Q&A / 

Architect Cost and Fees – Know What You Want

Custom Built Home under construction

Architect Cost and Fees | This custom home was designed by a top residential architect and is being built by a superb builder. The architect does stop by the job site from time to time to check quality and progress. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

DEAR TIM: My husband and I are going to build a new home on a lot we own. After interviewing several architects, we've discovered that the fee charged for the plans is a function of the amount of service they provide as the house is being built. Is it necessary to have the architect part of the building team if we hire a decent contractor? Why pay a higher fee to the architect if the job goes smoothly? What can we do to ensure the job does go smoothly? Henrietta S., Glenview, IL

DEAR HENRIETTA: Congratulations on this exciting project! You are about to take a trip that has many paths. Some of them lead to the Twilight Zone and others can take you to Fantasy Island. All too often, people end up at the wrong place. There is no doubt a superb architect paired with a fantastic builder will help make your building experience a happy one, but unfortunately, it is not an absolute guarantee.

Mr. Blandings Architect - Great Example

A great example of this dynamic situation where an architect follows the house from conception to completion is in the famous movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home, starring Cary Grant. The architect was routinely in scenes where Cary Grant and his wife needed help dealing with the builder and his subcontractors. Every week during the process there seemed to be new problems that had to be solved, granted some were slightly sensationalized for the movie, but all were based in reality.

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Watch some of the scenes below to get an idea of what should and can happen. Great architects can add lots of value to your project.

Use Software to See 3D

The problem with building a new home is that many homeowners do not possess the power of visualization. Problems start to happen on jobsites when the homeowner finally sees things that just appeared as lines on a drawing. Great builders and architects have this mystic power and using it allows them to take a two-dimensional set of blueprints and create a real three-dimensional image of the finished object in their heads. Modern computer software is now available that allows planners to create three dimensional views and actual walk-through views of what both the inside and outside of a home will look like.

What About Change Orders?

Architects can be exceedingly helpful during the building process to assist with any change orders and to act as the tie-breaker in minor or moderate disputes between you and your builder. This is an often overlooked tool in a homeowners toolkit. If you can get the architect to agree to this and then put that language in the contract between you and the builder, you may avoid costly legal disputes at a later date.

Should Architects Do Inspections?

Architects also take pride in their work and want to see that the house is built the way it was drawn. Often the methods and materials they specify exceed building code requirements. Periodic field inspections at critical times allow the architect to verify the builder is doing the job right. You may not have the time nor the expertise to do these inspections yourself. Once again, if you decide to use the architect in this capacity, be sure it is spelled out in the contract between you and the builder. Note that the builder must make any and all corrections at his sole expense as pointed out by the architect.

I would talk with several of the architects and see if you can arrive at a compromise. You pay the base rate for all of the design work, working drawings and anything you need to get bids and a building permit. Then see if the consults and inspections can be ordered ala carte as you might need them.

You Need Schedules and Specifications

If you want your job to go smoothly, you must have superb plans and detailed specifications. It also pays for you to preselect all items that will be used in your home. Do not rely on allowances and then try to pick things as you build. Some fixtures need very long lead times. If you delay deciding, you may severely limit the things you can select from. The preselection process eliminates surprises, and allows you to get bids from contractors that are highly accurate as each bidder knows exactly what they need to install.

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Great Plans Eliminate Confusion

The extra money you pay an architect to go along for the ride can be looked at as an insurance policy. Many of us have house insurance policies that protect us in the event of a fire, storm or natural disaster. We don't want these bad things to happen, but still pay premiums year in and year out. I pray that you also have no problems during your homebuilding experience, but having an architect on call might give you tremendous peace of mind during your journey.

Can You Get Perfect Plans?

Perfect plans and specifications are possible. Years ago, I was awarded a job where the plans were great and the Fortune 500 Company executive homeowner had spent the time to create a binder that had photos, model numbers, finishes, paint chips, carpet samples, etc. of each and everything in the job. At the meeting where we signed the deal, he said, "My work includes many trips and meetings. I doubt I will ever see you during this job. It will be nearly impossible for you to contact me with questions so I have tried to think of all you need to know."

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Well, he did a fantastic job, but his wife got involved and changed some of his ceramic tile selections as the job progressed. Had that not happened, I would have successfully completed the project with no interaction after the contract was signed. It's a dream come true for a builder as far as I am concerned as I knew what I had to do and never had to wait on an indecisive homeowner.

How Do We Minimize Cost Overruns?

You can minimize or eliminate cost overruns by having a long meeting with the bidding builders as soon as the plans and specifications are complete. It's important to go over every part of the plans explaining all aspects of the job. Do the same with the specifications. This meeting puts the builder on alert of any special things about your job.

Once the bids come back, have a second similar meeting. The builder must submit a very detailed cost breakdown much like the one I've sold for years. opens in a new windowCLICK or TAP HERE to see it.

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