Michelle Plotnik, Architect | How Much Does An Architect Cost or Why the Mystery About Fees?
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How Much Does An Architect Cost or Why the Mystery About Fees?

Well, here we go again….it depends, of course. Many architects are reluctant to talk about fees on their websites mostly because fees can vary wildly based on the extent of services provided and the complexity of the project. That is especially true for remodeling (or as we like to call them, alteration) projects but the very short answer is that most architects who are providing “full services” for new custom residential work are charging somewhere in the range of 7-12% of the construction cost. Fees lower than that likely either exclude construction administration, extensive specifications & detailing, or consultants from the scope of work (or possibly all three). Fees higher than that likely include very customized design work, extensive specifications & detailing, and very hands-on construction administration services. Percentage fees may be even higher for the design of extensive remodeling and expansion projects because they can become very complicated and often require the architect to do as-built surveys and prepare drawings of the existing conditions before they can even get started. The more straightforward the project, the less the fees will be, so some projects will inevitably fall outside those ranges but it’s a good starting point for discussion.

Fees are most often described as a percentage of the construction cost but most of us don’t bill that way as it can create a lot of confusion and inequity. Most commonly, we bill as either a flat fee per phase or on an hourly basis, sometimes with an estimate or not to exceed cap for each phase often based on an agreed upon budget. The easiest way to think about those phases is Design (25% of fee), Documentation (50% of fee), & Administration (25% of fee) but most of us break it down a bit further along these lines:

Conceptual Design (research, planning, scoping, design alternatives, and selection of a preferred alternative or combination of alternatives)
Design Development (further development of the preferred alternative including major materials & systems – this bridges the design & documentation phases)
Construction Documents (development of pricing, construction, and permit documents including required engineering and other consultants)
Permitting, Pricing, etc (bridges documentation and administration phases)
Construction Administration (represent owner, interpret documents, observe construction, assist with final finish selections, substitution evaluation, etc)

So what are your options if you feel you can’t afford an architect or don’t think you need full services? 

You could consider a less extensive package of services.  Perhaps you feel a “builder’s set” would be adequate.  That’s usually a minimal set of plans, generally including limited design work with just enough documentation to obtain a permit and give the builder good direction on the basic structure, systems, and materials.  I often get calls from people who have a design in mind but need help tweaking it and creating the permit documents but feel they can take it from there.  A “builder’s set” might be just what they are looking for.  Some people feel they don’t need any construction phase services.  While I don’t recommend that you entirely eliminate construction phase services, you may be able to contract for limited services such as less frequent or on-call site observation services with little else. I don’t currently offer any of these more limited packages but keep reading.

You could also consider a design-only package that includes only conceptual design services and then take your design to one of the many drafting services available to have your permit documents created.  This will be considerably less expensive because you will be receiving a different level of service but it may be exactly what you have in mind.  If you have a specific design in mind, you may be able to go straight to a drafting service to have your permit plans prepared.  I don’t have recommendations for any particular designer/drafter or drafting service and can’t tell you what their fees will be but there are many in the area and the building department has a rack on the wall with business cards.

The bottom line is not everybody can afford an architect’s full services and the good news is that not everybody needs an architect or full services. In most of California, an architect is not legally required for most single-family home projects (with some exceptions) and the vast majority of homes in California are not designed by architects. That doesn’t mean that most custom homes wouldn’t benefit from at least some input from an architect.  Whether it’s a design-only package, a consultation to evaluate a design you already have in mind, or a consultation to brainstorm remodeling ideas, an architect who offers design consulting services can often improve the final product for what is a modest increase in the overall cost of your project.  Architects who offer design consulting are often very knowledgeable about materials, systems, energy efficiency, sustainability, and other areas as well as being creative problem solvers who can bring a different perspective to your project.

I offer consulting packages ranging from $597 for a one-time 2-3 hour consultation with limited follow-up to $1797 for a consultation with more extensive follow-up, and my consulting clients are always welcome to call, email, or text with additional questions or arrange for more substantial additional help at an hourly rate.  I schedule consultations primarily on Fridays but other days are sometimes available.  It’s best to schedule your consultation a few weeks in advance as I do get pretty booked up.

Of course, there is no charge to schedule a quick telephone call to talk about your project or ask questions.  I currently am not accepting new “full service” projects from new clients who hope to build during the 2022 or 2023 building season as my time is fully committed.  However, I will be happy to share names and contact information for people who may be able to help you.  In some cases, I  may not be a good fit but one of the local architectural or engineering firms may be perfect for you, or a drafting service might be just what you need.