the same work. How can we compete with such a price difference?


The short answer: We don't. We're playing completely different sports.


What many potential clients do to think about is the human mind-trust of an architect. You're paying a professional to spend time to think about and plan an architectural design for your needs. At $8500, I don't know how to provide a proper level of service for so much design work. Put it this way, if an architect is charging you a little over a month's gross salary (depending on your salary of course), then you should expect that they will maybe think about your project for about two or three weeks when you factor in overhead and expenses.


Would you hire an architect who spends only two weeks designing your dream home?


I spend more time thinking about purchasing new shoes.


Alternatively, a cheaper architect could be leveraging from a few cookie-cutter designs from the past; re-packaging/recycling previous work to keep costs at a minimum. If that's the case, then $8500 is expensive - just go to the library and copy a few record plans for free.


All that having been said, to be honest, I sort-of envy the architectural businesses who are able to undercut design service fees. We have yet to figure out a way to provide great design at lower/affordable prices. And with our mission in trying to provide architectural services to a broader demographic, it has become problematic on our business model. People reaching out to us have been shopping around low cost architectural firms and have a difficult time seeing the value in how we try to provide a design experience.


I think the best way for me to address this problem is to do a better job in informing clients on what various architectural services can look like - rather than always trying to provide the same in-depth level of design. After giving it a lot of thought, the best analogy I can think of is purchasing clothing.


Architectural Services as Clothing Purchases - an analogy:

Let's try to think of architectural services like clothing purchases. On one hand, you have the cheap basic clothes from Uniqlo or Old Navy. Architectural services are like trying to fit clothes onto a particular human body (or rather, trying to design a building in relation to a person's lifestyle or necessary set of requirments). At Uniqlo or Old Navy, you have a few options for t-shirts: Extra Small, Small, Medium, and Large. The "fit' will be close to match your body type, and the designs are mass-produced to be cheaply made.


The Cheap Fees Architect (or basically no architect):

An architect who is charging rock bottom prices are likely tackling architectural design in the same mindset. It's a set fit design, utilized on many many projects, repeated over and over. I would say this isn't a design process, but rather a business machine.


Like cheap clothes, cheaply designed architectural projects will likely not stand the test of time. Considerations for various things will not be thought about or implemented, as there's simply no money to do so. It's like asking a clerk at Old Navy to try and add pockets to a dress - they're not paid to do that.


Additionally, this metaphor is more like purchasing a home, rather than designing a home. It's far cheaper to try to find a house by looking at the existing housing stock, rather than to hire an architect to design a house tailored to a client's exact needs.


The Value-Budget Architect (paying for the proper cost of time to design a building):

Video above: In a few seconds, you'll see what summarizes 3 client meetings, site measuring, and hours of thinking.

This is the resolution of a design that took months to develop with the clients
This is a rendering of what that sketch yielded - and it took hundreds of hours to get it to this level.

Have you ever had a suit fitted? A suit store would size you up, find a suit that was close to your dimensions, and then make alterations for your particular body. Rarely would a suit come off the rack and need zero alterations.


Another example would be a wedding dress off-the-rack. There are a few options to choose from, and the best look and fit get further altered to your body.


This method has great value - the suits and dresses are made similar and to match various aethetic styles, and are customized to fit. What a client gets is close to something custom, and will look amazing.


Our target is to provide services like this, and many of our projects are tackled in this way. We spend time with the clients to get to know what they want in a project, and then piece together a design that tries to check as many boxes as possible with spatial dimensions we know will work baed on our profcessional experience. We make "alterations" to the spatial form to meet each client's lifestyle goals - and it's made to fit.


But let's address the elephant in the room. An $8 T-shirt from Old Navy is not a $800 tailored suit or a $5000 wedding dress. The jump from one apparel to the next is significant. Most people only have a few suits or one wedding dress. Architectural design is the same - this should not be something you can afford every month, since the effort involved is to build something long lasting. Also, the range of fees vary depending on the project (or in this example, piece of apparel). The cost of a tailored suit vs a custom made-to-order suit varies greatly.


Going back to our example at the start, our fee of $35,000 in design services? That's in this realm of architectural services that we're discussing. We're not reinventing the wheel or using new technologies. We're utilizing the experience we have with known realities to piece together a building design that aligns with the particularities of the client.


The Expensive Architect (unicorn clients with big budgets):

luxurious living room space, with dark walnut panelling, dry bar, stone fireplace
Living room design for one of our high-end clients

We're talking... a custom dress made specifically for you to walk the red carpet at The MET Gala or The Oscars ("Who are you wearing?")


Unfortunately, only a small select group of people are able to attend The MET Gala. And those who do, make it a point to wear something that makes a statement.


Congratulations if you are in this bracket of society (if you are, please let me know if you require architectural services. haha). These are unicorn clients for my firm, but we do have a few clients who are building toward this level. People in this level of society would likely already have an architect or design, since money is no object. Starting new projects would be commonplace for people with this level of lifestyle (or a part of their investment portfolio).


Important Note:

Where my clothing analogy fails is that architectural design services is a service. Purchasing clothing entails buying a product. If you go into this thing looking for an architectural "product" - then you will be disappointed. Engaging in architectural services means engaging in a collaborative process, not a product.



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What does this mean for you?


My goal as an architect is to find a way to provide great design services for many people. Our client base as a wide range of clients - some who have generational wealth, some who are working towards a more prosperous lifestyle, and those who simply need to upgrade their homes for various personal reasons. Some of our clients previouslyt have never thought that architectural design services were within their reach.


Similar to suit shopping, at one point in our lives, thinking about spending a few hundred dollars on a single piece of apparel might have felt impossible - but over time, as wealth and ambition grows, that pricetag may seem feasible (and even practical) given the circumstances.


What we must strive to do is avoid doing down a rabbit hole where clients become stuck in a corner. So many of our active clients are already backed up in a corner (whether it is a function of timing or budget in relation to their needs). The difficulty lies in expectations - each client has a different understanding of what a design process is, especially the clients who hold active jobs (which is most people).


The understanding of what "creative" means across people can vary widely. Depending on what people do for a living affects their understanding of the creative process. Our clients are a mixed bag of accountants, insurance professionals, real estate professionals, engineers, entrepreneurs, etc. Each client understands (or sometimes misunderstands) what a design process looks like. To be frank, only a small minority of people have had the opportunity to experience a design process - whether it's a logo design for a small company, or an interior design of a space - it's a process that goes back and forth, and it's terribly time consuming.


Some clients only see a product. "Why can't you just send me plans of a house?" or "Just draw up a floor plan that will work, and don't be too expensive". These questions do not make sense. Have you ever tried to cook a meal without knowing the ingredients.... WHILE you're cooking? As architects, we must do the initial information gathering to craft a design for you - and it requires a lot of back and forth.


Further, we are constantly innovating. With my staff, we spend time reflecting on previous projects to understand how we can do things better for the next round. The goal is not for perfection, but for iteration. We try things out, test new ways of delivering services - and in doing so, our results vary. We can always fall back on aesthetics, but to be frank, aesthetics is the easy part - make it look pretty. The hard part is to make something good.


All this is to say that architectural services are expensive and time consuming - as all important and critical endeavours should be. I wish our society would value architectural services more highly in Canada (and the US), but this is where were are at currently. All I can do is try to communicate better and make good things.





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