When shopping around for professional services, it’s important to qualify your project requirements 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 ‘extra’ for additional Construction Documents – aren’t plans for a ‘Building Permit’ good enough to build from?
- Won’t an architect just end up designing whatever they like – and not what I want?
Most of our clients have not worked with an Architect before, and only a few have experience with construction, design or the permit and tender process. This is why it is important for us to take the time to unpack the actual value that our fees represent. The saying, “You get what you pay for” may have a ring of truth to it, but everyone looking to build anything is looking for the best value. Here’s the thing, there are only so many places a professional designer or a builder can cut the budget, without cutting corners or lowering quality. In any construction job, there are typically three buckets (standardized in the world of commercial construction):
- Material Costs, representing 40%
- Labour Costs, representing 40%
- Overhead and Profit, representing 20%
1. Almost every contractor has access to the same discounts on materials over what a consumer would pay. Lumber, Steel, Fixtures and Finishes otherwise cost what they cost, we have little control over that, and a good contractor will approach your contract with an open book: Letting you see what they have paid for materials, and extending discounts to you, the owner. So there is really no room to discount this first category further, unless your contractor happens to also own his own sawmill or concrete plant.
2. Decent labour rates ensures you have trades working on your job with the requisite training, experience, and an eye for quality. If you see anyone substantially discounting labour rates on a job, you really need to question both the skill of the trades and the ethics at play. I watched one of our neighbours replace their roofing with a crew of 8 roofers that were neither harnessed-off or working with the required safety gear (ie. approved safety boots/hard hats). Their work was fast but sloppy. One mishap on on a site like that and your labour ‘discount’ could result in a significant lawsuit involving you – if you were to happen to be implicated as the ‘constructor’ – especially if the contractor did not carry the required insurance or WSIB on his workers – buyer beware!
3. Contractor overhead can include items as wide-ranging as administrative fees, disbursements (ie printing/copies), equipment rentals, set-up and take-down costs (aka. mobilization) and a number of other items that don’t fit in the labour or material buckets like insurance, bonding and other expenses related to running a construction company, as well as things like office rent and utilities, vehicle and fuel, WSIB bonding and other insurance requirements. Often that leaves about 10% for profit – which is what makes a job worth undertaking in the first place. The motivation to do a job well should never be underestimated. Word of mouth is the best advertising a company can afford. The goal is not only to exit with at least 10% in profit, but also to leave a job with a sense of pride, a happy owner, and the knowledge that execution was handled in a way that will not result in claims or warranty calls or worse yet, lawsuits.
So if these are the facts, what then is the difference between the low bid on a construction tender, and the high bid? Very few – if any – builders we know walk away with tons of ‘extra cash’ from completing a job. The differences in price are most often from shaving something off from one of the three main categories above, and the results can impact both quality of the materials and execution, but also the quality of relationships and the process (tighter budgets cause stress for everyone) The resulting shortcuts often manifest in reduced durability, lower owner satisfaction, and a potentially elevated liability exposure for the builder – all easily avoided by not always aiming for the lowest prices possible, but for something that is reasonable. In Australia, the lowest bid is often thrown out, because they low bids tend to be fraught with all of these kinds of issues.
If that is all true about construction costs, then how are an Architect’s professional fees both similar and/or related? Well, in truth, the higher an architect’s fees, the more time and budget they have to explore options that are actually in your interest, to find the design that best fits your needs and budget, and that does the best job in eliminating unknowns and resolving construction issues in the design. As we see it, a higher fee allows for a more professional and complete set of collateral, or what are often referred to as ‘drawings’ but involves so much more than just that instrument of service. In our office, a higher fee allows for us to create a 3D architectural model (BIM – which stands for Building Information Model) that is as close as possible to what the actual building will look like. Anything less than that is a mere 2-Dimensional representation of what the building will be. The fewer pages of drawings there are, the less resolved the design, the more room there is for contractor ‘interpretation’ and substitutions to the design, meaning ultimately, you may not get anything close to what you had expected, imagined or anticipated. We call this the Level of Detail (LOD) or sometimes the ‘Parity’ which in this sense is a measure of how much useful information is contained in the BIM files. A low level of professional services is typically not in an owner’s best interest as it results in a low-parity BIM model, and a low LOD.
Similar to discounts in the various buckets of a construction budget, discounts in an architect’s professional fees will usually force us to actually reduce the level of service and the instruments of service (the drawings) that we generate – or the quality or depth of design we can consider to solve the problems or the program that your project represents. This is in fact the difference between our $5/sf fee and our 5% fee. There is a significant increase in both the Parity and LOD of our instruments of service in the 5% fee, and there is even more in our 8% fee. The quality of our services is at the same level, there is just a lot more of it the higher our rates are.
Quite simply put, a lower fee forces us to reduce collateral. The problem arises when an owner is focused on our fee, without understanding what is required to execute a job with less conflict and with less risk. The amount of collateral required that results in both a happy builder, owner and architect is what is represented in the range of our fees. Why do we even offer a lower fee level? Because we need to stay competitive with other BCIN designers that also offer services with a relatively low level of collateral, only we will never mislead anyone about the differences in our services. This is why Architects need to do a better job explaining just what we do.
When you hire an architect, you are hiring a dedicated service professional that is available to you and your project for not only the duration of the design and construction administration period, but well afterwards into 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 isn’t just a set of paper documents that we provide, (the ‘instruments’ of our service) it’s really the peace of mind that comes from a job that is designed (and ultimately executed) to the best satisfaction of our project owners.
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, but often it is in the quality of the work product or ‘collateral’ produced to document the design. Different project sizes and budgets demand different approaches; Percentage-based fees typically apply to large projects and Hourly fees to small projects. The higher the project value, typically the the higher the risk. The level of finish, quality and complexity are also reflected in the fees which correlate to the risk taken and the professionalism and collateral required (drawings, etc.).
Low fees equate to a low level of information about the proposed building and therefore an elevated risk of executing the client’s wishes faithfully. A high level of parity between the documents and the built product reduces risk by making the unknowns know, thereby reducing risks and resulting in a higher level of owner satisfaction. A really simple set of cottage plans can be purchased 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 amount of information in 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 review to address 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 substitute and 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 a set of permit documents demonstrates that a design complies with the building code only – it is not a detailed set of documents you can necessarily rely on for accurate construction of the design intent. With most residential permit documents, you’re about halfway through the total design process! If you’ve made it this far with your designer and plan to go no further, your contractors will probably either find fault in your designer’s plans OR ask for A LOT more detail, at which point your designer may sheepishly remind you that you didn’t want to pay for 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 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 project. 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 even alternatives on 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 that 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 of that said, we are not the kind of firm that charges exorbitant fees. 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 we understand that 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 that may include your own family, or engineers or 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 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? Did you know that 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 ~9%.
*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.
In light of all that has been said above – you’ll see that our structured fees are more than fair.
Calculate Constructuction Budget and Architectural Fees
Use this calculator to determine your construction budget based on size, build quality and performance target, and we can help you determine the appropriate level of professional services and fees required to get the job done.
- Calculate a construction budget based on a) size, b) build quality, c) performance target.
- Calculate Architectural Fees appropriate to the project size, quality and performance target based on a 30yr. energy cost projection.
- Aim at understanding the relationship between the capital cost of performance premiums, with the 30yr. energy cost projections.
- Note: Not all architects will use the same hourly rates, sheet costs, or even construction costs.
- B. Assume min. $150/sf for Commercial Tenant Improvements and Renovations, min. $310/sf to $395/sf for OBC New Construction, min. $400/sf for Passive House SFR Homes. $500-800/sf enters the Luxury zone.
- C. Net Zero Energy Homes have been constructed for a 9% premium over OBC minimum. Add 20% to include grid connected PV systems for offsets. Per 2019 Research by NRC.
- D. Canadian average Total Energy Use Intensity (TEUI) is 203kWh/m2 as of 2015 per NRC. We use 250kW/hr/yr in Ontario as the number to beat to generate cost savings.
- E. Percentages tend to reduce with increasing building sizes. Defaults were determined by averaging the high and low fees across a range of building types per RAIC guidelines.
This is intended to provide a simplified estimate of the construction budget and Architectural fees only required for a generic project. Site conditions (ie. Urban, Rural, Sandy soils or Rock Sub-grade) and other considerations (ie. Roads, Well, Septic, Utility, Garages, Sheds, Fencing, Pools, Landscaping, Builder Profit, Permit Fees, Architectural Fees, Engineering Fees, Taxes, etc.) may have significant impacts on a project budget. The best way to determine the budget and fees required for your particular build will be to execute at the very least, a Schematic Design package, which we price at approx. $5/sf for projects over 2,500sf, or based on our hourly rates. For more info on fees, check out this article on Architizer.