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  • Jason

What to expect when choosing an architect

Note - post has been edited here.

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 (which 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.


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